Monthly Archives: April 2013

A common argument against prostitution states that selling sex is harmful because it involves selling something deeply personal and emotional. More and more of us, however, believe that sexual encounters need not be deeply personal and emotional in order to be acceptable – we believe in the acceptability of casual sex. In this paper I argue that if casual sex is acceptable, then we have few or no reasons to reject prostitution. I do so by first examining nine influential arguments to the contrary. These arguments purport to pin down the alleged additional harm brought about by prostitution (compared to just casual sex) by appealing to various aspects of its practice, such as its psychology, physiology, economics and social meaning. For each argument I explain why it is unconvincing. I then weight the costs against the benefits of prostitution, and argue that, in sum, prostitution is no more harmful than a long line of occupations that we commonly accept without hesitation.

Sealing Cheng, Sexualities January/February 2013 vol. 16 no. 1-2 30-42


We mostly learn about women in prostitution through representation by non-sex-workers: activists, policy-makers, journalists, and academics. What comes through are often hypersexualized and essentialized images of sex workers as either victims or agents. This dichotomy not only essentializes their lives but also undermines women as partners for engagement.

Against this background, what could be learned from photographs taken by women in prostitution of their everyday lives? How do they supplement or challenge existing discourses of prostitution? What do the photographers and viewers get out of such an endeavor? And finally, what do the quotidian aspects of life have to do with research on sex work and sexuality in general?

These are some of the questions this essay raises through the author’s experience of organizing an exhibition of photographs taken by women in a South Korean red-light district in 2009. The project took place at a time when these women’s lives were undergoing dramatic change at the intersection of neoliberal development and anti-trafficking projects, materialized in the demolition of the red-light district and increasing criminalization of prostitution in South Korea. Between October 2009 and April 2010, 40 of these photographs went on a traveling exhibition “Our Lives, Our Space: Views of Women in a Red-Light District” on the east coast of the USA. This article discusses some of the impact that the exhibition has had on its viewers and the photographers. It concludes by suggesting how a study of prostitution “minus the sex” could point to new avenues of sexuality studies.

The Author

Sealing Cheng received her doctorate from the Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology, Oxford University. She was then a Rockefeller postdoctoral fellow in Gender, Sexuality, Health, and Human Rights at the Mailman School of Public Health, Columbia University. In January 2005, she began teaching at Wellesley College in the US. Her research is focused on sexuality with reference to sex work, human trafficking, women’s activism, and policy-making. Her book, On the Move for Love: Migrant Entertainers and the U.S. Military in South Korea (University of Pennsylvania Press 2010) received the Distinguished Book Award of the Sexualities Section of the American Sociological Association in 2012.

Areas of Interest: Sex work, human trafficking, women’s activism, and policy-making, HIV/AIDS campaigns and policies, The Vagina Monologues and transnational feminism, the politics of representation in anti-trafficking discourses, pedagogical issues in women’s and gender studies and Asian studies.

Geographical Areas of Research: South Korea, Hong Kong SAR.

The full article is available here.

Dewey, Susan/Kelly, Patty: Policing Pleasure: Sex Work, Policy, and the State in Global Perspective, New York University Press 2011.

Mónica waits in the Anti-Venereal Medical Service of the Zona Galactica, the legal, state-run brothel where she works in Tuxtla Gutiérrez, Mexico. Surrounded by other sex workers, she clutches the Sanitary Control Cards that deem her registered with the city, disease-free, and able to work. On the other side of the world, Min stands singing karaoke with one of her regular clients, warily eyeing the door lest a raid by the anti-trafficking Public Security Bureau disrupt their evening by placing one or both of them in jail.
Whether in Mexico or China, sex work-related public policy varies considerably from one community to the next. A range of policies dictate what is permissible, many of them intending to keep sex workers themselves healthy and free from harm. Yet often, policies with particular goals end up having completely different consequences.
Policing Pleasure examines cross-cultural public policies related to sex work, bringing together ethnographic studies from around the world—from South Africa to India—to offer a nuanced critique of national and municipal approaches to regulating sex work. Contributors offer new theoretical and methodological perspectives that move beyond already well-established debates between “abolitionists” and “sex workers’ rights advocates” to document both the intention of public policies on sex work and their actual impact upon those who sell sex, those who buy sex, and public health more generally.

