Is it time to drop the term ‘prostitution’ from policy discourse?

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In this paper, I wish to explore whether it is time to drop the use of the term ‘prostitution’ in English policy discourse. I argue here that ‘prostitution’ is a culturally loaded term and is insufficiently precise in describing the different contexts in which the exchange of sex for money or other resources between adults takes place. This lack of clarity has implications for policy action, which in turn materially affects the lives of those involved in the sex industry. I draw on MacKinnon’s (1989) thesis of the eroticisation of dominance as a productive framework for explaining why violence, harm and coercion are possible within the exchange of sex for money (or other resource), though not
inevitable. I propose that we distinguish four categories: sex entrepreneurship, sex work, survival sex and sexual exploitation. For some scholars, such categorisations overlook how disparate practices are connected (Jeffreys, 2009), most obviously by patriarchy or economic inequality. However, I believe we need to see both the connections and the distinctions: if we conflate different practices, we lose the particularity of the contexts of practice and weaken the rationale for policy action. Worse, policy interventions may be harmful. I suggest these four categories can help us identify and distinguish between structural and
interpersonal harm and structural and interpersonal coercion and help to formulate attendant criminal justice and social justice measures.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)385-393
JournalJournal of Gender-Based Violence
Issue number3
Early online date15 Oct 2019
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 15 Oct 2019

Bibliographical note

The acceptance date for this record is provisional and based upon the month of publication for the article.

Structured keywords

  • SPS Centre for Gender and Violence Research


  • sex work
  • prostitution
  • sexual exploitation
  • policy
  • discourse


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