Monday, September 6, 2010

Selling sex

The Economist is hosting a debate on whether or not prostitution should be legal. My answer is that it depends. Sex is as much a culturally constructed act as it is a physical one. And from an ethical standpoint the nature of the physical act is almost entirely irrelevant. The context within which the sex in question is occurring, and the mental states of the individuals involved are the real loci of concern. Sex within marriage is generally celebrated the world over and rape is almost universally condemned. But between these two poles attitudes about casual and consensual sex, of which prostitution is a form, vary hugely across cultures. In South Korea prostitution is pervasive, and if one gets beneath the moralistic rhetoric of churches and the government, broadly accepted as morally unproblematic, at least by the male population, if it is kept within certain contexts, i.e. certain 노래방, room salons, or 다방.
In Madagascar prostitution is a popular (yes that is the right word) occupation amongst younger women looking for a little bit of freedom and money before they get married off to a man possibly twice their age. Sex is simply not considered a particularly special activity worthy of special consideration like it generally is in the West.

Now certainly I personally think it is unfortunate that many Korean men find prostitution to be unproblematic, and that many Malagasy women live within a world that prostitution offers them a chance for a modicum of personal autonomy, but the point is that simply condemning prostitution without considering the contexts within which it is occurring is not going to be productive. Ultimately societies, and individuals in those societies, have to decide for themselves whether or not criminalizing prostitution is something that they want to do. And because attitudes towards casual and consensual sex vary so much across cultures we should expect that laws on prostitution will be equally diverse.



  1. It is difficult to say what is impossible, for the dream of yesterday is the hope of today and reality of tomorrow.

  2. Great article and I think you have raised your points well. I have really enjoyed reading so I thank you for posting.