Should prostitution be legalised? The oppression paradigm versus the empowerment paradigm

Essay, 2018

37 Pages, Grade: 1


Table of Contents




The History of Prostitution

Gender Inequality

Oppression Paradigm Versus Empowerment Paradigm

The Oppression Paradigm

The Empowerment Paradigm

Radical Feminists’ views on Criminalization of Prostitution

Liberal Feminists’ views on Decriminalization/Legalization of Prostitution

Understanding Why Women Enter in to Prostitution




The Need for Decriminalization






This book is dedicated to my little daughter Joslyn Favor Jaesen who just arrived on earth one month prior to the completion of my research on this chosen topic. To my mom, Mrs. Rachel Sneh Terry who tirelessly fought to give me a good education, I love you.

To all the prostitutes around the world, your courage and tenacity challenge me to choose this topic in order to lift the hard-lived realities you go through for survival.


I would like to acknowledge and extend my profound and sincerest gratitude to the following Individuals who made the completion of the book possible: I extend thank to my wife to be, Diana Teah, whom I distanced myself from whilst I was on this journey to complete this scholarly work. My gratitude goes to the Department of Sociology for teaching me what it takes to find curiosity in Sociology of Gender and Sexuality. I will forever cherish what I have learnt. To Mr. Michael S. Seator, a lecturer of Philosophy at the African Methodist Episcopal University who inspired me to push for greatness whilst pursuing my undergraduate degree, I extend my thunderous appreciation and profound gratitude. Your mentorship and continuous support ensured my success as researcher. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to be a better student and in the process of teaching me Philosophy created in me a passion for scholarly works. It is because of people like you that earned me a deserving place in the global community of authorship. I am forever grateful to your commitment and passion for crafting out exceptional students.


Prostitution is defined as a form of non-marital sexual activity characterized by financial reward and absence of long-term fidelity between two parties (Tierney, H.1999). Prostitution has been widely debated, condemned for its immoral and degrading nature. On the other hand, there are liberal feminists who have counter argued saying that prostitution is very empowering. The controversy surrounding prostitution has divided feminists worldwide. Radical feminists are of the opinion that prostitution is an institution of male dominance that exploits economically vulnerable and emotionally damaged women for the sake of male pleasure. In this regard, prostitutes become involuntary victims of patriarchy or conscious participants in the degradation of women. This therefore has impacts on all women as a group as prostitution continually affirms and reinforces patriarchal definitions of women as having a primary function to serve men sexually.

Conversely, liberal feminists find in prostitution a practice of women’s resistance to and sexual liberation from norms and traditional moral precepts of sexuality that have long served to control and subordinate women. Others see prostitution as a means of wrestling patriarchal control over women’s sexuality that women should be at liberty to do (Tamale, S, 2008). Prostitution therefore raises moral and legal questions. The legal question is should the practice be criminalized? In addition, the moral question is, is it wrong to sell or buy sex? These are questions I will endeavor to answer which are informed by the lived realities of women who make their living through prostitution.

Prostitution or the selling of sex is, as some would call it, one of the oldest professions in the world as it has been there since time immemorial. What is of interest is the way the law has decided to make it its business who and how people have sex by criminalizing prostitution. As criminal law is meant to regulate social harms, what harm is caused by prostitution? The law seems to be a toothless bulldog in light of the fact that regardless of the criminalization of prostitution many women still engage in the trade and make a living out of it. Criminalizing prostitution seems to be a futile exercise as it is failing to achieve the intended results that of deterring other possible perpetrators; instead. it just frustrates the women who engage in it as they are essentially constantly harassed by the police without any prosecution. Why are there double standards as regards prostitution; why is it that it is only the sellers and not the buyers who are penalized? Is it not a case for patriarchy to further want to domesticate women and ensure that their sexuality is controlled and tamed within marriage? Considering that women in Africa are the least educated and when they are employed it is usually an extension of work done in the domestic arena which is the least paid; is prostitution not one of the better choices from the pool of work that they have to choose from? (Tamale, S, 2008).

It is therefore a need to look at prostitution as work and not on the sex as it were so that prostitutes not further driven underground which makes them vulnerable and susceptible to violence. Criminalization creates a culture permitting violence against sex workers and sanctions violence and discrimination against them. Sex workers are also afraid to report crimes against them, knowing that police may arrest them or may not take their claims seriously.

If criminalization has failed to reduce prostitution or protect the most vulnerable, what alternative model should take its place? It is this research case that prostitution should be viewed as a legitimate option of work for women that identifies with bodily autonomy, financial independence and the notion of choice (Sanders et al 2009, 23).

