A Feminist Discourse Analysis of Sex `Work’ | by Ann Weatherall and Anna Priestley

by Aug 14, 2012All Articles

The present research investigates how explanations for sex ‘work’, and constructions of it as a market exchange just like any other, function to reinforce and perpetuate the current shape of the sex industry in New Zealand. It also examines how key themes in feminist theories of sex work are used by participants to account for their experiences in the job. The data were from semi-structured interviews with 19 people who were working, or who had worked, in the sex industry. The sample was diverse in terms of gender and sexuality identifications. There was also diversity in the areas of sex work that had been experienced. The analysis takes a feminist discursive psychology approach that investigates the contradictions and dilemmas raised by different constructions of social objects. Insights that emerged from the analysis include that the construction of sex work as a service industry relies, in part, on the notion of an uncontrollable male sex drive; that the idea of sex work as an ordinary market exchange both highlights and hides important features of the sex industry; and that participants could account for both the violent and liberatory aspects of sex work that feature in feminist explanations. Key Words: discursive psychology, gender, ideology, metaphor, prostitution, sexuality


At present in New Zealand it is a criminal offence to offer sex in return for financial gain. However, it is not an offence to accept money in exchange for sexual services and nor is it an offence to offer money in return for sexual services. Thus the law is seen as discriminating against the mainly female workers and favouring the predominantly male clientele. Despite the current criminality of many aspects of the sex industry such as brothel keeping, it is tolerated by many public institutions in New Zealand. For example, the police encourage sex workers to register with them for surveillance purposes. Also, the Inland Revenue Department (IRD) has been investigating plans to systematically tax all sex workers (Simpson, 1999). The blatant contradiction between the legal status of, and public service attitude towards, prostitution is seen as a contributing factor in the current push for legislation to decriminalize prostitution in New Zealand (White, 1998). A government report on public submissions to the Prostitution Reform Bill 2000 is due in May 2001. Sex work in New Zealand covers a wide range of activities including street work, ship work, parlour work, escort work, working independently, mistressing, peep show work, stripping, telephone work and topless dancing (Bell et al., 1998). An umbrella term that covers all aspects of sex work is the ‘sex industry’. For various reasons it is difficult to assess accurately the numbers working in the industry. However, it is likely that more than 10,000 people from a population of 3.8 million are involved in New Zealand’s sex industry, most being escort or parlour workers (Dayan and Healy, 1996; Woods, 1996). Furthermore, in comparison with the total population of New Zealand, it is estimated that women and people describing themselves as transgendered are over-represented as workers in the industry, whereas men are under-represented as workers but overrepresented as clients. The demographic profile of workers relative to clients is taken as evidence of the secondary and marginalized social status of women and people from sexual minority groups.


Sex work is an area that has attracted substantial debate from a variety of approaches. Views of prostitution as crime, disease, sin and perversity play a role in everyday understandings of sex work as well as in legal responses to it. However, in this article we wish to align ourselves with approaches that aim to be in some way feminist or liberatory. Unfortunately, even within what are broadly feminist approaches, there is little consensus about how to understand sex work and little agreement about the best course of action for improving the lives of people involved in sex work. Unlike much past work (for example, Jeffreys, 1995; Jordan, 1991), we resist a single, coherent definition of what sex work means. Rather, we aim to document how the different concerns raised by feminists about choice, work, violence and so on, are used in sex workers’ accounts of their experiences. In doing this we want to highlight the multiple and contradictory meanings of sex work. By embracing rather than resisting multiple feminist perspectives we aim to show how different understandings of sex are used productively by participants to both endorse and resist the social, cultural and historical meanings that define the work they do.

At the risk of polarizing different feminist approaches, they can be categorized as roughly falling into two camps. In one camp, the radical feminist and Marxist feminist approaches are against prostitution, viewing it as essentially wrong. The radical feminist perspective on sex work is that it is about coercion and sexual subordination. In this view all prostitution is deviant ­ an act of sexual violence; a form of abuse against women (see Jeffreys, 1995, 1997). The Marxist feminist perspective places more emphasis on the ‘work’ aspect of prostitution, viewing any exchange of services for money as an entrance into a relation of subordination. Thus sex work can be viewed as a specific instance of the more general exploitation of the worker (see Zatz, 1997).

