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Prostitution is simultaneously a sexual and an economic institution, and it is also highly gendered. The majority of prostitutes are female, and an even larger majority of customers are male. While men’s prostitute use is widely tolerated, female prostitution is popularly viewed as a form of social and sexual deviance, and mainstream social scientists have traditionally reproduced such attitudes in their research on the topic. Feminist theorists, by contrast, have long been concerned to explore parallels between marriage, prostitution, slavery, and wage labor, as well as the sexual, political, and economic relations that underpin these institutions. They do not speak as one on the subject, however, and the division between feminists who are concerned with prostitution as a sexual institution and feminists who approach it ﬁrst and foremost as a form of economic activity is particularly sharp. This research paper provides a brief overview of prostitution in the contemporary world and highlights the theoretical and actual problems it poses for gender scholarship.
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1. Prostitution: A Stigmatized And Criminalized Activity
A profoundly negative stigma is almost universally attached to prostitute women. Religious thinking on men’s prostitute use varies, but there is no major world religion that actively sanctions female prostitution and, in secular societies, ‘scientiﬁc’ thinking has done little to displace traditional attitudes. Mainstream medical, psychological, psychoanalytic, and sociological research on the topic has generally assumed that while men’s prostitute use is based on natural, biologically determined sexual drives, women who prostitute are somehow abnormal, unnatural, a threat to public health and order. Prostitution law varies from country to country and even within individual nation states, but typically enshrines this kind of stigma by treating female prostitutes as a distinct class of persons, separate from other workers and/or women in terms of their rights to protection, privacy, and/or self-determination (Walkowitz 1980, Bindman 1997).
Law enforcement almost invariably focuses upon female prostitution, ignoring men’s prostitute use (often also male prostitution), and is generally informed by one of two basic models: prohibition abolition, or regulation registration. The prohibitionist model has historically led to an emphasis on controlling public manifestations of prostitution through the criminalization of (usually street working) prostitute women. The regulation registration model, which legalizes prostitution providing it takes place in licensed brothels or designated geographical zones, has been associated with a variety of civil rights violations, such as requirements for prostitute women to register with the police and/or other authorities, have compulsory health checks, and so on. In some countries, there have been moves to deregulate prostitution either explicitly or by default, a shift which is taking place largely for reasons of ‘ﬁnancial exigency, prosecutor indiﬀerence, court deadlocks, and resistance to the overreach of the criminal law among some social sectors’ (Davis 1993, p. 8).
2. The Economic Signiﬁcance Of Prostitution
Because female prostitution is ideologically and legally construed as a form of deviance, states do not oﬃcially recognize or regulate prostitution as an economic sector like any other. It is therefore extremely diﬃcult to obtain accurate data on the size and earnings of the sex trade. However, research indicates that sex commerce is a signiﬁcant feature of economic life in many nations, regardless of their overall level of economic development. Studies suggest that, for example, in London, prostitution generates around £200 million annually (Matthews 1997); that in New Zealand, almost one in every 150 women aged between 18 and 40 is employed in some form of sex work (Lichtenstein 1999); and that in Thailand, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia, the sex sector accounts for between 2 percent and 14 percent of gross domestic product (Lim 1998). Research further suggests that a fairly consistent set of factors underpin prostitution labor markets. Gender discriminatory social practices are structural ‘push’ factors in economically developed and underdeveloped nations alike (Davis 1993).
As part of an unoﬃcial and often criminalized economic sector, prostitution is frequently connected with corruption, organized crime, and drug abuse, but it is often simultaneously integrated into mainstream economic structures, such as the entertainment and the tourism industries (Lim 1998). This draws attention to the increasingly international nature of the sex industry.
3. Global Politics And Markets And Prostitution
Prostitution is aﬀected by global politics and market trends in three main ways. First, there are countries in which the development of the sex sector has been directly shaped by the military and economic interests of external powers. Thailand, for example, was used for ‘Rest and Recreation’ by the US military in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, and a highly sexualized entertainment sector developed to meet demand from legions of young men. Western ﬁnancial institutions and businesses soon recognized that such an entertainment industry was also suited to serve one particular segment of the long haul tourist market, and economic initiatives based on a 1975 World Bank report ‘led to what is routinely described today as a $4billion-a-year business involving fraternal relationships among airlines, tour operators, and the masters of the sex industry’ (Bishop and Robinson 1998, p. 9). Similar developments have occurred elsewhere in South East Asia, as a result of either US or Japanese military or economic interventions in the region.