Despite the law that criminalises prostitution in some countries, it is universally practised as though it is a legal activity. On embarking on this research, my aim was to have an insight as to women in prostitution’s experiences with the law and the implication that it has on the prostitutes themselves. With the American dollarization of the Liberian economy, more and more people were pushed below the poverty datum line. Without formal employment, the US dollar is difficult to come by so it became of interest to study the experiences of the women in prostitution, as their numbers seem to have increased. In the same vein, it was then necessary to assess if there is need for a reform or review of the law informed by the women in prostitution’s experiences against some multifarious realities faced by most women in African.

The History of Prostitution

Prostitution is often said to be the oldest profession in history. Episodes throughout history illustrate that even in the oldest records of the practice there is evidence that the profession was believed to be an inevitable component of the economy, but not one that could go without some form of regulation. The first records of the profession date back to 2400 BC, in which time there was an association between sex work and temple service in Sumer (Shuster 1992). It was noted as a form of worship and a sacrifice to the gods of fertility. In the Chinese empire, under statesman philosopher Kuang Chung in 600 BC, brothels were legalized as a means of increasing the state’s income; however, regulations allowed prostitution to occur only in designated areas of the state. In 180 BC, the Romans began to regulate the profession, making prostitutes apply, have an issued license, ascertain a price from a Roman official, and enter their name on an official’s roll; however, these regulations were limited only to low-class prostitutes. While Romans, like the Chinese, viewed the profession as immoral, many believed it imparted a necessary order to society and provided a healthy source of income. Since ancient times, while the level of regulation for prostitution varied, it was often believed that prostitution was “immoral but necessary” (Shuster 1992). When a pandemic hit Europe during the 1400s, governments and citizens alike began to form negative beliefs toward prostitution and attempted to suppress it.

Over the last two centuries, there have been sweeping regulations to reform the profession, attempting to ensure that women work in environments less prone to violent acts and the contraction of venereal diseases. For instance, in 1864, the United Kingdom passed the Contagious Disease Act, mandating the arrest of all prostitutes and the examination of the women for venereal diseases before releasing them back into society (Weitzer 2008). If they tested positive, prostitutes needed to be cured before they began working the streets or went back home to work in their brothels. Finally, consider the history of prostitution in the United States. Before World War I, prostitution itself was not considered an offense to statutory laws throughout America. However, it was generally regulated as a sort of vagrancy. Usually, prostitutes were punished as sexual deviants under laws against adultery or “night-walking.” For example, night-walking was an offense in Massachusetts under a law in the 17th and 18th centuries (Devin Bowen 2013). In 1875, individual states began to enforce a set of regulations that later outlawed the profession in all but one state. In 1875, the federal government prohibited the immigration of prostitutes from other countries. Later, in 1910, Congress passed the Mann Act, also known as the White-Slave Traffic Act, prohibiting white slavery and the interstate transport of women for “immoral purposes.” The primary intent of the legislation was to address the problems of prostitution, trafficking, and the said “immorality.” Then in 1913, in Hoke vs. United States, the Supreme Court ruled that prostitution was strictly left to the province of the states; however, Congress was still permitted the power to regulate interstate travel for purposes of prostitution or other immoral purposes (Devin Bowen 2013). Between 1913 and 1971, states regulated prostitution and enforced laws protecting it. In 1971, after various laws had been enacted against the act of prostitution, the state of Nevada changed course and began to permit it, as a regulated activity. Today, prostitution is illegal in 49 of the 50 states in the USA. Only in 11 rural counties in Nevada are brothels and prostitution legal (Devin Bowen 2013).

Gender Inequality

Gender inequality is one of the key arguments put forward by the partial criminalisation proponents, who argue that society is based upon inequalities between the sexes. According to the partial criminalisation proponents, the inequality is a result of the construction of individuals as male and female, which enables one to dominate and the other to be subjected. Catharine MacKinnon, feminist scholar and lawyer, describes these gender constructs: “Male and female are created through the erotization of dominance and submission. The man/woman difference and the dominance/submission dynamic define each other” (MacKinnon 1989, p. 635).

Indeed, MacKinnon argues that this gender inequality defines and enables women’s sexual exploitation: “inequality because of sex defines and situates women as women. If the sexes were equal, women would not be sexually subjected” (MacKinnon 1989, p. 215). If there were equality amongst the sexes then “women would not be economically subjected, their desperation and marginality cultivated, their enforced dependency exploited sexually or economically” (MacKinnon 1989, p. 215). Kathleen Barry, academician and author, argues in her book “The Prostitution of Sexuality”, that the gender inequality power dynamic relegates all women to positions of slavery:

The removal of any distinction between forced and free prostitution by the partial criminalisation proponents illustrates that they believe this is a universal condition for women. They argue that women have a limited range of available choices, which all contain some form of prostitution:

