Prostitution: violence or work? Reflections on Voluntariness, Coercion and Harm in the Context of Debates on Policy Alternatives




Abstract: To punish or not to punish? Which law and policy approach to prostitution has the best chance of guaranteeing rights and freedom to those who sell sexual services? In the debate between defenders of the neo-prohibitionist model (client-only criminalization) and advocates of the decriminalization of sex work, different views of the problem lead to highly polarized solutions. In particular, their division concerns the understanding of prostitution, the possibility of distinguishing between voluntary and non-voluntary sex work, and the assessment of the harmfulness of the market in sexual services for society as a whole. This article is therefore intended to answer the proposed question by addressing three interrelated issues: the definition of prostitution; the concept of voluntariness and its operationalization in evaluating choices to sell sexual services; the harmfulness of the sex market and the need to ban it or not. In conclusion, I support the idea that decriminalising this activity seems to be better able to guarantee the human rights of those involved in prostitution, and to remove the causes that determine the harmfulness of this market; provided that it takes into account the specific features of sex work (not a job like any other), and that it is accompanied by interventions addressing distributional inequalities and cultural stigma.

 Keywords: harm, public policy, prostitution, sex work, voluntariness.

Author Biography

Giorgia Serughetti, Università Milano Bicocca

Assegnista di ricerca presso il Dipartimento di Sociologia e Ricerca Sociale