“The Prostitution Problem”: Claims, Evidence, and Policy Outcomes

  • Cecilia BenoitEmail author
  • Michaela Smith
  • Mikael Jansson
  • Priscilla Healey
  • Doug Magnuson
Target Article


Prostitution, payment for the exchange of sexual services, is deemed a major social problem in most countries around the world today, with little to no consensus on how to address it. In this Target Article, we unpack what we discern as the two primary positions that undergird academic thinking about the relationship between inequality and prostitution: (1) prostitution is principally an institution of hierarchal gender relations that legitimizes the sexual exploitation of women by men, and (2) prostitution is a form of exploited labor where multiple forms of social inequality (including class, gender, and race) intersect in neoliberal capitalist societies. Our main aims are to: (a) examine the key claims and empirical evidence available to support or refute each perspective; (b) outline the policy responses associated with each perspective; and (c) evaluate which responses have been the most effective in reducing social exclusion of sex workers in societal institutions and everyday practices. While the overall trend globally has been to accept the first perspective on the “prostitution problem” and enact repressive policies that aim to protect prostituted women, punish male buyers, and marginalize the sex sector, we argue that the strongest empirical evidence is for adoption of the second perspective that aims to develop integrative policies that reduce the intersecting social inequalities sex workers face in their struggle to make a living and be included as equals. We conclude with a call for more robust empirical studies that use strategic comparisons of the sex sector within and across regions and between sex work and other precarious occupations.


Prostitution-gender inequality Social inequality Policy responses Sex work Prostitution 



We would like to acknowledge the support and insightful feedback provided by Dr. Paul Vasey and the anonymous reviewers of our Target Article.

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of interest

The authors declare they have no conflicting of interest.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Cecilia Benoit
    • 1
    Email author
  • Michaela Smith
    • 1
  • Mikael Jansson
    • 1
  • Priscilla Healey
    • 2
  • Doug Magnuson
    • 2
  1. 1.Canadian Institute for Substance Use ResearchUniversity of VictoriaVictoriaCanada
  2. 2.School of Child and Youth CareUniversity of VictoriaVictoriaCanada

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