Will Wilkinson posted the following two figures, both featuring data from the World Values Survey, and asked his readers to join him in speculating as to the difference.

This first figure shows that, across several industrialized countries, tolerance for homosexuality has been going up (or, more reflectively of the image, intolerance is going down) over time:

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This suggests that countries are becoming more liberal and permissive.  However, this second figure shows that tolerance for prostitution has progressed much less.  The overall trend is towards more tolerance, but with significant backlashes and a much gentler slope downwards.

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What gives?

Wilkinson offers five possible explanations:

(1) Being versus doing. People just are homosexual, and it’s not up to us if we are. Prostitution on the other hand is an activity we can more easily choose to avoid.

(2) The cash nexus. Some things just shouldn’t be sold, and sex is one of them. The problem is the money not the sex, and the law reflects that.  Homosexuality, like sexuality generally, is mostly expressed outside the cash nexus.

(3) Related: Exploitative versus non-exploitative. Prostitution is a low-status line of work that people avoid if they have better alternatives. Taking advantage of the fact that people don’t have better alternatives is exploitative and demeaning.

(4) Sexist paternalism. Homosexuality is (wrongly) primarily conceived popularly as a man-on-man sort of thing. Prostitution is (rightly) primarily conceived popularly as a man-on-woman sort of thing.  Men (and their virtue) don’t need protection from men, but women (and their virtue) need protection from men.

(5) Marketing. There has been an ongoing, effectively carried-out campaign to de-stigmatize/normalize homosexuality. There has been no similar effort to destigmatize/normalize sex work, so the reputation of prostitution continues to languish.

What do you think?

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.
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