Prostitution Critical Review Essay


Critical Review Guidelines
Aim and Substance. Critical reviews are critical thought pieces to be written in response to the
coming session’s readings and in light of the course themes.
These writing exercises are not meant to summarize the readings assigned for the week. Instead,
students must address at least two of the points below in their critical reviews:
1) How do the assigned readings relate to one another or to other course readings thus far?
In what ways are the readings similar or different from others?
2) Discuss the strengths and/or weaknesses of the methodologies used to gather data for
the readings. Could an alternative method have been employed? Would you expect to
get similar results from the alternative method? Would using an alternative method
provide information on different aspects of the problem discussed in the readings?
3) What are some of the questions that you have about the topic of the readings which
remained unexplored, insufficiently addressed, or poorly explained? Make sure that you
do not criticize the author(s) for not doing what they did not set out to do.
4) Do you think that the author(s) supported their arguments with ample evidence? If so,
give concrete examples. If not, what could the author(s) have done otherwise to be
more convincing?
5) What counter-arguments did the author(s) fail to consider?
Assessment. Students should engage with all of the readings assigned in the week they are writing a
critical review for. You will be marked according to the rubric below:
Comprehension (30 points): Thorough understanding of the key arguments of all the
week’s readings demonstrated in the review overall.
Critical Point #1 (30 points): Higher-level thinking skills such as synthesis, analysis, and
critique employed. Relevant evidence from the readings used to substantiate the claims
Critical Point #2 (30 points): Higher-level thinking skills such as synthesis, analysis, and
critique employed. Relevant evidence from the readings used to substantiate the claims
Writing Mechanics and Clarity (10 points): Carefully proofread to eliminate problems
with style, sentence structure, grammar, and spelling. Organization and argumentation aid in
communicating the main points clearly. Adheres to the ASA format for internal citations
and works cited.
Length and Format. Critical reviews may be up to 4 double-spaced pages in length (not including
the bibliography). Please draft your review as a Word file and be sure to insert page numbers into
your document.
Be sure to use in-text citations appropriately to give credit to the words and ideas of others, and to
include a list of works cited at the end of the critical review. Both should adhere to the ASA format
(see accompanying document).
Deadline and Submission. Critical reviews are due (as a Word file submitted to Turnitin) by no
later than 1 pm on the day of the class session for that week. In other words, your critical review
will be due before the lecture which covers the assigned readings (ie. if you are writing a critical review
for week 3, your review is due by 1 pm on Monday January 24th).
Late assignments will be marked down 10% once the deadline has passed, and an additional 10%
will be deducted for every 24 hours that pass beyond that. The last day on which late assignments
will be considered for a grade is 6 days after the original due date (ie. if the due date was a Monday,
then Sunday of the following week).
Submit your Critical Review on Quercus.
Assigned Weeks. Two reviews are expected from each student over the course of the semester,
and each critical review is worth 20% of the course grade. Please see the Table provided in the
Critical Review page to see which two weeks you have been assigned.
If you would like to switch the critical review you have been assigned to another week, it is your
responsibility to identify another student willing to switch assigned weeks with you. Please notify
the professor by email, with a CC to the other student so that they can indicate their agreement.
Further Tips.
Don’t forget to include a bibliography in your critical review, as well as in-text citations as necessary.
Please use the ASA citation format (see accompanying attachment)
Be sure to review the guidelines regarding plagiarism and how not to plagiarize:

How Not to Plagiarize
Advice and strategies for reading critically and critical reviews can be found here:
Your TA is a resource for this course. Feel free to send a draft of your assignment for feedback
before the submission deadline, or questions about the readings via email to your TA.
Temporarily yours: intimacy, authenticity, and
the commerce of sex
Bernstein, Elizabeth
University of Chicago Press, 2007
xii, 291 p
9780226044576, 9780226044583,
9780226044620, 0226044572, 0226044580
35 to 52
Downloaded from Scholars Portal Books on 2020-10-19
Téléchargé de Scholars Portal Books sur 2020-10-19
the Boundaries
of “Vice”
I am standing on my usual corner in the San Francisco Tenderloin when a white car drives up to me and a loud, commanding voice bellows, “Start walking!” I quickly scurry away before I even have time to make
sense of what happened. My first thought was that the men in the car were
pimps and that I’d invaded their territory. Then I vaguely recall that the one
who leaned his head out the window was white, mustached, and wearing a
badge. I realize they were cops.
When I return to my post, there are a half dozen or so sharp-tongued,
tough-as-nails young women there, much to my relief. I am intrigued by the
fact that they handle themselves so well on the streets, can defend themselves so adeptly among even the most infuriating of street harassers (and
there are so many!), yet seem so timid and fearful when it comes to the
police. Every once in a while, a girl will shout out “six” to signal to the others
that the cops have been sighted. As Lydia, one of the women on the stroll,
explained to me my first night, “It’s ‘six’ for cops, ‘heads’ for pimps; if you
hear either one, scram!”
Business is unbearably slow this evening, and the seven of us remain
on the corner for what seems to be an eternity. A few heterosexually coupled
tourists walk past us, arm in arm. Although we have all done our best to look
“classy” (silky blouses, pencil-thin miniskirts, heavily lacquered hair, and
French-manicured nails), the theater- and restaurant-goers do not mistake
us for their own kind. The fact that we stand immobile, watchful, and unescorted by male partners is the dead give away. We are on this street precisely because of its proximity to the tourist district, yet the tourist-women
walk by us scowling in disapproval and cling firmly to their husbands, who
are careful not to meet our eyes. “I hate theater nights,” complains the
woman next to me. “We stick out like sore thumbs.”
Remapping the Boundaries of “Vice” 23
After standing on our feet for hours, Kelly, a red-wigged, spunky mother
of two, begins to moan to the wind, “Don’t nobody wanna fuck me?” The
petite black woman at my side muses that perhaps she never really can tell
when she looks ugly and when she looks good — as if that were the source of
the problem, rather than the desolate streets. “I really want to make some
money . . . ,” she wails. The night seems so long and hopeless that when a
cabbie drives by offering to take the women over to Hyde Street to watch
two police decoys working, they pile into the cab and go. I remain on the
street corner, with two homeless men that I know only by face for company.
I’m lost in thought when an old, 1970s model gray sedan pulls over close to
me, and a non-uniformed Asian man of about forty leans his head out the
window. He screams: “If you’re still here when I go around the block, you’re
going to jail.” I nod and begin to cross over to the other corner. A random
male passerby, who I don’t bother to study too closely, asks me if I want “life
insurance” to walk across the street. Without looking up, I politely decline.
Now Lydia and Beverly have appeared, making their way up from the corner
of Mason and O’Farrell, where the other women they were working with have
just been arrested. I ponder the fact that these scantily clad female bodies
have been forcibly removed from public streets for “lewd behavior,” while
the equally revealed, yet lifeless feminine forms on the billboards that surround me have been allowed to remain.1
After another twenty or so minutes, I decide to call it quits. It’s too cold,
and my nose is beginning to run. My attire, chosen for the sake of aesthetic
conformity, affords me little protection from the frigid night air. I say goodbye for now, and tell them I’ll be back tomorrow night.
Despite the frequent equation of prostitution with “the oldest profession,” what many of us typically think of as “prostitution” has not existed
for very long at all. The rise of large-scale, commercialized prostitution
in the West is a recent phenomenon, emerging out of the dislocations of
modern industrial capitalism in the mid-nineteenth century. It is also a
distinctly urban phenomenon, premised on the existence of an organized
and relatively autonomous sphere of public commerce, as well as on individuals who are sufficiently disembedded from traditional kin networks
so as to serve as a consistent source of both “demand” and “supply.” 2
As numerous social historians have described, the attendant features of modern-industrial capitalism — phenomena such as urbanization, the expansion of wage labor, and the decline of the extended
kin-based “traditional family” — brought with them new cultural ideologies of gender and sexuality, and new symbolic boundaries between
ch a p t er t wo
public and private life. 3 The development of “work” as an autonomous,
rationalized, and prototypically masculine sphere of economic activity
outside the home produced a sexual “double standard” and an unprecedented gender division of life activities, dichotomizing women along
class lines. 4 While white, bourgeois, married women served as caretakers and practiced an ideology of sexual restraint in the private sphere,
many working-class women and women of color joined men in the
public sphere as wage laborers or as sexually available prostitutes. 5 By
the early twentieth century, numerous “vice commissions” had been
created to study — and definitionally constitute — the social problem of
modern prostitution. 6
By contrast, the forms of sexual commerce that prevailed prior to
this period were self-organized, occasional exchanges in which women
traded sexual favors during limited periods of hardship. Early modern
prostitution was small in scale, frequently premised on barter, and generally took place within the participants’ own homes and communities.
