Work, Sex, and Sex-Work: Competing Feminist Discourses on the International Sex Trade

Sutherland, Kate (2004): Work, Sex, and Sex-Work: Competing Feminist Discourses on the International Sex Trade, in: Osgoode Hall Law Journal, Vol. 42, pp. 139-167. Full article available.


This article explores the competing discourses of radical feminism and sex radicalism on the international sex trade. These voices have been dominant in feminist debates on this issue and both have proved significant forces when it comes to legal reform. Radical feminists characterize sex work as an abuse of human rights, regardless of whether it is forced or voluntary, and have fought for its abolition. They have had a substantial impact on the development and adoption of anti-trafficking legislation and instruments in various countries and at the international level. Sex radicals have offered compelling opposition, shifting the focus from the abolition of sex work to the human rights of sex workers. Their legal interventions have been geared toward self-determination for sex workers including decent working conditions and freedom of movement. This article employs the term “sex-work” as an analytical device by which to get to the bottom of these very different perspectives. An analysis of the respective emphases of radical feminists and sex radicals—on sex or work or sex-work—yields insight into the role assigned to the sex worker in each of these feminist discourses. This, in turn, has important implications for feminist activism in the international arena.

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