feminists@law, Vol 8, No 1 (2018)

How Can The Sexual Contract Help Us to Understand the Relationship Between Prostitution and Domestic Service?

Catherine Weiss*

This is a video of a paper given at the Sexual Contract: 30 Years On conference held in the School of Law and Politics, Cardiff University on 10-11 May 2018. This paper was part of Panel 2: The Employment Contract, chaired by Sarah Keenan. The PowerPoint slides accompanying the paper are available as a separate file.

Researchers studying prostitution and/or domestic service in a wide range of times and places have long recognised a relationship between these two activities (e.g. Agustín, 2007; Lévy & Lieber, 2008; Mahdavi, 2013; Moujoud & Pourette, 2005; Tinsman, 1992). Among other things, they have observed women moving between them in order to generate enough income to support themselves and their children. The relationship has become particularly noticeable in the present day in the context of increasing numbers of women migrating from poorer to richer parts of the world in order to engage in domestic work, caring work, or ‘sex work’. This relationship between prostitution and domestic service is highlighted by researchers taking the ‘sex work position’ on prostitution (Jeffreys, 2009), but such approaches hardly recognise relations of domination among the sexes. On the other hand, researchers taking an abolitionist position on prostitution, who do recognise relations of domination among the sexes, tend to ignore or deny the existence of any link between prostitution and domestic service.

How, then, can the relation between prostitution and domestic service be theorised? In this talk, I develop a theoretical account of this relation by drawing on insights on the relationship between marriage and prostitution from abolitionist feminists and from French materialist feminists. Carole Pateman’s analysis of paid work, marriage and prostitution in The Sexual Contract provides the key to reconciling the fundamental disagreements between these two theoretical traditions, allowing the development of a finer analysis of the relationship between women’s bodies and work.

Agustín, L. (2007). Sex at the margins: Migration, labour markets and the rescue industry. London: Zed Books.
Jeffreys, S. (2009). The industrial vagina: The political economy of the global sex trade. London: Routledge.
Lévy, F., & Lieber, M. (2008). Northern Chinese women in Paris: The illegal immigration-prostitution nexus. Social Science Information, 47(4), 629–642.
Mahdavi, P. (2013). Gender, labour and the law: The nexus of domestic work, human trafficking and the informal economy in the United Arab Emirates. Global Networks, 13(4), 425–440.
Moujoud, N., & Pourette, D. (2005). “Traite” de femmes migrantes, domesticité et prostitution. Cahiers d’Etudes Africaines, 3(179–180), 1093–1121. Retrieved from http://www.cairn.info/revue-cahiers-d-etudes-africaines-2005-3-page-1093.html   
Tinsman, H. (1992). The indispensable services of sisters: Considering domestic service in United States and Latin American studies. Journal of Women’s History, 4(1), 37–59.


* PhD candidate, School of Global, Urban and Social Studies, RMIT University, Melbourne, Australia. Email: catherine.weiss@rmit.edu.au