Problems with the ‘oldest profession’ argument for prostitution

The pro-sex trade lobby and activists, as well as their numerous interested male allies, often use the assertion that prostitution is ‘the oldest profession’ as a reason to legalise (/ ‘decriminalise’) the trade.

There is an obvious problem with this, which I have often seen covered in a variety of forms; namely that, even if that is so (it is apparent that if it is, it is only one of many of the oldest ‘professions’), there is nothing inherently desirable about things, even professions, that have been around for longer than others. Slave traders, torturers, slaves, professional raiders and pillagers (read: rapists) were all seen

as at least somewhat legitimate professions (or at least work-related categories) until very recently the world over, and surely have as long a history as prostitution. Many of these also tied in to what were considered natural human behaviours for literally thousands of years – even a cursory reading of the history of the abolition of slavery, for instance, shows this to be true. Luckily, that did not prevent us from (eventually) ridding ourselves of them all, or at least aspiring to as a society.

The problem I have less often seen covered with regards to the ‘oldest profession’ argument is something of a contradiction in what constitutes at least most of modern pro-sex trade activism. This is the problem of reconciling the modern image of ‘empowered, consensual’ prostitution espoused by that lobby with the historical legacy of the trade:

First of all, and related to the above, much of the sex trade throughout history was directly interlinked with pillage and slave-trading, a far cry from anything we would consider freedom today. In these cases (and they are innumerable), what happened was quite simply that people, mainly women (and often children) were taken (seized as the ‘spoils of war’ / kidnapped, basically) and sold into what we would now clearly consider sexual slavery. This is not some blip or outlier in the statistics – this is a constantly recurring theme throughout world history and common to pretty much all societies for which we have a historical record – from primitive clan / tribal raiders to early modern colonialism and slavery. It is important to consider the likelihood that the majority of human men who have purchased sex (or the opportunity to rape, which seems the more appropriate way to look at it in these cases) at any point in time were buying it from a sex slave. Or more accurately, from their ‘owner’.

Secondly, and even less explored, is the nature of the remainder of the transactions. The majority of pro-industry proponents like to discuss the trade of sex for money without too much consideration of the fact that money is commonly used for basic goods. The rhetoric, in general, focuses on a capitalist understanding of money as the ability to consume as one wishes, equating it with choice and, ultimately, freedom. Proponents tend to become uncomfortable when confronted with instances where sex is in fact traded directly for basic goods, such as food. This appears to be in large part because it forces consideration of both the lack of real, meaningful choice (and thus genuine, freely-given sexual consent) of the sex ‘seller’, and the undeniably predatory nature of such transactions on part of the ‘buyer’. Their discomfort can be aptly illustrated, for example, through their reactions (or lack thereof) to instances such as the recent scandal in which UN peacekeepers in the Central African Republic traded local women and girls food in exchange for sex – of course, they are silent on the clear parallels and questions raised with regards to their own beliefs. The way in which this ties in to the ‘oldest profession’ argument is that, if we again turn to history, we can see that money, that is a standardised system of currency with a consistent value that can be traded for a variety of goods on a market, is at most 3,000 years old – it has existed for less than a third of known human history. Even after its first appearance, it took another 2,000 or more years for it to become the standard trading system worldwide, as this took the establishment of strong systems of central government and financial regulation in each respective country. So in terms of prostitution throughout the ages, the interactions that would have in fact been taking place across the vast majority of human history (where aside from the lack of money, goods were generally traded for subsistence) would be the direct trade of sex for basic goods, likely resembling very closely the UN peacekeeper scenario described above in again innumerable cases. This is especially true given women’s low status and forced reliance on men for protection and sustenance that, again, is common to most (if not all) societies for which we have a historical record.

Incidentally, in the early, brutal stages of human history which in fact form the vast majority of it, protection was scarce across the board and would be another thing which men would have used to demand sex. This would have simply been the way things were done – even the early stages of state building saw protection payments that we would now consider extortion demanded from the weak in general, often with a thinly veiled threat that the attackers would be the same people that were demanding the payment, were it not to be received. It would be ahistorical and incredibly naive to presume that this was not yet another way in which sex was traded that would offend all but the most die-hard free-market transaction-as-freedom prioritising individuals’ sensibilities, yet constitutes a significant proportion of the history of prostitution.