The liberal feminist and sex radical positions have a more positive message about prostitution. Liberal feminists argue that sex is a job, much like any other, and can be a form of self-determination for women. The autonomy and freedom reported as being felt by some sex workers are cited as one justification for promoting a more positive view of prostitution. This more palatable construction of sex work tends to be endorsed by prostitutes’ rights groups and is the one that is promoted by the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective (NZPC). Furthermore, a market exchange of sex for money is viewed by many prostitutes and their clients as morally superior to the ‘gift’ exchange of sex that is characteristic of romantic relationships (Prasad, 1999).

The sex radical approach is also pro-prostitution. Critical of any form of social regulation that places restrictions on sexual activity, sex radicals view the sex industry as one of the few social arenas where non-normative sexual activities may be practised. In this view prostitutes are aligned with other marginalized sexual groups such as sado-masochists, fetishists and bisexuals. Furthermore, sex radicals argue that sex work is treated differently from other jobs only because of the social constraints historically associated with sexual practices (see Zatz, 1997). A sex industry that is about sexual exploration and experimentation rather than sexual exploitation is part of Califia’s (1994) vision of what ‘Whoring in Utopia’ might be like.

Nagle (1997) argued that much feminist thinking and research on sex work is inadequate because it has ignored the personal experiences and opinions of people involved in sex work. Following feminist standpoint theory (see Harding, 1986), and consistent with a Marxist perspective, sex workers’ testimonies are crucially important because they have unique insights into what prostitution means as a result of their marginalized position in the dominant social moral order. Nevertheless, any general claims made by sex workers about prostitution have to be treated with caution, not least because of the heterogeneity of prostitutes and sex work. This study begins to address the criticism about feminist research failing to attend to sex workers’ reports of their experiences, by grounding our analysis in workers’ responses to our questions about the sex industry. However, the accounts are not taken simply at face value but are treated as discursive practices that constitute but may also contest what sex work means.

Outside the context of sex work a diverse group of researchers, who can broadly be described as feminist discursive psychologists, have repeatedly documented dominant discourses of sex and sexuality. Penile-vagina penetration, with ejaculation, within the context of active male desire and relative female passivity, is widely understood as what ‘real’ sex and ‘normal’ sexuality are (for example, Gavey, 1992; Gavey and McPhillips, 1999; Gavey et al., 1999; Gilfoyle et al., 1992; Hollway, 1984, 1989; Potts, 1998, 2000). It was expected that these dominant discourses of sex and sexuality would feature in participants’ accounts of sex work and the sex industry. Thus a novel aspect of this research is to show how discourses of sex and sexuality, largely identified in accounts of sexual experiences in heterosexual romantic relationships, are also threads in a different cloth ­ the social construction of sex work.

To summarize, the aims of the study are two-fold. One is to show how discourses of sex and sexuality, identified in different research contexts, are used by participants to constitute and contest various constructions of sex work. The other is to illustrate that, despite the contradictions between various feminist explanations of sex work, they are used flexibly and productively by sex workers to account for sex work and their experiences of it. By grounding our analysis in sex workers’ accounts we address the criticism that previous feminist work has ignored the views of people involved in the industry. However, explanations of sex work are not taken as simple representations of what it is ‘really’ like. Rather, explanations are viewed as exposing the discursive resources available to interpret experiences of sex work and to stabilize and destabilize what sex work means.


The data for this study were semi-structured interviews between the second author, for her master’s dissertation, and each of 19 people with work experience in the sex industry (Priestley, 1999). There were 13 women, four men (Cal, Damo, Josh and Stud) and two self-identified transgendered people (Crystal and Tammy). The age of the participants ranged from 20 to 41 years old. The sample was representative of the range of service activities in the industry (see Woods, 1996) and included three street workers, six parlour workers, 10 escort workers, two sado-masochistic workers and six people who worked independently. Note that some participants reported working in different areas of the sex industry at different stages, so the numbers of participants and the area of work differ.

Each participant was recruited either from the Wellington branch of the NZPC or from an escort agency in Wellington. A further three participants were recruited through personal contacts. The interviews took place at the NZPC or the escort agency and in three cases at the participants’ homes. The interview questions covered a range of issues including the legal and social status of sex work, health and safety concerns, why there was a demand for sex workers’ services and issues about sexual identity and love relationships. Before the interview took place, each participant was informed that questions were merely a guide to prompt discussion and they were invited to raise any issues that they felt were significant. Furthermore, each participant was asked to use a pseudonym to ensure confidentiality. The relatively informal nature of the interview questions, combined with assurances about confidentiality, helped to establish good rapport in the interviews.

