Morality vs. Human Rights: Understanding Cultural Policy and Sex Work-2018

The importance of everyday life is vital to developing a sound cultural policy. Everyday life of everyone in the community should be valued but it is clear that this is not the case. Government policy is heavily influenced by economic values and it is for this reason most governments expect “outcomes for their investment” (Victorian Government cited in Caust, 2003, pg. 52). This economic paradigm often favours the arts over other cultural products within cultural policy and Boaden and Ashton suggest that this is due to the arts being the “easiest cultural area to manage” (Boaden & Ashton, 2015, pg. 21). With the rise of globalisation and information technologies the global markets underwent a rapid change and the approach to cultural products and services has resulted in aspects of our culture losing government support and/or funding. Given the ambiguous nature of the term ‘culture’, competing definitions of culture have made cultural policy even more complex as funding decisions are informed across different cultural forms including: “everyday lived culture, lifestyle culture, elite culture, alternative culture and subculture” (Craik et al. 2003, pg. 29). However, if cultural policy is dominated by an economic paradigm, aspects of culture that are not seen to have the capacity to generate a financial return may be ignored. Human sexuality is an intrinsic part of everyday life yet it is almost never discussed from a policy perspective. The link between sexuality and citizenship is much stronger than is often assumed, and the way in which societies are organised frequently support the ‘normalcy’ of heterosexuality and monogamy. This essay will explore the link between sexuality and citizenship, specifically looking at sex workers and the sex industry. It will focus on the moral and ethical considerations that dominate the public and policy discourse. Cultural planning and mapping will be discussed in regards to its exclusivity and the invisibility of certain groups of people in order to maintain the status quo of society. There are a number of ways in which sex work can be viewed and these paradigms will be discussed in relation to their influence over policy. The final part of the essay will discuss the best legal framework for the sex industry to be safe for all involved and will look at New Zealand as a brief case study that highlights the possibility of a model in which the rights of workers are prioritised.

The concepts of both cultural planning and mapping are vital to developing strategies and policies for sustainable development of the community, ensuring that cultural diversity is not lost or compromised. Cultural planning may be described as “strategic and integrated use of cultural resources in urban and community development” (Mercer cited in Boaden & Ashton, 2015, pg. 22). In other words, community development should be based on a number of processes that attempt to understand the human needs of a community while assessing the resources that enhance the development and participation of citizens within cultural life. Cultural mapping is a key part of this process and is best described as an assessment of existing cultural resources, with an emphasis on community engagement that measure both tangible and non-tangible cultural artefacts (Boaden & Ashton, 2015, pg. 23-24). Historically much of the cultural planning that has occurred in Australia has largely focused on facility provision and arts facilities, ignoring large sections of community culture, namely those that fall outside the ‘arts’ domain. It may be argued that there are aspects of our community we choose to ignore from the cultural perspective and this results in a lack of inclusion during policy development. The privileging of certain aspects of culture within cultural policies is a form of ‘hegemony’ in which “the dominant culture uses education, philosophy, religion, aesthetics and art to make its dominance appear normal and natural to the heterogeneous groups that constitute society” (Miller and Yudice cited in Mulcahy, 2006, pg. 320). This hegemonic dominance of society offers different understandings of male and female sexualities, based on biological assumptions rather than “a consequence of social differences in how female and male sexuality are constructed” (Hekma & Giami, 2014, pg. 13). This asserts the fact that under patriarchal society, male dominance within all social structures appears to be innate and natural rather than socially constructed.

The assumed hegemony of society is damaging to minorities who are often overlooked in the cultural mapping process. One of the biggest issues with cultural mapping lies in the silencing of certain peoples voices; often marginalised people are ignored, especially when they are functioning outside of legal frameworks. Sex workers in much of the world certainly fall into this category and have far too much to risk working under criminal systems where speaking out could put their lives in danger. Sex workers aren’t unique to this silencing technique as drug users, homeless people, migrant workers and the elderly are often ignored and overlooked when community development is underway. Individual freedoms can justifiably be denied to a member of the community who does not conform to social norms and heteronormativitiy, such as sex workers, and many western politicians rely on biological essentialism to further their argument surrounding what is ‘natural’ to continue denying an individual’s rights and freedoms. Given that much of human sexuality takes place in the private sphere, it is often overlooked from a policy perspective. However Weeks suggests that sexuality may be considered “the magnetic core that lies at the heart of the national political and cultural agenda” (Weeks cited in Hubbard, 2001, pg. 53). Arguing that sexuality is often used as a political tool in order to demonise ‘bad citizens’, such as queers, ‘perverts’, sex workers and other minority sexualities further establishing heterosexuality as the norm.

