Sex Work or Prostitution? Implications of Dominant Social Problems Vs. Activist Movements Discourses on Men Selling Sex to Men

Monday, 16 July 2018: 17:30
Oral Presentation
Annelie DE CABO Y MOREDA, Univeristy of Gothenburg, Sweden
In the current global order, most countries consider commercial sex as a (trans)national social problem, rather than a platform for social movements. This approach is embedded in policies governing sex for sale, concerning – among other – migration, mobility and exclusion (within and across countries), as well as shifting sexual and gender norms. In 1999, Sweden became the first country in the world to criminalize the client, but not the person offering sexual services. Central to this official stance is the conceptualisation of, firstly, sex workers as women, and secondly ‘women as victims in need of protection’, thus making concepts such as ‘sex workers’ highly controversial. More, this shift in legislation meant a displacement from the social to judicial domain in shaping the “problem” of commercial sex. Since then countries across Europe have adopted similar legislation. The victim-discourse clearly dominates the social problems debate in Sweden, while discourses emphasising sex workers’ agency and rights has gained less (official) attention. However, the conceptualization of commercial sex as a global social problem, or as a platform for activism, is under constant negotiation.

In this paper, “the language of social problems” concerning commercial sex is put under scrutiny. The data of the study is qualitative: transcribed interviews with men selling sex to men. The analysis indicates that dominant discourses on commercial sex – whether centered on ‘victims’ or ‘agents’ – tends to be reductionist approaches, shaping the micro-practices of the actors involved. In conclusion, I argue that the ‘social problem discourse’ reflects a reaction among the interviewees to avoid the feminized ‘whore-stigma’ as contagious to their self-representation. Moreover, the ‘sex workers’-discourse appears as quite ambiguous, since participants almost unanimously depart from the pro-work feminist stance claiming to combat stigmatization for those involved in commercial sex.