To conclude, it is clear that the ‘oldest profession’ argument for prostitution is inadequate, regardless of its accuracy. Such an argument is inherently (and I do not use that word lightly) conservative in the extreme, and should never be used to defend any type of human activity or practice. It is especially useless for defending one with a history as grim as that of the trade in sexual access to human beings. Any advocation for the industry should thus be done with a firm understanding that, if it is to be desirable in any way, what is being argued for is a clear break from, rather than a continuation of, the trade of sex as it has existed throughout the ages. This must necessarily be accompanied by a clear understanding of its history and strategies (including clear policy suggestions) to move it away from the darkness of its past. Currently, there is no such understanding or strategy and what we instead see is sheer romanticism and even apologism, which is incompatible with a realistic vision for a better future for those involved.


Of Course I Have a Fucking “Moral Problem” With Prostitution — Gender Detective – The Personal Blog of Jonah Mix

Last week, the New York Times ran Emily Bazelon’s piece, “Should Prostitution be a Crime?” Like most articles in support of the sex trade, it was light on actual analysis but heavy on slogans and smears. In the midst of the cliches, what stood out to me most was one particularly bizarre line: Because abolitionists […]

via Of Course I Have a Fucking “Moral Problem” With Prostitution — Gender Detective – The Personal Blog of Jonah Mix

Unethical practices produce New York Times’ ‘sex work’ story — Feminist Current

Screen shot: New York Times Magazine cover story, May 5, 2016.Over the weekend, Emily Bazelon, a staff writer at the New York Times, published an article called “Should Prostitution Be a Crime?” What she didn’t say was that she had already answered her own question, and that she chose to distort (or outright ignore) facts…

via Unethical practices produce New York Times’ ‘sex work’ story — Feminist Current

Imagine: The Appropriation of Oppression Itself

Imagine a world where, along with the renewal of vigour within the movements for racial equality (along with social justice in general), a new movement had developed – the ‘metamorphosis movement’, or ‘meta-movement’, for short.
This ‘meta-movement’ concerned mainly white people who believed that they were actually black people, but born in white bodies, as well as a small minority of black people who believed that they were the opposite. It became increasingly accepted, until it was the norm amongst those fighting for social justice of all kinds.

Imagine that, due to the fact that these white people believed that they had been born in the wrong bodies, many decided to ‘morph’ into black people, and that once they did so, they began to demand to be referred to as ‘meta-blacks’ (or otherwise simply as black people), whilst the black people minority of ‘metas’ did the opposite, demanding to be known as ‘meta-whites’. Imagine that they criticised any who objected to the idea that they could simply ‘morph’ into another race as ‘meta-racist’, and insisted that this was a worse form of racism than standard racism, as those born into the other race (‘bio-blacks’ or ‘bio-whites’) were privileged over them (with ‘bio-privilege’), as they were born into what they ‘wanted’ to be.

Imagine that this ‘metamorphing’, for the ‘meta-blacks’ involved the selection of ‘black’ features that they found desirable, often based on criteria of how ‘black’ they considered them. Imagine that criticising their rating of the desirability of black features made you a ‘meta-racist’.

Imagine they debated over and would use a variety of methods to achieve the physical ‘metamorphosis’, including anything from using some makeup / polish / other black substance, through to whole-body tattooing, through to some form of expensive melanin-insertion technique combined with extensive surgery, around which a thriving cosmetic industry flourished. Imagine that any criticism of (or even comment on) any of this based on anything, including the history of appropriation and blackface, the fact that these things just might not actually encompass the whole of the black experience, the fact that the cosmetics / surgery industry might be encouraging this for profit, etc. meant that you were called a ‘meta-racist’.

Imagine that, aside from (or instead of) these physical changes, many ‘meta-blacks’ also began to speak in what they considered ‘black vernacular’, which was actually just a highly simplified and dumbed-down version of English, in line with racist depictions of black people in the racist imagination. Imagine that many began to do things they considered ‘black’ in order to make them more ‘genuine’ that included avoiding employment, saying the ‘n word’, smoking weed, being hyper masculine and aggressive if male or hyper-sexual if female, acting ‘ghetto’ etc. Again, imagine that any criticism of their embodiment of ‘blackness’ was criticised as ‘meta-racist’, and this was coupled with questions of why the critic did not level the same criticisms at black people who acted in these ways, regardless of whether or not they actually did.

