There are a lot of myths surrounding sex work. Chief among them is the claim that sex workers are virtual slaves, unable to escape from a degrading situation which they hate.
Those responsible for propagating these myths disapprove of sex work. To them it is inconceivable that any woman or man would voluntarily agree to have sex for money with a person they don’t know. And because they find it inconceivable, they assume it could only occur as a result of coercion.
They are dead wrong. While there are heinous examples of forced prostitution, such as the comfort women of the Japanese military during WWII, these instances are rare. Overwhelmingly, sex work occurs because there are willing buyers and willing sellers of sex.
That is not to deny some people find it morally reprehensible. Sexual intercourse, for most people, is something that occurs within a relationship. Not so long ago it was only considered legitimate between married couples for the purpose of reproduction. Even allowing for modern attitudes and reliable contraception, sex other than in particular circumstances is still viewed with disapproval by many.
And yet prostitution, as they say, is the world’s oldest profession. Indeed, it is likely there has never been a civilisation in which prostitution was not found. Certainly there were sex workers in Roman times, more than 2,000 years ago, while in ancient Aztec society the role of prostitute held near sacred status.
Regulatory approaches to sex work have varied enormously, from complete prohibition to various forms of restriction, to regulation with the lightest touch. And yet every prohibition and restriction has been motivated by moral judgement. The world is full of people who, when they don’t like something, are obsessed with stopping other people from doing it.
Their attitudes are apparent from what they say about it. Sex work is immoral, they say, assuming this gives them the right to impose their morals on others who do not share them.
They say sex work is degrading, ignoring the fact that those who engage in it may disagree. Thus they seek to ‘save’ sex workers from this degradation.
They say sex work threatens the sanctity of marriage, ignoring the fact that plenty of women and men do not believe marriage warrants such sanctity.
Free societies are characterised by their adherence to the harm principle, described by John Stuart Mill as: “The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.”
In other words, unless it is to prevent harm to others, the government should not intervene in the decisions we make. Disapproval, and whether those decisions are wise or what others would make, ought to be irrelevant.
Australia has come a long way from the days when sex work was illegal everywhere. While regulation varies quite a lot between the states, none pretends sex work does not occur. In more enlightened jurisdictions, NSW for example, regulation is directed at ensuring it is as safe as possible for both the sex workers and their customers.
That means promoting the use of condoms to prevent transmission of sexually transmitted diseases, and facilitating the establishment of brothels so that sex workers are safe and can enjoy the protections available at any other workplace. Brothels also ensure that those who do not like prostitution can avoid coming into contact with it.
Legal restrictions on sex work are slow to change, not because they are well founded, but because there is still a prudish avoidance of any public discussion about sex and sex work. The more we make public discussion of sex and sex work a normal thing, the easier it will be to finally remove the last unwarranted restrictions on the oldest profession of all.
And for those who don’t like prostitution, there is an easy answer: don’t be a sex worker, and don’t be a customer. It’s not difficult.
David Leyonhjelm is a Senator for the Liberal Democrats.