A Formal Definition of Prostitution

This is a rough sketch of the first part of my seminar paper on the moral defensibility (or lack thereof, depending on the conclusion) of prostitution. The first step in drawing a conclusion about whether prostitution is morally defensible, I have to first come up with a working definition of prostitution.

In that regard, what I have tried to come up with is a formal definition of prostitution, and my aim in coming up with this definition is try to come up with some conditions that would meet most people’s understanding of what prostitution is. It is not meant to be exhaustive, and like any formal definition, it will have limitations, and those limitations could be deemed arbitrary. But if I am successful, this formal definition of prostitution will mostly capture what people mean when they think of prostitution.

A crucial point is that this definition is not meant to have any normative content whatsoever.

Having said all that, the formal definition for prostitution that I have come up with this is:

Prostitution is a commercial act of exchange in which there are a buyer and a seller, and what is being exchanged is physical sex.

Now, to break down each constitutive component. First, it’s crucial to recognize that prostitution is essentially a commercial act of exchange. That is to say, something is being exchanged between two parties, and that exchange is characterized by transfer of payments.

Second, what is being exchanged is physical sex. Why “physical”? Because some empirical evidence suggest that some buyers do not in fact buy physical service of any kind–some of them simply pay to have someone to talk to, for example. Although one could plausibly include this in the formal definition of prostitution, I think that this is not what a common, average understanding of prostitution involves, so I left it out. Similarly, there is empirical evidence that some buyers do pay for physical acts, but acts which do not fall under the category of intercourse. Again, I left this out because most people understand prostitution as involving sexual intercourse.

Third, a formal definition of prostitution should include the concept of transfer of payments, and this needs not necessarily be understood in solely monetary terms. Payments can take a variety of forms other than cash payments; it could include payments in kind.

What have I left out from this formal definition?

First, I have left out the gender of the parties involved. The exclusion seems obvious to me, as there is no logical necessity why prostitution cannot occur among members of both genders.

Second, I have left out the age of the parties involved. As repulsive as it is, prostitution seems to know no age.

Third, I have left out the legality of the transaction: prostitution does not become something else whether it’s legal or not.

Fourth, I have left out the role of middle men in the transaction. Most empirical evidence suggest that prostitution usually takes place with the aid of middle men (pimps), but there is nothing to suggest that prostitution cannot logically occur without them.

Fifth, and perhaps this is really arguable, is that I have left out consent. Now it would seem that an act of exchange would imply some sort of consent, but there is nothing in the concept of “exchange” itself that suggests that consent must be present.

What I essentially done is two things. First, I have tried to come up with some minimum formal features that would constitute an action as prostitution. Second, I have left out certain features of prostitution, which while they might be empirically very close to prostitution, can nonetheless be logically separated from the concept of prostitution. The result, I hope, is a formal definition of prostitution that meet most people’s understanding of prostitution while not trying to cover every possible instances of prostitution that has ever been carried out.

The next step, before anything else, is to see if I can make any kind of normative judgment about prostitution based on this formal definition alone, without introducing the empirical features most closely associated with prostitution. But that is for another day.


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