“All too often, a women had to choose from an array of dehumanizing alternatives; to sell her body in a loveless marriage contracted solely for economic protection; to sell her body for starvation wages as an unskilled worker; or to sell her body as a “sporting women”. Whatever the choice, some form of prostitution was likely to be involved” (Rosen 1982, p. xvii)

On prostitution specifically, Andrea Dworkin, feminist and writer, describes it as “sexual and social subordination” (1981) noticeable in two ways. First, the prostituted woman is chosen by her client. Whilst she may choose not to go with him, her choice of client is limited to the client approaching her initially. Second, the prostituted woman is paid by the client to fulfill his demands and desires and she can either comply for the financial reward or not and lose the client. Her choice is limited to fulfilling the male’s desires. A prostituted woman’s lack of choice is evident as she has “sex with thousands of men a year under conditions you cannot realistically control” (MacKinnon 2011, p. 286).

Thus, these gender inequalities enable the “global sexual exploitation of women and girls that is a supply and demand market. Men create the demand and women are the supply” (Hughes 2000). For the partial criminalisation proponents, prostitution exists because of male demand for sex and access to women’s bodies.

Yet, the ‘sex work’ proponents disagree with the framing of prostitution as the dynamics of subordination/dominance. Rather, they argue that sex work should be seen as “the best possible option for women who have to support themselves in a discriminatory labor market” (Hobson 1987, p. 218). Whilst the ‘sex work’ proponents may concur that there are limited choices available for many women, they argue that these stem from the gender discriminatory practices within the labour market based upon a false divide between private and public spaces.

The legal justification for selecting female prostitutes as the guilty parties rested on the false dichotomies between public and private acts, and between visible and invisible hands in the operations. Essentially, the terms public and visible, when translated into actual policies, were gender and status classifications” (Hobson 1987, p. 213)

The divide between private and public space has reinforced gender inequalities in society. However, sex work violates these boundaries “because it actually challenges the dualism between market transaction and private desire” (Zatz 1997, p. 303). Whilst it is neither entirely a private desire nor completely a market transaction, sex work has removed the private/public nature about love/work. The ‘sex work’ advocates argue that sex work has the ability to break the divide between private/public: “In a society where women are at the threshold of equality with men, beginning not only to enjoy sex but also to decide when and with whom to have it, the prostitute becomes the embodiment of that freedom which until now has been only a fantasy” (Carmen and Moody 1985, p. 80 quoted in Hobson 1987, p. 221).

Oppression Paradigm Versus Empowerment Paradigm

Having studied the ways in which prostitution has been debated between liberals and radicals, in countries where it is criminalized or decriminalized/legalized, I will endeavor to examine two normative positions that have emerged from the sociological literature on prostitution: the oppression paradigm and the empowerment paradigm. These two approaches set out the main arguments for and against the legalisation of sex work. Advocates of the oppression paradigm hold that prostitution is extremely harmful to those involved in the industry. They further argue that the total abolition of sex work is the only viable solution. By contrast, those who subscribe to the empowerment paradigm hold that only a minority of sex workers have damaging experiences. They argue that where problems do exist, these can be rectified by making sex work legal. I shall argue that the empowerment model is both more accurate and provides a better solution to existing injustices.

The Oppression Paradigm

The oppression paradigm argues that prostitution ‘is a quintessential expression of patriarchal gender relations’ (Weitzer 2009: 214). The stereotypes generated by the indoor/outdoor dichotomy are seized upon by advocates of the oppression paradigm, who tend to focus on street-based sex work, trafficked women and others who have been victimised by their experiences of selling sex. These stereotypes are presented by oppression theorists as being representative of all (or most) sex work. The oppression paradigm has been articulated most forcefully by radical feminist writers such as Dworkin (1993) and MacKinnon (1989), who argue that prostitution forms part of a wider patriarchal political regime, which seeks to oppress women. As Weitzer (2009: 214) comments, these authors claim ‘that exploitation, subjugation, and violence against women are intrinsic to and ineradicable from sex work, transcending historical time period, national context, and type of sexual commerce’.

Those who adopt the oppression paradigm rely on the use of dramatic language to emphasise perceived problems with prostitution. For example, in Prostitution and Male Supremacy, Dworkin (1993: 6) argues that prostitution is a political mechanism utilised by men to subordinate and violate women. In this text, Dworkin uses rhetorical devices such as repetition and hyperbole to suggest that prostitution is oppressive and misogynistic.


Excerpt out of 37 pages


Should prostitution be legalised? The oppression paradigm versus the empowerment paradigm
Gender Sexuality
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
630 KB
Quote paper
Julius T. Jaesen, II (Author), 2018, Should prostitution be legalised? The oppression paradigm versus the empowerment paradigm, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


  • No comments yet.
Read the ebook
Title: Should prostitution be legalised? The oppression paradigm versus the empowerment paradigm

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free