Imagine the ‘meta-blacks’ insisted that, despite not even being the only methods of ‘morphing’, that the medical ‘morph’ process was so integral to their resistance to ‘bio’ oppression that it must be subsidised. They insisted that these operations, costing tens of thousands of dollars, must be subsidised even in extremely economically disadvantaged black communities and societies, where ‘bio-blacks’ were still struggling to afford and generally access decent healthcare provision. Any individual suggesting that this might not be the most pressing medical need or allocation of resources was considered blinded to the lived experience of the ‘metas’ by ‘bio-privilege’, and a ‘meta-racist’.

Imagine that the ‘meta-blacks’ began to demand that any ‘bio-black’ space, organisation or community must accept them with open arms regardless of history or the experiences of their members, and that if they did not they were being ‘meta-racist’, and using their ‘bio-privilege’ to exclude the ‘meta-blacks’. It did not matter if the context of an individual space was, for instance, a space for discussion of racist attacks or abuse on ‘bio-blacks’ by the white police, racists, etc. And to point out that any ‘bio-white’ could walk in if they simply put on some dark foundation (or even by just stating that they were, in fact ‘black’), was also considered ‘meta-racist’.

Imagine that awards and honours designed to be bestowed on members of the black community in order to oppose the structural oppression that ‘bio-blacks’ had been subject to over so many years were opened up to ‘meta-blacks’, and that they quickly went on to begin to be awarded the very highest of these. Imagine ‘meta-blacks’ being awarded, for example, the title of ‘black personality of the year’. Imagine that suggesting that this might have anything to do with the privileged position and feelings of entitlement of ‘meta-blacks’ due to their previously white status, or that there should be any such awards reserved only for those born black, was ‘meta-racism’. Imagine that this happened whilst ‘meta-blacks’ and their supporters jeered at the ‘meta-critical’ ‘bio-blacks’, telling them that they were just jealous because the ‘meta-blacks’ were simply ‘better at being black’ than them.

Imagine that, after the centuries of oppression felt by black people at the hands of white people based on skin colour and exaggerations of physical differences, they suddenly found themselves being constantly reminded by the ‘meta-blacks’ that ‘race is just a social construct’, and told that any mention of these things as giving them some sort of exclusive shared history inaccessible to ‘meta-blacks’ through their ‘morphing’ was the height of ‘meta-racism’ and ‘bio-privilege’. The same went for any suggestion that ‘morphing’ did not absolve ‘meta-blacks’ of all attachment to and responsibility for this previous and continuing oppression, even if they had perpetuated it right up to (and even after?) their ‘morph’.

Imagine that the ‘meta-blacks’, in wanting to strengthen their arguments pertaining to the ‘black mind born in a white body’ idea, began to revisit and advocate for the re-adoption of ‘scientific’ ideas previously propagated by eugenicists, through widespread support for the re-ignition of such debates in the field of neuro-science. Imagine they began hang on to any studies, new or old, and even if since discredited, to emphasise that black people had minds that did in fact differ significantly from those of white people. Imagine that many (if not all) of these differences were directly in line with racist eugenicist conceptions. Imagine that pointing out that the idea that black people are naturally ‘more suited to manual labour’, ‘in need of supervision’ or ‘aggressive, and so requiring of control by authority’ is in any way racist would be called out as ‘meta-racist’.

Imagine that the ‘meta-blacks’ insisted that they had equal if not more right than ‘bio-blacks’ to comment on every issue concerning the black community, including racism and oppression from whites, regardless of their stage of ‘morph’ (i.e. even if they were still completely white, or white but with a bit of brown makeup on), and despite the fact that many of them would later go on to ‘de-morph’ back into fully-fledged ‘bio-whites’, retaining all of the associated privileges over black people. Imagine that to challenge any of this would inevitably result in a ‘meta-racist’ label.

