Sex Work through the Buddhist Lens

Human traffickingA few months ago I blogged about sex work and Buddhism, as it was related to some issues that had bubbled up in Cambodia at the time. I unsuccessfully tried to pull together some thoughts on the subject. I am very interested in discussing issues related to sex work because they are all at once highly politicized, ridiculously complex, rarely discussed and also very personal.

In the past few weeks I’ve seen different mentions of sex work pop up in Buddhist writing. Below I’ve collected a handful of views by Ven. Shravasti Dhammika, Ven. Dhammananda Bhikkhuni (Dr. Chatsumarn Kabilsingh), Brad Warner and Noah Levine. And of course I’ll leave you with my own two cents.

In the previous post, I asked whether sex work is a misfortune of fate or a simple choice. Both points of view have been described within Buddhist frameworks. My favorite is Truyện Kiều (The Tale of Kieu), an epic Vietnamese poem about a sex worker named Kieu (“ghee-oo”), where the title character is portrayed as having to pay off the karmic balance of a previous life’s bad deeds. Kieu is drawn into sex work against her will, and she is only redeemed once her karmic slate has been wiped clean. To this day Vietnamese sex workers still compare their lives to the tale of Kieu.

An August blog posting by Ven. Shravasti Dhammika discusses sex work only in terms of a choice. He makes a distinction between two types of sex worker, and that in either case, their intentions are “karmically negative.”

Roughly speaking, we can say that there are two types of prostitutes: (1) those forced into prostitution by poverty or social deprivation and (2) those who choose to do it because they feel it is a convenient and easy way to make money. This first type of prostitute is called a harlot (vesiya) or a streetwalker (bandhakã) in the Buddhist scriptures while the second type is called a courtesan (ganika or nagarasobhini). The intention of the first is probably just to survive and is therefore kammically far less negative than the second whose motive might be greed, laziness or lack of self-respect. The first is not willingly involved in wrong livelihood while the second clearly is.

Ven. Dhammika leaves out the most tragic end of the sex worker spectrum: the trafficked sex worker. That said, his divisions seem more to relate what he has read in the Pali Canon and less to provide insight into the nature of prostitution. Unlike the following three commentators, Ven. Dhammika explicity frames prostitution in terms of karma; I am curious to know whether he feels that trafficked sex workers are also committing negative karma. But it’s important to underscore that his emphasis on the detriment of sex work is shared by all the authors here.

In Women in Buddhism: Question and Answers, Ven. Dhammananda Bhikkhuni also notes the unwholesomeness of prostitution, but adds that sex workers should not be looked down upon.

Buddhism does not support prostitutes. On the contrary it points out that prostitution is an unwholesome act. Buddhists do not look down upon prostitutes. If they choose to practice dharma, they have an equal, if not better chance to become enlightened.

You will hear similar words from a Dharma punk. Just today I ran across a passage on sex work by Noah Levine in his book Against the Stream, where he discusses right livelihood. He alludes to the moral complexity surrounding sex work, but as with Vens. Dhammika and Dhammananda, he places the profession within the realm of wrong livelihood.

Working in the sex industry as a stripper, prostitute, or purveyor of Internet porn is perhaps a more subtle form of wrong livelihood. Sexuality is natural and sex for sale is an ancient profession, but, again, if we look deeply, it is not hard to see that the lust that motivates such an industry has negative effects on both the workers and the customers. At the very least, participation in the sex industry is dependent for profit on lust and attachment, the very causes of suffering and dissatisfaction for people.

Last, but not least, in a recent interview on SFGate, Brad Warner of Hardcore Zen fame provides his own thoughts on this issue:

I only know one Buddhist sex worker. But I assume there are more out there. I think Buddhism might be attractive to them because it doesn’t have any specific value judgments on what they do. There’s no concept of sexual sin in Buddhism, so there’s no idea that being a sex worker is morally wrong. It may be or it may not be, depending upon the person. For some people, being a yoga teacher or therapist or DMV worker are absolutely the wrong occupations — for them. What’s better — a really conscientious sex worker or a really lousy therapist? Which one has the greater potential to cause more harm? My guess is that sex work takes a very deep toll on a person physically and psychologically. And therefore it’s probably not the best line of work to get into if you want a stable life. But having said that, there is no sin involved and it certainly wouldn’t be categorically forbidden.

