Sex, Markets, and Political Economy

Sex, Markets, and Political Economy

This post is part of our symposium on the political economy of sex work. Read the rest of the symposium here.

Aziza Ahmed and Jason Jackson

Movements to decriminalize sex work in the United States have gained momentum in recent years.  In New York, the Decrim NY movement has advanced a bill that would decriminalize the purchase and sale of sex.  The debate has been intense. Proponents of decriminalization, including sex workers and their allies, argue that criminal laws keep those who choose to sell sex poor, homeless, and struggling for survival.  Many opponents of decriminalization argue that sex work leads to the commodification of the human body and thus is immoral. Some feminists believe that men who purchase sex should be prosecuted for engaging in the exploitation of women and girls.

Among the various perspectives utilized to understand and advocate for or against sex work, a political economy approach directs attention to the fundamentally political and moralized nature of markets. Markets are not abstract spaces for economic transactions but rather politically contested terrains of societal struggle where competing actors wield technical legal tools and moralized beliefs in attempts to shape structures of societal governance. A political economy of sex work might thus ask questions such as: how are the moral categories that justify market regulations distribute resources and govern populations created? How do legal rules shift the distribution of power and control between actors engaged in sex market transactions? And crucially, which societal actors win and lose when sex work is delegitimized and criminalized?

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