Only with the onset of modern industrial capitalism and an increasingly
gendered social divide between public and private spheres did a new
class of specially demarcated “public women” come under increasing
scrutiny and control. In contrast to the casual and informal exchanges
that had previously transpired in coffeehouses, taverns, and pubs, large
numbers of women now found themselves sequestered in a space which
was physically and socially separate, and affi xed with the permanently
stigmatizing identity of “prostitute.” 7 In the United States, it was not
until the Progressive Era in the early twentieth century that a statutory defi nition of prostitution even existed. As the historian Timothy
Gilfoyle has observed, prior to this time the crime of prostitution was
primarily “a condition of vagrancy and being female.” 8
During the fi rst decades of the twentieth century, gathering public
outcry around the expansion of sexual commerce led to the shutdown
of the red-light districts and to the criminalization of the organized sex
trade. A succession of municipal and state-level “Red Light Abatement
Acts” and the passage of the federal Mann-Elkins “White Slavery” Act
officially brought the fi rst era of wide-scale, commercialized prostitution to a close.9 Yet the decline of the red-light district and the brothel
as a prevailing commercial-sexual form did not fundamentally alter
the gendered meanings of prostitution, which still marked the female
prostitute (but not her male customer) as a deviant outsider. Instead,
associations with the image of a dangerous and gritty underworld were
dramatically exacerbated, sexual commerce was increasingly confined
to the streets of poor, immigrant, and other “socially disorganized”
Remapping the Boundaries of “Vice” 25
neighborhoods, and prostitutes now had to cope with the added risk
and stigma of criminality.10 Control of the prostitution transaction
continued to shift from madams and prostitutes to male middlemen,
as well as to organized crime.11 Nor did criminalization serve to significantly curb the sex trade’s supply, demand, or gross profits. As the
historian Barbara Hobson has noted, “The laws and general strategy of
repression seem to have had remarkably little effect on the prostitution
economy. . . . Turning out the red lights and dismantling the districts
merely dispersed the trade and produced a new set of institutions in the
prostitution economy.” 12 In a study conducted shortly after the closure
of the red-light district in Chicago, the sociologist William C. Reckless
thus reported only a modest decline from 1,020 “vice resorts” in 1910
to 731 venues in 1931. He further observed the rise of new erotic commercial venues in the city, including taxi-dance halls, roadhouses, and
cabarets. Commenting on the case of San Francisco, Neil Shumsky and
Larry Springer similarly note that legal changes dramatically revamped
spatial patterns between 1880 and 1934 but ultimately did little to deter the existence of prostitution.13
In Europe, although the prostitution transaction itself was not
criminalized, a similar pattern prevailed. Antiprostitution campaigns
in the United States had counterparts in France, Germany, Holland,
Sweden, Finland, Denmark, and the United Kingdom. The goal, in all
cases, was the dismantling of the organized sex trade and the regulated
system.14 In Sweden, a French-style regulatory system, premised on the
rationalized enclosure of the maison de tolerance, was established in
1859 but abolished by 1918.15 In the Netherlands, a regulatory system
was introduced during the French occupation (1810–13), but by the second half of the nineteenth century an alliance of Christians, feminists,
and some socialists were fighting to eliminate it. Their efforts culminated in the passage of the Public Morality Act of 1911, which sought
to wipe out prostitution through the prohibition of brothel keeping.16
Yet, as in the United States, the abolitionist agenda did not ultimately
prove to be effective in dismantling the European sex trade.17
se xual commerce and urban space
In addition to shifts in law and policy, the evolution of sexual commerce
was also intimately tied to transformations in the spatial contours of
life in industrializing cities. In a 1981 essay, Neil Shumsky and Larry
Springer point out that while scholars have frequently analyzed prostitution as a social, cultural, economic, political, or psychological issue,
they have rarely considered it in terms of shifting patterns of urban
ch a p t er t wo
geography.18 To the extent that contemporary scholars have considered
questions of space and mobility in relation to urban sex work, they have
tended to emphasize individual sex workers’ mobility as a response to
an ever-present flight from law enforcement. 19 Yet such analyses often
beg the question of why particular laws and law enforcement patterns
emerge when they do, and what the underlying determinants of such
patterns might be. In the early decades of the twentieth century, it was
not only the rise of various moral reform movements by feminists, purity crusaders, and social hygienists but also phenomena such as urban
expansion, the rise of the automobile, growth in the entertainment and
leisure industries, and burgeoning immigration that led to the increasing regulation of sexual commerce in modernizing cities. 20
In the predominantly male social world of mid-nineteenth-century
San Francisco, women arrived from many different cities and nations
to work as prostitutes, but Chinese prostitutes were the fi rst to be singled out for special treatment by the state.21 Although the city’s de facto
prostitution zone between the years 1849 and 1917 was the broad sweep
of terrain bounded by Powell, Montgomery, Broadway, and Market
streets (including the well-known “Barbary Coast” and the area immediately south), early efforts were made to control the spatial trajectories
of an expanding population of Chinese prostitutes. In 1854, a committee was assembled to discuss the removal of Chinese prostitutes “from
the more inhabited line of streets,” and, in 1866, the San Francisco
Board of Supervisors issued an “Order to Remove Chinese Women
of Ill-Fame from Certain Limits in the City.” 22 Although the attorney
for the Board of Supervisors eventually persuaded the board to delete
“Chinese” from the statute’s fi nal wording, its intent remained clear:
Chinese women were to be the target of the crackdown. During the
same year, the California legislature passed the “Act for the Suppression of Chinese Houses of Ill Fame,” and San Francisco police began
to ready themselves to close down all Chinese brothels in the city until
the prostitutes and brothel owners consented to occupy “only certain
buildings and localities under restrictions imposed by the Board of
Health and Police Commissioners.” 23
The Barbary Coast had initially been located in a “transitional
zone” between areas of work and areas of residence; it was an area that
San Francisco’s largely male population could “reach equally well from
either work or home.” 24 However, in response both to external pressures to curb prostitution and to the rapid expansion of the city’s central business district, by the fi nal decades of the nineteenth century the
San Francisco Board of Supervisors began to pass a series of laws that
Remapping the Boundaries of “Vice” 27
would both confi ne the red-light district and enable the westward expansion of the city’s burgeoning downtown. As the city’s central business district expanded, it came to encompass several blocks which had
been major parts of the zone of prostitution. As Shumsky and Springer
note, “[when] the shopping district moved in, the prostitutes moved
out.” By 1915, Maiden Lane, which had been one of the most notorious
streets in the entire city, “had clearly become the core of the women’s
apparel-shopping district. Out of 188 women’s apparel shopping establishments in the central district, 47 (25%) had taken up locations in it,
and another 16% had located in the two blocks to the east and south.” 25
A new series of municipal ordinances pertaining to prostitution
were passed in order to accommodate this expansion. The fi rst new law
was General Order 2191, issued in 1890, which “prohibited persons
from keeping, maintaining, or becoming an inmate of or visiting any
house of ill fame . . . within a district bounded by California, Powell,
Kearny, and Broadway streets.” Although the law was not uniformly
enforced, the Board of Supervisors supplemented it with further orders to confi ne the district over the course of the next several years. In
1909, the Police Commission decided to create an even more restricted
zone, one which was contained within the contours of the Barbary
Coast (where the highest concentration of brothels existed): prostitutes
were “not allowed to solicit outside of this territory nor on the streets,
nor . . . to reside anywhere except within this prescribed district.” 26 In
1911, the city delimited the district still further, confi ning it to the area
bounded by “Commercial Street from the westerly line of Kearny Street
to the easterly line of Grant Avenue; Jackson Street between Kearny
and Grant Avenue north to Pacific Street; Pacific Street from the easterly line of Montgomery Street to the westerly line of Front Street . . .
Washington Place . . . from the north side of Washington Street between
Kearny and Grant Avenue North to Jackson Street.” 27 That same year,
the San Francisco Board of Supervisors stipulated that to avoid arrest,
prostitutes would be required to undergo biweekly examinations for
venereal disease, and to live within the confi nes of the narrow strip
between Washington and Pacific streets (see figure 1). 28
More dramatic spatial changes were wrought with the passage of
the California Red Light Abatement Act in 1913. After the law was upheld by the California State Supreme Court in 1917, eighty-three brothels were immediately closed and 1,073 women were put out on the
street. 29 According to journalistic accounts from the period, very few
prostitutes chose to abandon the sex trade despite offers from groups
like the YWCA and the Civic League to help them fi nd other voca-
ch a p t er t wo
tions. 30 Thus, with the Barbary Coast abolished, a new “red-light nondistrict” gradually emerged to take its place. 31 Although some prostitutes chose to remain in the old area, the majority moved to the region
southwest of Union Square, the up-and-coming hotel and entertainment district. As streetwalking became a more prominent feature of
city life, the area that came to be known as the San Francisco Tenderloin was transformed into the city’s primary prostitution zone and
would remain so for the next seventy-five years (see figure 2).