One could read these words in different ways, but I take Brad Warner’s opinions in line with those expressed by the three writers above. As with Ven. Dhammananda, he upholds that Buddhism doesn’t judge sex workers for their profession. At the same time, he notes the “very deep toll on a person physically and psychologically,” where likewise Noah Levine writes of “negative effects” and Ven. Dhammananda writes of “unwholesome” acts. What these commentators all share is the common message that sex work is not ultimately the best line of work to go into for the ardent practitioner. And I’ll just leave it at that.

21 Replies to “Sex Work through the Buddhist Lens”

  1. The last of Mara’s tricks was to send his three beautiful daughters (whose names were Craving, Lust, Lechery) to tempt Shakyamuni as he sat under the bodhi tree. The Buddha did not engage with these “energies.”

    Sex work occurs in the realm of craving, lust, and lechery. As such it promotes the afflictions that result from these energies. A person on the path to enlightenment might well steer clear of this realm.

    At the same time, nearly all human realms provide a playground for craving, lust and lechery. So what are we to do?

    We might do as the Buddha did – awaken to our true nature. This means that we must see each life realm with clear and honest eyes and respond beneficially to the suffering of that realm.

    We can do this. The Buddha did it and we can do it also. And for this reason, an enlightened person could work beneficially as a sex worker, helping others to awaken. There are stories of such women in Buddha’s time.

  2. I believe there’s a version of the temptation of Mara with his three daughters in the Pali Majjhima Nikaya. One book I have references MN 140, but I don’t have the original handy. Perhaps someone else does?

  3. Oh, I’m specifically curious about “an enlightened person could work beneficially as a sex worker, helping others to awaken. There are stories of such women in Buddha’s time.” There are plenty of stories of prostitutes in the Pali Canon, many who later became nuns, but I haven’t heard of any stories along the lines of Barry’s description. I would be happy to see them.

  4. I too have noticed a lot of discussion lately on sex workers and buddhism. I am more interested in hearing about the Johns, the customers of sex workers, and where they fit in. I notice countless articles and studies on sex workers but the mind, attitude and judgements/studies about the sex customers – where is that?

    I understand why prostitutes and the act of prostituting oneself stirs up so much controversy, I just really want to hear about both sides of the transaction.

  5. The final Chapter of the Avatamsaka Sutra, which also circulated as an independent Sutra known as the Gandavyuha Sutra tells the story of the pilgrim Sudhana as he travels to 52 different teachers to learn about enlightenment. One of the teachers that Sudhana learns from is a prostitute, Vasumitra (this name may be wrong as I don’t have the sutra in front of me).

  6. Thank you for this, Daniel! In the context of Barry’s comment, it’s good to note that the Avatamsaka Sutra was written/discovered over half a millennium after the Buddha’s time. Thank you very much for this nonetheless!

  7. I consider marriage for reasons of greed to be glorified prostitution. It’s one thing to marry someone and they become rich. It’s another to marry a rich person. There could be good intention (Bill Gates’ wife?) and there could be the same intention as a prostitute (Anna Nicole Smith.)

    I also consider prostitution and pornography to be getting paid to be sexually harrassed, and I think it waters the sexual harrassment / perversion seed in the customer, so I see them both as sexual misconduct. On the other hand, I don’t see why sexual massage is such a big deal unless you were a monk.

  8. Interesting about the “prostitute as Bodhisatta” ideal but as a Theravada Buddhist I find that a little strange. In the Canon the Buddha mentions that one of the things an arhant cannot do is have sex because they have cut off lust. Perhaps in the Mahayana tradition this sort of thing might fly but I have trouble with it since sex is an act of lust and lust is considered a defilement to cast aside in the Theravada tradition. Even so, this is an interesting concept here.