Steele, Sarah (2011): “’Combatting the Scourge’: Constructing the Masculine ‘Other’ through US Government Anti Trafficking Campaigns , in: Journal of Hate Studies 9(1), pp. 11-32.

PDF also available here:


The author argues that nativism, racism, and anti-immigrant sentiment presented by representatives of the U.S. government in the context of human trafficking leaves both victims and traffickers portrayed as one-dimensional criminals. Current anti-trafficking regimes embody and restate xenophobic reactions directed against illegal migrant men, while often disguising the role domestic actors have in trafficking.  Additionally, the images presented imply that traffickers are lacking in “proper” masculinity, particularly of the sort embraced by Americans.  This article not only explores how government anti-trafficking statements made between 1998 and 2010 create and reinforce divides in masculinities based on regimes of racial domination, but also notes particularly how anti-trafficking furthers the domination of white American masculinity.  The author describes the ineffectiveness of such an approach and suggests that we must move beyond racial stereotyping and the immigration frame if we hope to broaden our definitions and understandings in a way that will deepen our thinking and allow us to see those involved in this trade as multi-faceted and textured human beings, thereby allowing us to pursue social change more effectively.
Note: Access to the contents of the Journal of Hate Studies is free after registration.

Alemzadeh, Sheerine, Baring Inequality: Revisiting the Legalization Debate Through the Lens of Strippers’ Rights(February 8, 2013). Michigan Journal of Gender & Law, Vol. 19, p. 339, 2013. Available at SSRN:

This paper uses the strip club as a fresh site from which to examine the feminist legal debate over the legalization of prostitution. In tracking doctrinal and social trends ofstrip clubs as a long legalized commercial sex industry, I will interrogate the argument that legalization of prostitution will lead to greater regulation, and in turn, increased protection for people in the commercial sex trade.

This paper will demonstrate that in the context of stripping, legalization has failed to yield the type of advances for strippers envisioned by the regulation hypothesis. Because courts and employers treat work in the commercial sex industry as unworthy of protection, labor laws largely exclude stripping from those legal definitions of “employment” providing for labor organizing and wage, hour and anti-discrimination protections. Moreover, local governments deploy regulatory law to eliminate or significantly constrict the presence of strip clubs in their communities. These legal measures, such as zoning ordinances and nudity bans, have only tightened the labor market for strippers, thereby increasing strippers’ vulnerability to employer abuses.

In using strip clubs as a case study, this article cautions advocates for the legalization of prostitution in the feminist legal community against presupposing that legalization ofprostitution will produce regulations that improve working conditions for those involved in the commercial sex trade. Rather, such regulations would have to be preceded by a radical shift in social understandings about the worth of women and the contingencies that lead women to work in the commercial sex industry.


Scoular, Jane, Hubbard, Phil and Matthews, Roger, Regulating Sex Work in the EU: Prostitute Women and theNew Spaces of Exclusion (2008). Gender, Place & Culture, Vol. 15, No. 2, pp. 137-152, 2008. Available at SSRN:


Contemporary prostitution policy within the European Union has coalesced around the view that femaleprostitution is rarely voluntary, and often a consequence of sex trafficking. Responding, different nation-states have, however, adopted antithetical legal positions based on prohibition (Sweden), abolition (UK) or legalisation (Netherlands). Despite the apparently sharp differences between these positions, in this article we argue that there is now a shared preoccupation with repressing spaces of street prostitution. Noting the forms of exploitation that nonetheless adhere to many spaces of off-street work, we conclude that the state and law may intervene in sex work markets with the intention of tackling gendered injustice, but are perpetuating geographies of exception and abandonment.

This paper is the outcome of the research project:

“Regulating the spaces of sex work: assessing the impact of prostitution law” Read More

Doezema, Hoe (2000): Loose Women or Lost Women? The Re-emergence of the Myth of White Slavery in Contemporary Discourses of Trafficking in Women, in:  Gender Issues, Volume 18, Number 1, pp. 23-50(28).

