What is certain is that the sex industry is hugely profitable.
A European Parliament report from 2004 estimated the global sex industry to be worth ,000 billion to ,000 billion.
Two of the main debates have coalesced, first around whether working in the sex industry is fundamentally the same as working in other industries with the consequence that “sex workers” should organise in unions just like other workers, and second, whether clients should be criminalised as a way of reducing the demand for paid sex. It is argued here that understanding prostitution and the wider sex industry has to be rooted in understanding the specific oppression of women within the capitalist family unit and the increasing commodification of sex as the marketplace intrudes into the most intimate aspects of human existence.
In the wider sense these phenomena have to be located in the context of the dynamics of capitalist expansion, in the vast growth in the global reach of capitalism in the late 19th century and again over the last 30 years in what is loosely termed globalisation.
For example, Ana Lopez of the GMB union and the International Union of Sex Workers (IUSW), calls prostitution a “positive choice” for women.
The IUSW website argues that prostitution can be empowering for women: People gain personal strength from selling their bodies because their clients worship and admire them, they have as much sex as they want and defy traditional mores and roles imposed on them.
It is predicated on the idea that, as all sex is commodified under capitalism, what can broadly be termed erotic labour is another service that can be bought or sold like any other.
This combination of increased visibility, normalisation and brutal violence has revitalised a debate about how to respond to prostitution and the sex industry, about whether sex workers are criminals or victims, and whether the industry should be tolerated, reformed to improve women’s lives or totally opposed as the institutionalised oppression of women.
Within feminist thinking there are opposed views on sex work and violence against women.
Radical feminists in alliance with neoconservatives campaign for the abolition of prostitution and, in the interim, are supporting legislation that proposes the criminalisation of men.
Other feminists, many of them academics who research in this area, as well as sex workers’ organisations themselves, demand the decriminalisation of prostitution.
They argue that, while the long-term aim is to eliminate the conditions that breed prostitution, in the short term the priority is to keep women safe.