Two related analytic concepts from discursive psychology were used to guide the analysis. These were practical ideologies and ideological dilemmas (Potter and Wetherell, 1987; Wetherell, 1998; Wetherell and Potter, 1992). Practical ideologies are ‘fragmentary complexes of notions, norms and models which guide conduct and allow for its justification and rationalization’ (Wetherell et al., 1987: 60). The second analytic concept was ideological dilemmas, which refers to the contradictory beliefs and ideas that constitute our common-sense understanding of the world. Dilemmas are ideological because the beliefs and ideas emerge from social, political and historical contexts (see Billig et al., 1988).

The first aspect of the analysis presented in this article was an examination of the practical ideologies used to justify and rationalize the sex industry. The aim was to identify the kinds of common-sense notions and norms that were invoked to explain the demand for sex workers as well as the demographic profile of the industry. It was expected that discourses of sex and sexuality, identified in previous research, would form part of the practical ideologies used to explain sex work. We were particularly interested in considering how different explanations could be understood as reinforcing (or challenging) the industry’s marginalized status, as well as recreating in the industry the wider patterns of gender and sexual inequalities.

The notion of sex ‘work’ as a legitimate commercial enterprise is one that is being promoted by the NZPC. The idea of sex work as a job like any other is a practical ideology used to explain the sex industry. An aspect of the analysis was to examine the linguistic elements that support the metaphor of prostitution as sex work. The analysis involved a careful listening to and reading of the data, noting the terms, descriptions and figures of speech used to refer to aspects of sex work. An aspect of metaphors is that they highlight some aspects of experiences while disguising others (see Weatherall and Walton, 1999). The aspects of sex work that are highlighted and hidden by its construction as a legitimate commercial enterprise will be considered.

As mentioned in the introduction, contradictions arise between the various feminist explanations of sex work. The contradictions can be understood as an ideological dilemma and in this study they were treated as an analytic resource for examining how the themes of feminist approaches (that is, choice, work, violence and so on) were mobilized in sex workers’ descriptions of their experiences. We were particularly interested in participants’ descriptions of being in or out of control, as issues of agency and sexual objectification are key points of tension between anti- and pro-prostitution positions.


Accounting for Sex Work Participants explained the existence of the sex industry in a variety of ways. An assumption underlying those explanations was that there was a need or, using economic terms, a demand for sex services. What has been labelled the ‘male sex drive’ discourse (for example, Gilfoyle et al., 1992; Hollway, 1984, 1989) was one of the reasons offered for the ‘demand’ for sex workers. Extracts 1 and 2 are examples where biological and evolutionary arguments of gender difference were used to explain men’s sexual ‘overdrive’.

Extract 1

Brooke: (Anna: have you thought about why there is a demand for sex work) yes I have and this is what I think ok (Anna: yip yip) men and women are very different and ah I think at the beginning of time even back in the cave man days they’re programmed to you know spread their sex . . . testosterone um (.) they like variety (.) they’re visually stimulated um they’re more um able to separate themselves emotionally I think than women . . . it’s very convenient for the gentleman who has a lovely wife and lovely kids (Anna: mm) but yet has the urge to do what he’s programmed to do for thousands of years and that is spread it round (..) you know um have the variety . . . (Anna: so you’re talking like it’s a biological thing) yeah yeah

Extract 2

Crystal: no I don’t know what it is that makes them want to but like when they’re asleep their dicks are up and down all the time you know I think it is something that is built in like a nature thing (Anna: right) to make sure there’s always people on this planet men have got an overdrive that’s always to have sex (.) to plant seeds

Extract 3 is an example of a socio-cultural explanation for sex work.

Extract 3

Rose: I don’t know it just seems to be part of the male culture as well (Anna: yeah) people get taken they go in groups after meeting sometimes and their uncle gives them money for the first time and stuff like that (.) it really seems to be an acceptable part of the culture.

Sophie, in Extract 4, also suggested socio-cultural forces creating the demand for sex work. The use of the psychoanalytic term ‘libido’, her reference to a specific age group and use of reported speech all contribute to the persuasiveness of Sophie’s explanation.

Extract 4

Sophie: I think it is um I personally think it’s a man’s personal libido but I also agree that the younger men from 18 up to 25 26 the peer pressure oh I scored such and such last night you know I mean I’ve heard it at pubs before ‘oh I was rooting her the other day’

Men’s ‘need’ for sex, when not mentioned explicitly, was implicitly assumed in explanations for the sex industry. Sex work was constructed as providing a safe, convenient and cheap ‘outlet’ for men to ‘relieve’ themselves.

