Global and Diasporic Tightrope Walking: Sex Workers between Morality and Deviance

06.09.2012, Mechthild Nagel

Sex sells and is glamorized, but sex work is considered dirty. Sex workers have the rare distinction of being maligned by both conservative and progressive organizations, especially if they affirm their work as meaningful. There has been a “humanitarian” move recently to save them—even if against their will. Such rescue missions are sensationalized in the media with little regard of what workers themselves think about this patronizing ethic. Sometimes sex workers have to pretend they are victims in order not to be criminalized. Rescuing “brown girls” from “brown men” continues a colonialist discourse under a new (and old) guise: “trafficking.”

For the past two hundred years, (patriarchal) governments all over the world have declared a War on Prostitution with great fervor. Occasionally, there has been the slogan “Hate the sin, not the sinner!”—familiar to those more fortunate than Oscar Wilde, who have been persecuted for illicit sexual orientation. Interestingly, such framing is not beyond feminist organizations or magazines such as the German popular magazine EMMA. The point is that it is sometimes difficult to discern whether patriarchal or feminist interests are being invoked when critiquing prostitution. The former marks certain women as deviant:

“Categories of „good“ and „bad“ women (virgin/whore, madonna/prostitute, chaste/licentious women) exist in most patriarchal societies, where the „bad“ girl becomes the trope for female sexuality that threatens male control and domination. Female sexual acts that serve women’s sexual or economic interests are, within the context of masculinist hegemony, dangerous, immoral, perverted, irresponsible, and indecent.” (Kempadoo, 1998, p. 5)

Yet, what is troubling and often silenced is feminist allegiance to a discourse that is paternalist and endorsing a right kind of work ethic. Historically, two feminist movements come to mind, those arguing for abolition and others for regulation. The abolition discourse argues that women are victims of men soliciting them or prostituting them and have to be protected from depraved men; secondly, the discourse of regulating social purity demands that prostitutes themselves are fallen women for reasons of pathology or vanity. Either ideological position invokes the state to police women—leading to the same conclusion of masculinist hegemony—women are not to be trusted in their pursuit of sex work (cf. Ralston, 2012). Today, many sex workers who dare to speak for themselves defy both positions and invoke human rights and labor law instruments in choosing their line of work (Doezema, 1998).

However, it’s inevitable that self-representations vary among sex workers—children are less likely to regard themselves as sex workers and adults who are criminalized for status (e.g. as paperless immigrants) may instead “choose” to present themselves as being trafficked. Indeed, today’s feminist abolitionists zealously pursue a rescue narrative of hapless trafficked girls and young women. The concept “traffic in persons” always already conjures up illicit sex trade and all forms of prostitution (coerced or not) with respect to women and children as the Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Persons and of the Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others (1949) makes explicit. This UN Convention amends earlier versions of White Slave Traffic and focuses rhetorically on women and children. However, an important ideological break with such wholesale abolitionist language was achieved with the final version of the Platform for Action of the Beijing Conference on Women (1995). Only forced prostitution was abolished. The stigmatization continues, prompting a German sex workers association to comment:

“Aus unserer Sicht wird das Thema Menschenhandel bewusst instrumentalisiert, um die Prostitution als gesellschaftliches Übel zu stigmatisieren. Die permanente Fokussierung auf die düsteren Seiten des Business ignoriert auch, dass viele Frauen die Sexarbeit nicht nur als Beruf, sondern auch als Lebensstil für sich wählen.” (HYDRA, 2011)

Popular media trafficking and rescue narratives emphasize the dark side of prostitution in particular with regard to children in Southeast Asia. The International Labor Organization, which encourages the legalization of sex work, holds:

“Adults can choose to become prostitutes or to work in pornography. Children cannot. Children are much more vulnerable and helpless against the established structures and vested interests of the sex sector and much more likely to be victims of debt bondage, trafficking, physical violence or torture. They are much more susceptible to diseases, including HIV/AIDS and suffer lifelong physical and psychological trauma. While there is a range of possible options for coping with the increase in adult prostitution, there should be only one goal for child prostitution – to eliminate it” (ILO, 1998).

Still, one may contend that children have agency and make decisions among a host of options just as adults do. Heather Montgomery’s study of Thai boys and girls indicates that they have a moral code that differentiates between selling sex, which they viewed as receiving gifts for doing favors, and adultery, which is morally reprehensible. A simple rescue narrative of victimhood cannot make sense of a boy who denies doing sex work but who is proud to pimp for others and to handle their finances (1998, p. 144). TV rescue narratives, at least what I have seen on American TV, never tell the viewer that many children go right back to the brothels, i.e. that the missionary ethos is rejected by the victims themselves.

A postcolonial feminist analysis of traffic in girls and women will have to take stock of the legacy of the transatlantic slave trade, which “legalized” trafficking in horrific proportions. With European colonization of the Global South, indigenous women were treated to concubinage till such arrangement became racially suspect—white women had to be imported as sex workers for the colonial masters and military brothels (Wijers, 1998). Today, a moral outrage programmatic vision of feminist abolitionist groups may be too myopic to put trafficking into a historical context and its missionary zeal may not disguise the neo-colonial gaze and policies put into place that once again silence those who simply are spoken for. Organizations with provocative acronyms such as SWEAT Sex Worker Education and Advocacy Taskforce (South Africa), COYOTE Cast Off Your Old Tired Ethics (USA), or SWEETLY Sex Workers! Encourage, Empower, Trust, and Love Yourselves! (Japan) signal that their members prefer to speak for themselves.


  • Dewey, Susan. 2010. Editorial. Demystifying Sex Work and Sex Workers. Wagadu, Vol. 8. 568/802
  • Doezema, Jo. 1998. Forced to Choose: Beyond the Voluntary v. Forced Prostitution Dichotomy. Global Sex Workers: Rights, Resistance, and Redefinition (Kempadoo & Doezema, Hrsg.). Routledge.
  • HYDRA. 01. 12. 2011. 10 Jahre Prostitutionsgesetz– Ein halber Schritt führt nicht zum Ziel. (Presseerklärung)
  • ILO, 1998. ILO Report on Sex Sector Receives Prestigious Publishing Prize at Frankfurt Book Fair.–en/index.htm
  • Kempadoo, Kamala. 1998. Introduction. Global Sex Workers: Rights, Resistance, and Redefinition (Kempadoo & Doezema, Hrsg.). Routledge.
  • Leigh, Carol. April 19, 2012. Labor Laws, Not Criminal Laws, Are the Solution.
    LA Times.
  • Limoncelli, Stephanie A. 2010. The Politics of Trafficking: The First International Movement to Combat the Sexual Exploitation of Women. Stanford University Press.
  • Montgomery, Heather. 1998. Children, Prostitution, and Identity: A Case Study from a Tourist Resort in Thailand. Global Sex Workers: Rights, Resistance, and Redefinition (Kempadoo & Doezema, Hrsg.). Routledge.
  • Wijers, 1998. Women, Labor, and Migration:The Position of Trafficked Women and Strategies for Support. Global Sex Workers: Rights, Resistance, and Redefinition (Kempadoo & Doezema, Hrsg.). Routledge.

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