Markets in Women’s Sexual Labor – Debra Satz, 1995

Research question: according to Debra Satz, is it better to criminalize or decriminalize prostitution?

In the international journal of political, social and legal philosophy entitled Ethics, Debra Satz discussed in 1995 the special treatment given to women selling their sexual labor and its implications. Debra Satz is an American philosopher teaching at Stanford University. Not only this analysis of women treatment in prostitution inspired her to write 15 years later an entire book related to the topic, which she called Why Some Things Should Not Be for Sale: The Limits of Markets but this particular essay also have been of a tremendous importance on the political and philosophical debate of knowing whether one is able to sell or not his or her body, without being alienated.

“What justifies taking an asymmetric attitude toward markets in our sexual capacities? What, if anything, is problematic about a woman selling her sexual as opposed to her secretarial labor? And, if the apparent asymmetry can be explained and justified, what implications follow for public policy?”

Even though she managed to raise some questions, Debra Satz has been quite criticized for her theory, especially by Wendy Brown, scholar at Berkeley University and Julia Maskivker at Columbia University after the release of her book. In Markets in Women’s Sexual Labor, Satz tries to understand why is there an asymmetry in the way people are judging sexual labor compared to other goods related to self-ownership. 

She articulates her argument in four parts, starting with three different approaches: an economic approach (meaning prostitution is having a cost on individuals selling and buying it), an essentialist approach in which she shows that the intimacy supposedly required in sexual activities is one of the reasons why some believe prostitution should be differentiated from other markets. Finally, her third approach is an equalitarian one, relying on the fact that sexual labor is perpetuating gender inequalities. 

Her last part on the other hand focuses on hypotheses on the debate of criminalization of prostitution. All in all, those four theses all intend to create one thing: a plausible explanation of why women’s sexual labour is perceived as morally wrong and thus handled differently. But then, if as Debra Satz establishes there are no reason to differentiate it from other markets, what should we do with prostitution? 

1/ Criminalization

a) Because it is morally wrong and is a desperate activity

It goes without saying that in nowadays society, women participating in prostitution activities are often – if not always – put aside from the social world, as their practices are acknowledged as a sin. This belief is deeply rooted in Western societies, especially since the 19thcentury, when Rudyard Kipling coined the profession as the “most ancient in the world”. For many, it is an assault on personal dignity as Debra Satz explains, since one selling her (or his) body is considered as alienated from her very own self. Religion has emphasized this way of thinking, which has been perpetuated through customs. 

According to Satz, it is also because prostitution is often an activity exercised by people in need, when there’s no other left. Thus, from those social norms and the precarious situation of prostitutes, sexual markets should be necessarily forbidden as they are depriving people of happiness. Satz strongly disagrees as she restates that many other – if not most – labor activities are indeed also about giving some control of our capacities to someone: “writers sell the use of their ability to write, advertisers sell the use of their ability to write jingles…”(p.73). Then, why is prostitution differentiated from other markets activities which also require to sell parts of one’s body and to submit to the requirements expressed by an employer, just as sexual labor do?

Following Satz studies, it is because women working in sexual markets tend to be more confronted to abusive behaviors and are statistically more raped, exposed to death (illnesses, murders…) or harassed for instance. Their place in society is turning them into marginalized beings, which means it is often more difficult for them to find a job after prostitution. Victims of stigmatization, their activity has an impact on women as a whole, believes Satz, since the involvement of some women in such activities is perpetuating the social status of women as inferior to men.

b) Because it produces gender inequalities  

This is the main argument Satz is making in the extract: prostitution is wrong because it is reinforcing inequalities between genders. Being a male prostitute isn’t the same thing as being a female prostitute. Debra Satz believes that this peculiar different treatment could in the long run change the relationship human beings have with sexuality and love, as prostitution transform the intimacy of sexual intercourses into a mechanical and merely important practice. However, even though saying “prostitution is the oldest profession in the world” is arguable, prostitution has still been present in many moments of history and in all countries. If letting people pay for sex was reducing the ability of people to love each other and to have feelings, this ability would have already disappeared for a long time, isn’t it? 