Extracts 5, 6 and 7 were good examples of where sex work is constructed as providing an appropriate release for men’s (presumed) need to have sex.

Extract 5

Laura: yeah oh if I was married and I was like that if I didn’t want to have sex with my husband I would far prefer him to come to an agency . . . than to have him (Stacey: relieve himself somewhere else) having an affair with someone in the office you know it’s so much more safer

Extract 6

Cal: for some people sex workers are their only outlet (.) for some married men male sex workers are their only outlet for sex with another man um for some gay men having sex with a sex worker is convenient because there is not commitment (.) no ties or anything like that

Extract 7

Damo: if you want to look at it from a cold hard economic viewpoint if you want to do a cost benefit analysis in hiring me then it works out because um (.) they could go out and find sex and they could you know spend however much time it takes and what they get may not be exactly what they want and you know

In some instances sex work was constructed as more than just a personal service, catering to individual men. It was also constructed as a social service ­ making society a better place for people to live in. Examples of sex work being constructed as a social service were Extract 8, where Emma described catering for clients with special needs, and Extract 9, where sex work was described as preventing crime.

Extract 8

Emma: a couple of workers from the . . . home where the disabled people are . . . um recognise that there was a real need that basically these people still had their sexuality and no outlet . . . and so I went through with him [the disabled client] in the room with him and did what I could

Extract 9

Josh: well there are a lot of people that wouldn’t be able to get laid without prostitutes (Anna: yip so you think that it helps people to get sex). Absolutely I think that if there were no prostitutes there’d be a lot more rape (..) a lot more sex crimes

Whether it be biological or social in origin, the construction of men’s desire to have sex as an ‘overdrive’ or a ‘need’ supports, and is supported by, an understanding of sex work as catering for ‘male sexuality’. In the interviews, the industry was predominantly constructed as providing a safe, legitimate and cheap outlet for the male sex drive. It was also constructed as providing an important social service, catering for men who are lonely or have a disability. One kind of explanation that did not seem so dependent on the assumption of a male sex drive was that the sex industry provided an avenue for clients (in our data set they were all men) to explore their sexuality. The idea that the sex work industry provides one of the few arenas for sexual experimentation is consistent with aspects of the sex radical approach.

Extracts 10 and 11 are examples of this.

Extract 10

Jo: and you get some gentlemen who are quite a bit older (.) haven’t experimented like they’ve been with the same partner for most of their life and there’s things that are quite common in other people’s sexual relationships like they’ve never tried like oral sex

Extract 11

Stud: I think why there’s a huge demand for gay male escorts is it is an avenue for a large quantity of men that are closeted (Anna: yip yip) to have sexual arousement for somebody that they really want to have and that is one of the things about the job I must admit to it just makes me so sad (Anna: mm) because you have these you know you get these guys who are wearing wedding rings and a lot of them tell to you about their married life and their kids and stuff

The analysis so far has established that male sexuality was a dominant theme in explanations for sex work. Male sexuality was also used to explain the relative lack of women as clients in the sex industry. Extract 12 is one example from several instances where women were constructed as not needing sex services because they can get sex for free:

Extract 12

Samantha: I think really because men are such dogs in general that any woman no matter what she looks like could go out and get sex if she felt like it I mean men are very obliging in that way (Anna: mm) that women don’t need to use the services of prostitutes because sex is available wherever they want it

In some explanations of the relative lack of women clients women were constructed as not wanting the kind of depersonalized sex that the sex industry offered. This construction recycles and reinforces stereotyped notions of women’s sexuality as being passive and based on emotional needs rather than physical ones. An aspect of the radical feminist argument against prostitution is that it supports the idea that ‘normal’ women want commitment and ‘bad’ or ‘mad’ women want sex.

In Extract 13 Cal invoked the expertise of ‘books’ to argue that women want sex with commitment ­ not the kind of sex available for sale. Crystal, in Extract 14, also invokes gender differences in sexuality to explain the lack of women clients.

Extract 13

Cal: I don’t really know there are a lot of things about male sexuality that are vastly different from female sexuality um depending on the books that you read they say that women like to have commitment

Extract 14

Crystal: I think men want more sex than women (.) women want better sex

Women as clients, while not the norm, were not unheard of. Explanations of this did seem to assume a need for sex. For example, Toni in Extract 15 refers to the possibility of corporate women’s use of sex services for convenience:

Extract 15

Toni: I think there is a quite small (.) I think there is um a lot of corporate women who haven’t got the time or the energy or whatever um who might just ring up an agency and want to spend the night with someone I know very little about it

The existence or possibility of a lesbian niche in the sex work industry was only alluded to in two of the interviews ­ once in reference to it being a feature of the more diverse sex industries found overseas. The other reference was to a woman worker whom one of our participants referred to hearing of, who only catered for woman clients.

