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Prostitution as Morality Politics or Why It Is Exceedingly Difficult To Design and Sustain Effective Prostitution Policy


This paper argues that prostitution policy is less developed than more established policy domains such as health, education, social welfare, or the environment. While all policy is about the struggle over values and categories, conceptually prostitution policy can best be understood as an instance of morality politics. Without hypostatizing morality politics, we define it as having six characteristics: it is ruled by an explicit ideology; experts have limited authority as everyone feels they “own” prostitution policy; it is highly emotionally charged; it is resistant to facts; the symbolism of policy formulation is seen as more important than policy implementation; and it is subject to abrupt changes. We then analyze three implications of the adversarial nature of prostitution policy. First, we discuss the cavalier attitude of relevant actors towards precise and reliable numbers. Second, by focusing on “forced prostitution” and “trafficking”, we discuss the ideological and obfuscating nature of key concepts in prostitution policy. We suggest instead using the concept of “exploitation”. Finally, we focus on policy implementation. We argue that the common concept of policy regime has limited value and that to understand the development of prostitution policy, its outcomes, and its impact on society, attention to the mundane details of policy implementation is required. The paper suggests some conditions to prevent prostitution policy to enter the realm of morality politics and to attain an effective and humane form of policy making.

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  1. For various reasons, some of which are explained in footnotes 2 and 3, this was a difficult paper to write. As a common Dutch expression goes: we often felt we were walking on eggs in the writing of this paper. Our writing has benefitted tremendously from the comments of the participants of the ESF Workshop “Exploring and Comparing Prostitution Policy Regimes in Europe” at Birkbeck University, London, September 15–17, 2010, where we presented a first draft of this paper. Also, the extensive and detailed comments of four anonymous reviewers of this journal were invaluable in pointing out where we fell into the morality trap ourselves and in nudging us to formulate key sections of the argument more precisely and carefully. Joyce Outshoorn provided us with helpful and encouraging commentary. Finally, John Mollenkopf, Yuri Kazepov, and John Forester, members if the international scientific committee of Nicis Institute gave us valuable feedback on a later draft of the paper.

  2. A central argument in this article is that prostitution policy must be considered an instance of morality politics. One of the characteristics of morality politics is that it proves to be impossible to write about prostitution policy without being immersed in morality politics oneself. There simply is no Archimedean point from which to write about this topic unencumbered by value positions. This manifests itself among other things in the use of language. Terms such as “prostitution” or “sex work” suggest moral positions towards the provision of sexual services for money. We have chosen to use the term “prostitution” when we talk about the phenomenon of selling sexual services, and “sex worker” when we discuss the women who are engaged in prostitution. We realize that this is not very consistent. Our argument is that “prostitution” and “prostitution policy” are widely accepted terms that almost, although not quite, transcend moral debates. However, the term “prostitute”, we feel, has an unmistaken denigrating feel to it. For this reason we prefer the term “sex worker”. Moreover, this reflects our own moral position about sex work as work, with all the rights that accompany work in our society.

  3. In the Anglo-Saxon world, it is common to make a distinction between politics and policy. The latter roughly refers to the executive arm of government, the public agencies that manage societal problems, and the first to the decision making process by elected officials. In the German-speaking world there is no term for policy; policy, polity and politics are all referred to as “Politik”. There is a separate term for public administration (“Verwaltung”) that strictly refers to the executive branch of government. In Norway “politick” covers both policy and politics. (source: anonymous reviewer). In Italy there is no word for policy; everything is politics. (oral communication David Nelken) To make things even more complicated: nowadays the concept of “policy” has fallen out of favor as being to statist and is being replaced with the term ‘governance’ signifying the decentered nature of contemporary policy making.

  4. The implicit normative principle is that there is a division of labor between the executive and public agencies in the management of public problems. While the first is at all times democratically accountable, the latter operates in relative freedom, although under a strict political mandate, to design and implement public programs. In this way politics and administration are more or less kept separate. The key argument is that this allows specialized technical expertise to inform the design and implementation of policy programs. In fact, as Manin (1997) argues, a cadre of specialized experts, wedged in between elected officials and the people, and who design and execute solutions to politically identified issues, is one of the key characteristics of representative government. However, in practice the normative boundary between politics and administration is highly permeable. Politicians regularly ignore or intervene in administrative processes, and in an increasingly plural, complex and adversarial society public agencies have to engage in complex negotiations with stakeholders to attain a modicum of effectiveness. (Wagenaar 2011, ch. 10; Ansell 2011, 4)

  5. The last couple of years have witnessed an increased interest in prostitution policy. The New Zealand Collective published an excellent collection of papers on the implementation and effects of the 2003 Prostitution Reform Act (Abel and Fitzgerald 2010). Swiss and German researchers have engaged in comparative studies of several middle-European countries (Pates and Schmidt, 2009). Recently, Ron Weitzer has published a book-length study of the (effects of) the legalization of the prostitution business in some European countries (2012).