  9. I think sexuality or any other area of life can be engaged in wisely or unwisely.

    A sex worker could misuse sex the way a psychologist could misuse psychology if they are not mindful, aware, and well-intentioned.

    If one’s aspiration is positive, and s/he stays present and aware as much as possible, the effects of their behavior can be positive. This goes for a sex worker, sexual massage therapist, bricklayer, politician, psychotherapist, athlete, whatever.

    It is odd how people single out sex for misuse and put a lot time and energy into moralizing over it while at the same time claiming that buddhism is not a judgmental religion.

    Let’s be mindful of that.

  10. I practiced the arts of the courtesan in a legal brothel in Nevada for 5 years and am writing a book about the experiences I had there. I was delighted to discover this web site and the kind and intelligent perspective and research offered by Arunlikhati as well as the astute replies.

    My perspective is spiritual, though not Buddhist per se. I will offer it in a nutshell for your consideration, since it represents a different way of looking at the topic.

    My view in sex in general is that the power of sexual attraction intrinsic to women is perhaps the greatest inflammatory agent to the human ego (particularly in men though women also are also vulnerable.) The ego will consistently respond to sexual provocation by attempting to control/own this power and therefore the woman, or to deride her. We see this in almost all traditional relationships between the genders, including marriage, and prostitution. There is the element of control and ownership and there is disparagement (interestingly this ownership/control and degradation/disparagement are also the basis for kinky sex.) It is this aspect of both sex and sex work which causes the problems of Karma.

    The traditional ascetic approach to this problem has been to cloak the sexual attractions of women in modesty and generally remove the antagonizing sexual energies from the environment. Women can this way avoid much of the threat of ownership and derision that is generated by ego. This is why many women find modesty to be empowering.

    The problem with this solution in my view is that the ego itself has run amok on the planet, largely because of the suppression of the feminine sensibility. I believe it is possible that the flowering of appreciation and reverence for the sexual power of women can be one of the primary means of healing an out-of-balance humanity.

    The great unrecognized power of sex, and sex work occurs in instances in which the ego yields to the attraction and the result is that the of inspiring of service and devotion from men who are seeking a connection and affirmation with/from something deeper than themselves. Particularly in America, where capitalism has become a de facto religion, and the traditional roles of women including caring for children and the home, have been devalued, the commercial power of female sexuality is grounding and balancing. The overwhelming majority of my clients were kind, respectful and had the primary desire to please me. Which isn’t to say that ego doesn’t and didn’t come into play, on both sides, but there was and is a wellspring that was primarily positive.

    In instances when I was subject to egoic disparagement, I was empowered by my independence from identifying with the opinions of others and by my discretion to interact with whom I pleased. I was less free from ownership, since I paid half my earnings to the management of the brothel and another thirty percent to the US government in the form of taxes. An artist friend pointed out, however that he pays a similar fee to sell his pottery in a gallery.

    The word “prostitution” is of course loaded and has come to represent any human activity which utilizes disingenuous means for personal gain. As Lawrence pointed out in the comments, this can happen in many situations, though I would say that the more empowered someone is, the less likely they are to feel a need to resort to this.

    I would say that the great dividing factors among prostitutes/courtesans is the degree which we have the authority own/control and exercise discretion over the feminine powers which we embody for a time (I am avoiding using the word “bodies” because the attention and interaction involved with sex work cannot be distilled to something purely physical) and the degree to which the we are subject to disparagement.

    As an aside, I entered the legal prostitution business at the age of 41 and was one of the most successful “working girls” in the legal brothels–ever. As I mentioned, the ego thing can be a problem. My pictures are still up see “lades”–under “V” for “Valentine” on the website for the house where I worked:

    I would like to deepen my understanding of the Buddhist perspective of sex and sex work. I would be grateful for your thoughts. I am particularly interested in Dharma, and the manner in which it is individual and might lead a person through worldly activities.