In European cities, where prostitution was not criminalized, the
pattern varied to some extent. The historian Alain Corbin has dated
the decline of the brothel and the rise of street prostitution in Paris
to 1925 (before the official dismantling of the regulated system), but
he has also documented the emergence of the maison d’abattage in
1 Primary zone of San Francisco prostitution, inner and outer limits, 1849–1917.
Remapping the Boundaries of “Vice” 29
2 Primary zone of street prostitution in the San Francisco Tenderloin, 1917–1994.
the interwar years, characterized by “concentration, rationalization,
and standardization” — what he has termed “Taylorized coitus” and
“conveyor-belt sex.” 32 In Swedish cities, prostitution was relatively
small-scale and confi ned to informal exchanges on the streets until the
emergence of “sex clubs” and escort agencies in the early 1960s. 33 In
Amsterdam and other Dutch cities, many prostitutes chose to work
in the streets or clandestine brothels of the new semiofficial red-light
districts after the passage of the 1911 Public Morality Act, including
in the Oudeskerksplein (today’s well-known prostitution district for
tourists). 34
the policing of urban marginalit y
in postindustrial cities
Commenting in the early 1980s on the situation in the United States,
the historian Ruth Rosen noted that streetwalking — along with its at-
ch a p t er t wo
tendant social realities of crime and violence — had become the dominant means of prostitutes’ solicitation since the 1920s. 35 Despite the
growth of massage parlors and escort agencies during the 1960s and
1970s as commercial sexual forms, the streetwalker has remained
largely synonymous with “the prostitute” in both the popular and the
policy maker’s imagination. 36 The miniskirted, stiletto-heeled figure of
the street prostitute has continued to grace the covers of recent sociological texts on the contemporary sex industry (even if the contents of
these volumes describe a far more varied reality). 37 Yet by the end of
the 1980s, prominent sex-workers’ rights activists were estimating that
streetwalkers comprised a mere 20 percent of the prostitute population
in urban areas like San Francisco. 38 In 2001, the time by which I had
completed the bulk of my research, my own calculations suggested that
2 percent might be an even more accurate figure. 39 Over the course of
the seven years that I conducted my fieldwork, I watched as the number
of female prostitutes on the streets of San Francisco dwindled from several hundred to as few as ten or twenty a night, while the overall size of
the sex industry expanded and diversified. Meanwhile, the 1995 introduction of San Francisco’s First Offender Program (colloquially known
as “John School”) was transformed into an effective tool for systematically removing male clients from city streets. In Western European
cities with diverse legal regimes I witnessed a similar reorganization of
the commercial sex trade during the same period (see chap. 6).
In 1994, when I fi rst began studying prostitution in San Francisco,
there were three principal streetwalking strolls in the Tenderloin, each
just blocks away from the posh shops, corporate hotels, and expensive real estate of Union Square — which had by then become the main
tourist and shopping district of the city. At the time, most streetwalkers could be easily distinguished not only because of their distinctive
dress but because they were practically the only women inhabiting
the sparsely populated, poorly lit streets. I was befriended by women
like Olivia, a twenty-seven-year-old African American mother of two
who took the BART to work each night from Oakland.40 When she
arrived at the local $20 per hour SRO (single-room occupancy hotel),
she would change into the short skirt and towering heels that she called
her “uniform,” then hit the streets. Most of her nights were spent dodging pimps and police officers and waiting for customers to approach,
either by car or on foot. As my research progressed, Olivia and the
other women on her stroll spent an increasing number of their working
nights — sometimes, as many as four nights a week — in jail.
Remapping the Boundaries of “Vice” 31
The predominantly Thai and Vietnamese immigrants who staffed
the cluster of small-scale, “mom and pop” erotic massage parlors which
were concentrated in the Tenderloin also came under siege. By 1998,
there had been an unprecedented series of worker arrests, nearly a third
of the twenty-six massage parlors in the area had been shut down or
targeted for closure, and the Board of Supervisors had approved a permanent ban on the building of any new massage parlors in the area. 41
The late 1990s were of course the peak years of dot-com and hightech investment in the city, when San Francisco became the global headquarters of the Internet economy and the repository of over a third of
the nation’s venture capital. As a consequence, the nine-square-block
area that had housed the city’s primary street prostitution strolls and
commercial sex venues for over seventy-five years was on its way to being incorporated into the Union Square shopping and tourism district.
At the same time, advertisements for prostitution in the newspapers
and through the new online services exploded, as did prostitution in
eleven of the city’s seventeen legal (and increasingly corporate-run) strip
clubs. 42 In similar fashion, the number of licensed massage parlors in
the city overall was actually increasing, despite the police crackdown
on Asian-run massage parlors in the Tenderloin. 43
Many of the same women who had been working on the streets or
in Tenderloin massage parlors now began to get cell phones and to take
out ads, or to look for work in different indoor venues. These venues
were not concentrated in the center of town but dispersed throughout the city, housed in Victorians in quiet residential neighborhoods
or relocated to the city’s suburban periphery. This explosion of largescale, commercialized sexual services and individually run, off-street
operations in the city’s residential periphery drew relatively little attention from the police — despite their intense focus on commercial sexual
transactions in the gentrifying core. The timing of my research thus
coincided with the demise of inner-city street and massage parlor prostitution in San Francisco and the flourishing of new, high-tech, and
decentered forms of sexual commerce.
From the fall of 1994, when I fi rst began my study, to the early
part of 1997, street prostitutes were steadily “pushed” by police sweeps
deeper and deeper into the Tenderloin. Periodically, when a politician
or an important convention was in town, the police would conduct
even more systematic sweeps of the area. By the time of the prominent 1997 Mayor’s Convention (to be held just blocks away from the
city’s principal street prostitution zone), local politicians and police
ch a p t er t wo
3 Distribution of licensed massage parlors in San Francisco, 1997 (source:
San Francisco Police Department).
had made a more definitive decision regarding street prostitution in
San Francisco: they decided to eliminate it. As a sergeant from the
San Francisco Street Crimes unit informed me, the city’s “no tolerance policy on hookers” was to involve nightly sweeps, incessant patrolling, and a stepped up “decoy program” for arresting johns. “We
have always had the capability to do this,” he explained. “It’s just been
a question of incentive.” The “incentive,” in this case, was provided
not simply by a single, if important, celebrity event in the city, but
by deeper transformations that had been transpiring quietly for years,
Remapping the Boundaries of “Vice” 33
4 Distribution of licensed massage parlors in San Francisco, 2005 (source: San
Francisco Department of Public Health and Alix Lutnick, St. James Infirmary).
such as the increasing gentrification of the city’s Tenderloin district. 44
As in other U.S. and Western European cities, rigorous, combative policing became a “frontline strategy” for purging sex workers and other
perceived members of the “deprived underclass” from newly desirable
downtown real estate. 45
The crackdown on prostitution followed a spate of aggressive
policy measures designed to remove the homeless and other undesirable populations from city streets. Most notable among these was the
MATRIX program begun under Mayor Frank Jordan in 1992, which
ch a p t er t wo
5 San Francisco prostitution arrests by neighborhood, January–December 1994:
Tenderloin, including Polk Gulch, 2,280, or 65 percent; Mission, 950, or 27 percent;
other street arrests, 226, or 7 percent; other indoor arrests, 39, or 1 percent
(source: San Francisco Task Force on Prostitution 1996, app. D).
resurrected a panoply of city and state ordinances against public
drunkenness, trespassing, littering, and obstructing the sidewalk, and
which targeted its initial enforcement efforts in San Francisco’s downtown neighborhoods (including Union Square and the Tenderloin). 46
Initially, some of the sex workers in these neighborhoods relocated to
the Mission district, the predominantly Latino neighborhood just east
of downtown, which since the 1980s had housed the city’s central drug
corridor. This strategy worked until the late 1990s, when the inner
Mission district began to undergo its own gentrification process, and
neighborhood antiprostitution activism mounted steadily. 47 Eventually,
the sex and drug trades would be curtailed on these streets as well,
leaving only a small strip of commerce on Sixteenth and Capp streets
by the time I completed my research.