  6. An indicator of definitional problems are the circular definitions that describe morality politics as policies in which moral arguments prevail: “at least one advocacy coalition involved has portrayed the issue as one of morality or sin and used moral arguments in its policy advocacy.” (Haider-Markel and Meier 1996, 334)

  7. See also Engeli, Green-Pedersen and Larsen who move away from a listing of characteristics of morality politics and argue for an impact-based approach, which focuses on the political dynamics of conflict. (2012, 2)

  8. What tilts a policy into morality territory is thus a matter of degree. By scoring on the extreme values on (most) features that characterize all policy (ideological grounding, lay ownership, absence of technical authority, emotionally charged discourse, etc) a policy takes on the quality of morality politics. However, gradual increments can result in qualitative differences. A comparable example is fever: although the body temperature is only a few degrees Celsius above the physiological average, the qualitative change in the body’s functioning is massive.

  9. There is an interesting parallel here with the distinction between antagonism and agonism in pluralist politics. In antagonistic politics the parties do not share any common ground and therefore rational solutions to conflicts are not possible. In agonistic politics on the other hand there is recognition of the legitimacy of the demands of the other party. (Mouffe, 2000)

  10. The distinction between policy-in-use and espoused policy is from Don Schön (1973). In Vienna for example, prostitution policy, although declaring the rights of sex workers, was in practice strongly influenced by the law and order stance of powerful populist right-wing parties on the city council (Amesberger 2012).

  11. For example, a recent report on the prostitution market in Amsterdam (van Wijk et al. 2010) gives several careful, and well-founded, estimates of the number of sex workers working in the city in all forms of prostitution. The researchers were careful to distinguish between daily numbers and cumulative numbers (that is, the number of different women that have at any one moment in the year worked as a prostitute in the city). They estimated the annual, cumulative number at 1090 to 3380, with the daily numbers for all types of prostitution about half the lower estimate. Nevertheless all newspapers and media reported that “5000 sex workers were working in Amsterdam”, with some newspapers, wholly unwarranted, adding another 50 per cent to that number to arrive at a total of 7500. We will return to this later in the article.

  12. A good example is the recent announcement by the French minister for women Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, to abolish prostitution in France and Europe in general and to create a “society without prostitution”. Apart from vague references to client criminalization, there was no announcement of how to attain this lofty moral objective (The Economist, July 14, 2012).

  13. At the time of writing this article (March 2012) the proposed law is still pending. The Dutch Senate has so far refused to approve the law because it is dissatisfied with the government's answers to concerns about the registration of sex workers and the client criminalization aspect of the law.

  14. Because of high mobility, Dutch police officers that we interviewed suggested to us to give up the idea of establishing with any precision the size of the population of sex workers in their cities. However, in the middle of this high-mobility world, we found pockets of mostly older Dutch sex workers in certain window areas who had been working in the same place for many years. The Austrian data show a comparable pattern.

  15. For example, we took the number of windows and combined the city's estimate of the occupancy rates of windows in their city with our own observations of the occupancy rate. We combined that with the number of clubs multiplied by the occupancy rates in clubs based on our own observations, plus estimates for other types of prostitution that we culled from research reports. We estimated the number of women who advertise through the internet by googling telephone numbers. This solves the problem of women who place ads on different sites.

  16. van Wijk et. al. (2010) comes to similar conclusions for Amsterdam. They estimate that the number of sex workers working in Amsterdam at any particular day is 570, of which 410 work in the famous red light district “De Wallen”. In her sober analysis of trafficking in the UK, O'Connel Davidson (2006) comes up with only several dozen victims of trafficking in a given year.

  17. This important clarification was suggested to us by one of our anonymous reviewers.

  18. So, the image of the trafficked woman as it figures in sensationalist media reports and popular movies is in our terms someone who would fall into the “severe” range on all five categories of sexual and economic exploitation. One could legitimately raise the question how frequently this occurs in the total population of women who emigrate into prostitution. On the other hand, a Dutch field study of licensed prostitution facilities using insider field workers demonstrated that mild to medium-range forms of sexual and economic exploitation were endemic (Altink and Bokelman 2006). In our study of immigrant women working in prostitution on the Austrian-Czech border, we also find endemic exploitation but in more varied and milder forms. (Amesberger, 2011).

  19. At least not in the home country of the authors of this article.

  20. Bernstein (2007) makes a similar argument, on similarly scanty empirical evidence.

  21. Clients who purchase sex from an unregistered prostitute are liable for prosecution. This particular provision has been widely criticized as unenforceable, but the government has as of today not backed down.

  22. The Dutch approach of regulated tolerance in the 1980s was in fact the informal codification of local practices of discretion within a prohibitory regime in dealing with commercial sex (Brants 1998). The reasoning behind it was that the societal and legal costs of prosecuting the commercial exploitation of sex were higher than to allow it under certain agreed upon conditions.


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The research on which this article is based is funded by the Nicis Institute, the cities of Rotterdam, Utrecht, The Hague and Vienna, the University of Leiden and the University of Sheffield. The views and conclusions that are put forward in this article do not necessarily represent those of the funding agencies.

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Wagenaar, H., Altink, S. Prostitution as Morality Politics or Why It Is Exceedingly Difficult To Design and Sustain Effective Prostitution Policy. Sex Res Soc Policy 9, 279–292 (2012).

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  • Prostitution
  • Sex worker
  • Morality politics
  • Policy implementation
  • Policy instruments
  • Exploitation
  • Trafficking