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Debating Sex Work

Jessica Flanigan and Lori Watson

Publication Date - 21 November 2019

ISBN: 9780190659899

352 pages
5-1/2 x 8-1/4 inches

In Stock


Prostitution is often referred to as "oldest profession." Critics of this expression redescribe it as "the oldest oppression." Debates about how best to understand and regulate prostitution are bound up with difficult moral, legal, and political questions. Indeed, it can be approached from numerous angles--is buying and selling sex fundamentally wrong? How can it possibly be regulated? How can sex workers be protected, if they are allowed to work at all? In this concise, for-and-against volume, ethicists Lori Watson and Jessica Flanigan engage with each other on the nature and consequences of sex work, revealing new and profound ways in which to understand it.

The volume opens with a joint introduction, before Lori Watson first argues for a sex equality approach to prostitution in which buyers are criminalized and sellers are decriminalized, also known as the Nordic model. Watson defends the Nordic Model on the grounds that prostitution is an exploitative and unequal practice that only entrenches existing patterns of gendered injustice. Full decriminalization of prostitution only stymies existing occupational health and safety standards and securing worker autonomy and equality. Further, to Watson, drawing a distinction between sex trafficking and prostitution is irrelevant for public policy; what underpins them is demand, which fuels the inequalities of both. That is what needs to be addressed.

In a rebuttal, Jessica Flanigan contends that sex work should be fully decriminalized because restrictions on the sale and purchase of sex violate the rights of sex workers and their clients. She argues that decriminalization is preferable to policies that could expose sex workers and their clients to criminal penalties, and leave them at the mercy of public officials.

Putting these two views on sex work into conversation with one another, and opening up space for readers to weigh both approaches, the book provides a thorough, accessible exploration of the issues surrounding sex work, written with both sympathy and philosophical rigor.


  • Presents two controversial theses and new approaches to longstanding public policy debates
  • Provides several new arguments for and against the Nordic Model
  • Integrates empirical research with normative argumentation to inform current political controversies

About the Author(s)

Lori Watson is Professor and Chair of Philosophy at University of San Diego and affiliate faculty in the School of Law. She specializes in political philosophy, feminism, and legal philosophy. She is co-author of Equal Citizenship and Public Reason: A Feminist Political Liberalism (Oxford University Press, 2018) and Debating Pornography (Oxford University Press, 2018).

Jessica Flanigan is an Associate Professor of Leadership Studies and Philosophy, Politics, Economics, and Law at the University of Richmond where she teaches ethics and critical thinking. She is the author of Pharmaceutical Freedom (Oxford University Press,2017) and articles that address the ethics of paternalism, enforceable rights, and economic justice.


"The book is an excellent introduction to a nuanced, and non-moralising, feminist debate about prostitution: Is prostitution a kind of work, and should it be regulated? Readers interested in whether background inequalities can invalidate women's consent to sell sex, and in the effects of different legal prostitution regimes, will want to start with this book." -- Anca Gheaus, Universitat Pompeu Fabra

"Flanigan and Watson engage in a spirited and rigorous debate. Their arguments combine well-honed ethical reasoning with an impressive knowledge of the relevant laws and empirical studies. This volume will provoke lively discussion in the classroom, and beyond." -- Andrew Altman, Georgia State University

"This is an excellent book on a deeply important topic. It combines the best social scientific analysis with rigorous, clear philosophical insight. The way governments respond to sex workers and sex buyers has profound effects on the status of sex workers and on public health and safety. Though Flanigan and Watson disagree about the optimal policies regarding sex work, together they demonstrate that complete criminalization-as found throughout most of the United States-is deeply harmful and unjust. This book serves as a model both for how informed policy debates should work." -- Jason Brennan, Georgetown University

Table of Contents

    Lori Watson and Jessica Flanigan

    Part 1: A Sex Equality Approach to Prostitution
    Lori Watson
    Chapter One: Prostitution and Sex Equality
    Chapter Two: Why "Sex Work" Cannot be Understood as Just Another Form of Work
    Chapter Three: In Defense of the Nordic Model

    Part Two: In Defense of Decriminalization
    Jessica Flanigan
    Chapter Four: The Case for Decriminalization
    Chapter Five: Defending Decriminalization
    Chapter Six: Conclusion

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