The changing topography of San Francisco’s Tenderloin and Mission districts in the 1990s was portended by broad structural transformations that swept through diverse postindustrial cities throughout
the same period. As the urban geographer Neil Smith has explained,
the 1990s marked the decline of inner-city tenderloins as a dominant
urban form which, since the era of post–World War II suburban expansion, had served as the city’s primary haven for the poor and socially
[T]he terrain of the inner city is suddenly valuable again, perversely profitable. This new urbanism embodies a widespread and
drastic repolarization of the city along political, economic, cultural, and geographical lines since the 1970s, and is integral with
larger global shifts . . . global economic expansion in the 1980s;
Remapping the Boundaries of “Vice” 35
the restructuring of national and urban economies in advanced
capitalist countries towards services, recreation, and consumption; and the emergence of a global hierarchy of world, national,
and regional cities. These shifts have propelled gentrification from
a comparatively marginal preoccupation in a certain niche of the
real estate industry to the cutting edge of urban change. 48
As urban economies have reoriented themselves away from productive labor and toward services and consumption, a “new geography
of centrality and marginality” has emerged: the white middle classes
increasingly seek out the city center for their residences and leisure
activities, while the urban industrial proletariat is reduced in numbers
and relocated to the city’s periphery. 49
In the 1970s, the San Francisco Tenderloin was the poorest neighborhood in the city: low-income seniors, the disabled, and “drifters” in
SROs were its principal residents, sustaining themselves through casual
6 Flier posted in the San Francisco Mission district, fall 1995.
ch a p t er t wo
labor or through meager stipends from General Assistance. Local storefronts were frequently boarded up and grafittied, their interiors left
unoccupied. Many San Francisco residents regarded the neighborhood
as little more than “a containment zone for drug dealing, prostitution,
and public drinking,” where illicit activities could occur with relatively
little police interference, and liquor stores and massage parlors were
licensed in greater numbers than anywhere else in the city. 50
By the 1980s, the city’s economy was becoming increasingly dependent on tourism, and the Tenderloin’s central location, proximity to
the Union Square shopping and theater district, and abundance of residential hotels made it especially appealing to the San Francisco tourist
industry. 51 The fi rst major step toward neighborhood transformation
occurred in the late 1970s, when large numbers of SROs were emptied
of their tenants so that their buildings could be converted into budget
tourist accommodations (a more profitable enterprise for owners than
charging reduced-rate monthly rents). The next step came in 1980,
when three national hotel chains announced plans to build luxury hotels in area: Ramada, Hilton, and Holiday Inn. Despite fierce protests
by local residents and social service agencies, the developers emerged
from the struggle triumphant, and the hotels were erected.
Over the course of the next decade, the tension between the “old”
and “new” Tenderloins would become even more heated. Although
the peak years of high-tech expansion in the 1990s created great economic benefits for the city’s affluent classes, they also created a more
entrenched social divide. On the streets, crack cocaine joined heroin
as drugs of choice and brought more violence to the neighborhood,
while the area’s low-income residents confronted a dwindling supply
of housing, federal aid, and social services. Among local activists and
nonprofits, who were also stretched thin for adequate resources, there
was a new tendency to think in terms of the “deserving” versus the
“undeserving” poor. 52
john sc hool , gent rific at ion, a nd
t he s a n f r a n c i s co ta sk fo rc e o n pros t it u t io n
It was within this context of neighborhood transformations that a Task
Force on Prostitution was convened in 1994 by then-Supervisor Terence Hallinan in response to complaints from local residents and merchants about the “increasingly problematic” nature of the sex trade —
in particular, problems such as noise, litter, and empty condom wrappers on their streets. 53 The task force comprised leaders of resident
and merchant associations from the city’s Tenderloin and Mission dis-
Remapping the Boundaries of “Vice” 37
tricts, representatives from the police and health departments, nearly a
dozen sex-worker activists, and a handful of other interested parties. 54
Unprecedented in the history of policy reform, the strong presence of
sex-worker activists on the task force meant that they were to play a
vital role in revising prostitution policy in the city. 55 And, in notable
contrast to antiprostitution movements of eras past, complaints by the
residents’ groups were explicitly aimed at the “quality of life” problems
caused by visible street prostitution in the Tenderloin, Mission, and
other neighborhoods, rather than at the moral difficulties entailed by
the existence of sexual commerce per se. As Michael, a small business
owner from the group “Save Our Streets” insisted at an early task force
meeting, “We’re upset not because it’s illegal or immoral, but because
it disturbs our lives.” 56
After two years of biweekly meetings, in which the task force members considered various solutions, a Final Report was at last issued.
In it, the task force noted that “despite their concerns about noise,
traffic, etc., most residents supported decriminalization or legalization
of prostitution.” These concerns could effectively be dealt with by focusing “on the perceived fallout or side effects of street prostitution”
rather than by policing the sex industry in its entirety. 57 The task force’s
Final Report thus advocated both further crackdowns on street prostitution through the use of public nuisance laws and other municipal
codes, and the decriminalization of the indoor sex trade.
After the report was issued, the recommendations of the task force
report were never officially adopted, but they nonetheless became de
facto policy in the city. According to statistics provided by the California Bureau of Justice, the number of arrests for the crime of prostitution in San Francisco decreased steadily between the years of 1994 and
2003, declining from 2,749 to 1,276 cases annually. Arrests for the
misdemeanor offense of “disorderly conduct,” on the other hand, came
to replace charges for prostitution and thus surged during this same
period, from 166 to 929. 58 To further appease some of the disaffected
neighborhood residents, Hallinan (who was by now the city’s District
Attorney) also put in place another policy, his ground-breaking “First
Offender” program for arrested clients, which would eventually serve
as a template for prostitution regulation in numerous North American
and Western European cities. 59 The program involved stepped up arrests of male clients and an all-day reeducation program (akin to traffic
school) for johns. In practice, since the only men arrested were those
who patronized street prostitutes, both the de facto decriminalization
of indoor sex work and the emergence of “John School” would serve to
ch a p t er t wo
7 Prostitution and disorderly conduct arrests in San Francisco, 1994 and 2003
(source: California Bureau of Justice Statistics).
further curtail outdoor sex markets, redirecting both sex workers and
their customers to the burgeoning indoor and online sectors.
The transformation that was underway in San Francisco thus did
not solely concern the fate of a few hundred street prostitutes and their
customers but was about a wide-sweeping reallocation of urban space,
in which the inner city found itself being reclaimed by the white middle
classes, while those at the social margins were pushed to the city’s literal periphery. In tandem with the excision of the homeless, the unemployed, the poor, and most racialized Others from the new “bourgeois
playgrounds” of the inner city, San Francisco’s de facto red-light districts came under increasing scrutiny and censure. Witnessing a similar
reconfiguration of the sex industry in Portland, Oregon, during these
years, the sociolegal scholar Lisa Sanchez has described this shift under
the rubric of “spatial governmentality,” in which spaces rather than offenders are targeted for reform. 60 In notable contrast to Progressive Era
social reformers, the groups who opposed flagrant and visible prostitution on their streets did not issue a critique about the intermingling of
sexuality and the market. To the contrary, the young, white professionals who flooded the city during the 1990s to work in high-tech, multimedia, and other industries — necessitating the “renewal” of formerly
impoverished areas — were at the forefront of a new economy in sexual
services, both by creating a demand for them and by facilitating new
conditions of production. The sex trade was not eliminated but instead
Remapping the Boundaries of “Vice” 39
changed its predominant form. As the following chapters shall reveal,
the world of modern-industrial street prostitution, along with its classic paraphernalia — the pimp, the police officer, the prostitute as “public” and therefore disreputable woman — had begun to recede into the
distance, while an array of spatially dispersed sexual services rapidly
emerged to take its place. Transformations in the forms and functions
of urban space were accompanied by important changes in the prevailing practices and meanings of commercial sex.
Prostitution: Sex Work, Policy and Politics
The Sociology of Sex Work
Contributors: By: Teela Sanders, Maggie O’Neill & Jane Pitcher
Book Title: Prostitution: Sex Work, Policy and Politics
Chapter Title: “The Sociology of Sex Work”
Pub. Date: 2009
Access Date: October 19, 2020
Publishing Company: SAGE Publications Ltd
City: London
Print ISBN: 9781847870667
Online ISBN: 9781446220726
Print pages: 1-15
© 2009 SAGE Publications Ltd All Rights Reserved.
This PDF has been generated from SAGE Knowledge. Please note that the pagination of the online
version will vary from the pagination of the print book.
© Teela Sanders, Maggie O’Neill and Jane Pitcher 2009
SAGE Books
The Sociology of Sex Work
The sociology of sex work
This first chapter will describe and debate the different theoretical and sociological/criminological perspectives
on prostitution and the sex industry as well as the ‘rights’ and ‘wrongs’ of prostitution or sex work. Introducing
students to the complexities of language and the implications of the different sociological and feminist
debates, this chapter moves beyond the polarized perspectives of prostitution as either ‘violence against
women’ or ‘sex as work’, to explore theories of women’s involvement in sex work and how theories are
grounded in data evidence.
The chapter begins with a brief look at the place of ‘the prostitute’ in historical texts that includes contemporary
analysis of the construction of ‘the prostitute’ in official discourses (medical, legal and political).1 Next, we
outline the key theoretical positions on prostitution and sex work and offer some examples of empirical work
undertaken on this issue. Feminist debates on the ‘prostitute body’ demonstrate divided views that focus upon
victimhood and exploitation in contrast with agency and choice. The rise of the ‘sex as work’ perspective
is described in relation to the advent of activism among sex workers and campaigns for rights. Analysing
these debates, we look beyond the binary of either ‘exploitation’ or ‘choice’ to the nuances of theoretical
analyses that attempt to understand the lives of women, men and young people who are involved in selling
sexual services. Finally, drawing on the differing perspectives, this chapter argues that this body of literature,
including philosophical, criminological and sociological debates, results in a ‘sociology of sex work’ which has
developed over recent years and combines the global and local politics of the sex industry.
