The reality of prostitution is not complex. It is simple


Key takeaways

  • Upper-middle class opinionators can afford to have positive views about prostitution because they are so far removed from it. The author refutes the idea that sex work is better than some other options for women. “If the philosopher stopped to recommend sex work to the cleaning staff at their university…”
  • When a woman submits to unwanted sex in prostitution, she has cooperated in her own violation. That cooperation haunts her. It also silences her.


  • So many of these women’s stories stay with me: the 19-year-old French girl who got into prostitution as a direct result of watching a TV series that depicted prostitution as glamorous and empowering; the mid-20s Australian woman who believed – because well-funded NGOs told her to believe – that ‘sex work’ was legitimate employment; or the early 20s German woman who told me that, because pimping had been decriminalised in her country, she’d got the message that what was legally sanctioned surely had to be OK.
  • Decent work means dignity, equality, a fair income and safe working conditions. Decent work puts people at the centre of development; gives women, men and youth a voice in what they do; the rights to protect them from exploitation; and a future that is inclusive and sustainable.
  • While it is fashionable for some female academics, journalists and social commentators to declare the validity of prostitution as employment and to endorse and support this fiction in their books, articles and opinion columns, I note that they resolutely will not practise what they preach.
  • What’s always been particularly galling to me about socially privileged upper middle-class women who popularise these views is that, just like Marie Antoinette before them, they are so far removed from the experience that they cannot relate to it even at a conceptual level. That they are handsomely remunerated to opine on what’s good enough for desperate women is just the spit and polish on the insult.
  • I have sometimes been asked by women what prostitution ‘feels like’. I hit on a way of explaining this some years ago, and have repeated it a few times since. I invite them, the next time they are in a café or a bar, to take a look around at the male patrons. Old, young, fat, thin, tall, short, handsome, ugly, beautiful, repulsive – and imagine that they are obliged to have sex with them. All of them. The women’s faces turn to horror because they don’t need to imagine; they know full well that they’d have no interest in sleeping with whoever happens to walk through the door.
  • It is the treatment of people in sweatshops that renders clothing manufacture unviable employment. We understand, in all areas but one, that money can’t buy permission or a pass on human rights.
  • When a woman submits to unwanted sex in prostitution, she has cooperated in her own violation. That cooperation haunts her. It also silences her.