Imagine that, whilst ‘meta-blacks’ and their allies accepted that the ‘meta’ movement was quite radical in its aims, they overwhelmingly associated themselves strongly and by their own admission with non and anti-radical segments of the black and anti-racist community. Imagine that they would often argue that they ‘were colour-blind’, that the main obstacle to racism was that black people could not ‘get over’ race, that individual behaviours and choices of any black person (‘meta’ or otherwise) should be respected over any talk of ‘solidarity’, structural oppression or internalised racism, and that the economic disadvantages experienced by the black community were largely down to poor personal choices, and could be fixed with a proper ‘go-getter’ attitude and the taking of ‘proper personal responsibility’. Imagine that opposition to their propagation of these (highly liberal and neo-liberal influenced) ideas was shouted down as ‘meta-racist’, as you would be denying their right to have a view on ‘their own’ issues. Imagine that even criticism of these ideas themselves began to be viewed as ‘meta-racist’, due to their association with the ‘meta’ movement.

Imagine that even talking about issues pertaining to the anatomy of black people and their features that could not be fully replicated by any of the ‘morphing’ processes was called ‘meta-racist’. So, for example, if the process could not replicate afro hair, you risked being called a ‘meta-racist’ if you talked about how black people have different hair care needs to white people, without making sure to include mention of the ‘fact’ that some (the ‘meta-blacks’) actually don’t, because they have ‘exactly the same hair as white people’. Imagine that even campaigns aimed at raising awareness of health problems such as sickle cell anaemia and prostate cancer in the black community (problems that only or disproportionately affect ‘bio-blacks’) were not immune from criticism as ‘meta-racist’, if they did not include these disclaimers.

Imagine that now any ‘bio-black’ who showed any sort of behaviour traditionally associated with white people in the racist imagination would often be called a ‘meta-white’ or white, or a suggestion would at least be made that they may be heading towards being one of these things. So any ‘bio-black’ person who studied hard, worked hard, used ‘correct’ grammar, etc. would have people saying that they were white, and likely asking if they were ‘morphing’ into a ‘meta-white’. Imagine this even went for black children, so if a child was doing well at school, their parents would be told by gleeful ‘progressive’ onlookers that they fully supported their child being ‘white’ or ‘meta-white’, regardless of the parents’ own views on the matter. Imagine that questioning the idea that any of these things should exclusively be associated with ‘whiteness’ of any sort and for any reason meant that you would be called a ‘meta-racist’.

Imagine that the ‘metas’ combined their descriptions of ‘meta-racist’ oppression with other, genuine oppressions that they faced depending on who they are. So ‘meta’ women argued that they were oppressed for both being a woman and a ‘meta’, disabled ‘metas’ argued they were oppressed based on both their disability and ‘meta’ status, poor ‘metas’ claimed to face both class-based oppression and ‘meta-racism’, etc. until the lines became blurred and it was fully accepted that this was genuine and equal to other forms of oppression. It was also fully accepted that they were more oppressed than any ‘bio’ facing the same further problems. Imagine that, in this way, the ‘meta’ cause became so ingrained into intersectional politics that to dispute any part of it was not only seen as an attack on the ‘meta’ movement, but also likely on intersectional politics itself, as well as the other movements covered by it.

Imagine that the ‘metas’ scoured the history books for examples of others who, like them, had insisted that they were of a different race from what they appeared to be in the past. Imagine that, upon finding that they were highly represented amongst those who had previously been considered to be mentally ill (and despite the fact that many of these simultaneously exhibited other signs of severe mental illness), they came up with new definitions of mental illness that explicitly excluded delusions pertaining to the race or racial attributes of the sufferer, and demanded these be accepted by psychologists. Imagine they decided that the entire medical establishment (working with traditional racist eugenicists) had been hell-bent on labelling them as such since the beginning of time, and was thus a tool of oppression against people like them, who were united by this oppression in a historical struggle of equal magnitude (and perhaps even greater importance than) other struggles for social justice, for instance the civil rights, labour and feminist movements. Of course, to claim otherwise was ‘meta-racist’.