In many contexts there is a level of shame and taboo that surrounds sexual discourses that are driven by historical and religious understandings of sexuality. As discussed the ‘natural’ understanding of sex as a tool to reinforce hegemonic heterosexuality encourages citizens to participate in accepted forms of sexuality which include heterosexual, monogamous, pro-creative sex. Sex workers, specifically female workers, actively challenge patriarchal ideals and expectations as they embrace and capitalise on their sexuality, and it is for this reason sex workers are so heavily vilified. When the sex industry is discussed in the public sphere it often creates a ‘moral panic’ in which a debate around the ethics of sex work is discussed among cultural ‘experts’ or ‘commentators’. Ethical and moral questions are not unique to policy debates surrounding sex work, as historically we have seen similar discussions that weigh up between science/facts and ethics/morals; including HIV prevention, stem-cell research and needle exchange programs (Weitzer, 2010, pg. 53). These examples of contentious issues have all been topics in which the status quo of society is threatened, and a moral panic had been employed to ‘fix’ the problem. By giving priority to morals over rights, we ultimately deny full citizenship to certain people. In this case it applies to those who deviate away from heteronormative ideals through a lack of sexual citizenship:
“Sexual citizenship refers to the transformation of public life into a domain that is no longer dominated by male heterosexuals, but that is based in gender and sexual diversity. The goal is a society in which diverse people can take responsibility for their own sexual lives” (Hekma cited in Meyer, 2018).
Once we comprehend that much of our understanding of human, specifically female, sexuality is based on social constructs rather than these ‘natural’ assumptions we take for granted, we can then remove the moral and ethical questions and focus on the safety of all members within in a society.

Far too often sex work is used synonymously with sex trafficking and this is one of the most problematic issues when it comes to discussing sex work. Exploitation is often discussed in regards to the sex industry yet it never applies to any other industry, especially those that thrive on paying their employees minimum wage (hospitality, retail etc). Many negative assumptions are put forward by oppression theorists (discussed below) who dominate public conversations about the sex industry. Cohen’s ‘moral panic’ model; which attempts to engage the state to ‘fix’ a potential problem brought about by a particular group or event which is seen as a threat to the status quo of society, is often employed when sex trafficking (or work) is brought to the public’s attention (Homan, 2011, pg. 2). The role of these periodic moral panics, which are often perpetuated by media and the authorities, function to “reassert [the state’s] right to power.. [which] supports the view that questions of sexual morality are prominent in definitions of citizenship” (Hubbard, 2001, pg. 53). What Hubbard implies here is that those who do not conform to a ‘moral sexuality’ are ultimately denied their rights and are not seen (or treated) as full citizens in regards to benefits and political recognition.

When we focus on sex work discourse several paradigms occur. The first paradigm is the oppression paradigm, often the most dominant discourse that permeates the public realm. The oppression paradigm sees all forms of sex work as the “quintessential expression of patriarchal gender relations” (Weitzer, 2009, pg. 54). This view is ignorant of different factors that may be in play such as the type of sexual commerce, agency of the worker, national situation, historical time period etc. Radical advocates go further and suggest that violence against women, subjugation and exploitation are an inevitable and a core part of the sex industry with some oppression academics arguing that “when men use women in prostitution, they are expressing a pure hatred for the female body” (Dworkin cited in Weitzer, 2010, pg. 54). For many oppression theorists there is a general understanding that under patriarchy, there is no way that a woman can choose to be a sex worker freely and all workers are victims who need to be saved. Through this perspective research is often skewed and biased to further the author’s own personal perspective on the subject. They frequently engage in ‘prescientific reasoning’ which is described as “conclusions formed in the absence of evidence or lacking in the critical ingredient of falsibility” (Popper cited in Weitzer, 2010, pg. 15), often presenting their central arguments to be undeniable absolute truths. Frequently oppression theorists will focus their research on workers who fall into the lower rungs of the ‘whorearchy’ (see image 1), often ‘survival’ workers, which produce warped conclusions. There are a number of reasons the oppression paradigm is extremely problematic in its perspective, most obviously it completely discounts the voices of the workers. By making sex workers voices not heard you create an invisible demographic of people within a society. There is a general understanding in Western societies that “all individuals are apparently equal in the eyes of the law and the state” (McDowell cited in Hubbard, 2001, pg. 53), and Hubbard suggests that heteronormativity is accepted as the norm and those who ‘transgress sexual and spatial order” (Hubbard, 2001, pg. 58) are disciplined, in this case silenced, which then reinforces hegemonic heterosexuality and sexual monogamy.

