Reconceptualizing prostitution


Kamala Kempadoo

Over the past 10-15 years, prostitutes have been organizing in the Latin American and Caribbean. In other regions of the world, similar organizations are taking shape. Sex worker rights groups and organizations are known to exist in Australia, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala, India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand, Nicaragua, North America, South Africa, Venezuela and various Western European countries. In all this activity, the notion of the ‘sex worker’ is inextricably related to struggles for the recognition of women’s work, for basic human rights and for decent working conditions: struggles that are not specific to prostitution and the sex trade but share much in common with women’s fights and organizing efforts for social and economic justice within other formal and informal, unregulated sectors.

By claiming the name ‘sex workers’ the social location of those engaged in the sex trade as workers is stressed. This self-definition emphasizes the flexible and varied nature of sex work as well as its similarities with other dimensions of working people’s lives. Sex work, from prostitutes’ accounts, is experienced as an integral part of many women’s and young men’s lives around the world, and not necessarily as the sole defining activity around which their sense of self or identity is shaped. Moreover, commercial sex work, according to prostitutes own definitions, is not always a steady activity, but may occur simultaneously with other forms of income-generating work such as informal commercial trading, market-selling, shoe-shining or office work. It can also be quite short-lived or be a part of an annual cycle of work.

In most cases sex work is not for individual wealth but for the family well-being or survival; for working class women to clothe, feed and educate their children, for young women and men to sustain themselves when the family income is inadequate. For many, sex work means migration away from their home town or country. For others, it is associated with drug use, indentureship or debt-bondage. For the majority, participation in sex work entails a life in the margins due to laws that prohibit or outlaw prostitution and the stigmas attached to commercial sex.

The concept of the ‘sex worker’ emerged in the 1970s through the prostitute’s rights movement as well as feminist writings in the USA. However, it is not an exclusively western concept or idea. In the late eighties, Thanh-Dam Truong theorized the notion of ‘sexual labor’ based on her research on women’s activities in the sex tourist industries in Southeast Asia (1). She argued that activities involving purely sexual elements of the body and sexual energies must be considered as a vital part of the fulfillment of the basic human needs of procreation and bodily pleasure, and can be considered similar to mental and manual labor.

Furthermore, she pointed out, the social organization of sexual labor takes a variety of forms in different historical contexts and political economies, whereby there is no universal form or appearance of either prostitution or sex work. Wet-nursing, temple prostitution, ‘breeding’ under slavery, surrogate child-bearing, donor sex, commercial sex and biological reproduction can all be seen to be illustrations of the historical and contemporary ways in which sexual labor has been organized for the re-creation and replenishment of human and social life, all with specific cultural and social meanings and interpretations. ‘Exotic dancing’ that emerged in the 1980s in the USA, is clearly another new form of ‘sexual labor’.

Troung’s work enables us to conceptualize the trade of sex for money as involving the sale of sexual labor power and energies, not one’s body, thus paralleling prostitution with a form of waged labor.

This conceptualization of sexual labor suggests that there is nothing inherently violent or abusive about sex work (although it is widely acknowledged that sex workers can be victims of rape and sexual harassment on or off the job). Rather, that it is a resource that women and men can draw upon to fulfill their humanity.

From such theorizing, sex work is not construed as a universal or a-historical category, but as subject to change and redefinition through time. It is clearly not limited to prostitution, but certainly encompasses what is generally understood to fall under this term. However, even though human sexual and emotional resources have been organized in different ways and acquired different meanings, capital accumulation, liberal free market politics and the commodification of waged labor has transformed various social arrangements in a consistent fashion. As Louise White notes in her study of prostitution in colonial Nairobi, Kenya, “prostitution is a capitalist social relationship not because capitalism causes prostitution by commoditizing sexual relations but because wage labor is a unique feature of capitalism: capitalism commoditized labor” (2). White’s analysis suggests that commercial sex work – commodified sexual labor – is specific to a capitalist arrangement, open to the similar kinds of pressures and manipulations that any other waged labor faces. It thus forms a primary source within a capitalist economy for exploitation and wealth.

There is a persistent pattern through much of history that positions the social gendered category ‘women’ as the sellers or providers of sexual labor and ‘men’ as the group deriving profits and power from the interactions. The subordination of the female and feminine is the over-riding factor for this arrangement in a variety of cultural, national and economic contexts, producing stigmas and social condemnation of persons who defy the socially defined boundaries of womanhood.

Today the majority of the world’s sex workers are women, working within male-dominated businesses and industries, positioned in dominant discourse as social deviants. There are various trends, however, that acutely challenge the tendency to essentialize the sex worker with biological notions of gender. Thus while the social definition of the provider of sexual labor is often closely associated with specific cultural constructions of femininity, and ‘the prostitute’ is rendered virtually synonymous with ‘woman’, these gendered relations are clearly also contested and redefined in different ways throughout the world. Increasingly, ‘genetic’ men and boys engage in sex work, selling sex to both men and women in homosexual and heterosexual relations, as feminine and masculine subjects.

The concept of sex work offers a possibility of connecting prostitution and other activities in sex industries to other working women’s activities. Sexual labor is subject to exploitation within specific contexts, dependent upon political, cultural and economic influences. It can be the basis for mobilizing in struggles for working conditions, rights, and benefits and for broader resistances against the oppression of working peoples and women. The conceptualization of prostitutes, whores, strippers, lap dancers, escorts, exotic dancers etc., as ‘sex workers’ insists that working women’s common interests can be articulated within the context of broader (feminist) struggles against the devaluation of ‘women’s’ work and gender exploitation within capitalism.

Despite the marginality and vulnerability of sex workers internationally, the notion of ‘victim’ is rejected by many who are currently working or researching the sex trade. Recognizing sex worker agency is a deliberate move to position sex workers as actors in the global arena, as persons capable of making choices and decisions that lead to transformations of consciousness and to changes in everyday life.

