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Consent, coercion, and culpability: Is prostitution stigmatized work or an exploitive and violent practice rooted in sex, race, and class inequality?

A response to Benoit, Smith, Jansson, Healey, and Magnuson (2018).

From the introduction:

While calling for facts rather than opinion in their Target Article, Benoit, Smith, Jansson, Healey, and Magnuson (2018) have omitted evidence and made conceptual errors. They erroneously claim that those of us who understand prostitution as sex inequality, sexual exploitation, and sexual violence also ignore prostitution’s race and class inequality. We don’t. Poverty, racist lack of opportunity/education, targeting of marginalized women of color, those with disabilities, or those who have experienced prior sexual abuse and emotional and physical neglect—all of these factors channel women into prostitution, which is the business of sexual exploitation. Prostitution exists because of the male demand for it, and racial and economic inequalities render women vulnerable to it. This means that prostitution is produced from an entwinement of sex, race, and economic inequalities (Frye, 1983; MacKinnon, 2011). Prostitution is also connected with childhood abuse and neglect (Farley, 2018; Moran, 2013). Yet Benoit et al. erroneously described the following perspectives as mutually exclusive: (1) “prostitution is principally an institution of hierarchal gender relations that legitimizes the sexual exploitation of women by men” and (2) “prostitution is a form of exploited labor where multiple forms of social inequality (including class, gender, and race) intersect in neoliberal capitalist societies.”

From a feminist abolitionist perspective, prostitution’s sex hierarchy is one of several inequalities that are intrinsic to prostitution. Economic inequality and race/ethnic inequality coexist with sex inequality. These inequalities were foundational to the 1999 Swedish law on prostitution. At the law’s implementation, Minister for Gender Equality Margareta Winberg asked: “Shall we accept the fact that certain women and children, primarily girls, often those who are most economically and ethnically marginalized, are treated as a lower class, whose purpose is to serve men sexually?” (D’Cunha, 2002). We repeatedly address these inequalities as structural elements of the sex trade, for example, “Prostitution formalizes women’s subordination by sex, race, and class thus poverty, racism, and sexism are inextricably connected in prostitution” (Farley, Franzblau, & Kennedy, 2014, p. 111).


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