Let’s go outside: Bodies, prostitutes, slaves and worker citizens

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In liberal thought, slavery is imagined as reducing the human being to nothing but a body, while the free and equal political subjects of modern liberal democracies are held to be abstract, universal, and disembodied individuals. In theory, bodies are also unimportant in the wage labour exchange. Though traditional models of worker citizenship insist on state and employers’ duty to protect the human worth of worker citizens, they also assume the disembodied, thing-like nature of commodified labour-power. Because bodies are so obviously important in the exchange between prostitute and customer, sex work is difficult to reconcile with liberal fictions of disembodiment, and one strand of feminist debate on prostitution is preoccupied by the question of whether prostitutes are like slaves or wage labourers. Protagonists on both sides of this debate often reproduce liberal understandings of labour power as a ‘thing’ that can be detached from the person. And yet labour power is also a contested commodity, and wage labour has historically been likened to slavery by activists struggling against the commodification of labour power. This article argues that stepping outside liberal fictions of disembodiment and recognizing the parallels between prostitution, wage labour and slavery, would allow greater scope for establishing a common political subjectivity amongst prostitutes, other wage workers, and all those who have an interest in halting and reversing the current global trend towards the commodification of everything.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)516-532
Number of pages17
JournalCitizenship Studies
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - 1 Aug 2014

Bibliographical note

Date of Acceptance: 27/09/2013

Structured keywords

  • Migration Mobilities Bristol
  • slaves
  • prostitutes
  • worker-citizens
  • migration
  • mobility


  • commodification
  • embodied labour
  • prostitution
  • sex work
  • citizenship


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