Thursday, February 4, 2016

A Heated Debate: Theoretical Perspectives of Sexual Exploitation and Sex Work

The theoretical and often political framework of sexual exploitation and sex work among women is widely and enthusiastically debated among academic and legal scholars alike. The majority of theoretical literature in this area focuses on the macro perspective, while the micro-level perspective as to theory and causation remains sparse. This article provides a comprehensive overview of the philosophical, legal, and political perspectives pertaining to sexual exploitation of women and girls while addressing the subsequent controversies in the field.

…All four studies addressing entry into trading or survival sex focus on victimization as a partial consequence of additional vulnerabilities, which seem to support the neo-abolitionist perspective at the macro level. Authors point to the studies' reduced options because of various adversities and traumas, ranging from family backgrounds and abuse to poverty and homelessness. Theories of addiction also play a role in impacting the course of sexual exploitation and any choices a woman or girl may have. These studies do not necessarily dispute that individuals trading sex had the choice to do so, but rather suggest that they may not have made the same choices without increased vulnerabilities from childhood or in their present situations.

Like entry perspectives, both exit models seem to side with the abolitionist perspective in that they describe many reasons why a woman would not be able to be able to fully make a decision on her own, free of any other factors. Sex positivists would suggest that these theoretical explanations for prostitution remove the possibility of full personal agency and that a woman could make her own choice to do sex work. Neo-abolitionists would argue that sex work is chosen only because of the complete lack of other options and therefore can never truly be described as a “choice.” Even in these smaller studies, macro-level theoretical perspectives and the debate between the neo-abolitionists and the sex-positivists can certainly be found.

It is evident that the majority of the research and debate is centered in the macro and structural theories of causation and remains substantially underdeveloped in micro level theories at the individual and relationship level. The heated debates of various feminist perspectives have greatly influenced the divisions within the legal frameworks with which countries of the world are governed. Even with the extensive theoretical and legal writing at the macro level, the amount of empirically tested work remains limited. With the high levels of responses from one legal or academic scholar to another, often in rebuttal or defense of his/her own particular framework (; ; ; ), no clear consensus is likely to be reached any time soon. Micro level perspectives contribute to the understanding of entry and exit processes for women and girls in sexual exploitation or sex work, but contain very little outside empirical support. Regardless of the contrasting body of works between macro and micro level theories, theoretical advancements play an important role in understanding sexual exploitation and sex work among females as well as the policies, services, and interventions available to them in present day.

Full article at:

Washington University in St. Louis George Warren Brown School of Social Work
J Sociol Soc Welf. Author manuscript; available in PMC 2016 Jan 28.

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