Whenever I advocate legalizing prostitution, one of the most common objections I hear is that "legalizing prostitution would be degrading or humiliating for women." This position is problematic for many different reasons.
First off, why just women? These people seem to envision that legalizing prostitution would only mean that men would be paying women for sex. What about women paying men for sex? Or what about women paying women, or men paying men for sex? Right off the bat, it's clear that their view of prostitution is limited in scope. But it is most likely true that most prostitution would take the form of men paying women. So, for the sake of argument, I'll proceed with this view in mind, but most of what I say will apply to all of the different gender combinations.
One of my main responses to this argument is: Who are you to decide for all women what their attitudes should be towards prostitution? You don't speak for all women: you only speak for yourself. If you personally think that you would feel ashamed of yourself as a prostitute, there's a very simple solution: don't become a prostitute! The choice to enter into this occupation would be freely made by each and every individual, as would the choice to pay for a prostitute. Nobody is going to force you into this, just as nobody currently forces you to work at a bakery or work as a mechanic. Prostitution wouldn't be like the military draft, where, if you're over 18 and we happen to pick your number, "Tough shit, baby: you gotta spread those legs!" No, people would only become prostitutes if they wanted to.
If it actually is true that women would feel so humiliated and ashamed of themselves for working as a prostitute that they just could not tolerate it, then they could just decide to never go down that path, or to quit once they got sick of it. You might say: "But wait! Some women might face tough times in life where prostitution will be their only option!" Well, isn't that what already happens anyway? How does criminalizing this help the situation in any way? If anything, you're just making it worse for people that do have to resort to prostitution, because on top of their existing problems, they now have to risk getting arrested and being tossed in jail or subjected to fines when they're already struggling to pay the bills.
And people have this misconception that legalizing prostitution would mean that women would be having sex with any and every man that came her way, no matter how disgusting, ugly, smelly, overweight, or deformed he might be. How humiliating, right? But this is clearly not the case: in a legalized system, the prostitutes would be calling the shots: they would only have sex with the people they wanted to. They would decide what the price would be. They would decide where they have sex at. So it wouldn't necessarily be a night of dark-alley blowjobs next to dumpsters.
Maybe the spread of sexually transmitted diseases is why this would be degrading to women? If most of the people that joined that profession left it with a cornucopia of STDs, that would be pretty humiliating. But, if you're a prostitute, you wouldn't be legally obligated to have unprotected sex with all your clients; if anything, there would be regulations in place where you'd be required to use protection, or where both people would need to be tested for STDs before they could have sex.
And what's with this one-sided focus only on the prostitutes? What about their clients? If anyone would feel ashamed of themselves in a system of legalized prostitution, it'd be the person spending their hard-earned cash on satisfying their sexual urges—not the person who's being paid money to have sex.
And why is the default view towards prostitution shame and humiliation? If there's any roadblock to a society in which women can be prostitutes and not feel ashamed of themselves, it's people like this, who think they're helping, repeatedly saying: "This is a filthy, degrading job. It makes women feel humiliated and disgusted with themselves." Talk about setting yourself up for failure! The attitude that society as a whole has towards prostitution certainly contributes to how people would feel about becoming a prostitute. So if these people truly are concerned about women's attitudes towards prostitution, filling their head with this entirely negative perception of it sure as hell doesn't help their cause! These people are in a battle formation where they're besieging their own castle, and they don't even know it! Their catapults are aimed at the very people they claim to be protecting.
How we view prostitution makes a world of difference: Just imagine if I could get paid money to have sex with smoking hot women whenever I wanted to! That would be fucking incredible! I don't see why women couldn't share this perspective. Why is our perception of prostitution tainted with shame and humiliation instead of high-fives and thumbs ups? Maybe this is just part of a larger problem, where people have a double standard towards sex in general, where men are praised for the things that women are shamed for. But, again, it doesn't help when these self-proclaimed champions of female empowerment do nothing but pollute our minds with negativity about paying for sex.
And even if this was the case—even if the prostitutes and their clients all felt extremely degraded and defiled by the exchange—this still would not be a good enough reason to criminalize the act. There's nothing but your conscience—and perhaps your charm and appearance—stopping you from going out each night and having sex with strangers. Nobody argues that we should criminalize being a slag, even if everyone who acts this way feels ashamed of themselves. How does adding money to the equation overturn our analysis? And since when do we criminalize things that hurt people's feelings? I can walk up to a morbidly obese woman on the street, and say: "You're a disgusting, fat whale. You sicken me!", and I'm not going to get thrown into jail for this, even if it is extremely humiliating for her. But this isn't even a fair comparison, because this would be me making somebody else feel bad. Becoming a prostitute would be your own choice to make. So the hurt feelings that might accompany this job would be entirely self-inflicted. So why would we criminalize hurting our own feelings?
And if we're going to criminalize prostitution, why not do the same for pornography? People are being paid to have sex. Is it somehow better because both people get paid instead of just one of them? If anything, porn is even more degrading. As a prostitute, you'd be behind closed doors; you wouldn't be filming it for thousands of people to watch. So these laws seem to be inconsistent with each other.
There are plenty of jobs that I think could be humiliating and don't perform a necessary function in society. If you work in a raw sewage treatment plant, although your job might be degrading in the eyes of others, you're providing an important service to society by helping to treat and dispose of our waste. We could argue about whether or not prostitutes serve a necessary role in society; let's just assume, for the sake of argument, that they don't.
Other jobs currently exist that, I would argue, could be humiliating, and also don't perform a necessary societal function. Being a butler is one example. Here's the thing, though: I don't say we should make it against the law to be a butler, even if some butlers would be ashamed of themselves while working that job. My personal view of that job shouldn't be the basis for legislation. How I think I would feel working a certain job shouldn't dictate whether or not we allow anybody else to work that job. It should only be the basis for my personal decision about working it.
And, setting the law aside, I don't even bother telling these people that work as butlers to reconsider their career. I don't try to explain to them how humiliating their job is. They're perfectly capable of making up their own minds. Who am I to say that a butler couldn't be a confident, dignified person who lives a fulfilling life? Similarly, who am I to say that a women who has sex in exchange for money couldn't be a confident, dignified person who lives a fulfilling life?
But, fine, even if I was so disgusted or uncomfortable with a person's job that I felt compelled to try to reason with them and get them to reconsider working that job, that's completely different from trying to enact laws that prohibit not just them, but that prohibit everybody from working that job—even if it's what they want to do.
It's extremely ironic that these same people who talk at length about how prostitution devalues women and doesn't allow them to empower themselves are in fact condescendingly telling these same women that they're aren't intelligent or strong-minded enough to decide for themselves whether they want to become a prostitute. If anything is degrading to women, it is that pseudo-supportive mentality.