Inner and External bodies- Sex Work and Gender Construction

The relationship between money and sex has existed for centuries and is still taboo today. Prostitution is often argued to taint the intimacy and purity of sex and the body. Like other forms of commodification, the body is deeply bound in economic tensions.  Marx’s commodity fetishism is fundamental here where the subjective person is transformed into an objective commodity believed to have intrinsic value. By being disconnected from human labour, the customer participates in a false, misunderstood relationship with the ‘commodity’ and is alienated from it. The worker is also alienated from the products of his or her labour.  The rational, quantitative and uniform nature of money replaces the emotional experience often believed to be a fulfilling expression of love.

Humans are recognised for transforming nature in an array of contexts. The ‘”natural body” in a host of forms emerges not as a static but culturally malleable category’ (Sharp 2000:313). The cultural body is induced when ‘cultural’ payments interact with the ‘natural’ body. In this process, we often desire to protect personal boundaries and body integrity.

Zelizer argues that prostitution is a result of coercive patriarchal power structures (Zelizer 2000:188). The focus of this blog post will be on how prostitution affects gender constructions and how gender constructions can impact practices of prostitution. The body, particularly the female body, is often valued for its reproductive potential. ‘Prostitution is one site where themes of production, reproduction, enslavement, and colonization frequently merge’ (Sharp 2000:293-4). In the commodification of the body, Sharp focuses on body fragmentation where women are often reduced to vaginas, wombs or breasts (Sharp 2000:293-4).

In Day’s ethnography on London prostitutes, women internalise their job as being just like any other where business acumen and being ‘on the game’ requires the same mentality as working within any market. Day distinguishes between the divided and undivided self. Generally, younger women are more ‘divided’ and separate their work and personal lives solidifying distinct boundaries to manage and maintain their personal self. Older women tend to possess an ‘undivided’ self where after years of working in the industry, the public work persona and private self, fuse and become more interwoven whilst boundaries become more fluid (Day 1999).

In addition to creating two selves, younger prostitutes also distinguish between an ‘inner body’ and ‘external body’ in relation to their goals to make children as well as money. The ‘inner body’ is linked to the personal self and is disassociated from money, the market and work. It relates to the reproductive potential of women, particularly the cervix, and the ability to conceive. The external body is immersed in the market yet disconnected from the private self. Many women worry that their work will make them infertile due to ‘genital infections and “too much sex”’. Furthermore, the ability to conceive is proof ‘that prostitution has not robbed a woman of her personal self’ (Day 1999).


In contrast to the majority of London prostitutes who work due to economic struggles, among many Hijra of India, these economic struggles stem from gender struggles. Although some believe that Hijra are male prostitutes, Hijra identify themselves as an alternative gender, neither male nor female (Nanda 1990:13). Impotence is central to defining Hijra as not a man and is sometimes tested before one can be converted (Nanda 1990:14). In contrast to the London prostitutes whose reproductive features define their gender as women and mothers, in Hijra, impotence is one of the key defining factors of gender (Nanda 1990:14). Although in many parts of North India, Hijra have positive identities and are associated with deities and mythic figures, in other parts of the country, their lack of gender recognition has led to many being cast out by their families and excluded from society. With a lack of alternatives, many Hijra take part in sex work and begging.

The Hijra of India

I have explored a couple of cross cultural case studies related to sex work and its implications to gender. Like many forms of sex work, gender is also often argued to be a performative act. In prostitution, is it the selling of the body or self, or simply of a service if, like in the case of London prostitutes, the ‘inner body’ can be preserved for the individual? Female sex work is a larger industry and therefore is a focus for society. Stigma against these women stems from gender inequalities and ‘patriarchal power structures’ which permeate society. The traditional idea that men are the sole gender and women the commodity is embedded in everyday discourse and practice. However how is this view affected when men become the commodity, in male prostitution? I would argue that where gender and the commodification of the body coexist, definitions become blurred as both are socially constructed and subjectively enacted or enacted upon.

In my following blog post I shall develop further the theme of bodily labour, particularly slave labour, in the discussion of body commodification.



Day, S (1999). Chapter 7 Hustling: Individualism among London Prostitutes in S. Day, E. Papataxiarchis, M. Stewart (eds.) Lilies of the Field: Marginal People who live for the Moment, p.175-201, Boulder: Westview Press, USA.

Nanda, S. (1990). Hijras as Neither Man nor Woman in S. Nanda (ed.) Neither Man nor Woman: The Hijras of India, p. 13- 23, Belmont: Wadsworth Publishing Company, USA.

Sharp, L. (2000). The Commodification of the Body and its Parts, p.287- 328, Vol. 291(1), Annual Review of Anthropology, USA.

Zelizer, V. (2000). The Purcase of Intimacy in  V. Zelizer (ed.) Economic Lives: How Culture Shapes the Economy, p. 188, Princton University Press, Princeton, USA.


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