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‘The Sex Economy’ (Monica O’Connor) A Review

Review by Teresa Perry

Teresa Perry

Publisher: Agenda Publishing Limited, 2019

“The Sex Economy” by Monica O’Connor gives an overview of individual choice and agency in the sex market, the commodification of the body, consumer demand, regulation, and the moral limits of markets in the market for sex. It is an important piece; especially given the substantial neglect of the study of sex using an economic lens. The book leads the reader through the sex worker/prostitute’s experience and it’s a powerful illustration of the sex economy.

Many scholars argue that sex workers/prostitutes rationally and willingly enter contracts to sell sex. O’Connor rejects this point by arguing that women who enter the sex economy are often battling low socioeconomic status, health issues and family issues, leaving their window of employment opportunity relatively small. It is clear that choice is for the buyers of sex, not the sellers of sex. O’Connor then discusses trafficked victims and how the sex market disproportionately impacts migrant women. While this is an important subset of the sex economy, different sellers in the market exercise a range of individual agency. For instance, the agency of an enslaved trafficked victim may differ from a ‘high-class’ escort and the author fails to clearly distinguish between these different levels of agency. O’Connor’s argument would have been more compelling if she had expanded her analysis of agency to different subsets of sex workers/prostitutes’. Thus, the first chapter sets a good framework for the book, but it would have benefitted from a more focused lens.

Sex work/prostitution, as a commodity, is often compared to domestic labor, cleaning, beauty, and health treatments. O’Connor refutes these comparisons because the purchase of sex gives the buyer full contract of a women’s body. This is unlike any other profession. As an example, she argues that women often disassociate to fulfill the sexual contract but must also stay alert to dangerous situations and violence. This can lead to a dangerous cycle of drug addiction as a coping mechanism and mental health issues. This is an important point and the book would have benefitted from a more thorough evaluation of disassociation and commodification. What about commodifying sex specifically makes sex workers/prostitutes at risk? The reader is left with an incomplete answer at times.

Consumer demand is one of the most important elements in determining outcomes in the sex market. Sex workers/prostitutes must carefully navigate the desire for emotional and physical connection. On one end of the spectrum some consumers expect that they can do whatever they want, physically, to the sex worker/prostitute once they’ve paid. On the other end of the spectrum, consumers desire the girlfriend experience and want to feel emotionally connected to the sex worker/prostitute. Regardless of where a “john” is on the spectrum of physical and emotional desire, the contract buys his sexual narrative with little to no regard for the sex worker’s/prostitute’s well- being. The personal anecdotes from women involved in the sex industry in this chapter are extremely captivating. However, this chapter is especially important when evaluating the sex market from an economic lens and would have been more compelling if the authors had added figures, graphs, or tables. Not only does this tell the story in a visual way, but it helps connect consumer demand to the sex economy more precisely.

The question that plagues the reader throughout the book is: how do we address these issues? The author answers this question in their fourth chapter. Many Europeans countries, at the advice of sex work academics, have adopted the legalization method. A main argument for this method is that workers in the sex industry will have the full rights of other workers and that the stigma surrounding prostitution will disappear. Unfortunately, O’Connor highlights several issues with legalization including: the involvement of third parties (i.e. pimps) in transactions, the lack of regulation for non-location bound sex workers/prostitutes, and that suppliers in the market are unable to spot coercion. She then compares the legalization framework from other European countries and the criminalization framework set forth in Sweden. The consumers in the sex work/prostitution market are prosecuted, but sex workers/prostitutes are treated as victims and are therefore not criminalized. This law has been largely successful in decreasing the number of women subjected to sex work/prostitution. This argument excludes any mention of the generous social assistance programs that are present in Sweden. These policies play a critical role in stopping citizens from entering the sex market. Neglecting the importance of these policies leaves the reader with a biased view about the efficacy of the criminalization framework.

O’Connor’s primary argument in the book is that sex is not a commodity to be sold in the market. This is an important perspective in the debate about sex work/prostitution and the sex economy. The title is somewhat misleading; it’s less of an economic evaluation of the sex market and more of a summary of the issues present in the sex economy. At times the author omits important components of the sex economy like social institutions and public policy. For instance, there is little discussion of the lack of funding in most countries to reform the sex market. The book would also benefit from a more diverse methodology. When the author includes quotes from victims’ readers are offered a chilling insight into the lived experience of a sex worker/prostitute. This, more than anything else in the book, defines their struggle and supports the argument that sex is non-commodifiable.

Teresa Perry is currently a fourth year PhD student at Colorado State University with research interests in feminist and health economics.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Women’s Budget Group.

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