Being, thinking and doing 'queer' in debates about commercial sex

Nicola Smith, Mary Laing, Katy Pilcher

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

13 Citations (Scopus)


Commercial sex work is the subject of significant contestation in contemporary legal, medical, moral, feminist, religious and social debates. Across the world, regulatory frameworks and legal systems are in flux, as governments negotiate complex discursive and material practices of commercial sex, and seek to shape law and legislation centred on notions of sexual citizenship, health, safety, human rights, exploitation, violence and morality. In addition, there is now a wealth of research that interrogates and documents how sex is sold in a plethora of spaces, through multiple mechanisms, by a multitude of actors, for diverse reasons (see for instance Agustín 2007; Kotiswaran 2011; Weitzer 2005). In highlighting the complexities of commercial sex in analytical and empirical terms, this literature has done much to expose and challenge the entrenched polarities – such as those between oppression and liberation, violence and pleasure, and victimhood and agency – that have long underpinned political and philosophical debates surrounding the sale and purchase of sex. For example, commercial sex has been theorised in terms of a wider discourse of ‘intimacy’ and central to this has been an emphasis on how understandings, experiences and performances of intimacy are not fixed but instead change over time and space, in quite complex and often contradictory ways (see especially Bernstein 2007; Zelizer 2007). It is thus surprising that the extant body of work remains focused on the sale of sex by women to men, be it on the street, over the telephone, in a brothel, via escorting, on the internet or through other means. While these debates are exceptionally valuable in furthering conceptualisations of intimacy, gender, sexuality and sexual encounters, notably, lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans* and queer (LGBTQ) sex work is rarely treated as a matter of substantive concern. This erasure of non-normative identities, performances and embodiments in debates about the sex industry not only restricts the potentialities of the political agency of queer and trans* sex workers but also reinforces the very gender dualisms that many feminist and queer scholars would wish to challenge, i.e. by reproducing heteronormative assumptions that there is a ‘natural’ gender order in which women are sexual objects and men are sexual subjects (Smith 2012). A queer focus, going beyond the hetero-centric gender norm, is important for developing fresh insights into how gender, sex, power, crime, work, migration, space/place, health and intimacy are conceptualised and theorised in the context of commercial sexual encounters.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationQueer Sex Work
EditorsMary Laing, Katy Pilcher, Nicola Smith
Place of PublicationLondon
PublisherTaylor & Francis
Number of pages10
ISBN (Electronic)9780203761960
ISBN (Print)9780415704557
Publication statusPublished - 5 Mar 2015

Publication series

NameRoutledge Studies in Crime and Society


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