This article compares current concerns about “trafficking in women” with turn of the century discourses about “white slavery.” It traces the emergence of narratives on “white slavery” and their re-emergence in the moral panics and boundary crises of contemporary discourses on “trafficking in women.” Drawing on historical analysis and contemporary representations of sex worker migration, the paper argues that the narratives of innocent, virginal victims purveyed in the “trafficking in women” discourse are a modern version of the myth of “white slavery.” These narratives, the article argues, reflect persisting anxieties about female sexuality and women’s autonomy. Racialised representations of the migrant “Other” as helpless, child-like, victims strips sex workers of their agency. The article argues that while the myth of “trafficking in women”/”white slavery” is ostensibly about protecting women, the underlying moral concern is with the control of “loose women.” Through the denial of migrant sex workers’ agency, these discourses serve to reinforce notions of female dependence and purity that serve to further marginalise sex workers and undermine their human rights.


Weitzer, Ronald (2007): The Social Construction of Sex Trafficking: Ideology and Institutionalization of a Moral Crusade


The issue of sex trafficking has become increasingly politicized in recent years due to the efforts of an influential moral crusade. This article examines the social construction of sex trafficking (and prostitution more generally) in the discourse of leading activists and organizations within the crusade, and concludes that the central claims are problematic, unsubstantiated, or demonstrably false. The analysis documents the increasing endorsement and institutionalization of crusade ideology in U.S. government policy and practice.

Decriminalization of Sex Work: Feminist Discourses in Light of Research, by Jacqueline Comte (2013)

Three main ideological stances exist regarding sex work issues: abolitionism, sex-positive feminism, and decriminalization. We argue for decriminalization based on decades of research results. Research on female sex workers is most often done through feminist theory and focus on gender relationships and on the experience of oppression and/or agency. Such studies examine the motivations to do sex work, the experience of being objectified, the stigma related to sex work, and, finally, the impact of this kind of work on self-esteem, on couple relationships, and on social relationships. Research on male sex workers examines power dynamics, representations of masculinity, self-perception, and the socioeconomic conditions that lead to sex work and influence safe-sex practices. Usually, feminist approaches do not take the experiences of male sex workers into account. However, taking these experiences into consideration would give a broader perspective to the understanding of sex work, as the experiences of male sex workers show many aspects similar to those of female sex workers. We contend that a woman’s sexual experience has been socially constructed as being part of her identity, in such a way that she becomes socially devalued whenever she does not comply to norms, thus making sex work a ‘degrading’ experience even though it is not intrinsically so.


Impacts of the Swedish Criminalisation of the Purchase of Sex on Sex Workers (Jay Levy, 2011)

This paper draws on interviews and participant observation undertaken during
research I have conducted in Sweden since 2008. Outcomes of the Swedish
sexköpslagen, the 1999 law criminalising the purchase of sex, were investigated, with
Sweden being the first ever state to adopt such legislation.
Respondents of ongoing research include sex workers, politicians, NGO workers,
spokespeople for lobby and activist groups, police, healthcare providers and social
workers. Relationships have been established with Rose Alliance, Sweden’s only sex
workers rights collective, Stockholm and Malmö prostitution units, LBGT
organisation RFSL, and drug users rights organisations Svenskabrukarföreningen and
RFHL. These drug users rights unions have allied with sex work collective Rose
Alliance, reporting similar experiences with service providers and authoritative
groups, as well as similar alienation, patholigisation and exclusion from political
discourse, debate and evaluation. Additionally, a trip to Norway in a month will
involve an exploration of how the criminalisation of the purchase of sex has impacted
Norwegian sex work.
The paper will start with an examination of how sex work has come to be understood
in Sweden, tying this in with some discursive and legislative history. The main focus
will be a discussion of how discourses and legislation have come to impact service
provision and ideas surrounding harm reduction. The impacts of laws on levels and
spaces of sex work will additionally be discussed. I will not be discussing non-female
sex work or the patholigisation of sex buyers in Sweden, though these are additional
areas of research focus.