Historical Constructions of the ‘Prostitute’
Prostitution was not always seen as deviant behaviour. The earliest records of prostitution show that it took
place in temples: to visit a prostitute was to make paeans to the goddess. In fact, one of the earliest known
deities was Inanna – a female prostitute (Bassermann, 1993). Later forms took place in religions that were
referred to as ‘cults’ of Venus, and all through ancient history there is evidence of temple prostitution across
Mesopotamia and the Near East. Though goddess worship persisted, resistance to prostitution began in
around 1200 bc when ancient Israel disapproved of erotic religions in surrounding societies (Eisler, 1995). In
350 ad, Christians succeeded in prohibiting temple prostitution in Rome and, as time went on, the systematic
denigration of sexuality, particularly female sexuality, engendered increasingly intolerant attitudes towards
prostitutes. Since then, as we document in Chapter 6, sex workers have been organizing for their rights and
staging resistance to oppression sporadically throughout history. Prostitution came under harsher regulations
during the Victorian era and even more so in times of war, as prostitutes were blamed for the venereal
diseases prevalent among soldiers. As we see in Chapter 7, the current discourses and laws regulating sex
work are framed by these puritanical campaigns that sought to regulate the morality and hygiene of prostitutes
and led to the making of an outcast group.2
Historical constructions of ‘the prostitute’ in literature, media, political and official discourses have been
fascinated with the ‘whore’ image which has dominated the cultural imagination. Pheterson (1989: 231) neatly
summarizes: ‘The prostitute is the prototype of the stigmatized woman’ defined by unchastity which casts her
status as impure. The ‘prostitute’, or the ‘whore’, is contrasted to the female mirror image of the ‘Madonna’
which portrays the image of pure femininity: that is, sacred and holy. The ‘Madonna/whore’ binary projects the
status of the prostitute woman as a failed example of womanhood, defined by her immoral sexual behaviours,
and someone to be avoided (Pheterson, 1993).
O’Neill (2001: 124–53) argues that the status and representation of the prostitute in the public imagination
are maintained through and by a set of self-sustaining discourses which are part of the representation of
women more generally from tradition to modernity and postmodernity. Moreover, it is important to look at
the cultural texts that symbolically represent the prostitute through time. On the one hand, the prostitute is
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made morally reprehensible, a victim, impure, depraved and suffering marginalization and ‘whore stigma’
(Pheterson, 1989) and, on the other, she is a body-object of fascination and desire. We can find many
examples of the aestheticization of female sex workers that include fantasies and desires associated with the
‘whore’ and the purchase of sex (Corbin, 1990; Stallybrass and White, 1986). In current times, prostitution
is seen as part of a postmodern leisure phenomenon, yet ‘One response to the diseased/adored, menace/
remedy dichotomy of the “prostitute” is the formal and informal regulation of prostitution’ (O’Neill, 2001: 130).
Currently women working as prostitutes are perceived as ‘bad girls’, contravening norms of acceptable
femininity, and increasingly criminalized by state, policing practices and the lack of effective action taken by
policy-makers to address the complexities of women’s and men’s lives in the broader context of poverty,
globalization and capitalism and an understanding that, in consumer capitalism, ‘sex sells’. Some aspects of
sex workers’ experiences are not so different from the experiences of prostitutes in earlier centuries. Social
stigma, social exclusion and reduced personal safety are central to the lived experience of sex workers as
they have been throughout the documented history of prostitution. Yet, with the opening up of sex markets
and a growth in the commercial sex industry, especially in relation to the ‘adult entertainment’ industry, one
would expect a loosening of regulation and control – however, this is not so, as we see in Chapter 7. How
then might we theorize prostitution and what do sociology and criminology offer?
Theorizing Prostitution
Prostitution is an inherently social activity (Matthews and O’Neill, 2003). Davis (1937: 744) asks, ‘Why is
it that a practice so thoroughly disapproved, so widely outlawed in western civilisation, can yet flourish so
universally?’ In his article in the American Sociological Review, he presents a functionalist approach: that the
complexity of buying and selling sex boils down to the fact that as an institution, prostitution serves a useful
function – it is a ‘necessary evil’. Alongside the ‘functional’ approach is the pathological approach developed
by Lombroso and Ferrero. Criminal Woman, the Prostitute and the Normal Woman, originally published
in Italian in 1893 offers a pathological approach to why some women sell sex. Lombroso is considered a
founding father of criminology, bringing scientific methods to the study of crime. Lombroso’s theory of the
atavistic offender, is that a criminal is born, not made, a throwback to earlier, more primitive times, bearing
the evidence on their bodies of small heads, heavy jaws and more body hair than their ‘normal’ counterparts.
Criminal Woman … was a key text, and still inspires some scholars of biological positivism. Female prostitutes
had the smallest cranial capacity of all female offenders – even lower than ‘lunatics’. ‘Almost all anomalies
occur in prostitutes than in female criminals, and both categories have more degenerative characteristics than
do normal women’ (Lombroso and Ferrero, 2004: 8). The argument goes that the propensity for evil in criminal
women far surpasses that of criminal men.
Mary McIntosh (1978), arguing against functional and pathological models, provides a more rigorous
sociological analysis, asking why should it be that men demand sexual services and women supply them
especially in so-called ‘liberated times’. For McIntosh, the answer resides, in part, in the ideology of male
sexual needs. Taking an ethnographic approach, Hoigard and Finstad (1992) argue that it is involvement in
criminal sub-cultural milieus that leads some people into sex work. Eileen McLeod’s (1982) feminist socialist
research develops the sub-cultural theory by arguing that it is economic conditions that shape involvement
in sex work. ‘Women’s generally disadvantaged position in the context of capitalist society is central to their
experience as prostitutes … Women’s entry into prostitution is characterised by an act of resistance to the
experience of relative poverty or the threat of it’ (1982: 26). McLeod’s research highlights the experiences of
sex workers who explain the economic reasons for their sexual labour:
I do it purely for the money. I did work for six years as an office junior and in factories and then I became
unemployed. When I was out of work I was at a friend’s house when one of her clients called and he said ‘I
like your friend!’ I was really desperate and that is how I got into it.
(1982: 26)
Feminist analysis has developed since McLeod’s early work and incorporates and develops sub-cultural as
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well as economic/poverty analyses with theories of patriarchy, as well as sex worker rights and more complex
understandings of the multiple subject positions of women who sell sex (O’Neill, 2001, 2007a).
In the initial stages of feminist analysis of prostitution in contemporary society, prostitution was treated in a
reductionist way as a deviant activity, and as sexual slavery (see Barry, 1979; Dworkin, 1981; Hoigard and
Finstad, 1992; Jarvinen, 1993). More recently it has been treated as an understandable (and reasonable)
response to socioeconomic need within the context of consumer culture, and within a social framework which
privileges male sexuality (Green et al., 1997; Hoigard and Finstad, 1992; McClintock, 1992; McIntosh, 1978;
McLeod, 1982; O’Connell Davidson, 1998; O’Neill, 2001; Pheterson, 1986; Phoenix, 1999). Feminist work in
this latter area has mostly focused upon violence against women, sexuality and/or the pornography debate
(see Hanmer and Maynard, 1987; Hanmer et al., 1989; Hanmer and Saunders, 1984; Segal and McIntosh,
1992). Jo Brewis and Stephen Linstead have produced an interesting exploration of the temporal organization
of sex work in relation to the labour process (1998); and Jackie West has explored the politics of regulating
sex work focusing upon comparative analysis between Australia, New Zealand, the Netherlands and the UK
West’s analysis explores the complex intersections between local politics, sex worker collectives and
regulatory contexts marked by increasing differentiation within prostitution and a blurring of the boundaries
between legalization and decriminalization. There are complex implications for sex workers, including sex
worker discourse having substantial impact (but not radical transformative change) under certain conditions.
For example, these include opening up debates on labour law reform; the significance of sex worker discourse
upon local initiatives such as zoning in Utrecht; a combination of industry growth and legalization encouraging
investment; and the links between mainstream leisure industries and prostitution becoming more extensive.
West’s analysis focuses upon the impact of sex worker discourse, and the influence sex worker collectives
have on the changing regulation of prostitution. The impact of sex worker discourse is an important and undertheorized aspect of the sociology of prostitution, as we see in Chapter 6.
Phoenix (1999: 3) argues that involvement in prostitution is made possible for some women by the social
and material conditions in which they live. In her ethnographic work she explored the structural influences
operating on individual women and the subjective symbolic landscape within which their involvement in
prostitution was made meaningful. Similarly, O’Neill (2001, 2007b, 2008) problematizes feminist theorizing
and feminist research, specifically the epistemological and methodological issues involved in knowledge
production and recommends that we develop more participatory, constellational and hybrid ways of doing
and re-presenting research with women and young people working as prostitutes. This may include working
through participatory action research and using creative methodologies with performance artists and/or
photographers. She also problematizes the categories ‘prostitute’ and ‘prostitution’ by drawing upon selfreflexive ethnographic accounts of women’s lived experiences, the available literature and fictive or cultural
texts to explore neglected gender issues, especially around subjectivities and difference.
