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Prostitution and harm: a reply to Anderson and McDougall
  1. Ole Martin Moen
  1. Correspondence to Dr Ole Martin Moen, Department of Philosophy, Classics, History of Art and Ideas, University of Oslo, Box 1020 Blindern, 0315 Oslo, Norway; o.m.moen{at}

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I agree with Scott A Anderson1 and Rosalind J McDougall2 that many prostitutes suffer significant harms, and that these harms must be taken seriously. Having a background in public outreach for sex workers, I share this concern wholeheartedly.

In the article to which Anderson and McDougall respond,3 I ask why prostitutes are harmed: are prostitutes harmed because prostitution itself is harmful or because of contingent ways in which prostitutes are socially and legally treated? This is an important question, since if the latter is the case, then the widespread moral and legal campaign against prostitution, rather than being a legitimate response to something harmful, is itself the source of much suffering and distress. In my article, I argue at length that it is indeed our social and legal treatment of prostitutes that is the dominant source of harm.

Neither Anderson nor McDougall seems to take issue with my rebuttal of (what I take to be) the nine most central arguments in favour of the view that prostitution itself is harmful. They do, however, raise a number of more general issues, and I shall now address these.

A worry raised by Anderson is that in defending the view that prostitution itself is not harmful, I am ‘abstracting away from key facts about the context in which prostitution takes place’, and as such, I ‘fail to recognize how contextual, historical and social’ prostitution really is. I think this is a good objection — so good, in fact, that I raise and discuss it in the article. I formulate the objection as follows: [The objection] states that my argument is utopian: that prostitution is a complex practice deeply entrenched in a long line of other social and psychological issues, such as gender inequality, poverty, power hierarchies and exploitation, and that …

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  • Competing interests None.

  • Provenance and peer review Commissioned; internally peer reviewed.

  • i For a thorough empirical overview published shortly after my article was written, see reference 4.

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