The opposite end of the discourse spectrum would be the empowerment paradigm which holds that sex workers have agency to make decisions for themselves and see sex work as another service provided within the neoliberal free market. Supporters of the empowerment paradigm push against prohibitionist laws and suggest that much of the social stigma is due to the illegal nature of sex work (Oselin & Weitzer, 2013, pg. 454). While not as extreme as the oppression theorists in their perspective that all women are victims, or in this case empowered, supporters of the empowerment paradigm can sometimes fail to recognise that there may be a level of subordination involved in some forms of consensual sex work, arguing that “there is nothing inherent in sex work that would prevent it from being organised for mutual gain to all parties” (Weitzer cited in Social Spaces and #SexWork: An Essay, 2013). What this paradigm largely ignores are the varied complexities that exist within the sex industry and that not all workers feel empowered by their jobs. It is true that some sex workers feel empowered through their work, yet the idea of empowerment and work as intersecting concepts only seems to apply to the sex industry. Another issue with the empowerment perspective is that it highlights one of the biggest issue in the industry; not recognising sex work as work. If we fail to see this work as a job, like any other job, the idea of empowerment (and consequently degradation) are often central to the morality debate, which begs bigger questions surrounding how we view both sex and sexuality, specifically in women.

If the oppression paradigm is situated on one end of the spectrum and the empowerment paradigm is at the other, the polymorphous paradigm would sit somewhere in between the two. The polymorphous paradigm holds that “there is a constellation of occupational arrangements, power relations, and worker experiences” that exist within sex work (Weitzer, 2010, pg. 55). The other two are quite radical in their ideologies, whereas the polymorphous paradigm has a level of flexibility and understands there are a number of complexities to consider on a more individualised basis. From the polymorphous perspective there is an even consideration between subordination and agency; it recognises that both subordination and agency may be at play at different stages in a sex workers career. Both the empowerment and the polymorphous paradigms understand that sex worker rights are human rights and advocate for the decriminalisation of sex work.

There are a number of different legal frameworks under which sex work can operate around the world. The first is most strongly influenced by the oppression theorists, which is full illegality of full service sex work (prostitution). This undeniably has the most negative impact not just on the workers directly, but the social stigma and general discourse in the wider public. This is where skewed research depicting the worst examples of sex work are used to stereotype workers and treat them as representative of the whole demographic of workers. While prohibition is pushed by anti-sex work activists, it is clear prohibition won’t solve the problem. Studies have shown that violence against sex workers actually increases in places where there is a ‘zero tolerance’ policy towards full service sex work (Sanders & Campbell, 2007, pg. 4). Under an illegal framework organised crime is given the conditions to thrive without regulation. Studies suggest that decriminalisation or legalisation leads to a more transparent industry which makes it tougher for criminals to succeed in their illegal activities. Lupton suggests that most of the dangers that sex workers face within illegal contexts are not inherent parts of sex work, rather, the lack of access to material resources is the key cause of these added vulnerabilities (Lupton cited in Sanders & Campbell, 2007, pg. 12). Again this suggests that more vulnerable women lacking in social and economic capital would find it the hardest to access the necessary resources for their ongoing safety. Much like the discourse around female safety in greater society, the onus on safety is often placed on the worker (predominately female), being held responsible for personal risk avoidance. This reactive approach highlights the ignorance of many state Governments that put morals ahead of human rights, advocating that if women were not in the sex industry this violence would not occur. The ignorance towards safety of all citizens, and the personal responsibility most workers face further establishes the patriarchal dominance that permeates western societies and confirms the hegemony that many government policies wish to further cement.

