Beyond gender: an examination of exploitation in sex work

Suzanne Jenkins, “Beyond gender: an examination of exploitation in sex work”. PhD dissertation, Keele University, 2009.

Abstract:

Although there are conflicting perspectives on prostitution in the feminist literature, female prostitutes are usually regarded as victims of gender-specific exploitation, either in the form of sexual-domination or socio-economic-inequality. Male prostitution has usually been excluded from feminist analyses on the basis that it is thought to be less exploitative than female prostitution. In this thesis, I expand upon feminist theories of gendered exploitation by comparing the experiences of male, female and transgendered escort sex-workers. Using a qualitative approach, my research explores whether prostitution is inherently exploitative and what conditions create and exacerbate sex-workers’ vulnerability to victimisation, including the influence of current legal approaches to prostitution.

My findings indicate that although neither male nor female sex-workers experience high levels of exploitation, female escorts are more vulnerable to particular types of victimisation; however, rather than reflecting existing feminist theories of prostitution, this is not, typically, the result of either sexual-or economic-oppression. Instead, I argue that exploitation largely results from the social stigma attached to prostitution, and that this is exacerbated by an overemphasis on discourses of victimhood in feminist perspectives on, and legal approaches to, commercial-sex. By arguing that women only choose sex-work in the face of sexual or economic disadvantage, the notion that women are intrinsically susceptible to exploitation is reinforced. This denies women agency, and puts them in a disadvantaged position from which to negotiate their working lives. In particular, because female sex-workers are more likely to be dependent upon third-parties to facilitate their work, women are at greater risk of exploitation. I argue that exploitation could be effectively reduced by decriminalising and regulating sex industry organisers so that sex-workers can enter into communal working relationships. Given feminism‟s aim of empowering women, I argues that a more constructive feminist approach would be to move away from a gender-specific notion of exploitation to one which recognises the reality that women can, and sometimes do choose to sell sexual services, and that their right to do so should not be dependent upon notions of victimhood.

Full text available here.

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