For Debra Satz, the only reason why prostitution should be regulated if not criminalized, is because “the circumstances in which prostitution occurs”are perpetuating inequalities between men and women. Then, prostitution would be making the activity of prostitution morally suspicious. This is something Julia Maskivker criticized about Satz, by saying that women aren’t only vulnerable in prostitution because they sell themselves to men, but they are also in pornography, advertising, fashion… On the contrary, advertising for instance – even if it has also put women in an inferior position to men’s – is not considered as morally wrong. Why would we question the morality of sexual labor markets because they are degrading for women, if we tolerate others as moral when they substantially do the same? This is why Maskivker said that Satz’s theory “don’t hold water”.

One other shortcoming of Debra Satz’s explanation is that she has addressed the issue of prostitution too broadly, referring to prostitution generally when she was only speaking of the prostitution she more or less knows about – the United States’ own sexual labor market. Without cross-country analysis, Satz’s philosophical input lacks objectivity and embodies a very narrow perspective. Finally, even though she differentiates prostitutes in three groups, she didn’t really build her theory accordingly to each different kind of female prostitutes. Women from wealthy backgrounds, students, and immigrant women for instance don’t practice prostitution for the same reasons, and each of these reasons should be analyzed when it comes to evaluating if prostitution is moral or not: her answer isn’t precise. To put in a nutshell, Debra Satz fails at explaining why in some extent prostitution could be criminalized while explaining how sexual labor is undermining women’s status isn’t sufficient to assert why it can’t be a profession. 

2/ Decriminalizing

a) Because if handled differently, there could be no reason to forbid it 

As Debra Satz refutes that there is a causal relationship between commercial sex and diminished flourishing of an individual, we’ve seen that she establishes one between commercial sex and gender equality. However, she isn’t opposed to the idea of decriminalizing prostitution. Indeed, explains Satz: “The current prohibition on prostitution renders the women who engage in the practice vulnerable” (p.83). But if we were to regulate prostitution according to her, sexual labor could be a working activity like any other. 

The main concern she has is about the protection women are getting in such practices. This makes her standpoint quite idealistic as regulating prostitution – which has been for decades if not centuries a black-market activity – would be really difficult. For example, we might think prostitutes would hide from the police, or that we would regress to the 19thcentury in France, where the regulations on prostitution were so massive that  they were responsible of transmitting sexual infections (during medical inspections) and putting women in prisons such as Saint Lazare – in awful conditions – when they were not declaring their activity as they should. 

At some point, she quickly discusses the infeasibility of her theory by explaining that as some wouldn’t accept to be controlled for the gendered division of labor in their homes for instance, they would accept it even less during their sexual intercourses. In my opinion, more than regulation, what could change the perception we have of prostitutes would be for States to recognize prostitution as a real job to begin with, and not as some illegal and pervasive activity. I do agree with her position that “banning prostitution would not by itself eliminate it”and that prostitutes have their role to play in the questioning of the representation we have of gender, as they have gone through experiences and have different perceptions.

b) Because criminalization could worsen some women’s situation

Markets in Women’s Sexual Laboris nevertheless insightful in the sense that it provides a frame where detractors of the decriminalization of prostitution can see that punishing prostitution is having a tremendous weight on female prostitutes, as it is often the only revenue some are able to get. Making it illegal would mean for them having no other alternative to make a living, which means criminalization can only be accompanied with an effective follow-up of the potentially former prostitutes. 

But this would be rather difficult as France shown during the last years, where it hasn’t been able to protect prostitutes since the law started punishing their clients. Thus, in some cases where the follow-up isn’t made a priority, women exercising prostitution are forced to accept clients’ requests they wouldn’t usually and is worsening their situation. Men are ready to pay them less as they use the risk of being caught not respecting the law as a pressure to make prostitutes submissive to their authority. This increases sexual intercourses without protection for sure.

c) In the short run, it can be used as a way for some other women to gain back their bodies

To top it all, we have recently been able to witness testimonies of women that have been using prostitution as a mean to regain their sexuality, such as the famous writer Virginie Despentes, who defended this view in her book King Kong Théorie. Debra Satz doesn’t seem to trust this theory as she criticized in this study the COYOTE group, which was promoting it. 

