Although I admit that I have not studied the philosophical literature on prostitution and pornography much at all, I shall here venture to speculate on what a hedonist position on these matters might look like. The starting point must, as always, be a consideration of the consequences of these activities. However, the relevant consequences are somewhat different when we compare prostitution and pornography. So let’s start with prostitution and then see what conclusions can be transferred to pornography.
Can we, from a hedonist perspective, claim that the act of taking money (or paying) for sexual services is in itself immoral, regardless of the pain or pleasure connected to this activity? Obviously not. It seems hard to object to such a transaction between sane, adult people if the seller perceives that the pain of having sex in this unromantic fashion is less than the pain of going without the money being offered. But for this conclusion to hold we should also add that the sex worker in question is not in such a desperate position that this is a choice between two evils. If the sex worker sells his or her body in order not to starve or to get money for a destructive drug addiction, the solution to prostitute oneself might possibly be called the least bad option; but it can never be called a good, or satisfactory, option. It is, in other words, highly doubtful whether it can be good to buy sex from someone who we know (or can safely assume) will experience pain from the sexual act. Surely, we have a moral duty to make sure that this person is helped; but the best way to help, in this instance, is not to buy sex from this person, but to contribute to a welfare system that makes sure that no one will have to become a prostitute in order to get the basic necessities of life (and if people are drug addicts they can be offered programs to treat this).
Can we, then, draw the conclusion that in a state where there is such a welfare system in place we can safely allow prostitution, since those who are prostitutes will not be driven to this “occupation” by pure necessity? It might not be as easy as that. Even though a few people will freely choose to become prostitutes (i.e., choosing it not as a last resort to avoid starvation or homelessness), we can probably assume that the supply will not be enough to satisfy the demand. This, in turn, will probably lead to a situation where additional women (I’m assuming that this mostly happens to women) will be brought in from other countries (sometimes by force), where the “no-desperation” proviso is not satisfied. Again, these people should be helped in other ways than by getting paid for sexual services which they, presumably, derive great displeasure from performing.
The bottom line in all this is that one should not take advantage of a person’s desperation in order to have them do things they would never do under non-desperate circumstances. This principle can also be applied to the case of pornography, since there are no morally relevant differences between the circumstances of production in the cases of pornography and prostitution. If we are to find a morally relevant difference we must look to the circumstances of consumption. The rate of pornography consumption in a society might, for instance, be causally linked to the rate of rape or sexual abuse. It might also be the case that many couples have worse sex lives because their views on sex have been distorted by the fanciful scenarios depicted in pornographic films. These things may lead the hedonist to look skeptically at pornography. However, it is probably the case that reasonable social scientists can differ regarding the evidence of the purported societal consequences of pornography consumption.
So can the hedonist safely say that there is nothing wrong with prostitution or pornography, provided that we can be certain that those who participate are not doing it out of pure necessity and that there are no other indirect social consequences that offset the pleasure? Must we not also add that there is something inherently “degrading”, or the like, about treating a person’s body as a commodity (especially when it is men doing this to women)? I think this would be a problematic path upon which to embark, since people have very different views about what is degrading to them. For a few people it might, for instance, be more degrading to have to go to a factory at seven o’clock every morning, stand by some machine for eight hours and obey every command from the foreman, than to earn the same income by selling sex (which, I assume, would not involve as many working hours). Well, one might say, why don’t we abolish regular wage slavery as well as prostitution, since both may be degrading? No doubt, a world where no one would be compelled be neither a wage slave nor a prostitute would be a better world than the present; but “wage slavery” is such an established practice in our present society, so it would bring us too far into the utopian to discuss its wholesale abolishment.