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Who rules the game? An investigation of sex-work, gender, agency and the body

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Purpose ‐ Drawing upon notions of agency and the body, the purpose of this paper is to examine the nature of agency as a gendered concept through a consideration of women sex-workers. Specifically, the paper analyses how far women sex-workers may be regarded as social agents. It then considers how far notions of agency, in relation to sex-workers' embodied boundaries, may be gendered. Design/methodology/approach ‐ The paper reviews existing literature on sex-workers and sex-work practices, looking at indoor sex-work (massage parlours), outdoor sex-work (street sex-work) and trafficking. It considers these types of sex-work in relation to agency, gender and the body. Findings ‐ The paper acknowledges the diversity of women's experience within different aspects of the sex trade. The paper recognizes claims that treating sex-workers as "victims" could further jeopardize their social position. However, the paper finds that the "options" available to sex-workers are severely constrained. Specifically, the lack of capacity among sex-workers to set embodied "rules of engagement" with clients makes the notion of agency problematic. The paper contends that "agency" is itself a gendered concept not only in relation to sex-work, but also in the context of women's work more broadly. Practical implications ‐ Through the idea of agency as a gendered concept, the paper offers alternative ways of exploring agency, the body and women's work. Originality/value ‐ The paper puts forward the notion of agency as a gendered concept. This opens up possibilities for further research on women's "choices", and who "makes the rules" within different labour markets.
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Keywords: Gender; Sex; Women workers

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: 2010-01-01

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