In summary, the explanations for the existence of sex work largely recycled stereotyped ideas about men’s and women’s sexuality. The one description that was arguably least dependent on everyday beliefs about sexuality was the idea endorsed by a sex radical approach that sex work provides an arena for sexual experimentation.

Sex ‘Work’ as a Market Exchange

A definitive aspect of prostitution is the exchange of money for a sexual service. In at least that single respect it can be considered as a market exchange ­ an exchange of goods or services for money. Of course, sex work is not just about an economic transaction. Nevertheless, the structural similarities between prostitution and other kinds of market exchanges makes it a compelling metaphorical framework for understanding what sex work is. Sex work was constructed as a market exchange by the rich vocabulary used to refer to it. For example, it was described as a ‘profession’. Within the profession there were various roles including managers, workers and clients who were referred to by a wide range of jargon terms: bosses were ‘pimps’ or ‘madams’; prostitutes were ‘hookers’, ‘workers’ and ‘whores’; customers were referred to as ‘johns’, ‘dicks’ and ‘kingpins’. There were terms for the goods and services exchanged in the market including ‘hand job’, ‘blow job’ and ‘full sex’. There were also terms for what were considered speciality or niche services such as ‘bondage and discipline’, ‘golden shower’ and ‘bareback’. Furthermore there was an established tariff that may be charged by time or by service. In the case of street work it was ‘$60 for a hand job, $80 for a blow job and $100 for full sex’. Competition in the industry was referred to as ‘undercutting’ and ‘hustling’. In addition there were terms for illicit activities; ‘rolling’ (stealing clients’ money) and ‘pinging’ (blackmailing).

The linguistic elements just described show that the discourse of prostitution as ‘work’ is successful because of the similarities between the exchange of money for sex and other market exchanges. A feature of metaphors is that the mapping between the target domains (in this case sex work) and source domains (in this case a market exchange) necessarily highlights certain concepts while hiding others. The feature of sex work that the market exchange metaphor highlights is the payment of a fee in exchange for attending to another’s (sexual) desire. Underlying the market metaphor is an assumption that the exchange is entered into freely and willingly. That is, the worker is assumed to be an independent, active agent who chooses to enter into various contracts involving the exchange of sexual favours for money. The assumptions about autonomous individuals and free choice mean that strong parallels exist between the market exchange metaphor of sex work and liberal feminist understandings of it, which share assumptions of individual autonomy and choice.

The aspects of sex work that are hidden by the market exchange metaphor include the broader economic and social influences shaping the significance and gendered structure of the industry. Thus issues around power and sexual practices are concealed. For example, an assumption of the market exchange metaphor is that the work contract is entered into freely, yet 16 of our 19 participants cited desperation for money as their primary reason for entering into sex work. Thus most of our sample, and all of the women, opted for sex work within a very limited context of choice. Only three participants (two men and one transgender) provided explanations of their involvement that implied ‘free’ choice ­ that is, they had other viable job options. In these latter cases a celebration and/or exploration of sexual identity was an important factor in that choice ­ an aspect of sex work that is promoted by the sex radical approach but hidden by the market exchange metaphor.

The objectification, violence and exploitation experienced by many sex workers are other aspects of the industry that are not highlighted by the pervasive linguistic construction of sex work as a legitimate market exchange. An aspect of sex work that is veiled by the market metaphor is that it is paradigmatically straight women (but also lesbians, gay men and transgendered individuals) selling to mainly ‘straight’ men. Furthermore, the market exchange metaphor highlights sex work as being about money; however, it hides the fact that sex work, particularly parlour work, is not really a very lucrative form of employment. Simpson (1999) reported that levels of income for most sex workers have been estimated to be well below the average wage in New Zealand.

What Is for Sale?

The market exchange metaphor promoted by liberal approaches to sex work begs the question of what exactly is for sale? Sex is the obvious answer. An interesting aspect of the market exchange metaphor was that it offered constructions of sex other than the dominant one of penile-vagina penetration. As mentioned in the introduction, considerable amounts of feminist research have examined how meanings of ‘having sex’ are socially constructed in ways that endorse heteropatriarchy. However, there has been relatively little published research on what sex means outside the normative context of heterosexual relationships. We would like to suggest that the sex industry is a valuable context for investigating how different meanings of sex are locally occasioned for different interactional purposes.