According to Judith Kegan Gardiner the recognition of agency is integral to feminist notions of social transformation, “…that any theory that denies women ‘agency’ retards the changes in patriarchal social structure for which feminism strives, because it denies the existence of an entity to attack those structures”(3). However, even with such general acknowledgement that agency is an integral part of feminism, the idea of women’s agency in prostitution is often vehemently rejected by feminists. Prostitution appears to be one of the last sites of gender relations to be interrogated through a critical feminist lens that assumes that women are both active subjects and subjects of domination.

Kathleen Barry’s work on the trafficking of women has captured many a feminist imagination regarding Third World women and has produced an emphasis and fascination with the subject of sex slaves in developing countries. She constructs a hierarchy of stages of patriarchal and economic development, situating the trafficking of women in the first stage that “prevails in pre-industrial and feudal societies that are primarily agricultural and where women are excluded from the public sphere” and where women, she states, are the exclusive property of men (4). At the other end of the scale she places the “post-industrial, developed societies” where “women achieve the potential for economic independence” and where prostitution is normalized (5).

The Third World/Non-Western woman is positioned in this discourse as “ignorant, poor uneducated, tradition bound, domestic, family oriented, victimized, etc.” and is conceptualized as leading a “truncated” sexual life (6). She is not yet a “whole” or “developed” person, but instead resembles a minor needing guidance, assistance and help. The construct stands in opposition to that of the western woman who is believed to have (or at least has the potential to have) control over her income, body and sexuality: the emancipated, independent, post-modern woman.

Barry’s mission is to rescue those whom she considers to be incapable of self-determination. And along with this mission, goes a particular cultural definition of the meaning of sex itself. She asserts that sexual values “must be based on intimacy. Sexual experience involves the most personal, private, erotic, sensitive parts of our physical and psychic being – it is intimate in fact”(7). By positing such a blanket meaning of sex, Barry erases other cultural definitions and experiences of sexuality and sexual-economic relations, such as found in various African or Caribbean countries for example, or for Thai and Brazilian youth, and imposes a very narrow definition of sex from a strictly western bourgeois feminist notion of sex.

The conflation of trafficking with Third World women and the totalizing definition of sex that is embedded in Barry’s work has informed a plethora of activities and inquiries by women’s organizations into the subject and produced a peculiarly skewed consciousness about the sex trade. Third World women appear in all kinds of writings, from UN documents, to human rights reports, to newspaper articles, as the poor, innocent victims of trafficking and slavery. The neo-colonialism that surfaces in such representations of the lives and situations of Third world women across the globe does not, however, end with radical feminists or the anti-trafficking lobby. It has even crept into some of the more progressive prostitute’s rights debates concerning ‘forced’ and ‘voluntary’ prostitution, resulting in a negation of Third World sex workers’ rights to self-determination.

The surge of writing about the position and identity of prostitutes – both academic and political – the redefinitions that have occurred, the various subject positions that are evident in the present discourse, and the struggles for recognition and rights – have also contributed, albeit indirectly, to the creation of an hegemonic western script about prostitution.

For the most part contemporary writers on sex work construct the prostitute/sex worker from testimonies and analyses that are derived from struggles of ‘First World’ women in the US and Western Europe. While all these writings are important in uncovering prostitute politics and identities in some parts of the world, and certainly contribute to a fuller apprehension of sex work, without historicization and geo-political contextualization, they run the risk of universalizing the subject from bounded locations and experiences. Lacking an analysis of international relations and notions of differing cultural constructions and meaning of sexuality and gender, this body of literature appropriates the ‘non-western’ woman’s experience without any inquiry into the matter.

The distortion of relations between the First and Third Worlds, and privileging of the Western prostitute subject places prostitute’s rights activists and allies in danger of a political alignment with other movements that consolidate Western hegemony.

The need for feminist theory to engage with racialized sexual subjectivities in tandem with the historical weight of imperialism, colonialism and racist constructions of power has only been raised recently in the context of this feminist theorizing on prostitution. In an era when women can no longer be situated exclusively as victims, where Third World women speak for themselves in various fora, where increasingly analyses have shifted focus from simple hierarchies and dichotomies to the problematization of multiple spaces, seemingly contradictory social locations and plural sites of power, it would seem that the experiences, identities and struggles of women in the global sex trade cannot be neglected. It is in counterpoint to a North American-West European hegemony within contemporary feminist and prostitute writings about the sex trade that we must rethink and reconceptualize prostitution.

(1) Truong, Than Dam. Sex, money, and morality: the political economy of prostitution and tourism in South East Asia. London: Zed Books, 1990.
(2) White, Louise. The comforts of home: prostitution in colonial Nigeria. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990. p. 11
(3) Gardiner, Judith Kegan. Provoking agents: gender and agency in theory and practice. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1995. p. 9
(4) Barry, Kathleen. The prostitution of sexuality. New York and London: New York
University Press, 1995. p. 51
(5) Barry, 1995. p. 53
(6) Mohanty, Chandra Talpade. “Under western eyes: feminist scholarship and colonial
discourses.” In: Third World women and the politics of feminism, pp. 51-80. Ed. by
Chandra T. Mohanty, Ann Russo and Lourdes Torres. Bloomington: Indiana University
Press, 1991. p. 56
(7) Barry, Kathleen. Female sexual slavery. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1979. p. 267

Edited version of a paper presented at the 22nd Annual Conference of the Caribbean Studies Association, Baranquilla, Colombia, May 26-30, 1997.

Kamala Kempadoo is of Guyanese descent and is Assistant Professor in Women’s and Sociology at the University of Colorado, Boulder, Colorado, USA.

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