  11. It’s pretty upsetting to read these posts so consider this my *brief* response. I’m a sex worker (aka a prostitute) who loves my job and believes I am making merit. I tend to people’s need for sexual touch with compassion, attentiveness and acceptance. It’s a privilege to be let into the most tender, vulnerable parts of someone’s life and I am honored by the responsibility I have to be kind and accepting in those interactions. I love the adventure of my work and I love the way that it takes me out of my overly analytic mind and into my body, my heart and the moment.

    One of the most insidious ways we sex workers are hated and controlled is in the way we are perceived as victims, *especially* sex workers of colour and from the global south. I have worked with sex workers in Thailand and am horrified by the pitying looks I’ve been getting ever since whenever I mention this to (white) westerners. Guess what? Thai women choose to be sex workers just like everyone else chooses their job, within a range of available options.

    Have you noticed–everyone works because of economic need? Sex work is no more exploitative (and is often less so) than other forms of paid work. This is called capitalism. But sex work would exist in a perfectly egalitarian society because it is a necessary and legit service. And there will always be hos like me who are happy to provide it. The conflation of sex work and trafficking plus the patronizing racism of the move to ‘rescue the poor victimized (non-white) sex worker’ has led to the worst abuses of sex worker rights currently occurring.

    On the one hand I think it’s awful that our sexist culture judges, shames and criminalizes women like me and that buddhists will go right along with this. On the other hand, after I had a good cry from reading these posts, I realized that I was operating in delusion about buddhists, counting on you all to be perfectly open and wise. You are not. Like me, you are also in delusion and struggling to be free and happy. So while I don’t agree with any of the posts here–with the enthusiastic exception of the one sex worker Mary Valentine–I also know that you are doing your best.

    If you would like to better understand sex work, I have one recommendation: Listen. To. Sex. Workers. Here are some links to sex work orgs in Thailand, Cambodia, India, the US and Canada.

    Happy reading!

    And may you be free and happy.


  12. Just tripped over this site. Interesting conversation (though it looks like it’s pausing 😉

    For an articulate presentation of the possibility of sexuality as a Way for both women and men, I suggest:
    Passionate Enlightenment by Miranda Shaw

  13. In a post above “Juliet” says “I’m a sex worker (aka a prostitute) who loves my job and believes I am making merit.”

    Since she linked to her blog, I thought it might be nice for people to see a post she’s made where she discusses her interaction with a man:

    “It was after dark and I was standing on the sidewalk sharing a smoke with the manager of the NYC hostel I was staying in (Marlborough menthols. God, the depths of debauchery). He’d been sneaking furtive glances at my cleavage for days and had all the markings of what a fellow whore and I term a “Total Client”. A TC is a guy you spot a mile away as

    1. interested, and if he’s older, just a bit desperate

    2. willing and eager to pay

    Obviously, we really like TCs.They are hungry and old enough to be whore-broken, that is: polite, enthusiastic and agreeable about money. George was a perfect TC– Fifty and going through his second divorce. I’d gleaned from our sidewalk smoke conversations over the past three nights though that he was broke, what with the five kids and two ex-wives.

    As he walked back into the hostel to start his graveyard shift, a group of four gay men approached me. “Nice RED DRESS you SEXY BITCH!” one screamed. I smirked “And don’t I know it!” We high-fived as they passed me by. I looked down at my low cut red dress and how it fit snugly over my black lacy camisole. He had a point. It was all workin’ tonight. Hm. Now how to profit off this sexiness?

    I got the idea to write George a note propositioning him. But what if he reacted badly and tried to have me busted? Or I intimidated him because I was too explicit? What if there was a knock on the door and he was telling me that they don’t like “my kind” here? Would he really be able to get away from reception to see me?

    I sat on the tiny bed in my tiny hostel room with my heart racing. I decided these were all very unlikely scenarios and considered what I would do in the event that any one of them occured nevertheless. Then I had the thought that got me into this business and keeps me here still: What the fuck? It’s all about the adventure.

    So, hands shaking, I wrote this note: “Hey handsome, I think you’re kinda sexy and sweet…and I’m kinda broke. If you’re interested in sneaking away for a little fun, I’d make it worth your while. Simple and fun, no? Come up to my room and we can talk… xx J.