Sanders (2005 a, 2008a) has developed a feminist analysis of the contemporary sex industry focusing upon
violence, off-street working, exiting and clients. Sanders is one of a number of sex worker theorists who
combine activist work with sociological and criminological analysis. Moving away from framing prostitution
as ‘deviant’ and drawing heavily on individuals’ experiences and narratives about their involvement in sexual
labour, Sanders notes the similarities between sex work as a profession with other forms of body and emotion
Yet, despite the richness of the feminist literature, two polarized feminist perspectives emerge as the most
salient and are subsequently represented in public discourses. The arguments are reduced to a small number
of basic assertions which avoid the complexities of prostitution. First, women working as prostitutes are
exploited by those who manage and organize the sex industry (mostly men). Moreover, prostitution and
the wider sex industry serve to underpin and reinforce prostitution as a patriarchal institution that affects
all women and gendered relations. Second, in contemporary society, prostitution for many women is freely
chosen as a form of work, and women working in the sex industry deserve the same rights and liberties as
other workers including freedom from fear, exploitation and violence in the course of their work. Additionally,
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sex work or erotic labour can actually be a ‘liberatory terrain for women’ (Chapkis, 1997: 1). Both perspectives
are overly simplistic and ignore the relevance of economic circumstances and inequalities between men and
women, as well as the diversity of workers in the industry.
Prostitution has been the subject of ongoing feminist debate between radical, socialist, liberal, neo-liberal and
postmodern feminists for many years. How did these binaries emerge? One point of commonality across the
binary positions is that modes of regulation have been exercised on the bodies of women selling sex both in
the UK and Europe as well as across the globe (Bullough and Bullough, 1987; Corbin, 1987, 1990; Finnegan,
1979; Lim, 1998; Meil Hobson, 1990; O’Connell Davidson, 1998; Roberts, 1992; Truong, 1990; Walkowitz,
1980). So, it is across the bodies of sex workers that feminist debates play out. It must be pointed out that the
theory as well as the policy has consistently concentrated on the ‘female’ body in relation to prostitution: male
sex workers and transgendered sex workers have not been problematized through these theoretical binaries
in the same way that gender and power relations have been central to theoretical frameworks that attempt
to understand prostitution. It is the female body, and the use of a woman’s sexuality and sexual body, that
become the focus for theory and consequentially, policy.
Feminist Debates on ‘The Prostitute Body’
Prostitution became an ideological and political target of early wave feminists who sought to address the
inequalities of a patriarchal culture which disadvantaged women in all areas of public and private life. Early
Western feminist theorizing on prostitution looked upon the place of the female body as ‘a female object’.
The 1970s saw a further turn as the social construction of gender became the latest lens through which
women’s position in society and culture could be understood. A critique of the differences between sex and
gender was strengthened by ‘feminisms of difference’ (such as women of colour, lesbians, and women in the
sex industry). This critique of the essentialist position of the reproductive female role promoted a view that
minimizes difference between the sexes. This allows a new perspective on how bodies can be viewed and
disassociated from biology. It is within these wider feminist discussions that theorizing about prostitution also
Bell (1994: 2) examined how the ‘othering’ of the ‘prostitute body’ was evident in the discursive construction
of ‘the prostitute’ across a spectrum of historical periods and information sources from Plato, to feminism, and
media portraits. Bell documents how there has been a continual construction of ‘the prostitute’ body through
a process of ‘othering’. This has been done by contrasting the failed prostitute body with some primary image
of female perfection: good/bad; healthy/diseased; agent/victim.
Bell (1994: 12) notes that ‘the prostitute body was produced as an identity and prostitution as a deviant
sexuality’. This is very evident in the medical and legal discourses amongst popular texts in the 1900s (such
as Freud, Havelock Ellis, William Acton). From analysing these texts, Bell concludes: ‘The prostitute body was
produced as a negative identity by the bourgeois subject, an empty symbol filled from the outside with the
debris of the modern body/body politic, a sign to women to sublimate their libidinal body in their reproductive
body’ (1994: 72). In short, Bell states that the enduring image of the failed prostitute body is a symbol and
signal to all other women in society to act up to the reproductive sex role of ‘the female’ and to suppress
other forms of desire. There was a continuation of the ‘othering’ of the prostitute body beyond male writers,
commentators and decision makers in the second wave of feminism in the 1980s.
Second wave feminists looked at prostitution in relation to wider gender relations in society, in particular, the
oppressive institutions that existed which ultimately gave men control over women. Pateman (1988) wrote in
The Sexual Contract that the marriage contract was fundamental to patriarchy as it was a socially acceptable
way that men could get access to women’s bodies. Pateman saw that prostitution was an extension of this
form of oppression, and that the institution of prostitution gave men privileged access to purchase the sexual
acts of women. Pateman states: ‘Prostitution is an integral part of patriarchal capitalism … men can buy
sexual access to women’s bodies in the capitalist market’ (1988: 189). Pateman goes further by stating what
she terms ‘the contractarian’ perspective on prostitution: that the prostitution contract is a free exchange
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between a prostitute and a customer and that it can be considered a trade. Pateman then goes on to
contest this argument by relying on a traditional Marxist perspective that condemns capitalism for the status
and position of wage labourers. Pateman compares the prostitution sexual contract to that of the ordinary
employment contract between a wage labourer and an employer. She states that the prostitution contract
comes to symbolize everything that is wrong in the employment contract. The image of the prostitute mirrors
the status of the wage labourer and ‘patriarchal capitalism is pictured as a system of universal prostitution’
(1988: 201). Other writers supported this view that prostitution was ultimately the oppression of women,
whether these accounts were arrived at via an economic argument (Pateman), or were simply stated from
a gender and power perspective. For example, MacKinnon (1987, 1989) argued that prostitution was the
extreme example of how society constructs female sexuality as only an object of male desire.
There have been criticisms of these feminist perspectives. Pateman (1988) accepts the separation of women
into (bad) prostitutes and (good) wives, continuing the ‘othering’ of women. Scoular (2004a: 345) concludes
how this ‘domination theory’ over-determines gendered power dynamics and reduces prostitution and women
just to their sex acts. Scoular goes on to note that this essentializes women and ‘fails to move outside the
phallocentric imaginary’ (2004a: 345). Further, the radical feminist theories reduce women’s identity to a
single trait, regardless of the structural effects of money, culture and race.
The radical feminist arguments have been developed since the 1980s and appear in more recent feminist
arguments that connect prostitution to sexual slavery and the overall oppression of women on a local and
global level. Barry (1995) defines prostitution as sexual exploitation: ‘when the human being is reduced to a
body, objectified to sexually service another, whether or not there is consent, violation of the human being
has taken place’. Barry describes a four-stage process in which prostitution becomes sexual exploitation: (1)
distancing; (2) disengagement; (3) dissonance; and (4) disembodiment. It is these stages, Barry argues, that
objectify the female body and separate sex from the human being. Similar arguments about the theoretical
contradiction that women can consent to prostitution when it is fundamentally sexual exploitation have been
made by Raymond (1999), Farley (2004) and Jeffreys (1997). Further, Farley (2005) puts forward theoretical
arguments that state that prostitution is always harmful to both the women who ‘prostitute’ themselves and
women’s position in society in general. More recently, Jeffreys (2008) argues that states which have legalized
prostitution, or made provisions for regulation, are acting as pimps and are continuing the male domination of
This argument has come to be known as the abolitionist or prohibitionist perspective because the solutions
focus only on the eradication of prostitution, concentrate on the suffering and victimization of women and
argue that because the nature of prostitution commodifies the body for the use of men, there can be no
consent. This reading of victimization states that a woman can never be a ‘sex worker’ because she is turned
into a ‘sex object’ by structural and power inequalities between men and women (Barry, 1979; Dworkin, 1996).
Theoretical perspectives that locate oppression and violence in the intrinsic nature of prostitution are
somewhat supported by the evidence of the difficulties and distress associated with some types of sex work.
Few scholars would argue about the connections between some forms of sex work – particularly street level
– with violence, murder (Kinnell, 2008), drug use (May and Hunter, 2006; Surratt et al, 2004), homelessness
(McNaughton and Sanders, 2007), poor health (Jeal and Salisbury, 2004), and other indicators of social
deprivation. However, despite these realities, motivations and consequences of abuse and addiction being
part of the story for some people, there have been long-standing criticisms of making simplistic links between
the survival strategies of sex work with a lack of choice, consent or voluntarism (Phoenix, 2007/8). The
negative elements of prostitution are only one side of the story, as those involved in sex work express a
diverse range of experiences, many far removed from stories of abuse, coercion and control.
