- Introduction: Sexual Economies and New Regimes of Governance1
In the final weeks of 2013, two divergent interventions into the politics of prostitution met with a raft of international media attention, reigniting longstanding debates about the relationship between sexual commerce, gendered power, states and social policies. In France, the lower house of Parliament passed a bill which would impose heavy fines on prostitutes’ clients, at the same time offering job training and social assistance to sex workers to help them find other employment. In so doing, the bill’s supporters reflected the increasingly prevalent consensus among policymakers in Europe that prostitutes should be treated as victims of trafficking and sexual exploitation, rather than criminal offenders. A mere two weeks later, the Canadian Supreme Court made headlines when it struck down the entirety of the nation’s anti-prostitution laws, declaring that state restrictions on activities such as brothel-keeping, public communications between sex workers and their clients, and living off the profits of prostitution were far too sweeping. Notably, the successful challenge to the Canadian criminal code was filed by both former and current sex workers, who argued that the legal prohibitions—but not sex work itself—gravely endangered their health and safety. Given the history of the contentious and sharply divided feminist debate around the state regulation of sexual commerce, what was perhaps less surprising was that both the Canadian ruling and the French bill were celebrated as unambiguous victories by their respective sides.2
And yet, as discussions of the French and Canadian cases continue to unfold,3 they have a very familiar ring to those of us who have been following political debates around prostitution over the span of recent decades. For example, in a remarkable foreshadowing of current French/Canadian contrasts, in the late 1990s and early 2000s feminists polarized around the relative merits of the “Swedish” versus the “Dutch” policy models. In 1998, Sweden became the first country in the world to criminalize the customers of prostitutes, while at the same time, the Dutch were attempting to legally regulate a previously decriminalized sex industry.4 Following my own ethnographic investigations into the impact of the new policies in Stockholm and Amsterdam, I was most struck by the common reconfigurations of sexual commerce that characterized the two cases: despite radically different policies pertaining to the sex trade, both cities were moving towards the elimination of prostitution from city streets and to the [End Page 345] heightened policing of migrant sex workers. Debates in both countries also revealed significant political ambivalence towards indoor commercial sex sectors (especially those staffed by mostly native born women). Writing in 2007, I concluded that “While the broad constellation of attitudes toward gender and sexuality, as well as other components of national and local cultures, histories, and regulatory strategies are by no means irrelevant to the configuration of sexual commerce in these cities, the shared realities ushered in by larger patterns of political economy have been more definitive in shaping their predominant forms.5 It may be similarly fair to consider the question of whether current legal changes in France and Canada may result in parallel outcomes, whatever the political goals of their supporters.
Heeding this caution, the pieces that are collected in this special issue of Social Politics on “Sexual Economies and New Regimes of Governance” employ a perspective, which moves beyond narrowly focused liberal-legal frameworks. At once more ambitious and more nuanced than conventional versions of policy analysis, the articles comprised here draw upon multi-sited, ethnographically driven research to highlight the complex and sometimes surprising outcomes that different policy regimes can give rise to. Focusing on forms of governance ranging from humanitarian interventions to immigration policies, from development regimes to digital surveillance, the essays comprised here also attend to recent political transformations around sex work in their full range, significance, and complexity. Spanning a range of empirical field sites, they move beyond the still prevalent “case study” or national “policy model” approach to describe transnational circulations of gender and power that span distinct spheres of governance and geographic regions. Considering such intertwined phenomena as the politics of rescue and deportation, public health campaigns and cultures of...