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Try out PMC Labs and tell us what you think. Learn More. The theoretical and often political framework of sexual exploitation and sex work among women is widely and enthusiastically debated among academic and legal scholars alike. The majority of theoretical literature in this area focuses on the macro perspective, while the micro-level perspective as to theory and causation remains sparse. This article provides a comprehensive overview of the philosophical, legal, and political perspectives pertaining to sexual exploitation of women and girls while addressing the subsequent controversies in the field.

Theoretical explanations of sexual exploitation and sex work are rich and diverse at the societal level yet sparse and underdeveloped at the individual level. The contentious theoretical and moral debates among macro-level perspectives not only influence other macro systems e. Academic and legal scholars alike weave contrasting theoretical perspectives into language choices of their publications and lectures, i. Conversely, micro-level theories attempt to explain the process of victimization or entry into, as well as the exit out of, sexual exploitation and sex work but are not empirically well supported.

Keeping this in mind, the purpose of this article is to review the philosophical, legal, and political perspectives pertaining to sexual exploitation of women and girls as well as to address the subsequent controversies in the field. The bulk of theoretical progress and academic writing is grounded in macro theories to explain the causation of sexual exploitation and sex work at the structural level.

Some theories, such as feminism, may appear all encompassing by general name and yet hold stark divisions that greatly impact the understanding of sexual exploitation and the view of what some refer to as its victims. The debates among neo-abolitionist perspectives are continuously active and rarely come to consensus.

Influenced by this debate, structural theories lend themselves to divisive legal perspectives, such as criminal treatment of those who purchase or sell sex, as well as those who exploit or facilitate others into performing sex acts for money. Structural theories also explain the financial aspects of sexual exploitation within a larger political context, further politicizing and polarizing working frameworks. Thus, a review of these perspectives is imperative to understanding the national context and debate of sexual exploitation and sex work.

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Most of the theoretical frameworks regarding violence against women are derived from feminist theories. Feminist theory is a broad, transdisciplinary perspective that strives to understand roles, experiences, and values of individuals on the basis of gender Miriam, Feminist theory and its subsequent contrasting divisions also ificantly impact service delivery, as direct service providers disagree in the interpretation of the statistical overrepresentation of women and girls seen in practice Oakley et al.

With regard to sexual exploitation or sex work, scholars and advocates are generally divided into two opposing theoretical camps. One group, usually referred to as neo-abolitionists, condemns all forms of voluntary and involuntary prostitution as a form of oppression against women. Neo-abolitionists, including radical and Marxist feminists, postulate that prostitution is never entirely consensual and cannot be regarded as such Tiefenbrun, The other group, including many sex positivists, argues that a woman has a right to choose prostitution and other forms of sex work as a form of employment or even as a career.

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Radical and Marxist feminism serve as the roots of current day, neo-abolitionist perspectives with regard to sexual exploitation of women and girls. Radical feminism is rooted in its understanding of social organization and structure as inherently patriarchal, as sexism exists to maintain male privilege and patriarchal social order Loue, Radical feminists and patriarchal theorists frame issues of violence against women in a long line of institutional and structural sexism and paternalistic views.

Dobash and Dobash first identified the tenets of this theory, which stipulates that violence against women is a systemic form of men's domination and social control of women. Thus, assaults occur primarily because of institutionalized male privilege, as men believe it is their right to enact violence against women. This also contributed to a male centered perspective, in which women had no place in holding highly respected jobs in the community and were consequently confined to the home.

Argued from this model of oppression, the central tenet of sexual commerce rests in male domination and the structural inequalities between men and women. Sexual commerce provides a patriarchal right of access to women's bodies, thus perpetuating women's subordination to men Farley, Radical feminists dispute the use of pornography, as they claim it causes harm and violence against women.

Because radical feminists generally view all commercial sex acts as patriarchal and oppressive, advocates should be inclined to ban all forms of sex work and sex industry from existence Weitzer, Like radical feminism, Marxist feminism is another neo-abolitionist stance that generally views all forms of sexual commerce as a form of violence against women.

Although Marxism had very little to do with women, Marxist feminists have argued that sexuality is to feminism what work is to Marxism, that which is most one's own and yet is taken away MacKinnon, Marxist feminism posits women's oppression on the economic dependence on men in a male-centric society Bryson, and argues that capitalism continues to be the overarching oppressor of women.

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As long as capitalism exists, women will live in a patriarchal state and economically depend on men in a society structured around social class. In this model, economic exploitation includes many forms, primarily prostitution and pornography, and therefore must be viewed as oppressions of sex and class. Women's sexuality and sexual energy is appropriated by the men who buy or control the sexual services exchange i.