Another framework under which the sex industry can operate is legalisation, in which strict rules and licensing are created by the state in order to regulate and control the industry. The Nordic Model is an interesting interpretation of a legalised framework that decriminalises the sale of sex, while simultaneously making it a criminal offence to purchase sex. It was first adopted in Sweden in 1999 as a reaction to oppression theorists dominating the national sex work discourse (Levy & Jakobsson, 2014, pg. 2). Legalisation brings about a binary within the industry; of legal and illegal practices. Anybody participating in sex work outside the often restrictive ‘legal’ guidelines are still subject to criminal punishment and it fails to protect many within an already marginalised minority (Green, 2015). This is due to many regulations favouring sex workers within the higher rungs of the whorearchy, who generally have the most access to the resources they need. In places where sex work is legalised there are often many abuses of power, predominately from police who manipulate workers with threats and coercion (Murphy, 2015). Many prohibitionist’s are actively against any form of legalisation or decriminalisation from a moral perspective as they believe that it “symbolically gives an official stamp of approval to a vile institution and creates what they call a prostitution culture, in which commercial sexual transactions are rendered acceptable” (Weitzer, 2010, pg. 22). But this moral standpoint actually enforces the lack of respect for human autonomy and agency, arguing that if for whatever reason you end up in the sex industry you are not morally worthy of protections that the rest of society have access to. Reaffirming that citizens who fail to conform to the moral sexuality deemed ‘normal’ by the government results in ‘second-class citizen’ status as perceived not just by the state but also by other ‘first-class citizens’ who have conformed to the state expectations, also known as social stigma (Hubbard, 2010, pg. 53).

Human rights organisation such as Amnesty International support decriminalisation of sex work who, unlike many cultural planners, actually engaged in a dialogue with current and former sex workers before reaching this conclusion. Decriminalisation is the final legal framework and is the framework which is supported by an overwhelming majority of sex workers and their allies (SWOP, 2018). In 2003, New Zealand was the first country in the world to decriminalise sex work. New Zealand is an excellent case study for a well-developed cultural policy that enables sex workers to work freely and have access to the same legal and employment rights as the rest of the population (Abel, 2014, pg. 581). While the process towards decriminalisation in New Zealand was not without is hurdles the State understood the need to prioritise the human rights of all workers/citizens ahead of the moral and ethical considerations. The push towards decriminalisation came from a sex-worker led group formed in 1987 known as the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective (NZPC) who have been receiving funding from the NZ Government since 1988. All of the arguments presented by the NZPC were evidence-based and “public health and human rights arguments were central to the passing of the PRA [Prostitution Reform Act]” (Abel, 2014, pg. 14). Since decriminalisation passed in New Zealand several reviews have been undertaken and have found that the positives have outweighed the negatives in all aspects of the updated policy. Because sex workers in New Zealand have full rights, crimes against sex workers are taken seriously by the police and the State, and a number of convictions of crimes against sex workers have been processed through the New Zealand judicial system.

Regardless of which side of the morality fence you sit, we need to view sex workers (and other minorities within the community) as human beings deserving of the same human rights as everyone else in society. Throughout this essay it is clear that there is a huge resistance to members of the community who threaten the status quo, especially women in control of their sexuality. From the policy perspective, morality and ethics are given too much weight within public debates which is extremely damaging to many people within our communities. This is especially true when there is an obvious lack of evidence to support these moral judgements. These negative public discourses on sex work stemming from oppression theorists, does nothing to eradicate the true harms that do exist and as discussed has been proven to further perpetuate violence and stigma against (female) sex workers. From the economic perspective, decriminalising sex work would allow for sex workers to contribute to the local economy and takes much of the power away from criminals who understand the demand for sexual services. By decriminalising compared to legalising, governments are able to take away criminal punishments without being seen as ‘encouraging’ the growth of the sex industry.

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