The discursive construction of sex is not a focus of this article. Nevertheless, we would like to briefly mention the rich variety of constructions of sex that did emerge from the interviews. For example, some participants described how clients promoted constructions of sex that allowed them to excuse their infidelity. There was one report of a client who would only have intercourse standing up because ‘real’ sex was done lying down; thus he wasn’t being unfaithful to his wife. The participants themselves tended to construct ‘real’ sex as intimacy (for example, kissing, not using condoms). In this way they differentiated the ‘real’ sex they had with their romantic partners from the ‘pretend’ sex they had with their clients. Despite the various meanings of sex that were transparent from the interviews, the common-sense understanding of penile-vagina penetration as the ‘ultimate’ form of sex was reflected in, and recycled in, the pricing structure of street work. As noted in the previous section, ‘full’ sex costs the most.

Power and Agency

In the interviews participants were asked questions about safety concerns. A theme that emerged from their responses related to the issues of agency, power and control. Potential agents of power included the bosses/pimps, the customers/ johns and themselves. Two contradictory descriptions of power emerged from the responses. These paralleled the radical feminist and liberal feminist explanations of sex work. One set of accounts positioned the sex worker as passive and powerless in an arrangement that was predominantly controlled by clients and their pimps. In contrast, another set of accounts constructed the sex workers as agentic and in control of their choices. Note that these different accounts were not associated with different speakers but were sometimes used by the same speaker in response to different questions. Thus in an interview a participant could report, at different points, that sex work involved free choice and that it meant being passive and powerless.

We found that when participants discussed feeling in control they did so by constructing themselves as providing a service in a context where they made the rules. However, when participants discussed violence and exploitation they tended to position themselves more passively as the objects for sale. It is important to note that from a discursive perspective, reports of feeling powerful or powerless should not be taken as evidence that sex workers really are powerful or powerless. Similarly, descriptions of exploitation or of violence should not be taken as representing what sex work really means. Rather than interpreting descriptions as straightforward accounts of a cognitive or social reality, a discursive approach takes descriptions as showing the linguistic and common-sense resources used to make sense of experiences in ways that are accountable ­ that is, in ways that are generally accepted as reasonable and rational.

Exploitation: Positioning the Worker as an Object for Sale

In Extract 16 Brooke refers to instances when clients treat her not as a person with feelings but as just a body ‘like an object’ that they have bought. Brooke infers that clients feel entitled to do what they like with their purchase.

Extract 16

Brooke: but then sometimes the men [clients] can treat you quite like an object that they’ve just bought . . . yeah well I’ve paid for it baby type of thing

Fear of violence and being exploited were dominant themes in accounts where the workers were described as being treated like objects for sale. In these extracts the sex worker is constructed as a body that has been bought ­ a piece of merchandise that can be used and abused. It is precisely these themes that are central concerns in the radical feminist position on prostitution.

Extract 17 is one example of the danger of being a street worker ­ you can be literally up for grabs.

Extract 17

Kelly: there were guys (.) like gang members wanting to grab a girl basically and yeah they’d been in town for a week and everybody knew to be careful (.) watch yourself . . . yeah they’d be known to like grab girls and throw them in the back and there would be like four or five of them in the car

In Extract 18, Emma reported a dilemma that she felt between passively accepting her position as sex object versus actively asserting her role as a service provider with a set of regulations (which presumably included that the client does not inflict pain). A poignant aspect of this account is that the benefits of being treated as just a body outweighed the cost of reminding the client of her personhood.

Extract 18

Emma: (Anna: right you said that you have put up with physical abuse) that biting thing (.) you know being pushed a bit too hard basically in a sexual sense but they’re doing it a bit too hard (Anna: yeah) they’re hurting or whatever (..) you just grit your teeth and hope that they get off really fast rather than stopping them because that’s going to take them longer isn’t it (Anna: oh ok things like that) yeah you’re trading off (.) you might (.) oh an example might be you’re doing doggy style with somebody and they’re really pounding into you really hard but um and it it’s in my head I could say look do it a bit gentler and sometimes I do but often I’ll just change body positions just lean forward a bit or try and ease the blow

Rachel’s experience of a job interview for parlour work is described in Extract 19. She described how the boss made her feel objectified and humiliated. Here it seemed to us that the ‘boss’ has positioned Rachel as a piece of merchandise, nothing more than a body, that he is entitled to have a free sample of.

