Social theory and the sex work empowerment-exploitation debate

0883d1df10dbe2ef35accf45441f7109--hook-quotes-quotes-quotesThe debate of whether sex work is a location of empowered choice or patriarchal domination is currently a key argument within the human trafficking movement, particularly related to legislative campaigns to legalize prostitution in the United States. My research focuses on state-level commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC) policy and many of my qualitative interview participants have shared stories of sex workers rights activists increased involvement in state legislative processes to promote legalizing prostitution. I do not seek to come to any specific conclusions or stance in this post; rather, my intention is to utilize this forum to explore this highly-contested topic.

The human trafficking movement situates the sex industry within the larger context of the subjugation of women within patriarchy. It is argued this subjectivity drains sex workers of the agency required to make the cultural and structural changes necessary for personal and political freedom. Critics of sex work as an empowered job state the sex industry (including sex work, pornography, stripping) argue the sex trade is predicated on a patriarchal culture where women are oppressed and subordinate (Brace and O’Connell Davidson 2000).

Conversely, proponents of sex work as a chosen occupation refute the notion that they are subjects, and position sex work as being by harmed by the anti-trafficking movement, which situates them as victims with no agency. “The central claim is that workers do not actively make choices or remain in prostitution…the notion of consent is deemed irrelevant, and activists have pressed governments to criminalize all such migration [for sex work], whether consensual or not” (Weitzer 2007: 453). Such criminalization, sex workers’ rights activists argue, then make sex workers vulnerable to exploitation and violence because they have no rights when harm is done against them (i.e. being raped, physically assaulted, or robbed by a sex buyer) (Brace and O’Connell Davidson 2000). As such, these activists advocate legalizing prostitution as a way to legitimize and normalize a person’s right to choose sex work and to keep sex workers safe (McClelland 2016).

Taking all of these issues into account, the central contest regarding sex work seems to be a power struggle of who gets to decide how the issue is framed, rather than arguing over if a person can choose to be a sex worker or if sex work should be decriminalized. The very ideation of power and control that surrounds prostitution sex trafficking can then, therefore, be seen as ingrained in the very movement hoping to end exploitation. A larger contention may be individual sex workers deemed victims by the anti-trafficking movement, but do not experience themselves as objectified, are then also marginalized by the very feminists who seek women’s liberation then sex workers see themselves as even more vulnerable to within the larger culture.

If feminists who purport to advocate for women to make their own choices are against sex work, then who is left to stand up with sex workers? This very power struggle reflects the feminist debate regarding to a Foucauldian conception of power as a relational, subjective force, rather than a singular notion belonging to an individual capable of challenging and altering gendered power relations (McLaren 2002).

Locating the empowerment-victim debate to a place of power over who has the authority to deem is a person is empowered or a victim is a departure of the current framing of this debate. The centerpiece of the issue has historically been the legalization of prostitution. A 2016 New York Magazine article on this topic (see magazine cover above) states, “For both sides, the issue boils down to whether decriminalization makes women safe” (McLelland 2016: 40). Body politics – and keeping one’s body safe – is a particularly key concept within the empowerment-exploitation debate. Within a patriarchal society predicated on domination and control, particularly of women’s bodies, the ability to choose of who decides what one chooses to do with one’s own body is the ultimate liberation.

Classical sociologist Max Weber’s conception of rationality and power addresses this issue of choice when he writes, “Every genuine form of domination implies a minimum of voluntary compliance, that is, an interest (based on ulterior motives or genuine acceptance) in obedience” (1978: 212).  An illuminating quote trauma pioneer Judith Herman used in the second edition of her landmark book Father-Daughter Incest (2000) further clarifies Weber’s statement. The quote is from Richard Kluft’s chapter “On the Apparent Invisibility of Incest” (1990) and relates a pimp’s description of an “ideal” prostitute.

Beauty, yes. Sexual expertise, somewhat. That can be taught easier than you think. What is important above all is obedience. And how do you get obedience? You get obedience if you get women who have had sex with their fathers, their uncles, their brothers—you know, someone they love and fear to lose so you do not dare to defy” (25).

The fear of loss of love is an integral force within the interplay of dominance, control, and obedience. Additionally, as the title of chapter suggests, these dynamics of violence and obedience are seemingly invisible, thus complicating the notion of a person’s apparent “free will” to walk away from a damaging situation. Kluft (and the pimp) suggests choice manifests from fear of loss and habitual relational templates of violence, rather than conscious agreement.

Weber’s notion of “decision making” seems to be what people are alluding to when rehashing, “Why doesn’t s/he just leave?” violent situations can occur in the sex trade and interpersonal relationships. When we see a victim of violence who is not physically restrained, we think that person should “just” make the choice to walk away. And if that person does not make that choice of leaving, we believe s/he is making some choice because we assume people have agency. The person, though, may be choosing fear of loss because that all s/he knows. Within the context of choice in the sex trade, Weber’s notion of domination referring to conforming to cultural norms. The father is a central figure (perhaps the central figure) of patriarchal society; therefore, obeying the father, even in the face of enduring violence. Additionally, pimps are often referred to as “Daddy,” which extends the incest dynamic into prostitution and sex trafficking.

We must further distinguish the context of the word “domination” when applying this specific Weber quote to the sex trade. Weber utilized the term “domination” when references how bureaucratic social structures are maintained (1978), not physical domination of one person over another. However, the conscription of current bureaucratic system of dominance and control is the very system sex workers’ rights advocates are contesting (McClelland 2016). Whereas, the anti-trafficking movement could be placed in the realm of “radical feminism” in that they seek to abolish the entire patriarchal system that subjugates all women, including sex workers (McLaren 2002). Again, the argument seems to return to who is making sex workers subjects – patriarchal culture, the anti-trafficking movement, or maybe even both.

As previously stated, I do not intend to posit a specific answer to the debate about choice and the sex trade. Instead, I appreciate the opportunity to examine this question in a public forum. As a social science researcher, as well as CSEC survivor, I know this conversation is critical, especially now. I strongly believe the United States is finally coming to grips with the fact that our culture has condoned and promoted sexual violence toward those deemed “weak” as a form of entertainment and maintaining patriarchal power. Not to be flip, but #timesup. Now we must work together, even amidst differing opinions and opposing agendas, to achieve our ultimate goal – safety for all.


Works cited

Brace, Laura and Julia O’Connell Davidson. 2000. “Minding the Gap: General and Substantive Theorizing on Power and Exploitation.” Signs 25(4): 1045-1050.

Herman, Judith. 2000. Father-Daughter Incest.  (2nd ed.). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Kluft, Richard. 1990. “On the Apparent Invisibility of Incest,” in, Incest-Related Syndromes of Adult Psychopathology. Washington, D.C.: American Psychiatric Press.

McClelland, Mac. 2016. “Is Prostitution Just Another Job?” New York Magazine, March 21-April 3, pp. 38-45.

McLaren, Margaret. 2002. Feminism, Foucault, and Embodied Subjectivity. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Weber, Max. 1978. Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology. Edited translation by Guenther Roth and Chris Wittich. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Weitzer, Ronald. 2007. “The Social Construction of Sex Trafficking: Ideology and Institutionalization of a Moral Crusade.” Politics & Society 35(3): 447-475.

Weitzer, Ronald. 2015. “Human Trafficking and Contemporary Slavery.” Annual Review of Sociology 41: 223–242.


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