Is ‘Skin Trade’ A Wrong Livelihood?

In the guise of a typical action thriller, ‘Skin Trade’ offers a glimpse of the notorious forced sex trade. As a title card at that end of the movie in black and white grimly says, ‘20 to 30 million individuals are trafficked worldwide annually. An estimated 98% of sex trafficking victims are women and children.’ Usually tricked by hopes of a better life, the promised land often becomes hell that is difficult to escape from. The well-oiled gears of such crimes can be as treacherous as they are hard to dismantle. What else can we do, but to keep skilfully whistleblowing on both sellers and buyers?

It might come as surprising to the less informed, that slavery is unfortunately still very much alive in our supposedly much more civilised times. The accomplices and victims in crime are more global in nature than imagined. Think the unthinkable, of parents selling their daughters for prostitution. Think rural youngsters lured by the bright lights of city life. Think abduction, control by forced drug addiction, and threat of harming family members. Think of evils so lucrative and devious that even arms of the law seem to fall short.

A policeman interrogates a ring leader, hoping to awaken his conscience, ‘How the hell can you sleep at night? How can you do this? Buy and sell human lives?’ He replies, ‘Ask my customers. When they stop buying, I stop selling.’ Of course, this is classic bad rationale perpetuating evil, yet, it does make sense halfway… If there is no constant demand, there would be no sense in keeping up a ready supply. The seller blames the buyer for sustaining his evil trade, while the buyer blames the seller for providing his ‘products and services’. Being equally culpable halves of a cycle, the buyer is as guilty as the seller. When selling lessens, buying lessens, just as buying lessens when selling lessens.

As the Buddha taught in the Vanijja Sutta, we ‘should not engage in five types of business… Business in weapons, business in human beings, business in meat, business in intoxicants, and business in poisons.‘ These five wrong livelihoods that profit from the suffering of other sentient beings share the trait of being exploitative, sometimes to the extent of being murderous. Yes, they include slavery, of both humans and animals, production and distribution of intoxicating drugs that can become poisons. May we all play no part as buyers or sellers of any unwholesome livelihood!

Though not encouraged, prostitution per se, if involving consenting adults instead of any forced or underaged party, is not definitely a wrong livelihood. However, as it feeds lust, which binds beings to the rounds of rebirth, it is still seen as unwholesome. That said, in the Buddha’s time, he did not look down upon prostitutes, and was open to teaching them the Dharma. He even openly accepted Ambapali, a famous courtesan’s meal offering, who later offered the Sangha her mango grove as a monastery. Renouncing her occupation, she was also accepted into the Sangha as a nun and later realised enlightenment.


  • Are these occupations considered wrong livelihood or unwholesome?
    – banking and finance
    – oil and gas
    – retail
    – security

    They seem neutral but I do not know if there are hidden things making it unwholesome

  • Betty, I’m in agreement with you. Oil and gas I would put with the business in poisons. Banking and finance I would put with business in human beings, Maybe with retail too. Why? Because banking and finance are what’s causing desperation to make payments, which can lead to servitude, slavery of a different kind.

    The way big retail stores are run are pretty much in the servitude line, as opposed to service, due to the unwarranted and sometimes weird demands management puts on their employees. Think bullwhip and you’ll understand what I mean. I’ve known family and friends that were totally frazzled and stressed working in retail – and the stories! Mon ami, it was hard for me to believe they weren’t exaggerated, but they were always consistent and very similar.

    Security … possible, as it’s the protective mechanism of these livelihoods.

  • There are a lot of jobs that involve business in human beings.
    I cannot seem to think of a job with right livelihood.

    Which industries offer wholesome jobs with right livelihood, if a degree holder is looking for a job?

  • Finance, retail and security are neutral livelihoods unless that banked over, that sold, and that protected are harmful to sentient beings – e.g. financing for drug rings, selling of weapons, and security for criminals.

    For oil and gas, with the climate crisis going on, it is best to switch to green energy work, though most energy sources still depend on oil and gas – even for good works like running of hospitals and schools.

    Business with human beings and ‘business in human beings’, the latter of which was mentioned by the Buddha to be unwholesome are different. The first is dealing with humans while the latter is buying and selling (exploiting) of humans – e.g. slavery and such.

    Banking and finance if done fairly, not like loan sharks’ systems, should not lead to exploitation, bearing in mind too, that transactions are willingly signed up for.

    Retail trade, being a trade involves willing employees too, and if with proper worker rights and does not sell the exploitative, is not wrong livelihood.

    There are many jobs that are not wrong livelihood. E.g. charities that only help; and not harm, accounting for charities, social work…

  • How about serving in the army? Is it right or wrong livelihood? How should a Buddhist attitude towards mandatory national service be?

  • Skin or flesh trade is wrong livelihood as long as it hurts oneself and others. Trading for exhortibant profits also is inhumane and wrong. It is the intention and harm that a job/trade does to sentient beings that make it a wrong livelihood. Watching cinema/movies also causes the mind thoughts to giv rise to desires and wrong action. Actors also contribute to such harms in cinema/movies making.

  • It is a drastic sweeping statement to claim that movies will surely stir desires leading to wrong actions. Sir, I think you must have missed many a meaningful life-changing film. Likewise, not all actors make films that lead to harm. In fact, good actors make good films for the greater good.

  • Qwerti: You are correct in that there are MANY movies that are inspiring and allows for that internal introspection/questioning that gives many of us an “aha!” moment of clarity. It’s really a matter of taking the time to sift through what’s available to find the hidden gems.

  • Comment: To qed: u said the oil and gas industry is also involved in good works and is best to do green energy works. If I work in this industry is it positive, neutral or negative karma? For eg working in companies like Shell, ExxonMobil etc?

    Reply: ‘…it is BEST to SWITCH to green energy work… – EVEN for good works like running of hospitals and schools…’This is because non-green energy work does fuels the climate crisis, does some harm, and thus does creates some negative karma.

Please Be Mindful Of Your Speech, Namo Amituofo!

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