Extract 19

Rachel: and I went into his office and he made me strip . . . so I took my clothes off and it was just humiliating (Anna: why did he do that?) just to see what sort of body I had and he made me do a twirl . . . I was eighteen (.) I was stunned (Anna: eighteen) um he was sitting back in his desk and he sort of like went like this (. . .) he sat back like this and unzipped his pants and said do you give good head

Extract 20 is one of numerous examples where clients were described as not respecting the rules or boundaries set up by the worker. This disrespect by clients helps constitute the sex worker as no more than a body that has been purchased. When a service is being sold clients would generally respect the conditions of the service provider. However, if the worker is viewed as an object for sale, a piece of merchandise, then rules and boundaries are irrelevant.

Extract 20

Brooke: and a lot of the guys they know they know who they can try it on with and they do try it on with you . . . like you know (.) touching inappropriately maybe or (..) kissing which if you want to kiss them that’s fine but if they’re people you really don’t want to kiss them and you know (.) and I didn’t know that in the beginning so I put up with a hell of a lot of crap

Sex Workers as Self-Determining Service Providers In contrast to Extracts 16­20, where sex workers were positioned as objects for sale, participants also constructed themselves as autonomous agents. In these contexts, where the talk was about setting and enforcing rules and about making choices, the liberal feminist position is supported. Extracts 21, 22 and 23 are examples of participants who described themselves as having the upper hand because of the service they provided.

Extract 21

Rachel: but the man’s coming (.) paying (.) pardon the pun he’s coming for a service he’s paying so he’s the victim (..) so he’s the loser that can’t get sex so he has to go to the person that’s providing it

Extract 22

Toni: ’cause I think if you’re a good worker and you’ve got your head screwed on you always remember that you’re the one in control (Anna: right right) and they’re the one that are paying for it

In Extracts 23

­26 the accounts of workers as being free agents in the transaction of sex for money are made persuasive by specific examples of rulemaking or refusing services to clients. Extract 23

Rose: and he wanted extras and I said no I don’t do them and that was really empowering (Anna: yeah) to just every now and then say fuck you

Extract 24

Kelly: yeah I’d always felt comfortable enough to refuse (.) that was my right

Extract 25

Sophie: um basically I have rules (.) once I am in the bedroom area with the man um I let them know (.) I don’t sit there and sternly tell them I let them know that we don’t kiss ok um I’m very strict on that if they come near my lips they get a warning

Extract 26

Samantha: um kissing is just out (.) this business of sticking their fingers inside your mick was a no no as well

In many of the descriptions that constructed workers as having power and being in control there was a tension. That tension was that there seemed to be a simultaneous acknowledgement of the possibility of objectification while being in control but a denial of that being personally significant. Here, the central theme of the Marxist position surfaces, where the entrance into the market exchange simultaneously is making you vulnerable to exploitation. Extract 27 is one example of how the construction of sex worker as a service provider functions, in part, to resist the possibility of their being constructed in less autonomous ways.

Extract 27

Rachel: I don’t believe that the sex worker’s the victim just for the fact that she tells the client what to do (..) he is coming to her and he is paying her for a service and she has limits and boundaries (.) so how can she be the victim

The tension also exists in Extract 28 where Kelly invokes a kind of radical feminist argument when she suggests that ‘all women’ are ‘victims’. In contrast, Kelly as a sex worker has control.

Extract 28

Kelly: well you know (..) I think to me all women in all walks of life are victims in one way or another you know throughout their lifestyles (Anna: yeah) whatever but ultimately (.) um being a sex worker I’ve never felt like a victim I’ve felt more in control of my life than I ever did before


One of the aims of this study was to examine whether the discourses used to account for sex work supported or contested the gendered status quo. The explanations offered by our participants mostly depended on the explicit or implicit assumption of male sexuality as a kind of drive or urge that needs to be released. So, servicing male sexuality was widely invoked as a reason for the industry. The male sex drive discourse was also used to explain the lack of women clients because it was assumed that there would be men willing to have sex with them for free. Thus the male sex drive discourse, identified in previous feminist analyses of sex and sexuality in heterosexual encounters, was used in this case to justify and rationalize the gendered and sexual hierarchy of sex work.

