Arguing for the Abolition of Prostitution

In this post, I continue the commentary I commenced here, based on this post. You can find the setup there. This commentary is in reaction to the video below. The duration of the source video is 6:58 minutes. I’ve formatted this post with my reactions in quote style. Hopefully, it will make reading it easier.

The question of choice

In her opening statement, Elly argues that one should refrain from arguing about the degree of volunteerism of any individual woman; rather focus on what prostitution means for women as a class.

This is an interesting position for her to take primarily because much of her argumentation is anecdotal. Her advice seems to be to create a defence and hide behind a wall of aggregates whilst attacking with an offensive of anecdotes, but do not allow your opponent the same ability.

She recommends that an advocate point to select (and non-peer reviewed) studies that underscore the negative aspects of prostitution.

Rather than provide a full picture of a complex issue, you should paint it black with a broad brush and hope no one notices your one-sided argument. No one will even be the wiser for it.

85% of People Hate Their Jobs
—Gallup Poll

Make the argument about sex, class, and racial oppression.

Hullo Simone de Beauvoir, Karl Marx, and Malcom X. These arguments have never been cited before.


Establish the position that this is not normal work.

Because saying it makes it so, and prostitution provides no social benefit. You know what else is not normal work? Juggling astronauts who prepare tax statements on weekends.

I used to give my undergraduate students policy assignments that forced them to consider and cite supporting and opposing views with the instruction that if you cannot find information opposing your position, you have no justification in maintaining your position and in any case your bias is showing.

Explain how it comes and is justifiable that a vast majority of those buying are males of stable income and those bought and sold are mostly female, poor, and disproportionally of colour.

It comes this way because that’s how power structures operate. Do I think the guy hand-washing my car really wants to be washing my car? Do I believe that he feels self-actualised?

If men of power were more interested in homosexual encounters, there would be more male sellers, but if statistics are correct, only 10% of the population is gay, so it would be unusual for it to be otherwise, 90% of men preferring female sex partners.

Returning to Capitalism for another moment, this is why prostitutes are mostly poor, and the people of colour comprise most of the poor, so in effect, this is double counting. Clearly men without income would—pretty much by definition—not be able to pay for sexual services.

This bent toward poor and of colour remains true of all prostitution.

This is not true. In fact, most high-class call girls in the West are white, many of whom who are attending or have attended university and some who are college graduates.

This aside, like ALL capitalist endeavours, it is about class, race (and sex) acting simply as additional classifiers.

She makes an argument that the abolitionist movement consists predominantly of white feminists.

I have never heard this argument, but it makes sense that someone might make it. These are the women with time on their hands to perform these duties. Who is going to work 3 jobs to make ends meet and have time to pitch in here?

In any case, this assertion can be verified. What proportion of the organisations are of whites versus coloured—and how are we defining white and coloured in the first place. This has always been an awkward taxonomical choice. Perhaps the distinction is between so-called cultured women and the hoi polloi.

She continues with the advice that you need to make your opponent ‘explain why no amount of privilege shields women from violence‘.

I fail to see the relevance of this point. Is there some amount of privilege that shields men from violence?

Wait, there’s more. She clarifies the privilege point, arguing that so-called high-class escorts or independent dominatrixes are raped, too.

Of course, this doesn’t address proportionality. Again, this is arguing from anecdote. Accountants are raped. Retail workers are raped. Doctors are raped.

How many client encounters do these women have in total, and how many rapes occur as a proportion of this total? Would making this illegal reduce the number or rapes? What about the proportion of rapes?

How many poor women are raped independent of their profession? Are poor women raped or subjected to violence more often than more affluent women? Are women of colour subjected to more violence than so-called white women?

Someone needs a lesson in comparative social statistics. Whilst I’m at it, I recommend reading Damned Lies and Statistics: Untangling Numbers from the Media, Politicians, and Activists and More Damned Lies and Statistics: How Numbers Confuse Public Issues, if not the original classic How to Lie with Statistics. Though given the paucity of citations in favour of anecdote and oblique references, this may prove to be a bit premature.

Don’t let them divide prostitution into good and bad.

Liberals and Leftists who argue that branding all prostitution as violent and exploitative does a disservice to happy, consenting sex workers and their sexual agency.

She asserts that the happily prostituted woman in non-representative.

And so this minority of so-called ‘good prostitutes’ should be swept under the rug and ignored, their livelihoods be damned. They are a statistical anomoly, a rounding error. Fuck them and the horses they rode in on. They are in the minority, and so their voice deserve to not be heard.

Continuing, she notes that even where prostitution is legal, trafficking exists.

This simply underscores the problem with conflating human sex trafficking with prostitution. This line of argumentation is like noting that even where manufacturing or farming is legal, there are still slavers and slaves. So the solution, it seems, is to make all manufacturing and farming illegal because some people employ forced labourers.

Women do not have the power to weed out the riffraff.

