The international political economy of commercial sex

Nicola J. Smith, “The international political economy of commercial sex” Review of International Political Economy (2011) 18:4, 530-549

The expansion of the global sex industry in recent years has emerged as an important national and international policy concern and has also become the subject of considerable academic interest. Spanning a variety of social science disciplines such as sociology, cultural studies, economics, anthropology and geography, there is now a rich and diverse literature on the political economy of prostitution, pornography and sex trafficking. This scholarship has not only contributed a wealth of empirical data on the scope and nature of the global sex trade but has also generated profound theoretical insights into the structure of power relations on an international scale. As authors such as Andreas, Bhattacharyya and Ryner have argued, the illicit and illegal economy is intimately related to, not separable from, the functioning of the ‘formal’ global economy and yet unprotected workers remain both politically marginalized and economically vulnerable. For Federici, the sex industry – one of the key non-legal forms of revenue aside from the drugs and arms trades – is a ‘paradigmatic case’ for understanding both how the international political economy impacts upon unprotected workers and how their status and interests are represented in contemporary political debates.

It is perhaps surprising, then, that within the field of International Political Economy little attention has been devoted to commercial sex – as a number of feminist scholars have noted. In part, this reflects a continued preoccupation in mainstream IPE with the ‘upper circuits’ of capital relations (trade, financial markets, capital flows) rather than the ‘lower circuits’ (domestic labour, janitorial/custodial work, tourism and sex work). More fundamentally, feminist scholars have pointed to a tendency to discursively position certain types of work on the ‘outside’ rather than the ‘inside’ of globalisation and capitalism – and hence beyond the ‘proper’ analysis of IPE. In particular, as Gillian Youngs notes, mainstream IPE has tended to be underpinned by a number of binaries and oppositions such as state/market, domestic/international, institutional/individual and public/private. Crucially, this has enabled certain forms of labour to, in effect, be written out of the analysis of IPE – including commercial sex, which has been marginalized due to its association with the ‘private’ sphere of sexuality rather than the ‘public’ sphere of work. Feminist scholars have thus called for IPE to focus more on the ‘reproductive economy’ (i.e. the feminised and private realm of emotional, leisure, caring and sexual labour) as opposed to the ‘productive economy’ (i.e. those forms of work associated with primary, secondary and tertiary production). Within this context, the sex industry has emerged as an important case study in a feminist project not only to render women’s lives more visible in IPE but also to re-map the conceptual and empirical terrain of IPE itself.

In this essay I offer a review of recent literature on commercial sex, focusing my discussion on four key books that each place commercial sex centre-stage within the broader analysis of global power relations. While not all situate themselves within (or, indeed, engage explicitly with) IPE as a discipline, each is nevertheless directly concerned with the extent to and ways in which the sex industry reflects and exacerbates the structural hierarchies of global capitalism. However, as I shall outline, the four books nevertheless come from rather different theoretical and normative starting-points and thus offer a variety of competing interpretations of the meanings(s) and practice(s) of commercial sex within a global context. In particular, there is significant debate as to whether the global sexual economy can ever represent a site of resistance to power relations or whether, alternatively, it is where global inequalities are felt most acutely.

Full text of author’s original manuscript available here.

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