The issue of female sexuality was referred to rarely in the interviews and only as one kind of response to the question of why there aren’t more women clients. A construction of female sexuality as being a desire for intimacy and for commitment functioned as a practical ideology to justify why there is no demand for servicing women’s sexual desires. One of the few explanations that addressed the existence of women clients involved the convenience aspect of buying sex services. One participant suggested that corporate women may benefit from the trouble-free aspect of sex purchased from a sex worker. The assumptions about sexuality used to rationalize the sex industry justify the radical feminist concern that sex work is about the sexual subordination of women.

A further explanation of sex work that didn’t seem to rely so heavily on the assumption of an active male sexuality and a passive female one was the construction of the sex industry as an opportunity for sexual exploration. Participants in our study only alluded to men who used sex workers in this way. However, it doesn’t seem too far-fetched to imagine that women may desire a safe context to explore aspects of their sexuality. Indeed, one of the characters in Ensler’s (1998) The Vagina Monologues was a sex worker who had a lucrative and fulfilling career helping women get in touch with their vaginas (also see Braun, 1999). The idea of using the sex industry as a sexual adventure playground has some parallels with the permissive discourse of sexual practice that promotes a nonmonogamous celebration of sexuality (Hollway, 1984; 1989).

The pervasive construction of sex work as a legitimate market exchange was achieved, in part, by the jargon associated with the sex­money exchange that corresponded to everyday market exchange terminology. Thus prostitution as sex ‘work’ can be understood as a powerful discourse or metaphor. An important aspect of metaphor is that it highlights some features of an object or experience while hiding others (Weatherall and Walton, 1999). The market exchange metaphor of prostitution highlighted the kinds of themes associated with a liberal feminist approach; that it is a contract entered into freely. However, it hides the economic desperation leading many into sex work as well as the vulnerability to exploitation that many aspects of sex work engender.

We (the authors) think it is worth noting a conundrum of the current position of the NZPC as a liberatory approach. On the one hand, endorsing the decriminalization of sex work has the potential to help protect sex workers, by lifting the secrecy that functions to condone rape and other forms of violence against sex workers. So the promotion of sex work as a legitimate market exchange may help protect workers and ensure a fair wage. However, any legislation to control that market may actually transform sex work into something that workers have less control over. Furthermore, legitimating sex work may have, from a feminist perspective, the less desirable effect of encouraging more women who are economically desperate to become sex workers. It seems, then, that the NZPC strategy will achieve a truly liberatory outcome only if it is supported by a more equitable economic climate where women are able to support themselves and their dependants. Until sex work is just one choice among many for people, it seems likely that no form of legislation will totally eradicate the exploitation of sex workers.

An important difference between the radical and liberal feminist accounts of sex work is the different emphasis they place on the exploitative versus liberatory aspects of prostitution respectively. Instead of treating these alternative versions as competing definitions of what sex work means, our analysis examined the discursive articulation of abuse and freedom in participants’ accounts. We found that in accounts where participants discussed being in control they were positioned as powerful and agentic. In contrast, descriptions of exploitation and violence tended to construct the subject in a powerless position. Thus there were similarities between feminist theoretical accounts of sex work and the ones the participants gave. However, the functions of the two sets of accounts differ. The feminist frameworks are used as arguments for or against sex work, whereas the participants were constructing themselves and their experiences as reasonable and rational. This kind of discursive approach is useful because it resists making general claims about what sex work is and what sex workers like. Instead we have shown how multiple and contradictory views function to reproduce and sometimes challenge dominant understandings of sex and prostitution.


We would like to acknowledge and express our appreciation of the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective (NZPC) and the escort agency who helped us recruit participants. We would also like to thank the participants themselves for their time and thoughtful responses in the interviews. Thanks also to John Haywood for his careful reading and editing suggestions for this article.

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Ann WEATHERALL is a senior lecturer in psychology at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. She has published several articles and book chapters in psychology which take a feminist approach to gender issues and to the topic of language and social interaction. Her recently completed book Shifting Perspectives on Gender, Language and Discourse will be published by Routledge in the near future.

ADDRESS: Ann WEATHERALL, School of Psychology, Victoria University of Wellington, PO Box 600, Wellington, New Zealand. [email: ]

Anna PRIESTLEY has a master’s degree in psychology. She is training as an educational psychologist and intends to undertake research towards a PhD in the future. As a feminist, social relevance is an important theme in her academic work.

ADDRESS: Anna PRIESTLEY, School of Psychology, Victoria University of Wellington, PO Box 600, Wellington, New Zealand. [email: ]

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