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Centre for Gender Studies

Elena Zambelli



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Elena Zambelli
Email address:
Thesis title:
Marketing sex, marketing respectability? The political economy of race and (hetero)sexuality in Italy (working title)
Year of Study:
4th year (Extension of Writing Up)
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

My research is grounded in the increasing interpenetration between 'affect' and the (labour) market characterizing contemporary Western liberal states and market economies.

On one side the cultural hegemony of ‘the market’ is driving the increasing social acceptability of the commodification of bodies and intimacy. This is for example manifested in the increasingly blurred distinction between the sex market and its however differently bordering spaces; in the world-wide space-time diffusion of pornography; and in the infusion of 'affect' into service work.

On the other side, the increasingly normalized shift of ‘sex’ into the market economy sphere ignited a new upsurge in the ‘sex wars’ that traverse and divide Western feminisms since the 1980s onwards.
In the blurring distinction between work, ‘sex work’ and one’s own 'pleasure', gender, race and class hierarchies are being (re)constructed around issues of agency and coercion, as well as 'respectability'.

My research project is based on the multi-sited ethnographic fieldwork I realized in Italy in 2012-13 among native and migrant women who work as pole dance teachers/performers, 'image girls', lap dancers, street or indoor sex workers.
My research questions are:

  1. What is the political economy underlying the gender, class and race segmentation reproduced in and around the borders of the sex market?
  2. How do women workers and entertainers respond to the “whore stigma”?
  3. How do gender, race and class intersect in shaping hierarchies of agency/victimhood in relation to sex work and migration?

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.