The BBC today interviewed some men who used prostitutes regularly and asked them why they did it. Now I expected to hear that they believed that prostitution was not unethical as the sex was between two consenting adults and to an extent this is what they said. This is not that surprising given that even in some feminist circles paying for sex can be viewed in this way. Yet, what surprised me (although I am not sure why) was the difficulty that they had making the argument that paying for sex wasn’t exploitative. Patrick, who uses prostitutes, commented:
"Some of my friends are fully aware that I visit prostitutes. Many of them do themselves. There is this fear that it is in some way abusive. I would disagree with the idea that nobody chooses to do it for a living. [...] I see us as adults. I want to pay and someone wants to sell. As long as I'm not hurting them in any way what harm am I doing. I'm distributing my wealth to people who don't have it."
He continues that the real root of prostitution is the economic system:
"There are a lot of single mothers who feel that's the only way they can make money. If you want to get rid of prostitution the way is to reform the welfare system."
So, prostitution is not exploitative, but it relies on desperate women who cannot make money in any other way. Does he not see the contradiction? If prostitution was a real choice, surely women would continue to do it even if there were other jobs or a brilliant welfare system available to them? They would continue to do it even if they were the people with the money to distribute. That, at least, would go some way toward making it a choice.
Another ‘punter’ called Mark only used escorts and massage parlours because: "There is a slightly exploitative element to street prostitution." How can he in good conscience distinguish between these groups? Because one group is paid better and is less likely to have a drug habit, or at least have it under control, it’s not exploitation? Do we measure different levels of desperation (drug habit: high exploitation; mortgage payment: medium level) when we decide whether something is exploitative?
The reasons why prostitution is exploitative are vastly more complicated than the fact prostitutes are usually poor and desperate. Yet, I find it interesting that even on these terms, these men found it difficult to justify their actions.