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Prostitution, a moral hazard

By Peter Sellick - posted Monday, 7 May 2007

A banner over the letters to the editor in The West Australian caught my eye: “Prostitution: a health hazard”. I did not pause to read the article, the banner being enough food for thought. I am sure that a health hazard exists for both sides of the sex-for-money exchange, but surely prostitution is a moral hazard for both parties before it is a health hazard!

The exclusion of the moral and the focus on the medical in a discussion of prostitution is a significant pointer to how the “thought world” of our society is constructed. While the medical is included in public discussion because we can all agree that AIDS is a bad thing, we cannot agree on what is morally bad when there is no obvious victim.

Thankfully, fundamental ethics are still alive and well: the strong must not grind the faces of the weak; violence against others, unless sanctioned by the state, is wrong. But what happens when this equation is not applicable, when consenting adults exchange money for sex?


The liberal attitude is that we are free to do what ever we please as long as no one gets hurt. This ethic is at the source of the sexual revolution in which sex may be indulged as a bit of fun that need not lead to anything more serious, like marriage and children. It is also used to justify abortion because the fetus is believed not to be a person.

According to liberalism that is the end of the discussion. Any additional reflection must be private and not imposed on others and what is private is most often of a religious nature.

While the prohibition against violence towards others is seen to be a universal, other moral convictions stemming from religious convictions are confined to the individual who holds those convictions. It is common to regard the holders of such convictions as being “religious”, that damning category that sounds more like a psychosis than a truthful view of the world. And here we come to the crux of the matter; attitudes derived from the realm of religion can be ignored because they are not true.

Prior to the 16th century Enlightenment all views of the world were theological, i.e. all truth was theological. This was challenged by the rise of natural science which claimed its own form of truth, empirical truth, that which could be experienced and measured. This coincided with the invention of “religion” as a separate category distinct from natural science which increasingly held sway as the way to truth. The upshot was that religion became private truth and since it was not demonstrably true, and hence could not be held by everyone, not really true.

This is how we have come to a point where we may describe prostitution, or promiscuity, or drug taking, or abortion as being to do primarily with health because medicine is true, indisputably so, and any other consideration cannot be so.

There appeared another article in The West with the banner “Teen boys, booze and sex don’t mix”. The article described how warnings on the danger of alcohol had no impact on boy’s behaviour. A new strategy was to be introduced that linked alcohol with erectile dysfunction in an attempt to get the message across. This shows the depths to which public morality has sunk. We are now trading one aberrant behaviour for another in the quest for health outcomes.


What will become of a society that officially subscribes to a minimalist ethic based on the medical and ignores generations of wisdom about what constitutes the human? It seems that we are encouraged to indulge in all of the traditional vices as long as they do not lead to an adverse health outcome.

What we will get is a population hooked on the good time, undisciplined in relationships, failing to achieve marriages that will last long enough to raise children and the resultant demographic decline in our populations.

It is sobering to think that in Old Testament Israel, death was not the greatest tragedy, the greatest tragedy was barrenness. It was the latter that threatened the future of the community. Morality is, after all, about survival.

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First published in The Anglican Messenger in May 2007.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences.

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