Adrienne D. Davis

Regulating Sex Work: Erotic Assimilationism, Erotic Exceptionalism, and the Challenge of Intimate Labor

Most commentators on sex markets focus on the debate between abolitionists and those who defend and support professional sex work. This Article, instead, looks at debates within the pro-sex-work camp, uncovering some unattended tensions and contradictions. Some within this camp stress the labor aspect, urging that sex markets perpetuate a “vulnerable population” of workers and should be regulated like other forms of risky and/or exploited labor. In this view, sex work would be assimilated into existing labor regulatory frameworks. Others, though, take a more antiregulatory stance. They exceptionalize this form of labor, arguing that because it is sexual it should be exempt from state scrutiny and interference, claims that can quickly sound libertarian. While both camps agree that professional sex work should be decriminalized, when turning from the criminal to the regulatory perspective, erotic assimilationists and erotic exceptionalists could not be more opposed. The Article contends that neither of these views is satisfactory. Sex work could very well be legalized and regulated—if we have the political and moral will to do so. Ultimately, this Article breaks hard with erotic exceptionalism and slightly less so with erotic assimilationism to explore a regulatory structure that might govern sex markets. While many sex work regulations could fit into the current legal frameworks that govern workplaces, I contend that there are unique characteristics of sex work that make it much harder to assimilate into current regulatory regimes, especially in the controversial realm of antidiscrimination law.