Is Prostitution Harmful? Nope, says Journal of Medical Ethics

Among the hot topics in bioethics, prostitution does not rank highly. A quick search of the ETHXWeb bioethics database at Georgetown University yielded ten times as many articles on surrogacy than on prostitution, even though it could be argued that they are related. However, bioethics is an ever-expanding field, as one of the latest on-line-first articles in the taboo-busting Journal of Medical Ethics demonstrates. It bears the provocative title “Is Prostitution Harmful?”

Unsurprisingly, Norwegian academic Ole Martin Moen says No. “More and more of us, however, believe that sexual encounters need not be deeply personal and emotional in order to be acceptable–we believe in the acceptability of casual sex. In this paper I argue that if casual sex is acceptable, then we have few or no reasons to reject prostitution.”

Dr Moen demolishes, or attempts to demolish, nine objections to legalised prostitution, from danger and exploitation to selling one’s body and selling one’s soul. But perhaps most interesting from a bioethical standpoint are his assumptions. Of these there seem to be three. First, that sex is, or often is, casual and lacking in significance. If it has no special value, it is unlikely that arguments against selling it will stand.

Second, that a utilitarian calculus is the best way to determine the ethics of prostitution. For instance, he mentions en passant that “One benefit of prostitution is that it renders it possible for young people–who are the ones most likely to be poor–to earn a significant income without education and without investment costs, and to do so while keeping substantial parts of their spare time free to pursue other goals.”

Third, that contemporary attitudes towards homosexuality are appropriate precedents for assessing the moral value of prostitution. Back in the 20s and 30s, homosexuality was deemed to cause people severe psychological problems. But we now know that this was due to social stigma. Homosexuality was also associated with disease, drug use and violence. But we now know that this was due to social and legal oppression. Similarly, Dr Moen suggests, if we destigmatise and liberate prostitution, these issues will disappear among prostitutes as well.

Dr Moen concludes that “we should approach prostitution in a similar manner [to homosexuality], and be open for the possibility that prostitutes are harmed, not because prostitution is harmful, but because society at present seriously wrongs prostitutes.”

Michael Cook


Michael Cook likes bad puns, bushwalking and black coffee. He did a BA at Harvard University in the US where it was good for networking, but moved to Sydney where it wasn’t. He also did a PhD on an obscure corner of Australian literature. He has worked as a book editor and magazine editor and has published articles in magazines and newspapers in the US, the UK and Australia.

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  • Agape

    Talk is cheap Dr Moen!, I want to see you do what you preach and I’ll wait 20-30 years from now to see the effect of casual sex to your life and your loved ones even without social reproach against casual sex. We are created by love, to love, with love. Love doesn’t equal to sex as you imply above. Sex is one of the expression of love exclusively for married people. So, if you try to reduce this exclusive expression of love to lust, then you will see society with selfish mentality, self-absorbing, and ‘use’ character. That’s what lust will do without self control, that is using someone to fulfill only one’s desire. On the other hand, love is about giving and this will make society a better place to live.
    shame on Ethics!

  • jjames

    This is the logic when God is taken out of the equation. There is nothing left but random indifference. But in the reality of the human person (and not some dreamy ink on paper imaginations), the horrible consequence of indifference can not be ignored.

  • Helen2761

    I find the statements from Dr. Moen to be missing a great dose of reality. The emotional toll on prostitutes, not to mention the using of them as a tool for satisfaction of others and a wage for the their ‘manager’ (“pimp”, “madame”, what ever) is not even presented in this short synopses. Supposedly if one cleans up the idea to present it as an IDEAL people will buy it. Disgusting. I can see ethics is becoming yet another area in which people will manipulate what it is they are saying to make things “ok” so they can go and do said thing. Consequences be … “xyz”. I agree with Agape as well, what I saw developing 30 years ago is now bearing this fruit. It is a sad, sad thing to see…and in 30 years? God help us.

  • Talking about ethics and prostitution, see where the pseudo sciences of psychiatry and psychology are with regard to sexual dysfunction is – Viagra was just the tip of the iceberg…

  • realpersonwithbroadexperience

    Not all “prostitutes” have pimps and madames. A lot of women are totally independent and choose to exchange their companionship and sexual acts for funds. Alot of women get tested for STDs regularly and are selective with their “johns”.

    These people enter this world because they need funds. Funds to feed themselves, their kids, to travel, get an education and all sorts of positive things. If you are a negative minded person and offering sexual favors in a way that harms you and the other participant, that is bad for the spirit. If you enjoy it and treat each encounter sacredly and with discretion, there is no damage done to either party.

    In the obvious case that the sex is unsafe or non consensual, that is of course horrible. But the safe would be safer if the was less negative connotation. How much better is a ignorant golddigger thats boning an old man for his money than a fully conscious and professional escort who truly enjoys what she does and her clients truly do too.

    You guys have to let go of your pretty woman and other outdated images of sex & prostitution. OR maybe revert even farther to the biblical days when “prostitution” didnt have all that stigma attached to the word.