[skip to content]

Centre for Gender Studies

Elena Zambelli



Staff Silhouette
Elena Zambelli
Email address:
Thesis title:
'Mirror on the wall, am I desirable at all?' Sex, pleasures and the market in postcolonial Italy
Year of Study:
Thesis submitted for examination.
Internal Supervisors


Since 2003 I have been working as gender and development practitioner in different countries of the Middle East and North Africa for both governmental and non-governmental organizations. I am active in feminist and LGBTQ movements working on sexuality, gender-based violence, sex workers’ rights.

PhD Research

This dissertation contributes to debates about women’s subjectification in contemporary Western countries amidst increasing economic inequalities and an upsurge in the feminist ‘sex wars’ (Chapkis, 1997: 11) over how to discipline prostitution/sex work.

The case study is contemporary Italy, which was recently gripped by a wave of ‘panic’ about ‘sex’, and maintains the position – standalone in Western Europe – in favour of state-regulated ‘prostitution’ and in opposition to same-sex unions. Processes of women’s subjectification are heavily constrained by the binary juxtaposing ‘respectable’, de-sexualised wives and mothers with sexually enticing but despised ‘whores’. This dissertation, therefore, looks at how Italian and migrant women navigate these roles in a context characterised by strict chastity norms, economic insecurity and rising xenophobia. In particular, it explores the contradictory subject positions voiced by women working in different leisure, erotic and sex market niches: pole dance entrepreneurs and teachers, ‘image girls’, lap dancers, indoor and street sex workers. It brings to light the multiple othering processes they articulate to claim ‘respectability’ in the face of multi-faceted stigmas, and interrogates the neat separation between the ‘market’ and ‘intimacy’; a separation on which these stigmas are mostly premised.

Overall, this dissertation argues that understanding women’s sale of erotic and sexual services requires overcoming binary juxtapositions of objectification and empowerment, oppression and liberation, and men and women, exploring instead the ambivalence of pleasure and pain, power and stigma that ‘woman’ experiences in performing the Other of ‘man’. It also argues that feminist debates on ‘alienation’ in erotic and sex work are inflected by class positioning, ’race’ and the ‘nation’. Finally, it argues that, for many migrant women, pursuit of a ‘normal’ life entails investing different blends of sex, care and love into their work; whether stigmatised as ‘whores’ or praised as ‘cheap’ carers, they express a form of resistance to an unwanted fate.

PhD Conferences

  • Consuming/Culture: women and girls in print and pixels, 5-6 June 2015, Oxford Brookes University, UK
    Paper:"Dancing on the edge of 'respectability'"
  • Troubling Prostitution: exploring intersections of sex, intimacy and labour, 16-18 April 2015, Vienna, Austria
    Paper: "Edge workers on the threshold of 'the afterwards'"
  • Districare il nodo genere-potere. Sguardi interdisciplinari su politica, lavoro, sessualita' e cultura, 21-22 February 2014, University of Trento, Italy
    Paper: Sesso al/come 'lavoro' - l'articolazione dei confini tra se', intimita' e mercato tra performers e lavoratrici erotiche e sessuali in Italia
  • Bodies, performativity, sexuality and the ‘free choice’ paradigm. Critical approaches, SOAS/University of Bologna workshop, 28 June 2013, Bologna, Italy
    Paper: Bodies for contest, bodies to conquest? Ethnographic impressions on the slippery borders between work, sex work, and ‘love’


I am interested in the political economy of sex and sex work; sexualisation and leisure activities; intersections of migration, racism and gendered labor markets.