    I looked at my note and beamed with pride. I had flirted and flattered him, implied finances without incriminating myself, was sexually suggestive without being too overt and appealed to his desire for sex that didn’t come attached with custody agreements. Plus… lots of…ellipses=HOT SEX, RIGHT? Genius.

    I went downstairs and passed the note to him over the counter with a wink before returning to my room. I didn’t hear anything from him for over an hour so I concluded that it had been worth a try and began to get ready for bed. I was standing in my room naked when there was a soft knock at the door. I smiled to myself and threw on a black vintage slip. “Well helloooo there George!” Bashfully, he whispered hello, telling me he only had half an hour but he really wanted to come see me. Delighted, I let him in. It’s so easy for me to be really nice to my clients. The fact that they are about to pay me for being a babe makes me really, sincerely, completely happy.

    We began our negotiations. I could tell he was a regular client because he was the first to bring up money, knew he wouldn’t be kissing me and asked politely if he was allowed to touch me. Definitely whore-broken. As I suspected, he had very little money–only $100. Damn. I thought about whether to bother going ahead at all but then realized that while it may only be $100, it was still $100 that I’d rather have in my pocket. I proposed a hand job with above-the-waist-only touching. He nodded and handed over the twenties. We sat on the bed and as I got going, he chatted (more) about his ex-wives. Finally he closed his eyes, leaned back and moaned “God it’s nice to be touched again. It’s been so long.” It wasn’t the first time I’ve felt like the Florence Nightingale of handjobs.

    He kept promising me that he’d save up so he could have a proper booking with me when I next return to NYC. We’ll see. Dudes like to promise things so you’ll like them more but I never count my twenties till they’re in my palm. We were done in ten minutes, all cleaned up and I sent him out the door with a big smile on both our faces. Nice way to make my ticket home! ”

    I think it’s an excellent blog post in that a lot of the nature of the interaction is clear with a careful reading.

  14. One additional note:

    There is a book about the stories and poems of early Buddhist women, at least one of whom was a prostitute. It’s interesting hearing a woman from around the Buddha’s time speak of her experience.
    The book is “First Buddhist Women”
    and here is the link to it on amazon. I don’t have it with me, but I have read parts of it and it’s a very well done book.

  15. Had always thought that absent of worldly sexual urges and attraction in both gender will render collapse of human civilisation and its survival, as we know it. Lust and attachment in whatever form, even to nibbana are rationally among the primary causes of suffering and dissatisfaction. Right livelihood looks more like creating less negative karmic activities and in that sense sexually prostituting one’s body for money to live by (if for personal survival or family survival is a different set of circumstances and intentions) seems to fall into that category. A trafficed sex worker has lost free will and no choice in seeking right livelihood looks like karmic results from present or past lives. Overall, think more weightage assigned to a person’s intention resulting in action taken. A prostitute that intents to work 6 months to raise enough cash for their kin hospitalization and surgery is different from a prostitute that works to earn a living. Intention, process of thoughts leading to final actions seems to be the primary driver of karma results for the individual concerned although not necessary to the receipient of the action. Buddha did not hesitate to use the death of the beautiful prostitute whose body rots with worms to understand nature of impermanence and the workings of the human mind.

  16. I find it interesting that Buddhism would sanction human trafficking as a way for the soul to be enlightened. Compare the ministry of Mother Teresa to give value to ALL life, not just a karmic explanation so Men can justify their perverted sexual behavior and control of women is obscene.

    As someone that lived in the world of sex addiction, I’m yet to find any redeeming value in any of the legal or illegal sexual activities that are being glorified. The reality is Aids, Hiv, Stds, divorce, orphaned children.. is just the tip of this sanctioned sex behavior.