Marxist feminism specifically critiques the use of pornography and other forms of voluntary and involuntary sexual exchanges for money. Catherine MacKinnon, a Marxist feminist legal scholar, argues that all forms of pornography, prostitution, and sex trafficking are abuses of sex and a form of power taken away from women MacKinnon, Both radical and Marxist feminism have been criticized for their focus on sexually exploited or trafficked victims and the lack of women's rights to choose careers in sex work Kesler, ; Wolken, In addition, arguments have ironically been regarded as paternalistic, in that the abolishment of prostitution is viewed as for the good of prostitutes Meyers, Critics also argue that these forms of feminism do not support the autonomy of women currently exchanging or who have exchanged sex for money when they choose to leave the field or provide any subsequent form of advocacy work Meyers, Finally, some critics have argued that capitalism is a current reality, especially in countries like the U.

In response to many of these criticisms, a new feminist framework arguing for women's right to choose sex work has emerged, adding to an entrenched debate of feminism, choice, and freedom. The pro-sex work perspective, or sex positivism, split from ly derived feminist schools of thought to advocate for women's right to an autonomous choice of sex work.

Advocates of this perspective hold that sexuality, including paid forms, is consensual in many cases and that a woman should be free to make her own decision regarding the type of work in which she chooses to partake Ferguson et al. Similarly, sex positivists argue that the notion of intimacy and what actions or sexual acts are considered intimate should be decided by the woman. For example, former sex worker, activist, and writer, Maggie McNeil, argues that there are many professions that may be described as intimate i.

Thus, any mandate or perspective dictating to women that their choice of work is wrong remains dangerous and patriarchal Kesler, Sex positivists shift the model of person-centered services from a typically neo-abolitionist model that rescues and protects victims from prostitution and sexual exploitation to providing services for women who work in the sex industry Shah, Critiques of sex positivism are numerous. In addition to opposing feminist frameworks, some religious organizations state that sexual integrity is jeopardized on a national level with this framework, as moral culture is damaged when sex becomes commercialized Weitzer, Debates from both the feminist left and the religious right add yet another layer of complication to understanding these philosophical perspectives that pervasively influence law and social service sectors.

Intersectionality declares that the impact of sexism is qualitatively different depending on women's class or race identities Crenshaw, Since then, intersectionality has impacted the way in which scholars view relationships between interrelated social divisions in society and among people's lives Anthias, Feminists using an intersectional framework maintain that gender or gender and class in the case of Marxist feminism cannot be used alone to understand a woman's oppression and the impact of sexual exploitation on her Beloso, Subsequently, feminist legal scholars Wolken, and researchers Chong, have described the devaluation of women of color specifically as victimization by sexual exploitation, because they are even more likely to be considered as embodying perversions of desire and to be treated systemically as a lower class of individuals than their White counterparts.

Main criticisms of intersectionality include a lack of defined intersectional methodology and empirical validity Nash, In addition, some critics also argue that intersectionality has only primarily been used to address Black women's experience and is not politically and empirically inclusive of other identity intersections Anthias,such as sexual orientation or even other races. Intersectionality is more commonly viewed as a framework to understand the impact of multiple identities on the oppression of women but is criticized for actually contributing to or Women seeking sex Commerce additional hierarchies for women.

First used to address intimate partner violence, the political economy perspective has evolved to recognize important tenets of intersectionality and is applied to all forms of sexual violence, including sexual exploitation and trafficking. The political economy perspective describes the relationship between the state and economy, arguing that violence against women occurs because of the economic welfare and political processes driving the state Adelman, For example, political welfare reform and the economic state exacerbate some women's experiences, as poor women became more dependent on cash and in-kind assistance from sexual partners, intimate relationships, children's fathers, etc.

Marxist feminism and the political economy perspective share the understanding that political economy and lower social economic status may drive sexual commerce; however, political economy perspective is rooted more in capitalistic differences in wealth alone, rather than differences in wealth as a result of systemic oppression against women. Thus, the political economy allows for unequal opportunity and pay for women and drives women to be more dependent and find opportunities to survive often times from menthus shifting the discourse from individualized deviancy toward structural inequality.

In view of sexual exploitation, women who are poor and have few options for survival may fall victims to traffickers or may prostitute themselves when they seemingly have no other choice Anthias, Without the possession of cultural or social capital, women ranging from exotic dancers to trafficked women struggle against economic, social, and sexual oppressions Konstantopoulos et al. Women would not be compelled to sell sexual or erotic services if the political environment at the policy level afforded equal opportunities to gain social capital, thus increasing poor women's vulnerability to being preyed upon or trafficked.

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Proponents of the political economy perspective point to studies with disproportionate percentages of housing instability and poverty among youth who trade sex to survive, as well as the lack of economic options for girls and women who engage in prostitution Farley et al. Like critics of Marxism or radical feminism, criticisms of the political economy include the removal of a woman's choice to prostitute or trade sex Weitzer, A woman's ability to choose is called into Women seeking sex Commerce.

Divided feminist and political theories of exploitation have practical consequences, namely the laws and legal frameworks by which individuals purchase, provide, and facilitate sex. Contrasting theoretical frameworks drive the debate with regard to the prohibition, decriminalization, or legalization of prostitution and commercial sex. Although one approach has been applied to the confines of United States law, the debate remains heated and ongoing.

