Sex Work

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Sex Work



Sex work is a multidimensional concept used to redefine sex-related services as income-generating labor. In the broadest sense, sex work refers to all aspects of the lawful and unlawful global sex industry—including street prostitution, massage parlors, brothels, escort services, strip clubs, phone-sex operators, pornography, and sex tourism—as well as the particular social, cultural, political, and economic circumstances that make selling sex a viable option. Within the context of race and racism, sex work represents a contemporary manifestation of race-based sexual exploitation with deep historical roots in slavery and colonialism. Structural inequality, race, and gender intersect in myriad ways within systems of global capitalism to produce disparity and desperation.

Although sex work is often a manifestation of women’s economic marginalization, exposure to and experiences in sex work are influenced by race as a reinforcing marker of difference. Crosscultural research suggests that the stereotype of male desire is embodied by youthful whiteness with straight blond hair and creamy skin; therefore, women of color experience restricted access to the most lucrative positions within the sex industry. Although white women from the lower economic classes may face unequal access within sex work, they escape the tripartite system of race, class, and gender relegating

Cuban Prostitutes Proposition a Tourist. Havana prostitutes can make more money in one day from foreign tourists than a professional government employee can earn in a month.AP IMAGES .

black and brown women to the lowest rungs of the global socioeconomic ladder. In a world in which hundreds of millions of women live in abject poverty, a majority of these marginalized people are additionally affected by processes of racialization that reinforce a binary opposition between whiteness and blackness. Selling sex within this particular system of racial oppression brings sex workers face to face with a neocolonial agenda of white domination, originally established through marketing black bodies as a personal and private commodity in the political economy of slavery.

Women of color frequently enter into sex work as an alternative to low-wage service sector jobs offering no opportunity for advancement. However, negotiating race and racism opens them up to a host of disadvantages. Sex workers report that discrimination within the industry often means they end up walking the streets in dangerous areas, increasing the risk of police harassment and violent attacks. Nonwhite sex workers receive lower wages for sexual services than their white counterparts, yet they are more heavily targeted for fines, arrest, and imprisonment. Adding insult to injury, women of color must constantly contend with the racialized characteristics that define them as less desirable: wearing wigs to hide their kinky hair, altering their speech to sound more white, or dressing more in keeping with accepted notions of ethnic exoticism, thus giving in to the “jungle” fantasy that some white patrons require. As a result, these women suggest that experiences of racial denigration eventually develop into personal insecurities and self-doubt, thereby reinforcing their subordinate position within the industry, society, and their personal lives.


The heavy burden of race and racism facing black sex workers began centuries ago with the enslavement of their African ancestors. For generations the political economy of slavery in the New World exploited sexual labor to satisfy the economic, political, and personal interests of the white owner class. Enslaved men and women, particularly in the U.S. South, reproduced the slave workforce through a calculated system of slave breeding, while desirable females were offered up by the plantation master for additional profits. This system of structural inequality transformed black bodies into economic commodities, thus establishing an ideological foundation for a worldwide reinvestment in the racial inequality and patriarchal capitalism defining the twenty-first century—often referred to as globalization. Many feminist scholars recognize this system as a recolonization effort within which race and gender are reasserted economically, socially, and politically. For women of color, these forces translate into greater instability in the formal economy, making informal activities such as sex work unusually appealing.

The developing regions of the Caribbean and Latin America represent a microcosm of this global reality. In an effort to penetrate the world market, many nations have pursued tourism as an economic development strategy, assisted by international lending agencies such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank. The policies mandated by these lending agencies redirect infrastructural investment funds away from social programs toward building a market for the target industry. Once established, the tourist economy offers extremely limited opportunities to the local labor force, which has exaggerated consequences for women and children. Consequently, desperate women find themselves marketing an age-old fantasy of white domination and hypersexuality. With assistance from tourism officials, sex workers in the Caribbean and Latin America have created a booming industry around the exotics of racial difference.

Throughout these regions, whiteness occupies a privileged position in the social hierarchy, while blackness is associated with labor and service. More important, race is continually being reinforced by the exoticization of the black female body to increase tourist revenue. Women of color are portrayed as wildly sexual and animalistic, thus naturalizing their involvement in sex work. In places such as Cuba, Brazil, and the Dominican Republic, this conflation of race and sexuality has become part of the national identity. Popular cultural sentiments only serve to reinforce these racial categories. For example, nearly identical sayings in Brazil and Cuba translate as, “white women for marrying, black women for work, and mulatas [mixed-race women] for making love.” Categories such as these, while legitimizing white male desires to experience the exotic “other,” draw attention to one of the most important aspects of race-making: whiteness as the standard of beauty and purity. The desirability of mixed-race women has everything to do with the characteristics of whiteness they possess and the way those visual characteristics are perfectly mixed with the primal sexuality of blackness. By casting sex workers as naturally hypersexual, tourism advertisements justify the sexual exploitation of women of color. This commodification of otherness must be addressed in light of the glaring human rights abuses associated with marketing sex under the guise of generating tourist revenues.

Sex work, as a political statement associated with the ongoing struggle between exploitation and body politics, continues to gain momentum as an acknowledgment of the sex worker’s contributions to the economic market. The unwillingness of most countries to legitimize sex work as a valid means of employment prevents sex workers from adequate protection under the law, while increasing the stigma, isolation, and invisibility of both the industry and the workers. The simultaneous criminalization of sex work sustains a discourse of deviance and immorality that further victimizes disenfranchised workers often caught in desperate economic situations. Global reluctance to engage in meaningful dialogue about the push and pull factors of sex work minimizes the accountability factor for law enforcement officials, governmental agencies, and health care workers. Therefore, sex workers continue to shoulder the blame for their involvement in one of the world’s oldest and most controversial professions.

The resulting frustration has prompted worldwide resistance, with empowerment movements framing the issue in terms of international human rights. Sex workers continue to demand recognition as “workers” who contribute their labor to the market, based on articles within both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (adopted in 1948 by the United Nations General Assembly) and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) (adopted in 1979 by the UN General Assembly), that proclaim the “inalienable right of all human beings to work and to freely choose their job or profession.” Increased dialogue on the issue has introduced a broader debate about human agency, autonomy, and sexual politics.

The historical relationship between sexuality and race offers distinct examples of how women of color have manipulated their sexuality to redefine cultural norms. In the early twentieth century, for example, women of color exploited the black underworld to become “jook joint” women and sex workers in black and white brothels across the United States. Although some view these steps toward economic betterment as a symbol of sexual independence, others suggest they must be firmly positioned within a global reality of gender inequality. As women of color make a place for themselves in areas of the sex industry that have long denied them access, such as strip clubs and pornography, does that signify their power of self-representation or their collusion with a system that views their bodies as a commodity? Can their participation be viewed as a conscious choice when race and gender inequality still define the parameters of employment economics? These are among the most important unresolved debates about the relationships among race, racism, and sex work. What can be asserted without hesitation, however, is that race continues to be a powerful tool in the marginalization and disenfranchisement of women on a global scale.

SEE ALSO Body Politics; Feminism and Race; Pornography; Poverty; Sexuality.


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Melissa D. Hargrove