Imagine that racist whites felt threatened by ‘metas’, as they saw their ‘morphing’ as a blurring of racial boundaries, and many committed violent acts, up to and including murder, against some ‘metas’. Imagine that, no matter how much they called out this violence as wrong, any element of the ‘bio-black’ community critical of the ‘meta-movement’ ended up being blamed for these attacks, as their supposed ‘meta-racism’ was blamed for creating the social conditions in which these attacks took place. Imagine these ‘meta-critical’ elements of the black community were also criticised for everything from rejection of ‘meta-blacks’ from conservative schools and religious institutions, to suicides by young white people who wanted to become ‘meta-blacks’ but were prevented from doing so by racist parents. Imagine that these ‘meta-critical’ ‘bio-blacks’ were expected to change their minds on the whole issue every time one of the aforementioned tragic events happened, and that when they did not, they were told that it was further evidence of their support for said acts, of their callous and oppressive ‘meta-racism’, and this was then used as justification for treating them as sub-human enemies worthy of every possible form of abuse, including death threats, and complete exclusion from all left-wing movements.

Consider all of the above. You may recognise some of it as having things in common with some of the racist cultural appropriation that we see today (albeit in an extreme, nightmarish version), which has quite rightly been widely opposed by vast numbers of those who fight for social justice.

What you are seeing, though, is in fact the racial equivalent to what any feminist who has maintained a firm grounding in reality has seen happen to the feminist movement during its most recent resurgence, but with the ‘trans’ rather than the ‘meta’ movement doing the co-opting of the cause. So my question is, where do we go from here?

Legalised ‘Sex Work’ and Welfare / Benefits

In a country with a (relatively, currently) strong welfare system such as the UK, the only thing standing between what might be called an ambiguous situation (at least on the face of it) and straight-up state-enforced / sponsored / sanctioned mass rape and sexual abuse if prostitution were to be legalised would be a legal distinction between sex industry ‘work’ and other forms of work.

This distinction would have to be strong (enough to ensure that it would never be in any way challenged or repealed) and make very clear that social security payments (i.e. benefits) would never be at risk if someone were not to accept a job in this particular industry – entry in to it, at least in this sense, would need to be wholly optional. This could, perhaps, take a similar form to exemptions in other industries such as the military or religious organisations.

With this in mind, it is quite shocking that this seems to pretty much never factor in to the arguments of those who advocate for the industry. Far from an afterthought, this should be at the absolute forefront of any supposedly ‘feminist’ (or generally leftist / ethical) pro-’sex work’ arguments if they want to advocate for industry legalisation without straying very quickly in to extremely dangerous territory re: sex, consent and potential exploitation. It is literally the most basic point that needs to be addressed, yet it almost never is.

In my experience it seems only to be addressed when first brought up by anti-industry feminists, and then only so as to to dismiss it with an ‘oh yes of course we’d deal with that’ sort of sentiment. This is nowhere near an adequate response, in my eyes, to such an important point in this. If pro-industry advocates really want to be taken seriously in the idea that they want to sanitise this industry and divorce it from abuse, coercion and exploitation in line with any sort of social justice ideals, this needs to be a point that forms the crux of their push for legalisation. Until then, I will find it impossible to trust any pro-legalisation argument as plausibly ethical in implications of its implementation.

To conclude, any support for full legalisation should go something like this:

‘I believe the sex industry should be legalised and regulated according to its specific features, as should any distinct industry. In this case this would, of course, mean that those who enter it must do so freely, so a key point is that there would be no negative social security sanctions for not entering the professions in this industry (and then any other key points that need to be made, e.g. safety, police response, condom access, etc. etc.)’

In reality, what we seem to be stuck with is something like this:

‘Legalise sex work, SEX WORK IS WORK!’

It is very hard to believe that those who chant the latter really have their eye on the ball with this…

‘but if people can be soldiers’…

Comparisons between prostitution and the military are often associated with ‘sex-positive’ arguments for the legalisation and normalisation of prostitution. Yet when we actually think of the strongest similarities in detail, the parallels actually add up to constitute some of the most damning indictments against this very normalisation.

