Prostitution is often viewed in feminist theory as the sine qua non of the female condition under patriarchy. Frequently cited as ‘the absolute embodiment of patriarchal male privilege’ (Kesler, 2002: 19), the highly gendered nature of commercial sex appears to offer a graphic example of male domination, exercised through the medium of sexuality.
This construction is, however, as convincing as it is problematic. By reviewing the work of Shelia Jeffries, Judith Walkowitz, Gail Pheterson, Shannon Bell, Jo Doezema, Kamala Kempadoo and Jo Phoenix, I aim to illustrate that feminist writers, by assuming different theoretical lenses, offer diverse interpretations of the subject of prostitution – both in terms of women’s subjective positions and as a problem of a particular type. Prostitution therefore rather than having a singular meaning is more usefully viewed as an important crucible for testing the central mainstays of feminist theory. As Donna Guy notes:
Full of apparent contradictions and discrepancies, the history of modern prostitution control offers a dynamic perspective on the private lives of women as well as the public functioning of medicine, patriarchy and the nation state and emphasizes the need to understand how gender and sexuality are interrelated inextricably to race, cultural diversity and economic circumstances. (Guy, 1995: 182)
As this quotation suggests, and as I will demonstrate in the course of this article, there are limitations in viewing prostitution as straightforwardly paradigmatic, given the contingencies and diversity of the structures under which its materializes.