A+ A A-

Old Profession, New Toleration


The state of prostitution, and the harm it causes.


As part of hosting the World Cup, the German government is preparing to ship in prostitutes for the use of the spectators, building special huts around the stadium, and — it seems — not asking too many questions about who obtains the women, by what method, and from where. This is one small but significant instance of a shift in attitude that has recently occurred in Europe. The oldest profession, which has survived for millennia without the benefit of public approval, is now officially endorsed — not merely legalized, but welcomed into the fold of the “inclusive society.” It is even politically incorrect to use the term “prostitute”: People on the left prefer “sex worker,” implying that the hint of disapproval contained in the old name is a mark of discrimination that has no place in a postmodern society. Proposals to introduce trade-union rights and pension funds for these newly discovered “workers” have been debated in France and Germany, and the implication — that the state should tax their earnings — is accepted as entirely unproblematic. Visitors to Amsterdam have long been familiar with the market in female flesh that surrounds the Old Church. This church, the oldest in Amsterdam, is a symbol of Calvinist piety and famous for its music. On their way to the lesser business of worship, the choirboys now pass a window display of nudes, performing like sluggish snakes in their heated cages of glass. And, although the Dutch themselves have awoken, somewhat late, to the consequences of a demoralized public culture, the rest of Europe is intent on following their example, and sanitizing this last dark corner where the puritan conscience reigns.

Official toleration is, in this matter as in so many others, the work of people largely protected from its consequences. Our legislators do not live in the areas of cities where prostitution is flagrant; they do not have to deal, in their daily lives, with the network of pimps and racketeers who live from the earnings of their female slaves; they do not have to fear for their daughters, now that the trade can be constantly resupplied from those places in the European hinterland where crime and cruelty are the norm. At the same time, so horrendous are the facts that the liberal conscience has an added reason for ignoring them. It is never pleasant, after all, to deal with the real consequences of human freedom. Prostitution in London, which was once a local industry among “fallen” women, supporting another local industry of philanthropists intent on rescuing them, is now largely run by illegal immigrants from the Balkans. These people do not conform to the standards adopted by the liberal conscience. The girls whom they bring with them are captured or purchased when too young to resist. Attempts to escape are severely punished by beating or torture, and communication with the outside world is expressly forbidden. Only in one particular do these girls conform to the ideal of the “sex worker” as now defined: Their earnings are taxed. That is to say, the pimp takes the lot, handing back what is required, as Marx would put it, “to reproduce their labor power.” If ever there were a case of exploitation, this is it.

It is still a crime in English law to “live off immoral earnings,” though it is anyone’s guess how long this provision will remain, now that the word “immoral,” used in the vicinity of sex, is regarded as anachronistic. In any case, it is hard to punish this crime and harder still to prevent it. Witnesses are reluctant to come forward to accuse those members of the Albanian mafia who dominate the London scene; the girls themselves — often monoglot captives from the mountain villages — risk death should they make contact with the police. The customers are happy with a deal that offers youthful flesh at rock-bottom prices. And attempts to deport illegal immigrants are now more or less futile, with “human rights” lawyers specializing in offering Her Majesty’s protection to Her Majesty’s enemies. The idea that a modern Gladstone could walk the streets of Soho in order to rescue the victims of this trade is laughable. Even supposing there were such a person, able to survive the public mockery of his beliefs, he would not last long in a world where assassination is the normal way with intruders.

The upright and the fallen

Many factors have contributed to our current demoralization. Perhaps the most important is that to which I have already referred: the refusal to believe that there are “immoral earnings.” In a culture in which girls are encouraged to be as promiscuous as boys, it is hard to insist on an absolute distinction between the upright and the fallen woman. Sexual liberation has made disapproval into a private matter, to be expressly kept out of the public domain. And women themselves have every reason to sympathize with the prostitute. Many of them, encouraged along the path of liberation, discover that sex really does have a cost. The men come and go, leaving heartbreak and insecurity in their wake. And if sex has a cost, why not insist on compensation? A woman who gives herself begins to look like a fool, when she gives herself for nothing. Why not sell herself instead? At least she will stand a chance of a fair and honest deal.

The prostitute used to be seen as the enemy of respectable women. She threatened the bargaining power of her sex, by offering cheaply what others were trying to offer at the highest possible price, namely marriage. She was immoral not because she satisfied the masculine urge to sow wild oats, but because she compromised the status of women, as companions who could not be purchased for an hour, but only for a lifetime. Sexual liberation has rubbed out that clear perception of the matter. Even if many people still feel that there is something sordid in reducing sex to a financial transaction, the difference between prostitution and marriage, in a world of prenuptial contracts and no-fault divorce, is, in the eyes of many people, no more than a difference of degree. Prostitution no longer looks like a threat to the moral order: At worst it is a threat to the woman, who puts herself at the mercy of strangers while at the same time removing any motive they might have to respect her.

