This post is part of our symposium on the political economy of sex work. Read the rest of the symposium here.
Movements to decriminalize sex work in the United States have gained momentum in recent years. In New York, the Decrim NY movement has advanced a bill that would decriminalize the purchase and sale of sex. The debate has been intense. Proponents of decriminalization, including sex workers and their allies, argue that criminal laws keep those who choose to sell sex poor, homeless, and struggling for survival. Many opponents of decriminalization argue that sex work leads to the commodification of the human body and thus is immoral. Some feminists believe that men who purchase sex should be prosecuted for engaging in the exploitation of women and girls.
Among the various perspectives utilized to understand and advocate for or against sex work, a political economy approach directs attention to the fundamentally political and moralized nature of markets. Markets are not abstract spaces for economic transactions but rather politically contested terrains of societal struggle where competing actors wield technical legal tools and moralized beliefs in attempts to shape structures of societal governance. A political economy of sex work might thus ask questions such as: how are the moral categories that justify market regulations distribute resources and govern populations created? How do legal rules shift the distribution of power and control between actors engaged in sex market transactions? And crucially, which societal actors win and lose when sex work is delegitimized and criminalized?
An important moral claim that justifies criminalization is that sex should not be transacted in the domain of markets where commodified goods and services are sold. This moral classification reflects Emile Durkheim’s classic observation of a distinction between the sacred and the profane in religious societies. This tension has been brought to bear on sociological analyses of markets, where that which is associated with human life is deemed sacred and should be strictly separated from the profane domain of market exchange. Examples include markets for humans, bodily goods such as organs and blood or reproductive materials like sperm and eggs, and of course, sex.
Yet the work of scholars from Max Weber to Viviana Zelizer and others shows how moral categories in markets are not natural but are historically contingent and culturally specific, varying across time and space as the outcome of societal struggles to frame, institutionalize and ultimately regulate what is permissible and what is prohibited in market exchange.
A closely related idea is that sex work is a marginal activity, either operating in the shadows with other illicit and illegal activities or circumscribed to tightly demarcated “red light districts” in a handful of cities. But recent empirical accounts of sex work in Vietnam and India show that in many contexts, sex work is not marginal; instead, it is often an integral part of the wider economy. In her book, Dealing in Desire: Asian Ascendancy, Western Decline, and the Hidden Currencies of Global Sex work, Kimberly Hoang shows how sex markets are vital to the rapid growth and transformation of the Vietnamese economy. In Ho Chi Minh City, bars where women entertain men are crucial sites of economic development, from solidifying business relationships that lead to multimillion-dollar real estate deals that are reshaping the urban skyline to facilitating migrant workers’ remittances that support schoolchildren and the elderly in rural Vietnamese villages. Across different scales and spatial domains, sex work is shown to be central rather than marginal to the larger functioning of the booming Vietnamese economy.
Similarly, Svati Shah’s book Street Corner Secrets: Sex, Work, and Migration in the City of Mumbai is a poignant account of how sexual transactions are not confined to marginal spaces in a metropolis that seeks to take its place among other “world-class cities” of the Global South. Sex work and waged work are not distinct categories but rather operate along a spectrum of labor market practices and institutions. For example, women day laborers constitute an important segment of the construction industry that is literally building Mumbai – and they often must trade sex in order to access these coveted jobs.
These empirical accounts challenge our conceptual understanding of the position that sex markets occupy in the broader economy, moving them from periphery to core. Reframing sex work as a legitimate form of labor that is both central to the livelihoods of particular individuals, families and communities, as well as to the functioning of broader urban and national economies, provides a powerful set of normative and positive justifications for decriminalizing sex work and regulating it as work. Such regulations might protect and sustain the rights of sex workers as legitimate members of the labor force rather than as victims, or worse, as villains.
These alternative perspectives provide a competing set of moral claims against social anxieties about selling sex as commodification and exploitation, which in turn justify the use of criminal law to regulate sex markets. The use of criminal law to govern sex markets has devastating effects on the lives of sex workers, not least by subjecting them to the entire system of biases entrenched into the criminal legal system. For sex workers, this means race, class, and gender profiling by the police. The harms do not stop there – sex workers can lose custody of their children; face immigration consequences; accumulate a criminal record and its accompanying impediments to work, public services, and housing, and more.
Finally, one of the most troubling realities is that criminalization does not work. Criminalization has failed time and again to improve the lives and working conditions of sex workers, and it has also failed to provide exit options for those who no longer want to be a part of the industry. Instead, it has resulted in the demonization and arrest of people engaged in consensual commercial sex.
Sex work is a highly charged issue that has generated a vigorous legal debate. It serves as an excellent example of the real material and distributional consequences of society’s moralized conceptions of markets. Moving towards the full decriminalization of sex work, including the sale and purchase of sex, is the first step towards a market regime that recognizes the dignity and humanity of people who transact sex.