Take, for instance, the argument by pro-prostitution advocates that anger at high-status prostitutes who are on their side is somehow anger at all prostitutes (‘whorephobia’). This is very similar to saying that anger at war-mongering soldiers (Chris Kyle, anyone), including high-ranking officers who are kept out of the way of harm for the most part, is wrong, and somehow aimed at all soldiers, everywhere. By this logic, those who advocate for peace in general, or who oppose the military-industrial complex, hate all soldiers. Child soldiers, conscripts, soldiers from economically disadvantaged communities… all of them! This shows how skewed this logic actually is.

Being angry at those (few) who wish to perpetuate the situations and industry that keep those in far more disadvantaged (and economically coerced) positions than themselves in that same industry in a state of suffering and exploitation, regardless of their similar broad definitions in that industry (‘soldier’, ‘prostitute’, etc.), makes perfect sense. It is the nuanced analysis of their differential positions that is most important, and the fact that those making an actual, non-coerced, economically free choice are both a tiny minority and the most vocal advocates of these industries and professions is hugely significant.

A Question on the Potential Abuse of Trans Identity

There is one, central question to which a genuinely successful answer could perhaps form a basis that could lead (after proper scrutiny of the further issues) to my acceptance of at least some aspect of the ‘identity’-based definitions of woman and man, and thus the wider trans standpoint. The question is, in essence, this:

“How can women prevent men from abusing the ‘identity’-based definitions of ‘woman’ and ‘man’ in order to ignore or get around boundaries or rules set to protect women’s own interests”

This question is often phrased in different ways, pertaining to different potential situations, often with serious implications, for instance:

“How can a women-only domestic violence refuge truly keep victims safe if they have no clear criteria for rejecting male individuals, including abusive ex-partners”

“How can we prevent a company from filling a senior management quota (with penalties attached) for women by simply putting down some of their male employees as ‘female’ without any criteria for what this actually means other than their own supposed views”

“How can we prevent a man from brazenly walking in to a full women’s changing room and exposing himself to them, if he holds when confronted by security that he is a woman”

These are not meant to be leading questions, they are genuine. In the years I have spent following these debates, I have asked time and again for answers. I have, in discussions, not even asked for an immediate answer. I have said to those arguing with me, ‘Don’t worry, you don’t have to tell me this off the top of your head. Go home, think about it, you can even find a well-put answer by someone else online, anyone, and that will be enough – just send it to me’. And time and time again, this has been met by a permanent silence on the issue (often accompanied by attempts at attention-shifting and derailing).

This is not a specific attack on trans people, but rather an expression of distrust towards men’s potential to use the blurring of these lines against womens rights, in ways that may in some cases be a direct threat to their safety. Notice that the above does not require mention of trans individuals at all. The point here is not that I necessarily think that it is ‘trans women’ who will be committing these acts against women. The point is, instead, that a purely ‘identity’-based definition of male and female gives no workable criteria at all for distinguishing between a ‘trans woman’ and a disingenuous man. This leaves theoretical, practical and, in many cases, legal loopholes that would have a lawyer salivating, and it thus takes an incredible degree of naivety to hold that this will come at no cost to those born female.

Toward an End to Appropriation of Indigenous “Two Spirit” People in Trans Politics: the Relationship Between Third Gender Roles and Patriarchy

Truly excellent – aside from finding the obvious opportunistic appropriation of Native American culture and tradition by white liberal queer-theory fundamentalists shocking in its general brazenness, I’d always suspected that something was amiss in the way that you describe here. Thank you for going through some of the problems and history so thoroughly, all of this is invaluable information and I will continue to look into it myself.


When I say that transgenderism is culture bound, don’t get me wrong: I think every gender role and presentation is, in fact, dependent on culture.  The entire idea of gender, the roles that are developed and called “gender,” are based on the sex binary.  That’s why almost always, when you see gender roles, even if there are more than two, you can bet money that it’s just a matter of reclassifying people who don’t fit into a culture’s otherwise rigidly defined sex roles.

Which brings us to the indigenous people of North America.

I have a special kind of rage for any white person who claims to identify as a “Two Spirit” person.  It’s like wearing a hipster headdress: it proclaims loud and clear that you’re a white person who likes to appropriate American Indian culture while having little or nothing to do with the culture you’re appropriating.


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