Anyway, we can imagine that in the short run, decriminalizing prostitution could reverse the trend and make it possible for women to be considered by setting their own boundaries in paid sexual intercourses. Even though this can’t be seen as a sustainable solution, privileged women choosing to get involved in sexual labor markets could use it as a way to heal from a traumatic event or simply to possess their body again, which is nowadays usually instrumentalized in the wake of the social media – even more that when Debra Satz had written her theory.


To conclude with, Debra Satz doesn’t solve the issue of markets of sexual labor in this 28-pages long philosophical essay. She rather gives an overall view of the situation female prostitutes are going through and is trying to define what consequences would both criminalization and decriminalization have on them, and most importantly, on womanhood in the years to come. Her main thesis is to show that the wrongness of prostitution is relying on the fact that it is correlated with gender inequalities, but that if it was not, it could be widely acceptable. Her intention was mostly to show that the most important thing to do to change people’s perception about prostitution was first to make gender equality a priority of social justice. In order to do so, she has been linking prostitution with injustice thanks to her asymmetry thesis, in which she shows that prostitution is considered differently as other markets, even if it does not function any differently. The question she raises is thus left unanswered: why is sexual labor differentiated from other markets?

 “If we are troubled by prostitution as I think we should be, then we should direct much of our energy to putting forward alternative models of egalitarian relations between men and women”.


  • Fondation Scelles, la Prostitution par Pays
  • Solène Cordier, Prostitution : la pénalisation des clients jugée conforme par le Conseil constitutionnel, Le Monde, 2019
  • Anaïs Moran, Prostitution : un «parcours de sortie» sans issue, Libération, 2019
  • Holly Andres, Should Prostitution Be a Crime?, New York Times, 2016
  • Meredith Dank, Bilal Khan, P. Mitchell Downey, Cybele Kotonias, Debbie Mayer, Colleen Owens, Laura Pacifici, Lilly Yu, Estimating the Size and structure of the underground commercial sex economy in eight major us cities, Urban Institute, 2014
  • Monica Massari, The Other and her Body: Migrant Prostitution, Gender Relations and Ethnicity, Cahiers de l’Urmis, 2009
  • Marina Della Giusta, Maria Laura di Tommaso and Steinar Strøm, Who Is Watching? The Market for Prostitution Services, Journal of Population Economics, 2009
  • Amy Farmer and Andrew W. Horowitz, rostitutes, Pimps, and Brothels: Intermediaries, Information, and Market Structure in Prostitution Markets, Southern Economic Journal, 2013
  • Adrian Walsh, Why some things should not be for sale: the moral limits of markets; Journal of Economic Methodology
  • Julia Maskivker, Why Some Things Should Not Be for Sale: The Moral Limits of Markets by Debra Satz, American Political Science Association, 2011
  • Wendy Brown, Why Some Things Should Not Be for Sale: The Moral Limits of Markets by Debra Satz, Political Theory, 2014
  • Elizabeth Anderson, Why Some Things Should Not Be for Sale: The Moral Limits of Markets by Debra Satz, New Political Economy, 2012

Image: Henri de Toulouse Lautrec, Au Salon de la Rue des Moulins

Votre commentaire

Entrez vos coordonnées ci-dessous ou cliquez sur une icône pour vous connecter:


Vous commentez à l’aide de votre compte Déconnexion /  Changer )

Image Twitter

Vous commentez à l’aide de votre compte Twitter. Déconnexion /  Changer )

Photo Facebook

Vous commentez à l’aide de votre compte Facebook. Déconnexion /  Changer )

Connexion à %s