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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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Kimberly Kay Hoang, “Competing Technologies of Embodiment: Pan-Asian Modernity and Third World Dependency in Vietnam’s Contemporary Sex Industry”. Gender & Society, Vol 28, Issue 4, pp. 513-536 (2014).

This article illustrates how the circulation of capital and culture in Asia produces divergent embodied gendered ideals of national belonging through the case of Vietnam’s global sex industry. Introducing the concept of competing technologies of embodiment, I show how sex workers’ surgical and cosmetic bodily projects represent different perceptions of an emerging nation’s divergent trajectories in the global economy. In a high-end niche market that caters to local elite Vietnamese businessmen, sex workers project a new pan-Asian modernity highlighting emergent Asian ideals of beauty in a project of progress that signals the rise of Asia. Women who cater to Western men, in contrast, embody Third World dependency, portraying Vietnam as a poverty-stricken country in need of Western charity. By comparing multiple markets, I illustrate how individual agents in the developing world actively reimagine their nation’s place in the global economy through their embodied practices.

Full article available here.

Susanne Hofmann, “Corporeal Entrepreneurialism and Neoliberal Agency in the Sex Trade at the US-Mexican Border”. WSQ: Women’s Studies Quarterly 38: 3 & 4 (Fall/Winter 2010)

In this essay I will discuss corporeal entrepreneurialism in the context of commercial sex and neoliberal agency at the United States–Mexico border. I want to situate the sex trade in a larger neoliberal context of economic need, mobility, and commercialization. The essay addresses how bodily entrepreneurialism can function as a gateway to upward social mobility and how erotic capital can level existing social and economic inequalities and thus act as a catalyst to exit marginalized communities. I am drawing on Wacquant’s (1995) work on corporeal entrepreneurs and also on the notion of bodily capital that he has developed therein. Using bodily capital in the context of sex work, it makes sense to talk more specifically about erotic capital, which is the primary currency in the sex trade. Thus, I will integrate Isaiah Green’s (2008) definition of erotic capital and elaborate how women make use of their bodies to enhance their erotic capital and explain what their strategies and perceptions are. Inspired by Alexander Edmonds’ (2007) work on beauty and race in Brazil, I will elaborate how corporeal entrepreneurs strategically use their bodily and erotic capital to counteract their socioeconomic marginalization and challenge traditional hierarchies. As will become clear, corporeal entrepreneurialism ties together women’s agency, market demand, and monetary value, and, to succeed, this endeavor requires enormous levels of discipline, emotional resilience, management skills, stamina, and purposefulness.

Full text available here.

Skilbrei, May-Len, and Marianne Tveit. “Facing Return.” Perception of Repatrition among Nigerian Woman in Prostitution in Norway. Fafo rapport 1 (2007): 2007.

This report deals with the issue of repatriation of Nigerian women in prostitution in Norway, and aims at creating knowledge about what influences whether they want to go back to Nigeria or not. Some of the women have migrated and entered prostitution in a way that constitute trafficking, and all the women has suffered from some form of exploitation in their way from Nigeria to Norway. Norwegian authorities have certain obligations towards women that are identified victims of trafficking, and repatriation to the home country has to take place in a safe and dignified way. The report Facing return: Perception of repatriation among Nigerian women in prostitution in Norway is based on a qualitative study among Nigerian women in prostitution in Norway, and it describes and explores Nigerian women’s views on the future and the possibility of returning to Nigeria.

As there are substantial individual variations in regard to the women’s experiences and attitudes, the needs of the Nigerian women in prostitution in Norway in a return process will vary accordingly. The report states that it is important that repatriation and rehabilitation efforts are sensitive towards these variations in needs in order to hinder stigmatisation or prosecution, and, not the least to increase the women’s chances to make a better life for themselves upon return.

Full text available here.

Paul Ryan (2016): #Follow: exploring the role of social media in theonline construction of male sex worker lives in Dublin, Ireland, Gender, Place & Culture, DOI:10.1080/0966369X.2016.1249350

This article draws from qualitative interviews with 18 South American male sex workers in Dublin, exploring how their use of the gym and new social media has created alternative spaces for the conduct of commercial sex. The interviews reveal how sex workers alternatively use escort specific sites in conjunction with mainstream dating apps like Grindr, offering greater flexibility and control over how they are self-defined within the sex industry. These male sex workers become known for their presence in gyms and clubs within the small gay community offering potential clients a real-time embodied interaction. Social media, like Instagram, offered the men in this study a further platform to share part of a choreographed online world with thousands of followers presenting new economic opportunities. The men trade access to their bodies and to their taste in designer commodities and lifestyle to interact with followers who can financially contribute to dictate the format of the photos available for private or public consumption.

Full text available here.

Melissa Ditmore, Sex Workers Project, “The Use of Raids to Fight Trafficking in Persons”. New York: Urban Justice Center, 2009

This report summarizes the findings of a human rights documentation project conducted by the Sex Workers Project in 2007 and 2008 to explore the impacts and effectiveness of current anti-trafficking approaches in the US from a variety of perspectives. It is among the first efforts since the passage of the TVPA to give voice to the perspectives of trafficked persons and sex workers who have experienced anti-trafficking raids. A total of 46 people were interviewed for this report, including immigrant sex workers and trafficked persons who have experienced raids or otherwise had contact with law enforcement, along with service providers, attorneys, and law enforcement personnel.

The data collected from this small to medium-sized sample is extremely rich, and suggests that vice raids conducted by local law enforcement agencies are an ineffective means of locating and identifying trafficked persons. Our research also reveals that vice raids and federal anti-trafficking raids are all too frequently accompanied by violations of the human rights of trafficked persons and sex workers alike, and can therefore be counterproductive to the underlying goals of anti-trafficking initiatives. Our findings suggest that a rights-based and “victim-centered” approach to trafficking in persons requires the development and promotion of alternate methods of identifying and protecting the rights of trafficked persons which prioritize the needs, agency, and self-determination of trafficking survivors. They also indicate that preventative approaches, which address the circumstances that facilitate trafficking in persons, should be pursued over law enforcement based responses.

Full text available here.

Stéphanie Wahab and Gillian Abel, “The Prostitution Reform Act (2003) and Social Work in Aotearoa/New Zealand” Affilia 0886109916647764, first published on May 11, 2016 doi:10.1177/0886109916647764

Social work practice with sex workers in New Zealand occurs within a context of decriminalization since the passing of the Prostitution Reform Act (PRA) in 2003. This article presents the findings of a qualitative study focused on social workers’ perceptions of sex work/ers, the PRA, and its influence on practice with individuals in the sex industry. The findings suggest that social workers hold nuanced perspectives on sex work. While decriminalization creates opportunities that support social work practice with sex workers, challenges to antioppressive, critical social work remain, even within the context of decriminalization.