With the exception of parts of Nevada, the U. Department of Justice, No distinction is made between those who buy, sell, or facilitate the selling of sex acts. Exceptions include cases that involve: 1 minors, in which any commercial sex act is illegal; and 2 adults, only when elements of force, fraud, or coercion are present. Considering the complexity of perspectives on the concept of choice in prostitution, it is unsurprising that many would disagree with U.

Others, including many of those in the sex positivist movement, argue that countries like the U. Pro-sex feminists, such as Carole Vance, argue that these standards are detrimental to women, as women are viewed and treated as criminals unless there is proof of force or coercion Vance, It is important to understand the current national legal perspective in order to understand the proposed and much debated alternatives.

Utilized to varying degrees across the world and in parts of Nevada, two alternative and controversial methods of legally addressing prostitution are continually proposed among legal and academic scholars. First, the decriminalization of prostitution is offered, which would remove criminal penalties for any prostitution-related activity Hughes, There are a few different models in which this may apply.

For example, in Sweden, the sellers of sex are decriminalized, however the buyers of sex, in addition to pimps and traffickers, are not. Equally if not more controversial, the second method to address prostitution in the law is the legalization of prostitution in its entirety. As the name suggests, legalization of prostitution frees all those who participate in, sell, buy, or facilitate the selling of sex from criminal liability and responsibility. Thus, prostitution is Women seeking sex Commerce as a form of service work Hughes, With this method, selling sex may be regulated and taxed, contributing to national economies.

Many who favor legalization argue that ability to apply labor standards will help women and provide them access to legalized health insurance or other benefits of the legalized working world Sullivan, Advocates of both legalization and decriminalization argue that these methods reduce the stigmatization of individuals who sell sex Richards, ; Weitzer, James, a former sex worker convicted of prostitution, COYOTE is one of the major social organizations to challenge the prohibitionist stance on prostitution in favor of decriminalization Jenness, The organization and other similar-minded advocates maintain that voluntary prostitution is a legitimate and chosen work and should be reflected in legal policy and practice as such.

Other prominent advocates of decriminalizing and legalizing prostitution have argued that the morality of prohibitionist stances has no place in the law and may cause further harm to women Richards, ; Wolken, Criticisms of both decriminalization and legalization of prostitution or sex work are most often linked to one another. Critics claim that decriminalization is best understood as a transition or part of a legalization or abolition, but not as an endpoint itself Hughes, Some claim that either decriminalization or legalization of prostitution would result in the normalization of commercial sex and thereby legitimize sexual demands of an employer in any field of his or her employees Anderson, Although evidence has emerged globally indicating that legalized prostitution may increase human trafficking Cho et al.

Scholar Melissa Farleyas well as other advocates of both forms of prostitution, condemned New Zealand for their legislature decriminalizing and then legalizing prostitution. She summarized the arguments of many abolitionists, stating that: 1 harm to women is not decreased by legalization or decriminalization; 2 stigmatization and violence against women continue to affect women under legalized or decriminalized policies; and 3 the choice to prostitute oneself is made because of a lack of other economic options and exists as another form of oppression against women.

The criticisms and support for legalization, decriminalization and prohibition of prostitution are ongoing and continually divisive in the field.

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The breadth with which these frameworks guide actions of policymakers, activists, and scholars is extensive, with no end in sight to the debates. Although the bulk of the theoretical work has been and continues to be executed at the macro level, other perspectives have emerged and contribute to the dialogue of sexual exploitation and sex work.

In sharp contrast to the wealth of scholarship with regard to macro level theoretical perspectives, as well as the contentious debates and divisions among them, there is a dearth of academic theories at the micro or individual and relationship level. An extensive search among books and articles regarding sexual exploitation, prostitution, survival sex, and sex trafficking resulted in the utilization of varying theoretical perspectives that may be grouped to describe either: 1 the victimization or the process into sexual exploitation or prostitution; or 2 the exit process of sexual exploitation or prostitution.

Unlike macro theories in this area or micro theories of other fields, there is very little support, debate, or even progress in the literature. Instead, individual articles or scholars have hypothesized and applied one theoretical perspective without the replication of other studies or support from researchers.

As such, individual-level theoretical perspectives are reviewed here within the context of entry into and exit out of sexual exploitation and sex work.

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A comprehensive search provided very few studies which report the integration or even guided use of theory in understanding the pathway into sexual exploitation or sex work. Although the exceptions to this, four studies in all, are described here, it is important to note that no theory applied to entry into sexual exploitation or sex work was supported or described by more than one author or study.

First, Reid applied life course theory to victimization in sex trafficking, which suggests that the impact of any experience, including victimization in this case, is influenced by the person's life stage. Reid found that indicators of harmful informal social control processes during childhood and adolescence in particular were common, creating a desire for acceptance and love commonly exacerbating initial entrapment.

The desire for a better life and love, in combination with curiosity about sex work and attraction to fast cash, resulted in a girl's entry into the sex industry. In the second study, Gwadz and colleagues Gwadz et al.

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