Prostitution, Harm and Gender Inequality: Theory, Research and Policy

Prostitution, Harm and Gender Inequality: Theory, Research and Policy

Prostitution, Harm and Gender Inequality: Theory, Research and Policy

Prostitution, Harm and Gender Inequality: Theory, Research and Policy


Prostitution, Harm and Gender Inequality brings together international research exploring the range of gendered harms to women involved in prostitution and the consequences of growth of the sex industry for global gender relations. While there is an increasing amount of research and academic output on prostitution, the current focus is often on discussion and critique of policy frameworks, and contemporary debates over harm are largely limited to sex trafficking and sexual exploitation of children. Less attention is paid to questions of how the sex industry perpetuates notions of objectification and male entitlement with respect to sexual access to women's bodies, despite being key feminist concerns for several decades. This position has become effectively marginalized, but the global growth and industrialization of the sex industry requires a return to these questions. Through exploring gendered inequality and re-engaging with an understanding of prostitution as harmful with impacts on the self and body that are experienced as abusive but do not always constitute violence, this book introduces a range of research and thinking, while also drawing on existing literature to explore the consequences of prostitution for women in the sex industry and wider gender relations. These issues are discussed with regard to: coercion and recruitment, including trafficking; notions of male entitlement in accounts of men who buy sex; critical interrogations of agency and choice; legal and policy frameworks; and representations of prostitution in popular culture.


Maddy Coy

This collection brings together theoretical, research and policy perspectives that explore harms of prostitution as a practice of gender inequality. While there is an often disguised consensus across different positions that prostitution is a ‘conducive context’ (Kelly 2007) for violence, questions about long-term visions and approaches revolve around whether prostitution is itself harmful. Emergent awareness of trafficking of women and children for sexual exploitation, and urgency to formulate law and policy interventions, have thrown these ‘fault lines’ of debate into the spotlight (Miriam 2005: 1; Kelly 2003). There are at least two contested layers here: the first relates to the question of whether prostitution itself is harmful for the bodily integrity and autonomy of women who sell sex, or harms are created by the conditions in which prostitution operates. For many, including contributors here, there is no simple dichotomy, no either/or, rather it is a both/and; criminalization and stigmatization of women involved in prostitution intensifies harm and discrimination. The second layer of contestation is about what it means for women’s bodies to be commodified in order to serve men’s sexual desires, and thus to what extent the existence of prostitution is an obstacle to gender equality. Both layers are addressed throughout chapters in this collection.

There is, however, no single critique of prostitution. Just as there is a range of perspectives and voices within a framing of prostitution as work, there are more nuanced questions and explorations at stake than the term ‘oppression paradigm’ (Weitzer 2009) allows for. Not least, reactionary right-wing moral discourses are all too often conflated with critical feminist analyses. This collection offers space for progressive perspectives grounded in analyses of gendered power inequalities. Linked through this overarching lens, there are, however, differing vantage points among the authors. As Karen Boyle (2010: 5) has noted with respect to feminist critiques of pornography, to share a value position, or make contributions that are relevant to one, is not to follow a ‘party line’. The platform for differing voices offered by Prostitution, Harm and Gender Inequality is similarly recognition that it is ‘important to give visibility to the possibility of resistance’ (Boyle 2010: 5).

The term ‘prostitution’ here refers to the activities that comprise the majority of commercial sex: ‘heterosexual sexual exchanges, with men buying the sexual services of women, within a set of social relations implying unequal power relationships between the two sexes’ (Outshoorn 2004a: 3). For the most part . . .

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