Sex commerce in poorer countries has also been aﬀected by a set of linkages between international debt, price ﬂuctuations in global commodity markets, economic development policy, and prostitution. Since the 1970s, world ﬁnancial institutions have encouraged indebted nations to respond to economic crisis by developing tourism and/or ‘nontraditional’ export industries such as gold, diamonds, and timber. One side eﬀect of such development policies is the creation of highly concentrated, eﬀective demand for prostitution: aﬄuent tourists seeking ‘entertainment’ and predominantly male, migrant workers in isolated mining and logging regions with cash to spend on ‘recreation.’ Meanwhile, structural adjustment measures have expanded the prostitution labor market. It is women and children who have been most adversely aﬀected by the sudden introduction of cash economies into what were formerly subsistence economies, currency devaluations and concomitant falls in the price of labor, and the redirection of subsidies away from social spending and basic commodities towards debt servicing. In such climates, prostitution has often become the best or only economic alternative for large numbers of women and teenagers (Chant and McIlwaine 1995, Clift and Carter 1999, Kempadoo 1999). Third, the sex trade is international in the sense that many of those working in prostitution have either voluntarily migrated in order to prostitute or have been traﬃcked by third parties for that purpose. Migrant prostitutes are especially vulnerable to abuse and exploitation by third parties and, as both illegal migrants and prostitute women, particularly likely to be denied legal protection and civil rights (Bindman 1997).
Ideological, as well as economic and political factors underpin the globalization of sex commerce. Racist discourses, which typically construct the ‘Other’ as sexually debased and/or exotic, have long fueled desire for ‘racially’ Other prostitutes and continue to shape demand today (Shrage 1994).
4. The Diversity Of Prostitution
Prostitution varies enormously in terms of its social organization and the power relations it involves. In virtually every country of the world, hierarchies exist within both female and male prostitution (West 1992, Aggleton 1999). At their apex are independent, self-employed adult prostitutes who exercise a relatively high level of control in transactions with clients and whose earnings are relatively high. At their base are individuals who gain little or no ﬁnancial reward from their prostitution and exercise little, if any, control over it (including control over condom use). This may be because they are physically forced into a given work regime by a third party pimp or brothel-keeper, but it may also be because extreme economic and social marginalization, and/or youth and/or drug addiction renders them horribly powerless within transactions.
Between the two extremes are prostitutes who either work independently or enter into some form of employment relation with a third party. The degree of control they exercise over whether, when, how often, and on what terms they prostitute varies according to a range of factors, including their level of economic desperation; the contractual form of the prostitute– client exchanges they enter into; and the speciﬁc legal, institutional, social, political, and ideological context in which they prostitute. There are, for example, settings in which prostitution law so heavily penalizes independent prostitution that it eﬀectively operates as a pressure on prostitutes to enter and remain in third party controlled prostitution no matter how exploitative the third party may be. Equally, in contexts where certain social groups (for instance, women, children, homosexuals, migrants, particular ‘castes’ or racialized minorities) are generally devalued, and/or denied full juridical subjecthood, and/or denied independent access to welfare support, their vulnerability to prostitution and to third party exploitation and abuse within it is increased. It should also be noted that people come to prostitution as individuals of a certain age and with particular personal histories and experience, and this leaves some more open to exploitation and at higher risk of violence and sexually transmitted disease than others (O’Connell Davidson 1998).
5. Conceptualizing Prostitution
One approach to the task of conceptualizing prostitution is to examine how it simultaneously resembles and diﬀers from other social institutions. In prostitution, as in the institution of marriage, the sexual and the economic are conjoined. Unlike marriage, however, prostitution does not construct long term, mutual, or diﬀuse relations of dependency between individuals and their kin. Instead, sexual interaction between prostitute and client takes place on the understanding that some immediate economic beneﬁt will accrue to either the prostitute or a third party as a result, and the client’s obligations are thus discharged by payment in cash or kind. To this extent, relations within prostitution resemble market relations.
However, prostitution does not involve any ordinary commodity exchange. The client does not wish to purchase the disembodied means to an orgasm, a ‘thing’ that can be detached from the prostitute’s person. Rather clients part with money and/or other material beneﬁts in order to secure certain powers of sexual command over the person of the prostitute. Thus, although prostitution is often thought of as the exchange of sex or sexual services for money and/or other beneﬁts, it is better conceptualized as an institution which allows certain powers over one person’s body to be exercised by another. In this sense, prostitution has something in common with slavery, wage labor, and relations between buyers and self-employed sellers of services. All are institutions through which certain powers of command over the person are transferred from one individual to another, conferring a right upon the client/slave holder/employer/buyer to require that the prostitute/slave/worker/seller acts in ways that she/he would not otherwise choose to act.
