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Rights and responsibilities of our oldest profession

By Leslie Cannold - posted Thursday, 18 October 2007

Sex work is back in the news. Having hardly been broached in polite conversation since the state government‘s “tolerance zone” policy for street sex work went down in flames five years ago, the West Australian Government’s decision to decriminalise and regulate indoor prostitution has refocused minds around the country on the best way to manage the world’s oldest profession.

As a feminist academic and long-time St Kilda resident, I’ve been thinking about these issues for a long time. Only recently, however, have I arrived at what I think is a fair and sensible approach to the issue, one that recognises women as moral agents capable of accepting both the rights and responsibilities associated with selling sex.

It looks like this.


Advocates and opponents of decriminalisation adopt extreme characterisations of women to justify their positions. On one side are the decriminalisation advocates - self-proclaimed unions or advocacy groups for prostitutes - who contend that sex work is a job like any other, that women have a right to perform this “work” whenever and wherever they like, and that society is obliged to regulate to protect sex-sellers from the inherent risks associated with having serial sex with unknown men.

In the opposing corner are the radical feminists and members of the religious right. For this unholy alliance, prostitution is always a violent and exploitative encounter that, by definition, no competent woman would ever choose to participate in. As two Norwegian scientists put it, "no one wants to rent out her vagina as a garbage can for hordes of anonymous men's ejaculations".

Dismissing with an imperious hand-wave the claims of some prostitutes that they freely choose to sell their bodies, real and pseudo radical feminists and religious wowsers persist in describing all sex-sellers as victims that they must protect by promulgating and enforcing no-tolerance policies.

The victim-approach to managing street prostitution is objectionable on a number of grounds. These include its obnoxious paternalism, and the disingenuous way in which political agitation designed to impose the agitator’s view of what is best on everyone else is dressed up as selfless “feminist” advocacy on behalf of women.

But most offensive is the way in which the argument itself victimises sex-sellers by denying their experience and stripping them of their agency. Such objectification allows the no-tolerance posse to dismiss everything sex-sellers say about their experience - when they don’t say things that support the no-tolerance position - as false consciousness or further evidence of victimhood.

For instance, Gunilla Ekberg, the co-executive director of the International Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, explains the support some prostitutes give to decriminalisation as evidence of their desire to “defend their own dignity” in a violent context that “they can’t change”.


Abandoning the all or nothing approach, and recognising the indisputable fact that some women do choose to sell sex, while others don’t, incarnates a realistic and fair approach for the management of indoor and outdoor sex in liberal democracies. A position where sex sellers are moral agents worthy of respect - instead of pitiable victims in need of paternalistic protection - that have both rights and responsibilities with regard to how they ply their trade.

Insofar as the consequences of their choice to sell sex remains with them, competent adult women (and men) should be free to sell their bodies, however strongly some in the community object. However, like other choosers, when the consequences of the selling choice restricts the capacity of fellow citizens to exercise their freedoms, the state is obligated to restrict their activity.

A focus on autonomous choice also justifies state intervention where sex workers lack the capacity - because they are too young, mentally ill, sexually or physically abused or drug addicted - to make choices about selling sex that are worthy of the name.

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First published in The Age on October1, 2007.

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About the Author

Dr Leslie Cannold is a writer, columnist, ethicist and academic researcher. She is the author of the award-winning What, No Baby? and The Abortion Myth. Her historical novel The Book of Rachael was published in April by Text.

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