Skip to content

The Objectification of Women in the Prostitution Industry:The Discourse of Agency

January 20, 2009

The discourse of the objectification of women has become in the forefront of scholarly research due to its unquestionable significance to many interdisciplinary studies. The objectification of women assumes various shapes; among which is the prostitution industry which remains a controversial issue in literature. Departing from this point, investigating the objectification of women in relation to the prostitution industry will be the prime focus of this post. This is partly examined through the discussion of the presence and absence of choice or agency for women sex workers, which is followed by presenting some of the theoretical disputes among different scholars. Finally, the post will investigate the debates around the concept of choice, or lack of agency in relation to women sex workers.

As a prelude to discussing the objectification of women, it is imperative to investigate whether the objectification of women in the prostitution industry is an aftermath of the emergence of industrialized societies. If anything, including women, can be a consumer object (Ritzer 2004: 15), then, “sexuality is itself offered for consumption” (Ritzer 2004: 14) in which women sex workers themselves become objects and commodities serving men sexual desires. Therefore, it makes perfect sense that these women have a price. In other words, it is “the exchange of money for sex acts and services” (Overall 1992: 709). To elaborate, woman’s body, and woman’s sexual skills are “appropriated for the pleasure of the customer” (Overall 1992: 716). In this sense, the woman here is objectified when she is “treated not as a complete being but as a means to the customer’s sexual goals” (Overall 1992: 716). This form of prostitution dates back prior to the industrial revolution or capitalist systems. Rachel Holmes maintains that “prostitution in different forms existed in many types of pre-industrial societies” (Holmes 1994: 37). Therefore, it is historically inaccurate to see it as “an invention of industrialisation” (Holmes 1994: 37). As a result, linking the objectification of women in the prostitution industry directly to the emergence of capitalism could be argued as inaccurate. Nonetheless, it is not questionable that both the capitalist system and urbanization have been playing a substantial role in increasing this phenomenon. For instance, it is argued that the increased women prostitution in South Africa is affected by the discourse of urbanisation where the social and economic identities of women have been a product of their involvement into prostitution as an element of “the sexual economies of the city environment” (Holmes 1994: 39) . Also, the “intensities of population levels”, and “the imbalances in sex ratios” in the industrial cities are playing a fundamental role in repositioning the ways in which “sexual relationships” are structured in this new context (Holmes 1994: 39).

If working in prostitution could be a choice, it would not be objective to de-humanize women sex workers who choose to work in this field by taking their will or choice from them. But, one may be concerned about their choice itself.  Women sex workers or prostitutes might face disease, danger, mistreatment, indignity, insecurity, emotional pain and psychological abuse (Overall 1992: 710). However, some of them do not face these risks. They make it clean, pleasant, at “even luxurious surroundings for their work” with “well- mannered clients” (Overall 1992: 711). Thus, these women see it as a form of civilized and reasonable “exchange of sex for money” (Overall 1992: 711). Some women sex workers believe that such negative and harmful consequences that could result from their sexual work can happen in any other field of work either at factories, offices or “their own homes”” (Overall 1992: 711). In fact, the previously mentioned points of views represent two sides of a debate about the objectification and commodification of women as sex workers. Some of these workers do not believe that it differs from any other job or form of women’s work under the “capitalist patriarchy” (Overall 1992: 711). Hence, it can not assume that women engagement in prostitution generally reveals “a lack of choice” (Overall 1992: 713). An example which is given by Christine Overall shows that some women sex workers can make choices[1]; either working in factories for low income or working in the prostitution industry for a higher income as both jobs require long working hours (Overall 1992: 714). Thus, generalizing that sex workers are lacking agency would be erroneous. Importantly, the variation in the opinions of women about sex work “can be seen as another case of patriarchal divide and conquer” (Overall 1992: 707). Although this process is not planned intentionally, it functions successfully “to keep women arguing with each other rather than with those who perpetuate and benefit from the practice” (Overall 1992: 707). One is not against the prostitution industry itself because of morality or illegality or the physical or psychological pain issues rather because these women are humans who should not be selling their intimate lives and bodies to men. If some of the sex workers do not regard themselves as victims (Overall 1992: 711), they are victimizing other women. One would say it is not only the prostitutes who have rights to defend but also other women do. This is due to the general image these sex workers are imparting either directly or indirectly which negatively affects the image of other women making them seen as sex objects as well. In a nutshell, the mere existence of prostitution “will disproportionately fuel negative images of women” that leads to objectifying her as a sex object (Satz 1995: 79).

The central organization in the social movement to defy conventional definitions of prostitution, “COYOTE (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics) (Jenness: 1990: 403), insists that most prostitution is voluntary, as “most women who work as prostitutes have made a conscious decision to do so, having looked at a number of work alternatives” (COYOTE Havls 1988: 1). Accordingly, “we need to demand the right of these women to opt for prostitution if that’s their choice. We can’t deny women a choice” (St. James quoted on “The Phil Donahue Show 1980). COYOTE does not make a distinction between those who opt for prostitution as work and those who are obliged to get into prostitution in order to survive. According to COYOTE, “only 15 percent of prostitutes are coerced by third parties” (Jenness: 1990: 406). Furthermore, in the words of COYOTE’s 1984-85 charter, “all prostitutes are not inert, helpless objects to whom men do an endless number of things”. On the other hand, Gail Pheterson, the Co-Director of the International Committee on Prostitutes’ Rights (ICPR), commented that “in trying to stop abuses in prostitution, one should not try to put the women out of work”(Jenness: 1990: 413).[2]

Although not directly related to the discourse of women objectification, it is worthy of mention that men sex workers or prostitutes exist; however, “women [less] occasionally hire men or women for sex work” (Overall 1992: 718). Overall wonders if one can “imagine men working as prostitutes in the same numbers as women, or women hiring men as sex workers at the same rate as men now hire women? This hypothetical question could be better replied in the light of the following joke, mentioned by Overall (1992: 719). The dialogue in the joke goes as follows:

A man says to a woman: Would you sleep with me for a million dollars?