Yet the relationship between prostitute and client diﬀers from that between slave and slave holder or worker and employer in crucial respects. Not only is it generally brief and transitory, but also, clients enter into it as consumers, not producers. Clients do not depend upon prostitutes for their economic well being in the way that slave-holders and employers depend upon slaves and workers for their material existence. And even where the prostitute is self-employed, the prostitute–client exchange is made unlike other exchanges between independent sellers and purchasers of services by the social meanings that are popularly attached to sexuality.
In monetary economies, sexual and economic relations are typically imagined, explained, and justiﬁed in very diﬀerent ways. The products of human labor, human labor power, sometimes even human beings themselves, have been and are imagined as commodities to be bought and sold on the basis of rational economic calculation and/or in pursuit of status and social prestige. Human sexual interaction, by contrast, is generally regulated and given meaning through reference to premarket or nonmarket ideas, such as those pertaining to honor, shame and duty, and/or romantic love, and/or recreation, pleasure, and desire. Prostitution thus occupies a troubled and troubling space between two quite diﬀerent symbolic domains. It does not readily ﬁt into popularly understood categories of ‘sex’ or ‘work,’ and this tension has been central to much feminist debate on the subject.
6. Feminist Debates On Prostitution
Though sharing a common concern with the welfare of prostitute women, feminists are often deeply divided on the question of whether to view prostitution as a sexual or an economic institution. For ‘radical’ feminists, who foreground the sexual domination of women by men in their analyses of women’s political subordination, prostitution is the unambiguous embodiment of male oppression. In this view, as a sexual institution, prostitution reduces women to bought objects, allows men temporary, but direct, control over the prostitute, and increases their existing social control over all women by aﬃrming their masculinity and patriarchal rights of access to women’s bodies. For such commentators, prostitution is always and necessarily damaging to women, there can be no distinction between ‘forced’ and ‘free choice’ prostitution, and in tolerating, regulating, or legalizing prostitution, states permit the repeated violation of human rights to dignity and sexual autonomy (Barry 1995, Jeﬀreys 1997).
Feminists who adopt a sex workers’ rights perspective generally reject the idea that prostitution is intrinsically or essentially degrading, and view links between prostitution and patriarchal domination as contingent, rather than necessary. Treating prostitution as an economic institution, they make a strong distinction between ‘free choice’ prostitution by adults and all forms of forced and child prostitution. While they believe the latter should be outlawed, they hold the former to be a type of paid work, a job like any other. Since sex workers’ rights feminists view free choice prostitution as a mutual voluntary exchange, they see state actions which criminalize or otherwise penalize those adults who make an individual choice to enter prostitution as a denial of human rights to self-determination (see Nagel 1997).
Because hierarchies exist within prostitution in terms of earnings, working conditions, vulnerability to violence and exploitation, and autonomy as regards specifying, limiting, and retracting from contracts with clients, these two very diﬀerent interpretations of prostitution can each be partially supported empirically. Radical feminists point to research which indicates that around the world, the average age of entry into prostitution is very low (often under 18 years); that it is often precipitated by the experience of rape, sexual assault, and/or incest; and that the experience of prostitution can be extremely damaging psychologically, as well as associated with drug and solvent abuse, various forms of sexual and physical violence, and suicide (Hoigard and Finstad 1992, Kelly et al. 1995). Radical feminism’s emphasis on a link between prostitution and systems of patriarchal domination is supported by the strong historical and contemporary association between the military and organized prostitution, while the persistence of highly abusive and slavery-like practices within prostitution and the signiﬁcant presence of children aged between 12 and 18 in mainstream prostitution, even where prostitution is legally regulated rather than proscribed, lends further credence to a view of prostitution as a hugely problematic institution (Ennew 1986, Enloe 1989)
Sex workers’ rights feminists point out that slavery- like practices and child labor persist in other industries, and that historically, such abuses have been most successfully addressed through collective struggle for workers’ political representation, international conventions guaranteeing minimum rights to various groups of workers persons, national employment laws outlawing abusive practices, and so on. They cite research which suggests that prohibitionist legislation increases, rather than reduces, prostitutes’ vulnerability to violence, third party coercion, and extortion, and emphasize empirical studies in which adult women and men in prostitution describe themselves as perfectly content with their chosen occupation (Bindman 1997, Kempadoo and Doezema 1998).
Though certain feminist commentators remain rigidly wedded to a view of prostitution as either work or sexual violence, many theorists and activists (including some feminist abolitionists and sex workers’ rights feminists) place a growing emphasis on the need to develop analyses of prostitution which can embrace its diversity and its particularity as both a sexual and an economic institution (see, for example, Shrage 1994, Chapkis 1997, O’Connell Davidson 1998).
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