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The term prostitution is popularly used to refer to the trade of sexual services for payment in cash or kind, and so to a form of social interaction that is simultaneously sexual and economic. This makes prostitution a difficult cultural category, for in most societies sexual and economic relations are imagined and regulated in very different ways. Prostitution therefore straddles two quite different symbolic domains. Since these domains are highly gendered, the female prostitute has long represented a troubling figure, disrupting what are traditionally deemed to be natural gender binaries (active/passive, public/private, etc.), and stigmatized as unnatural, immoral, and polluting.
Yet prostitution is often simultaneously viewed as an inevitable feature of all human societies, for it is held to meet the supposedly powerful and biologically given sexual impulses of men. Thus it is sometimes described as a ”necessary evil” and considered to protect the virtue of ”good” girls and women by ”soaking up” excess male sexual urges which would otherwise lead to rape and marital breakdown. This traditional view of prostitution found sociological expression in a classic article by Kingsley Davis (1937), which explained the institution of prostitution as a necessary counterbalance to the reproductive institutions of society (such as the family) that placed a check upon men’s sexual liberty.
Prostitution is part of a wider market for commercial sex that has expanded and diversified rapidly in both affluent and developing nations over the past two decades. Old forms of sex commerce, including prostitution, are taking place in more and different settings; new technologies have generated possibilities for entirely new forms of commercial sexual experience; women are now amongst consumers of commercial sex; the boundaries between commercial sex and other sectors, such as tourism, leisure, and entertainment, have shifted.
There is a strong relationship between colonialism, imperialism, nationalism, militarism, and war on the one hand, and prostitution on the other. The presence of international peacekeepers and police, civilian contractors and aid workers in post-conflict settings has acted as a stimulus for the rapid growth of a prostitution market in many regions.
Prostitution has commanded much attention from feminists in recent years, but has also highlighted deep theoretical and political divisions within feminism. On one side of the divide stand ”radical feminists” or ”feminist abolitionists” who foreground the sexual domination of women by men in their analyses of gender inequality, and view prostitution as the unambiguous embodiment of patriarchal oppression. All prostitution is a form of sexual violence and slavery that violates women’s human right to dignity and bodily integrity, and buying sex is equivalent to the act of rape. This account rests on the assumption that no woman freely chooses or genuinely consents to prostitute. It leaves little room for women as agents within prostitution, and provides what critics deem to be a gender essentialist, totalizing, and reductive analysis of prostitution.
On the other side of the divide stand those who might loosely be described as ”sex work feminists.” They reject the assumption that prostitution is intrinsically degrading and, treating prostitution as a form of service work, make a strong distinction between ”free choice” prostitution by adults and all forms of forced and child prostitution. Whilst the latter should be outlawed, the former can be an economic activity like any other, and should be legally and socially treated as such. This perspective emphasizes women’s capacity (and right) to act as moral agents within prostitution.
Male sex workers rarely feature in such debates on the rights and wrongs of prostitution, and this may partly reflect an (untested) assumption that sexual transactions between men are inherently less exploitative than those involving a female seller and a male buyer. Research on male prostitutes’ experience has largely been driven by concerns about sexual health and HIV/AIDS prevention, and to a lesser extent by interest in the relationship between male sex work and gay identities.
- Aggleton, P. (ed.) (1999) Men Who Sell Sex. UCL Press, London.
- Davis, K. (1937) The sociology of prostitution. American Sociological Review 2 (October): 746-55.
- O’Connell Davidson, J. (2005) Children in the Global Sex Trade. Polity Press, Cambridge.