Critiques of the Victimhood Perspective
Bell (1994) analyses the narratives of Pateman and MacKinnon and concludes that these writings and
perspectives which became dominant in the 1980s, actually reproduce ‘the prostitute body’. Bell argues that
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this line of thinking which locates the prostitute as a powerless victim within a masculine discourse actually
silences the voices of women, refuses to acknowledge women’s agency and results in the reproduction of
‘the prostitute body’. Equally, as Maher (2000: 1) notes, taking the position that woman who sell sex are only
victims, powerless and not in control of their circumstances leaves women ‘devoid of choice, responsibility,
or accountability’. In addition, in terms of thinking about workable solutions and approaches to managing
prostitution from a policy perspective, the pursuit of eradication does not provide a viable solution to address
wider social inequalities. Consequently, the ‘victimhood’ perspective has been greeted with challenges from
other branches of feminist thought and women’s rights groups.
There are strong arguments against the idea that women cannot consent to prostitution. Empirical evidence
from studies which examine the relationships that sex workers have with their clients identifies how the
transfer of power from the sex worker to the client is not always done in such a way that the client has
complete control over the worker (see Hart and Barnard, 2003). Bodily exclusion zones (Sanders, 2005b),
and strategies to separate out selling sexual services exist, preventing ‘selling the self (Brewis and Linstead,
2000b) as others would imply.
There are indeed other important dynamics to consider in the prostitution relationship. Factors of class, power
relations and wealth all interplay with gender and race relations to influence the client-sex worker relationship.
In the case of prostitution, O’Connell Davidson (2002) criticizes the social and political inequalities that form
the basis of market relations that underpin prostitution. Questioning whether sexual capacities constitute
property that can be legitimately offered as a commercial transaction, O’Connell Davidson (2002: 85)
highlights the complexities of labour, and in particular sexual labour, as a ‘transfer of powers of command
over the person’. Arguing from a Marxist perspective, O’Connell Davidson (1998) describes how labour is not
separate from the person but through the process of buying labour, the purchaser has direct power over the
person. This argument leads O’Connell Davidson to argue that prostitution is
an institution which allows certain powers of command over one person’s body to be exercised by another …
he pays in order that he may command the prostitute to make body orifices available to him, to smile, dance
or dress up for him, to whip, spank, massage him or masturbate him.
(1998: 10)
O’Connell Davidson offers a more sophisticated examination of the relationships of power that exist in the
prostitution relationship. Her concerns are more about the conditions under which women can make choices
and the fact that there is often an imbalance of power in the transaction between sellers and buyers of sex.
This raises some more interesting questions about how power plays out in transactions between women and
Shifting Ideas: Agency, Choice and Difference
The feminist rift that began between the radical feminists and the radical/cultural feminists in the late 1960s
and early 1970s found a new battlefield in prostitution discourse. The emergence of second wave feminism
signalled the development of the sex worker rights discourse to counteract other arguments promoted by
radical feminism which some ‘sex positive’ feminists would argue have been damaging to the position of
women and even dangerous for the experiences, livelihoods and political power of women in the sex industry.
Emerging arguments from the 1970s spoke out against the ‘victimization’ of sex workers’ perspectives but
instead put forward a perspective that was based on human rights, sexual freedom and diversity amongst
women’s experiences.
This ideological shift was symbolized by a change in language, as the use of the word ‘prostitute’ was
considered problematic because it separated out this category of women from all women, and explained
her existence only through her identity as a ‘prostitute’. The word ‘prostitute’ was also a legal term which
signalled crime, deviance, and the need for ‘reformation’. This term also was a significant way in which stigma
continues to be directed at this group of women. The term ‘sex worker’ was coined as a way of identifying
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that sexual labour could be considered work and that the woman’s identity was not only tied up with the
performance of her body. Carol Leigh, a COYOTE (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics) member and prostitute also
known as Scarlot Harlot (see her testimonies in Delacoste and Alexander, 1987), coined the term ‘sex work’ in
the 1980s to avoid the ‘connotations of shame, unworthiness or wrongdoing’ of the word prostitute and assert
‘an alternative framing that is ironically both a radical sexual identity … and a normalization of prostitutes as
“service workers” and “care-giving professionals”’ (Bernstein, 1999: 91). The new terminology solidified the
movement’s demand for recognition as workers entitled to labour rights (see Chapter 6 for further details).
This debate about language has continued as the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008 proposed to
remove the word ‘common prostitute’ from law as the government recognized the stigmatizing effects of this
The backlash against radical feminist ideas centres on the notion that by constructing women involved in
prostitution as only ‘victims’, the objects of male oppression and passive in their own lives, the ‘agency’
of women is denied. This argument about ‘agency’ essentially refers to women’s free will and their ability
to make decisions about their circumstances and how they use their bodies. What has come to be known
as the ‘choice’ argument strongly acknowledges that women can recognize the constraints they face by
the structures around them (for instance, economic structures such as job opportunities and oppressive
conditions caused by poverty or living on welfare benefits). This perspective does not wholeheartedly or
simplistically assert that women choose to work in the sex industry in the way that they may decide on a
career as a beautician or nurse. The routes to which women enter into prostitution are varied (see Chapter
3), but recognizing elements of consent and choice are key to this ‘sex work’ argument. Phoenix (2000:
38) states that there are certain conditions through which women are sustained in prostitution, therefore,
for some women, prostitution ‘makes sense’ within their limited economic, social and material conditions.
Findings from observations of Chicago’s ghettos suggest that sex work is a rational ‘resource exchange’ for
men and women who are part of an overall low-wage economy, where life is structured by persistent poverty,
risks and destitution (Rosen and Venkatesh, 2008). These authors argue that ‘sex work offers just enough
money, stability, autonomy, and professional satisfaction’ rendering the decision as rational within the context
of their lives (2008: 418). Within the recognitions of structure (e.g. wanting to change the poor conditions they
experience, or wanting to provide a better life for their families), and by recognizing opportunities to use sexual
and body labour in the sex industry, women make choices about entering and working in the sex industry.
The nuances of this argument are important as scholars define this theoretical position beyond the simple
concept of ‘free will’. Chapkis (1997: 67), for instance, explains how some women make an informed ‘rational
choice’ to work in prostitution, rather than a ‘free choice’, available to few individuals in a society that is
structured hierarchically by race, sex and class. Kesler (2002: 223) summarizes that women may not be
presented with a free choice, absent from constraints of opportunity, but ultimately all non-prostitute women
who make decisions about entering into marriage or employment do so within a particular set of constraints
under the present patriarchal capitalist system. It is within these wider contexts of women making decisions
about their circumstances, survival and future that some theorists move away from the radical feminist
perspective that reduces prostitution to sexual exploitation and force.
The debates about agency and choice are intensified when discussing the situation of women in developing
countries who make stark choices between extreme poverty, starvation and the likely infection of HIV; and
using their sexual bodies to survive (Evans and Lambert, 1997; Wojcicki and Malala, 2001). Campbell (2000:
479) conducted research with sex workers in a South African gold mining community and concluded that
to speak only of sex workers’ powerlessness is ‘unduly simplistic’. Law (2000: 98) describes how women
in South-East Asia migrate around the province to work in sex tourism destinations. Yet these women are
constructed by many official agencies as passive victims who are being coerced and trafficked across borders
into prostitution rather than considering that women are actively responding to their poor economic situation
and the wider economic infrastructure of a neo-colonial country.
Many protagonists of the ‘sex as work’ and ‘choice’ perspectives have come from the sex work community
and the testimonies of sex workers play an important part in these perspectives. Nagel (1997: 2) and other
feminists who work as porn actresses, peep show workers, and sex providers recognize that their certain
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‘economic and racial privilege’ means their participation in the sex trade is by choice, yet there are many
women for whom this is not the case. It is in the testimonies of sex workers that the diversity of experience
is real. Testimonies range from exploitation, coercion, survival strategies, to women who place themselves
somewhere along the ‘choice’ spectrum (see, for example, the collections by Delacoste and Alexander, 1987,
and Nagel, 1997).
The shifts in theoretical thinking relating to women involved in the sex industry are evident through the
political positions and grassroots activities of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and advocacy groups.
Law (2000) who researched sex workers and assistance agencies in South-East Asia (Bali, the Philippines
and Thailand) saw how the discursive practices, attitudes and activities of NGOs that carry out HIV/AIDS
programmes are in the process of shifting away from the dominant idea that the ‘prostitute’ is always the
victim. These changes stem from practical priorities to ‘empower’ women to protect themselves from HIV and
keep themselves safe. Such priorities have been attacked by those against the harm reduction perspective
as taking a more ‘agency-centred’ approach to participatory education that has been viewed as encouraging
prostitution by some who believe in the ‘victimhood perspective’.
The Limitations of ‘Sex as Work’
The ‘sex as work’ discourse (see Brewis and Linstead, 2000a) that prioritizes attention to the skills, labour,
emotional work and physical presentations that the sex worker performs, has been the theoretical
underpinning of legal and social changes that have made provisions for legitimate sex work. There has
been some progress made by the sex workers’ rights movement and in some countries (Germany and New
Zealand, for example) working conditions and employment rights have been achieved (see Chapter 6). Yet
in countries such as the UK, where sex workers face criminalization rather than the recognition of rights, the
notion of ‘sex as work’ becomes further problematized at a theoretical and practical level.
