Friday, February 25, 2011

Problems in Prostitution Research

I've been MIA. Erm...sorry. It was vacation. It was grad school applications. It was a lot of, news articles, social work, gender studies, etc. articles.

A friend of mine is studying commercial sex, loosely, and has introduced me to the very impartial world of American prostitution research.

See -


 Some of them result from accessability issues, some of them from the ideological approach of researchers...and some, simply from the fact that writers don't place prostitution within a wider economic and sexual context.

I'm not sure where to begin, so here are a few assumptions that are made:

-prostitution only takes place in enviornments of coercion: women are exploited by pimps, or agencies, or brothel owners.

-prostitution objectifies women; that women's bodies can be bought and sold create a larger societal understanding of women and sex as something that can be purchased.

-prostitution puts women in danger of sexual and physical abuse, rape, murder, yada yada.

-prostitutes find work emotionally traumatizing.

Problems with these assumptions:

-the internet, and forums for advertising independently, allow women to work independently. I've spoken with women who were sort of worst case scenario: abused as a child, currently addicted to heroine, detached, who were able to escape abusive situations and continue to do sex work independently. Traditionally, street-workers could make more money working with pimps, simply because pimps were able to access high-end clientele. The internet allows women to access this clientele without a 3rd party intermediary.

-emotional damage: there are a lot of aspects of street work, brothel, and even strip club work that I feel like I would not be able to handle: I would not be able to handle standing in a public place waiting for clients. I would not be able to handle having my own body as a marketing tool - standing, smiling, dressing, talking in a way that would advertise myself. I would not be able to handle a line-up situation: standing there with other women at an establishment and being viewed and selected (or not selected) by a client.  The internet allowed that to take care of the advertising/selection process: I was "objectified" (if we can even consider the encounters I had as objectifying...) for a discrete period of time for only a few hours a week. In terms of clientele, I was able to screen clients (I was shit at properly screening clients; most professionals will ask for full names, contact details, even require customers to submit to full background checks...). I screened clients based on their level of respect via email and phone conversations. I would not take a client who was rude, who was sexed up, etc. I also would not take requests to visit apartments.
The practicalities of escort work mean that women work from home, or in hotels, and can, if they choose, have many fewer clients than working in an establishment. (for example, I was able to make between 150 and 200 euro/hour doing escort work--per sexual encounter; working in a brothel, I would have made 20-40 euro per sexual encounter, depending on management cuts and the length of the encounter.) Thus, in order to sustain an income that approximates what student loans alot Germans in Berlin, I had to have sex with 3-4 clients a month, versus 15-30 times/month.

-again, screening issues allow escorts to filter out potentially violent clients...

So - anyways, this is a bit round-about, but I essentially see the main problems with prostitution research is that

-they draw conclusions about the entire industry from the most accessable individuals in the industry. The most accessible individuals, generally, are individuals seeking social services, in drug rehabilitation clinics, in jails, on the street, and to a lesser extent, in brothels, saunas, and clubs where multiple women can be accessed in one go (funny funny funny, sounds like the same reason clients go there...)

-they approach research with bias: for example, the idea that having sex multiple times in a row with people you don't know is traumatic, that sex workers have traumatic childhoods and few other options, that sex work...yada yada.

-they don't contextualize (or some do, props to Venkateesh) sex work within a broader framework of relationship and economic possibilities:

What does the amount of money one earns doing sex work allow for? I'll answer the question: it allows for a middle class lifestyle. It allows, if one is careful, escaping a sexually or physically abusive father of boyfriend; it allows single mothers the ability to raise children without using overcrowded day-care facilities. It (or at least escort work) allows young, undereducated women to meet and get professional life advice from wealthy, successful men). It allows single mothers to stop living with relatives they really are not comfortable from living with. It allows women to pursue certain educational and career pathways that financial limitations might have barred her from. It allows women to escape group homes, half-way houses, etc.

And I think, the most important thing, it allows women to use their sexual bargaining power in discrete, financially beneficial transactions: women need money, men have money and want sex; women from third-world countries, in particular, need money. Prostitution is, I think the best way to exchange sexual services for money, of all of the other variations (gold-digging marriages, mutually beneficial arrangements). That prostitution implies the loan of emotional and physical services for a discrete amount of time for a set amount of money gives women...essentially...freedom and power. You know what emotional and physical work you have to do and you know what you can get out of it, and for the rest of the time, you can go about your own life..

-prostitution exists within a wider framework of gendered interactions: the idea that female sex is a "value" is still there in sociological works: for example, on dating on college campuses. I'm not an expert, so I won't say whether it's a biological thing or a butler-style performative thing, but men gain a lot more out of casual sex (in terms of social status and confidence) than women do. As long as we sexuality is highly gendered, I see prostitution as the most empowering type of sexual relationship that exists out there.

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