  17. People are not rational and their subjective experience is made sense of by rationalization and telling your self stories. WHat is good in one time is bad in another. One mans virtue is another mans vice. Ultimately if a buddhist story about paying off negative karma raises someone’s sense of dignity about what they do then it is a good thing. If it makes them accept a situation they hate and reinforces inertia when they could find a way out its bad. At least in my book. The truthfulness of the truth is less important than its usefulness. From a buddhist we all have the same problem “life doesn’t always go the way I like it” and when it doesn’t it doesn’t feel good. So anything that helps you cope with that feeling and helps give you a positive perspective is the way out of suffering and anything that reinforces it is the way into suffering. If your working to help people out of exploitation you probably suffer distress when you see conditions that support it. Those conditions are both material and mental so what solution does buddhism offer? Nothing special just working with being positive with things as you find them rather than indulging in wishful thinking.

    If your selfish its not good but it isn’t evil. If you sleep with a girl and give her money you have to live with the stigma and wishful thinking and grand statements about how people shouldn’t judge others are not going to stop the stigma existing. If you sleep with someone for money it may or may not be unpleasant. It might be a very nice way to earn money occasionally. But day in day out would be tough. It may also be a horrific nightmare. WHat ever you do or is done to you you will adjust your personal narrative to cope with the stresses of life. You can convince your self that things are OK and what your ding is good. Later in a new social context you may find it more appropriate to say you where abused or exploited and it may even help you in your new social context. The well healed would certainly feel more comfortable with awoman who has overcome adversity and abuse than one who has a narrative that doesn’t mix well with their own. The men who have used prostitutes would rather not hear the victim side of the story and would take comfort in the idea that she had nice clients who were lonely and considerate as well as abusive ones. They would also like to hear that she or he has fond memories of these clients.

    The thing that is worth hanging on to is not who is right about prostitution but that we are sympathetic to the difficulties everyone faces in constructing a view that makes them feel good about life even under very trying circumstances.

  18. I am a male escort (prostitute) who caters to male. As I am taking a deeper look into my own practice of Buddhism I wanted to know what other people had to say about the sex trade industry & it’s workers vs karma & sexual misconducts.
    I would love to read some comments from clients (could we stop calling them “Johns” please?). The most profound notes I found are those that say it’s a personal decision (thank you Lawrence-see above). I would like to add that I find very few opinions relevant when spoken in generality. If you have never been a client or an escort the contributions you make may be limited, but not without purpose. They inspire me to think and to write my story, for that I am truly grateful.
    Is a lawyer, realtor, oil & gas giant, C.E.O., construction worker, artist, student, farmer more ethical then a hustler? These are my clients. Many of them are married to a woman, with kids. I judge not. They are sad and hurting, often angry, ultimately at themselves. Some are very happy but too busy or choose not to be associated with the gay scene. Social & cultural pressures mixed with improper education creates ignorance, which is one of the tenet of the first of the Four Noble Truths. Generally, we are taught NOT to ask questions, which results in poor decision making. Blind faith, blind beliefs (get a good job, get a wife, have kids, get a good pension, get a big car and property…).
    Material & a good “situation” it’s relatively easy to acquire in my part of the world (Western Canada). I offer these men a time & a sacred place to practice being who they think they are, might be, or not, in all safety and privacy.
    I love my job and it’s exactly what it is. It’s just a job. I felt “dirtier” working for big corporations who didn’t care about me. I was just a number. I sold my soul to big greedy capitalist companies before, now I offer my time & energy. Of course it has an impact, but I gain so much more positive energy out of my trade then from dragging my ass to jobs I hated. For me it’s all about balance. This is MY story, I admit I am a rare breed but I am not alone. Courtesans & male escorts are a big community.
    I pray for people who offer/hire sex slaves and all those who are victims of abuse. I pray for the street workers who may hurt very much. I pray for better education so that future generations don’t hire out of fear or greed. Is my karma, morality and sense of ethics better if I work for a government (which I have) that disregards ecological impacts then if I offer someone time for pleasure, healing or simply to allow his steam off without judgment? I make a good and honest living. I am respected by my friends and clients. Listen to professional sex trade workers. Most will tell you that it has very little to do with sex. A gentleman who looks at me in the eyes and whispers his thanks is more precious then the most beautiful wish-granting jewel!

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