Whilst arguing that we should lump all ‘classes’ of prostitutes in a single heap, we should cherry pick the worst case metrics. Elly cites a number of customers (Johns, punters) at 10 to 20 men per night. This is clearly representative of the lowest end of prostitutes as well as high-volume brothels. This is not representative of independent call escorts and girls, for whom 1 to 3 or 4 is a more likely range for a day.

Out of nowhere, she makes a claim about ‘John’s and their hatred for [sic] the prostitute’ that ‘prevents the creation of a magic shield that keeps her safe and happy’.

As I cited in my post, Capitalising on Prostitution, fully 85% of people hate their jobs—all people, male and female, rich and poor, black and white—hate their jobs.

Follow normal statistical expectations and laws of large numbers, it would be curious if for some reason prostitutes had a different response profile.

I would guess that of sex-trafficked women, the figure would be closer to 100%, as I would expect of any slave.

In an attempt to make an emotional connection, the video closes with quotes by some women with industry experience. Apart from again being anecdotal, I am pretty sure one can be fairly certain that selection bias is in play here as well—especially in light of her advice to deflect attention to ‘studies that underscore the negative aspects of prostitution’.

I am going to take one for the team—TOFTT in the parlance of the hobby—and listen to the next in the series. To be fair, producing content and video for Youtube takes a lot of work and commitment. I don’t mean to undercut Elly’s ambition or even her position. I just don’t think it’s been well-considered and is rife with unnecessary bias. As I’ve said, it feels like she has come to a position emotionally and is attempting to build a structure around it. However, structure does not equal logic.

After watching the video, I commented, and Elly indulged me in a series of exchanges, which I’d like to address here. I had only read the first question and wrote a response, intending to answer the remaining issues here. Unfortunately, Elly had provided additional context, so my response was slightly off base. My errata is here.

My position was in the form of the question: would women be more safe or less safe if prostitution was illegal?

When I read the rest of her response, I noticed that she is an advocate for asymmetry in favour of the woman, making it illegal only to purchase sex but not illegal to sell it. Canada uses this model. Let’s look at this for just a few moments and then reflect by analogy.

Firstly, this does absolutely nothing to kerb the inherent violence against prostitutes. The ones who continue this line of work are faced with the same client pool they had at the start. I could even pose the argument that some of the non-existent good guys might self-select out leaving the bad apples to rule the roost. I guess we’d have to see.

Secondly, let’s look at this technically by analogy. Say I am a baker. That’s how I support my family. And let’s say that a law is passed to make the buying of baked goods illegal but not making it illegal to sell baked goods. How does this not negatively affect my livelihood? How is this in any way fair that my source of income has been cut off? Answer: It’s not. There is no difference to this scenario and that of the prostitute who is free to offer her services for sale but making it illegal for someone to actually pay her for her services.

Commodification of humans. Elly has a schism here as well. She strongly opposes prostitution on these ground, yet she is somehow fine (or at least relatively more fine) with other forms of human commodification. In fact, she makes a distinction that I don’t make.

Levels of certainty. I am accused (perhaps too strong of a verb on my part) of failing to distinguish between the levels of certainty in waiting tables versus prostitution, but I feel this is akin to making perfection the enemy of the good. I do understand that these women are relatively more vulnerable, and I do understand they have a higher degree of risk. I also understand there is an element of risk driving my car to work over walking, but it does not follow rationally that I walk instead of drive simply because of some statistical delta.

Shades of grey. We both agree there are shades of grey, but then continues by saying that because it is too difficult to parse, say, prostitution from sex trafficking, so why bother. Just pretend it’s all the same, and fuck the collateral damage.

Women in full control. This is where I can’t even comprehend. How is this a criterion? I have to wonder where is it that anyone has full control (apologies to Sartre). I don’t have full control. I am not even sure what percentage of control I do have—90%, 80? I might agree that I have more control than some representative prostitute, but then I’d have to ask on what dimensions is this evaluation being made.

Consenting women under duress. So we return to this:  [H]ow freely an independent prostituted woman is consenting to sex with a buyer [is]. Again, Elly makes a false distinction based on culturally constructed biases between the nature of the work, in the case of prostitution, sex, and the nature of some other work, say, accounting.

Not to be flippant, but if I am a prostitute and I do not consent to sex, I don’t get paid, and my bills pile up. If I am an accountant and do not consent to do your taxes, I don’t get paid, and my bills pile up. The same level of coercion is in place.

Perhaps the distinction is corporeal. But this is not what is being said. One can forcibly have sex with a woman—this is called rape, and it is already illegal—, but one cannot forcibly force someone to do your taxes.

Social safety nets. This is the last topic, and again there is no panacea. If the reason a woman becomes a prostitute is to simply feed herself or her family, then there are social solutions that most people would not begrudge her of receiving, but if that reason is to support a drug habit, that number drops precipitously. And one can argue that she should just stop. Of course, these people have no idea what it means to be an addict. And if you live in the US, you’ve got a better chance of becoming president than getting any meaningful help, and any help you might receive will come with heavy doses of moralising and shaming. You might as well just try to make it on your own.

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