Rethinking the oldest profession in the world

It’s a textbook example of culture: The way we think about prostitution and sex work varies in different regions of the world. In Europe, prostitution is seen not just as a career but an institution that has been around since the idea of employment itself. After all, performing sexual acts for money as a conscious and willing adult is viewed as a service being provided to a client, with little difference from that of a cab driver, housekeeper or truck driver. Simply, prostitution in one of the most developed parts of the world is part of the service sector. Perhaps it’s a service that not all individuals would like to take part in, but nonetheless, prostitution is a part of the economy that should be respected. However, in the United States, prostitution is not only illegal, but it’s popularly ostracized and pointed to as immoral, unbecoming and undesirable.

Why is there such a stigma attached to sex work in the United States? The short answer is politics. The longer answer is a combination of a patriarchal society and a society that champions personal liberty only when it’s consistent with how the government sees fit.

Furthermore, there is a stark divide among men and women on the issue. More specifically, there is a stark divide between feminists, progressives and those who identify as socially liberal and the predominantly male groups that seek to control women’s liberties.

There is this odd yet unique American idea of Puritanism that has held fast to our society for far too long. It includes abstaining from certain “sins” in life such as drugs, prostitution, atheism and other beliefs and activities that the ruling class deems immoral. This idea has been an indelible stain on American culture– the thought that “I don’t like what you’re doing, so you shouldn’t be allowed to do it, even though it has no effect on my life” is destructive.

Frankly, college is a very liberal-leaning setting, so it is no wonder why you have probably not found yourself particularly interested in what other people do with their bodies. But sadly, the prevailing thought in America is that prostitution is something devoid of morality, a practice only reserved for the most desperate and uneducated factions of society. Most people think prostitution is generally something to avoid because it is simply wrong.

The punchline here is that morals are subjective, and while some people think sex work is indeed immoral, many others would disagree. There is no reason to outlaw something that exemplifies personal liberty and allows individuals to choose what they do with their own bodies.

This issue is larger than sex work; it is a story of a sad irony that burdens the United States. The country synonymous with liberty lags behind other nations that do not pride themselves on the concept of freedom nearly as much as we do. Spain, Portugal, France, Germany, Greece and Canada, among others, have all legalized prostitution in some fashion. The reality is that it simply is not that big of a deal to allow a consenting adult to sell sex to another willing adult.

Prostitution is broadly legal in Canada, where I was born and raised. It’s just a part of downtown city life, and I cannot recall anyone making a problem out of prostitution and its legal status. But here in the United States, the religious right has had its way with the issue. It is way past time we modernized our standards and morals to allow women (and men) to do as they please with their bodies.

Daniel Schwartz is a master’s student studying philosophy.