Forum of Sociology edition:2 location:Buenos Aires date:1-4 August 2012
One of the central questions about prostitution is whether there is a connection between becoming a sex worker and poverty of women. The stakes of this question are quite high, not least because it may inform the so-called ‘prostitution war’. Both policy and the intellectual debate ask for social-scientific empirically informed answers. This paper calls for such a debate. We explain the proportion of young female sex workers in a sample of 40 countries worldwide. Two models are tested. The starting point of the first model is economic theory, where in the past decade or so a number of parsimonious and highly consistent theories have been formulated. The economic model predicts that the sex ratio, urbanization, development and regulation explain the supply of women in prostitution. The second model starts from the intuition that becoming a sex worker is predominantly a survival strategy of women who have little alternative opportunities. In other words: when women are blocked from ‘mainstream’ ways of making a living, they will ‘choose’ for prostitution, or be pushed into it, as a last option. The blocking of women from economic means is conceptualised with the help of the Weberian concept of social closure. We introduce both objective social closure factors (relative access of women to jobs and income) and a cultural variable measuring citizens’ attitudes toward women’s activities (the traditionalist gender norm). Results from stepwise regressions and bootstrap methods reject the former model and partly confirm the latter. The traditionalist gender norm hindering women’s access to socio-economic resources has the strongest effect. Where the dominant norm asks women to stay as mothers and housewives and not move into work, prostitution markets tend to be bigger.