‘Sex’ – it’s not only women’s work: a case for refocusing on the functional role that sex plays in work for both women and men

Mention of the term sex work often invokes images of marginalized women at risk for HIV infection. Such images, however, are counterintuitive to the functional role intended by the movement that spawned use of the terms ‘sex work’ and ‘sex worker.’ This article looks at the sexual practices of men in urban China to argue for a return to a functional definition of ‘sex work’, which was originally meant to legitimize the role sex plays in work. The progenitors of this movement intended to use ‘sex work’ as a means to legitimize sex as an income-generating activity for women involved in prostitution. I show that sex can also serve a functional role in the work-related duties of men seeking economic and political success in contemporary urban China. Men in China utilize sex as one way for demonstrating the loyalty necessary to access state-owned and controlled resources in a market economy governed under a Leninist system. Overall, the article demonstrates that reclaiming perception of sex work as a functional rather than behavioral category can expand its use for preventing HIV among the broad subset of people who engage in sex as part of their work.

Year of publication: 
2014
Author: 
Elanah Uretskya*