But there is more to the matter than that implies. For instance, there is the problem posed by beauty. Female beauty is a powerful social force — more powerful than money, more powerful than physical strength or intellectual acumen. The Trojans were destroyed by the beauty of Helen, Dante redeemed by the beauty of Beatrice, post-war Britain restored by the beauty of the young Queen Elizabeth. Hence we are in awe of female beauty and reluctant to see it as a physical asset, or to allow it to be marketed for its financial worth. Beauty is a symbol of the ideal. It cannot be possessed or consumed, any more than a melody in music can be possessed or consumed by the listener. It is forever unassimilable, a mark of the inherent meaning and purposefulness of human life. In the presence of beauty, therefore, we are inclined to adore, to worship, to sacrifice. For this reason beauty is a powerful stimulus to marriage, and beautiful women who marry do a lasting service to their sex. They cease to be competitors, and at the same time set an example. All women can take hope from them, knowing that, in the light that shines from a face that is both beautiful and devoted, they too may exhibit some reflected glow.

But suppose a beautiful woman takes the other path. There is no limit to the amount of money that a Brigitte Bardot or a Marilyn Monroe could command as a whore, no limit to the havoc she could create on the rare occasions when she would be compelled by financial necessity to cash in her assets. And by behaving in this way she would also degrade the idea of beauty: No woman could easily be set on a pedestal in a world where the fiscal benefits of beauty are fully exploited. And it would be a world full of anger, a world as threatened as Troy was threatened, once Helen was brought within its walls.

Aristocratic societies have solved the problem of beauty through the institution of the courtesan, whose presence helps to reconcile the otherwise conflicting conditions of sociable leisure and faithful marriage. The courtesan is not a prostitute, and cannot be purchased by money alone. She must be courted and flirted with; she must be lured into a quasi-marriage, in which she enjoys protection for a finite time while retaining her independence and her social freedom. Her role depends on her beauty, whose destructive potential is neutralized by her temporary attachments. She protects chaste women from predators, to whom she is easy game. And she offers mild temptation to husbands, thereby peppering the bland diet of marriage with the spice of jealousy. Outside the peculiar conditions of an aristocratic culture, however, the courtesan cannot survive. She is the first casualty of sexual liberation. By placing aristocratic freedoms within the reach of every attractive woman, liberation deprives those freedoms of their glamour and therefore of their point.

The body as possession

Prostitution of the kind that we now witness in Europe, in which children are captured or sold into servitude, is hardly a crime on the victim’s part. She cannot be blamed for a career into which she is forced by violence and intimidation, and from which she can escape only by risking her life. But her condition shows what is wrong with her trade. The one who volunteers for that trade is treating herself exactly as the pimp treats his victim. She is acting at one remove from her body, which has become a thing to be exploited, rather than the thing that she is.

The human body is not a possession; it is — to use the theological term — an incarnation. It is a subject, the focus and source of personal love, and not a mere object to be used. A woman doesn’t own her body, any more than she owns herself. She is inextricably mingled with it, and what is done to her body is done to her. If she sells her body for sex, it is not sex that she is selling. For sex can be sincerely offered only if it is sincerely wanted by the one who offers it. Both prostitute and client are therefore engaged in an elaborate deception, each cheating the other, the one by pretending to sell sex, the other by pretending to buy it. Sex and contempt are adjacent regions in the psyche of the typical client; and a prostitute must willingly accept that she is being spat upon. The transaction that unites her to her partner also divides them, and this cold, hard meeting of strangers in total intimacy constitutes a deep violation of intimacy and all that it means.

It is odd that the German government should be offering this public endorsement to prostitution, at a time when that government is led by a woman. For women are acutely aware of the nature of sex, as a tribute from one self to another. To treat it as a commodity that can be bought and sold is not to offer it but to destroy it. The condemnation of prostitution was not just puritan bigotry; it was a recognition of a profound truth, which is that you and your body are not two things but one, and by abusing the body you harden the soul. Women have always been aware of that, and as a result have both feared prostitution and also been tempted by it, since it is a road out of womanhood and an escape from the burdens of womanly love. However it is a road that is seldom traveled in the opposite direction.



Roger Scruton. "Old Profession, New Toleration." National Review (June 19, 2006).

This article reprinted with permission from Roger Scruton and National Review. See Roger Scruton's web site here.

To subscribe to the National Review write P.O. Box 668, Mount Morris, Ill 61054-0668 or phone 815-734-1232.

The Author

Scrutonsm12Sir Roger Scruton (1944-2019) was a philosopher, public commentator and author of over 40 books. He is the author of Conservatism: An Invitation to the Great Tradition, On Human NatureThe Disappeared, Notes from Underground, The Face of God, The Uses of Pessimism: And the Danger of False Hope, Beauty, Understanding Music: Philosophy and Interpretation, I Drink therefore I am, Culture Counts: Faith and Feeling in a World Besieged, The Palgrave Macmillan Dictionary of Political Thought, News from Somewhere: On Settling, An Intelligent Person's Guide to Modern Culture, An Intelligent Person's Guide to Philosophy, Sexual Desire, The Aesthetics of Music, The West and the Rest: Globalization and the Terrorist Threat, Death-Devoted Heart: Sex and the Sacred in Wagner's Tristan and Isolde, A Political Philosphy, and Gentle Regrets: Thoughts from a Life. Roger Scruton was a member of the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

Copyright © 2006 National Review
back to top