Prostitution as morality politics or why it is exceedingly difficult to design and sustain effective prostitution policy

Hendrik Wagenaar, Sietske Altink

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

89 Citations (Scopus)


This paper argues that prostitution policy is less developed than more established policy domains such as health, education, social welfare, or the environment. While all policy is about the struggle over values and categories, conceptually prostitution policy can best be understood as an instance of morality politics. Without hypostatizing morality politics, we define it as having six characteristics: it is ruled by an explicit ideology; experts have limited authority as everyone feels they "own" prostitution policy; it is highly emotionally charged; it is resistant to facts; the symbolism of policy formulation is seen as more important than policy implementation; and it is subject to abrupt changes. We then analyze three implications of the adversarial nature of prostitution policy. First, we discuss the cavalier attitude of relevant actors towards precise and reliable numbers. Second, by focusing on "forced prostitution" and "trafficking", we discuss the ideological and obfuscating nature of key concepts in prostitution policy. We suggest instead using the concept of "exploitation". Finally, we focus on policy implementation. We argue that the common concept of policy regime has limited value and that to understand the development of prostitution policy, its outcomes, and its impact on society, attention to the mundane details of policy implementation is required. The paper suggests some conditions to prevent prostitution policy to enter the realm of morality politics and to attain an effective and humane form of policy making.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)279-292
Number of pages14
JournalSexuality Research and Social Policy
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - Sept 2012
Externally publishedYes


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