International Handbooks on Gender series
Edited by Jill Steans and Daniela Tepe
Chapter 43: The global political economy of sex work
The expansion of the global sex trade over recent decades is the subject of considerable interest and controversy in political, philosophical, sociological, legal, religious, media and medical debates. Contemporary discourse often centres on the morality (or not) of commercial sex and is framed in terms of a series of dichotomies and oppositions such as domination versus liberation, force versus consent, victimhood versus agency and violence versus pleasure. Increasingly, however, feminist scholars are carving out space to think of commercial sex not (just) as a ‘moral issue’ but (also) as a ‘political economy’ issue: that is, to interrogate the political, economic and cultural context(s) of sexual markets by placing this within the wider analysis of global power relations. Coming from a diversity of theoretical and political backgrounds, these scholars explore the complex ways in which the growth and diversification of sex markets world-wide are both produced by and productive of the structural hierarchies of global capitalism. Yet there remains significant contestation over how best to understand the political economy of commercial sex; while some authors contend that the global sexual economy serves primarily to reinforce and reproduce global inequalities, others argue that it might also represent a site of agency and even resistance. This chapter offers an overview of this debate and is structured in four parts. First, it situates the study of commercial sex within broader developments in feminist political economy. Second, it outlines the prevailing view that sex markets work to sustain and exacerbate structural inequalities.
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