When Prostitution Is Preferred Over a Sweatshop

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

From a reader who has worked with sex workers in several countries:

Your reader with mixed feelings about prostitution states:

My concern is that legitimizing [sex work] might make it more common because being poor is becoming more common in this society. If we had a more robust social safety net, I’d be less concerned.

In many parts of the world, prostitution is legal, and in many of those places—Colombia and the Dominican Republic, for example—there are many poor women who work in the sex trade. In Cambodia, where sex work is not legal but largely tolerated, there are occasional crackdowns on sex workers by the police working with NGOs, often in response to U.S. State Department pressure. The NGO solution is to divert the women to the garment industry to make cheap clothes for Americans and other Westerners. However, many women return to sex work because the working conditions and pay are so poor in the garment industry:

In the Dominican Republic, poor women can work in Dominican maquiladoras outside Santo Domingo making shoes. However, many choose to travel to the tourist areas of the north coast to sell sex—see here—because by selling sex, they can afford to pay for their children’s school tuition and otherwise support their families, something that they are unable to do with the wages paid in the “legitimate” economy.

Poor women who make difficult choices from a limited set of options are not helped by removing the best paying option because we might find it distasteful. Instead of further limiting their choices, that energy could be put toward working to ensure a living wage is available through various forms of work.

From a mother of two:

Whether it’s legal or illegal, the oldest profession isn’t disappearing. If it’s legal, people would be subject to treating their workers decently. It would be like any other job complete with health care benefits, retirement benefits, etc. It would end illegal sex trafficking … why would you go to some shady place when you can go to the joint that has health certificates for all the workers prominently displayed?

My attitude is what two adults do—if there is no coercion involved on either of their parts—is fine. People get so up in arms when the talk turns to sex. The young people I talk to take prostitution seriously, but they don't seem to have the moral baggage that older people have.