The women replied: I suppose I would.

The man asks: Would you sleep with me for five dollars?

The woman says angrily: What do you take me for?

But the man responds: We have already established that; now we are just negotiating your price

This joke indicates that “all women are whores at heart” and therefore, all women have a price (Overall 1992: 719). While taking the pricing of a woman for granted, the man’s “moral standing – despite his negotiation to buy sex – is never in question” (Overall 1992: 720). Whereas the sale of sex “helps to define a woman” as it forcefully condemns her (Overall 1992: 720), “the purchase of sex” also “helps to define man”, yet, “it does not condemn him” (Overall 1992: 720).

As a matter of fact, seeing women as sex objects or property inhabits the works of some well known scholars, such as Nietzsche. In Spake Zarathustra, he believes that women “are not yet capable of friendship; they are still casts, or birds, or at best cows” (Russell 1994: 731). In addition, he believes that “men shall be trained for war and women for the recreation of the worrier” (Russell 1994:731). He thinks that “all else is folly” (Russell 1994: 731). In Nietzsche’s work the Will to power, he states that men “take pleasure in women as in a perhaps daintier, more delicate and more ethereal kind of creature” (Russell 1994: 732). Furthermore, he wonders “what a treat it is to meet creatures who have always been the delight of every tense and profound male soul”. Yet, he believes that merely “these graces are only to be found in women so long as they kept in order by manly men” (Russell 1994: 732). He understands that once women achieve independence, they turn out to be intolerable (Russell 1994: 732). Moreover, women have “so much cause for sham”, “much pedantry, superficiality, schoolmasterliness, pretty presumption, unbridledness, and indiscretion concealed” that have actually been best dominated and restrained hitherto by fear of men (Russell 1994: 732). Not only that, but also Nietzsche says in Beyond Good and Evil, one “should think of women as property as Orientals do” (Russell 1994: 732).

On the other hand, scholars who are involved in the “feminist discourse on sexuality” oppose this previously mentioned point of view in their “discussions of the social control of women’s sexuality” and support “women’s rights to control their bodies” with the objective of “liberating women from the sexual and social double standards” (Jenness 1990: 411). Satz (1995), for instance, condemns prostitution not because of the way it negatively affects “happiness or personhood” – which are also affected by other types of wage-labor – but due to the serious damage it causes to “achieving a significant form of equality between men and women” (Satz 1995:81).

In conclusion, the objectification of women is one of the fundamental discourses that have been studied in the fields of the anthropology, sociology and gender. One of the manifestations of this objectification is the prostitution industry which remains a controversial issue in scholarly work. Investigating women objectification in relation to the prostitution industry was established as the backbone of the post whose flesh was the presentation of the discussion and theoretical disputes around the presence and absence of choice or agency for women sex workers.

[1] “A former prostitute says: I was in it for the money. I worked five to six days a week, almost every week and I did not have much spare time at all, I worked twelve and fourteen hours a day, some days. But, again, these conditions are not very different from the work many women do in factories, restaurants, and offices, where they earn little, have little control over themselves and their work, and are too exhausted at the end of a shift for much else” (Overall 1992: 714).

[2] Quoted in Henkin (1989:5)


  • Holmes, Rachel 1994 Selling Sex for a Living. Theme issue “Body Politics” Agenda (23): 36-48.
  • Jenness, Valerie 1990 From Sex as Sin to Sex as Work: COYOTE and the Reorganization of Prostitution as a Social Problem Social Problems 37 (3): 403- 420.
  • Ritzer, George 2004 Classical Sociological Theory. New York:  McGraw-Hill international Editions.
  • Russell, Bertrand 1994 History of Western Philosophy. London: New Fetter Lane.
  • Satz, Debra 1995 Markets in Women’s Sexual Labor Ethics 106 (1): 63-85.

  • Overall, Christine 1992 What’s Wrong with Prostitution? Evaluating Sex Work Signs 17 (4). : 705-724.
3 Comments leave one →
  1. Barbra permalink
    January 20, 2010 9:50 pm

    wonderful piece that brings out the nuances of sex work and how difficult it has been for scholars to agree on any one stand point, tallies with the work i am doing on migrant women in sex work in South africa.

  2. January 25, 2010 10:14 pm

    @Barbra thanks for your kind words. Actually you draw my attention to search for some news about sex work in South Africa. Here is an interesting article entitled
    “South Africa: A day in the life of a sex worker”

  3. Linnea permalink
    August 27, 2011 9:06 am

    well done Sara, this is really intelligent work. let’s hope the discourse keeps growing and the stigma keeps decreasing, to be replaced with the more nuanced insights you are postulating.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: