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Who rules the game? An investigation of sex‐work, gender, agency and the body

Caroline Gatrell (Lancaster University Management School, Lancaster, UK)

Gender in Management

ISSN: 1754-2413

Article publication date: 11 May 2010




Drawing upon notions of agency and the body, the purpose of this paper is to examine the nature of agency as a gendered concept through a consideration of women sex‐workers. Specifically, the paper analyses how far women sex‐workers may be regarded as social agents. It then considers how far notions of agency, in relation to sex‐workers' embodied boundaries, may be gendered.


The paper reviews existing literature on sex‐workers and sex‐work practices, looking at indoor sex‐work (massage parlours), outdoor sex‐work (street sex‐work) and trafficking. It considers these types of sex‐work in relation to agency, gender and the body.


The paper acknowledges the diversity of women's experience within different aspects of the sex trade. The paper recognizes claims that treating sex‐workers as “victims” could further jeopardize their social position. However, the paper finds that the “options” available to sex‐workers are severely constrained. Specifically, the lack of capacity among sex‐workers to set embodied “rules of engagement” with clients makes the notion of agency problematic. The paper contends that “agency” is itself a gendered concept not only in relation to sex‐work, but also in the context of women's work more broadly.

Practical implications

Through the idea of agency as a gendered concept, the paper offers alternative ways of exploring agency, the body and women's work.


The paper puts forward the notion of agency as a gendered concept. This opens up possibilities for further research on women's “choices”, and who “makes the rules” within different labour markets.



Gatrell, C. (2010), "Who rules the game? An investigation of sex‐work, gender, agency and the body", Gender in Management, Vol. 25 No. 3, pp. 208-226.



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Copyright © 2010, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

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