There are striking differences between prostitution and mainstream employment such as the significant
likelihood for sex workers of being robbed, attacked, raped or even killed (Kinnell, 2008). It is on the issue
of violence that O’Connell Davidson (1998: 64) draws out the reasons why sex work is not like other
occupations. She points out there are other professionals, such as plumbers, sales personnel, and estate
agents who enter houses alone to meet strangers, and occasionally we hear of violence or even fatalities.
Only in sex work is it prevalent that if a customer is unhappy, he will beat, rape or murder the service
provider because ‘there is no popular moral doctrine which tolerates hostility towards “dirty plumbers” only
“dirty whores”’ (O’Connell Davidson, 1998: 64). The lack of social acceptance of ‘sex workers’, in both cultural,
social and political terms, means that women who work in all areas of the sex industry are still affected by
the social stigma that is connected to the ‘whore stigma’. Thompson and Harred (1992) and Thompson et
al. (2003) uses comparative research with women who work as strippers a decade apart to demonstrate the
continued negative attitudes, stigma and destabilizing effects of working in what is still considered a ‘deviant’
occupation. It is this evidence, despite whether consent and choice have been exercised, that makes working
in the sex industry different from working in mainstream occupations which have legitimacy and acceptance
even if they mirror the activities that happen in the sex industry.
Beyond Binaries
Models of ‘victim’ or ‘worker’ have also been criticized because they tend to ‘dichotomize agency’ (Maher,
2000: 1) and ignore the complexity of power and resistance that defines the sex worker’s experience.
Empirical findings from a study of homeless women in an English city, half of whom had engaged in streetlevel sex work, argue that women’s motivations were in part related to systemic familial abuse and coercive,
abusive partners (Harding and Hamilton, 2008). However, the interpretation of these life circumstances
argues that locating the consequences of ‘abuse’ and ‘coercion’ should not necessarily mean victimhood, as
this framework misunderstands the women’s positions and therefore any practical assistance (such as social
work) intervenes from the wrong starting point. Instead, the authors argue that ‘respecting a woman’s decision
to sex work, however diminished her ability to choose for herself might be, is crucial in demonstrating a nonPage 9 of 12
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judgemental attitude towards vulnerable women’ (Harding and Hamilton, 2008: 15).
There are alternative ways of understanding the place of vulnerable people in the sex industry without
adopting either the ‘exploitation’ or ‘choice’ argument. Phoenix and Oerton (2005: 97) criticize the unidimensional simplification that reduces involvement in prostitution to victimhood. These authors argue that
while it may appear that defining women in the sex industry as ‘victims’ may suggest they will be provided
with more assistance and welfare interventions, on the contrary, the recent (regurgitated) official discourse
of ‘victimhood’ justifies government regulation, criminalization and exclusion of women and children involved
in prostitution. They argue that this happens for two reasons: (1) the rhetoric of victimhood is used to blame
individuals for their own situation (for instance, they are involved and stay in prostitution because they are
victims); and (2) in order to blame individuals, the concepts of ‘consent’, ‘voluntarism’ and ‘coercion’ are
simplified. This means that official agencies who adopt the ‘victimhood’ approach can use the argument
that women are ‘choosing’ to stay in prostitution, and therefore can mobilize sanctions, disposal orders,
compulsory drug treatment and other ‘orders’ to change behaviour through the criminal justice system (see
Chapter 7).
The further problem of the ‘victimhood’ philosophy is that the approach makes individual women responsible
for the existence of prostitution (and in local areas this is reduced to names and lists of ‘prolific street
prostitutes’ who are to be removed). The wider social implications and reasons for the existence of the
sex industry are not addressed as part of any solutions, but instead the ‘social problems’ of prostitution
become individualized to ‘problem women’ (see Scoular and O’Neill, 2007). Scoular and O’Neill challenge the
ideological effects of policy, practice and representations that mark prostitutes out as stigmatized Others and
argue for a politics of inclusion that brings sex workers into research, debates and dialogue as subjects (not
The Wider Context of Work
West and Austrin (2002) note that gender relations, sexuality and work, which are central dynamics of the sex
industry, become overlooked in theoretical debates as the preoccupation tends to be bifurcation of exploitation
or choice. Instead they call for a more nuanced approach to understanding the sex industry through the lens of
work, occupations and networks. Drawing on the work of Adkins (1995) and McDowell (1997) amongst other
scholars, West and Austrin (2002: 486) argue that gender relations in the context of the sex industry need to
be understood in terms of the production of identities and the wider networks in which the markets operate.
Taking on this criticism of the way in which the sex industry is studied, Sanders (2008c) examines how
there are ancillary industries that support the sex industry, providing a robust and ever-expanding informal
economy around the sex industry. Six ancillary industries that facilitate and support the sex markets are
sketched: premises, advertising, security, transport, presentation, recreation and hospitality. These supporting
industries provide work for both men and women who are not sex workers but provide services and facilitate
the operation of the sex industry.
A Sociology of Sex Work
Scoular (2004a) reviews how different feminist theorists who assume a range of positions offer a spectrum of
interpretations on the subject of prostitution. By reviewing different theoretical lenses, Scoular (2004a: 343)
concludes that prostitution cannot be viewed in just one way but is contingent on a ‘diversity of structures
under which it materializes’. An example of the localized climates and conditions under which people who
work in the sex industry understand their experiences is explored in the collection of works by Kempadoo and
Doezema (1998). This collection debates and recognizes the complex conditions under which sexual labour
is exchanged. Their concentration on non-Western perspectives of sex work highlights how the transnational,
socio-cultural and economic structures that operate at a global level are influenced by the local context of
lifestyles, familiar patterns, sexual norms and values, experiences of racism, colonial histories and sexism.
Other forms of power beyond those of gendered inequalities need to be central to any theorizing about the
rights and wrongs of prostitution. With these differences at the forefront, Scoular calls for a ‘discursive space
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for a transformative feminist theory which seeks to utilize the disruptive potential of the counter-hegemonic
and “resisting” subject to challenge hierarchical relations’ (2004a: 352).
Weitzer (2000: 3) calls the differences in the feminist arguments the ‘sex war’ between ‘sex objects vs.
sex workers’. The differences in perspectives somewhat reflect the diversity of the sex industry and the
complexities of situational experiences which are influenced by the local and global context. This statement
by a peep show worker sums up how there cannot be any generalizations made and how rigid standpoints
that refuse to recognize diversity fall short of any complete explanation of the nature of the sex industry,
exploitation, consent and choice:
There is no standard sex worker. Each woman has her own reasons for working, her own responses of
boredom, pleasure, power and/or trauma, her own ideas about the work and her place in it. This work can
be oppression or freedom; just another assembly-line job; an artistic act that also pays well; comic relief from
street realities; healing social work for an alienated culture. What is at work within each woman that lets her
accommodate this situation? Intense denial, infallible sense of humor, co-dependency, incredible strength, a
liquid sense of self? The only safe thing to say is that we’re all in it for the money.
(Funari, 1997: 28)
Perhaps the future of building theoretical frameworks through which the sex industry can be understood
is in the fertile, international social movements that exist around the sex industry. It is in identity politics
which speaks from the hearts and experiences of those involved in working, managing, and living within
the sex industry, that the complexity of the issues are most evident. Whilst macro structural forces affect all
our opportunities for work, economic survival and lifestyle choices, there are variables such as geography,
gender, class, and ethnicity that are equally as powerful in determining our choices. In addition, the state,
with its both oppressive and transformative mechanisms, is a crucial dynamic that affects the status of sex
workers, especially their exposure to vulnerability, violence and stigma.
1 These discourses are taken up in more detail in Chapter 7 with reference to prostitution as a crime against
morality and the subsequent regulatory discourses and practices enshrined in law.
2 This paragraph was written by Susan Lopez-Embury.
Suggested Reading
Doezema, J. (2001) ‘Ouch! Western feminists’ “wounded attachment” to the “third world prostitute”’, Feminist
Review, 67 (Spring): 16–38.
Kesler, K. (2002) ‘Is a feminist stance in support of prostitution possible? An exploration of current trends’,
Sexualities, 5 (2): 219–35.
O’Connell Davidson, J. (2002) ‘The rights and wrongs of prostitution’, Hypatia, 17 (2): 84–98.
Raymond, J.G. (1999) ‘Prostitution as violence against women’, Women’s International Forum, 21 (1): 1–9.
Scoular, J. (2004) ‘The “subject” of prostitution: interpreting the discursive, symbolic and material position of
sex/work in feminist theory’, Feminist Theory, 5 (3): 343–55.
Study Questions
Level One
• What are the historical constructions of ‘the prostitute’ body and how can these be criticized?
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Level Two
• What are the differences between first and second wave feminist perspectives on prostitution?
Level Three
• Why is the dichotomy between ‘choice and exploitation’ not always a useful theoretical framework
through which to understand the complexities of sex workers’ lives?

sex work
sex industry
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