Nearly everyone agrees that sexual exploitation occurs and that, when it does, it is morally wrong. However, there is substantial disagreement over what constitutes sexual exploitation and why it is wrong. Is sex between freely consenting adults ever exploitative? Is prostitution always exploitative? What features of sexually exploitative interactions lead us to regard them as morally wrong? And if sexual exploitation is morally wrong, what should be done about it?
These are not new questions for the social philosopher. However, recent criticisms of social contract theory may lead us to wonder whether contractarianism (of any variety) has the resources to criticize important cases of sexual exploitation—particularly prostitution. Some liberals have defended prostitution “in principle,” arguing that when prostitution is truly consensual, there is nothing wrong with it. This is called “sound prostitution.” Indeed, in cases where the parties to a sexual exchange are both competent adults, liberals and libertarians have a difficult time criticizing it, since to do so runs the risk of imposing a local and historically specific sexual ideal on members of society who explicitly reject it or else suggests that the prostitutes and their clients are not really competent agents.