Gender and Sexuality: Sex Work

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I want to spend our lecture time this week discussing something that your textbook does not bring up in detail, but that is an important component in academic discussions about gender and sexuality: sex work. I am going to present a couple of ideas about sex work that may not be familiar to you.

The contemporary political landscape in both the United States and globally is awash with concerns about sex trafficking. These concerns are very valid. Sex trafficking and sex slavery – especially of minors – are serious social problems that warrant our care, attention, and action. However, not all sex workers have been trafficked, nor are all workers being coerced. Often, those people who enter the profession by choice find their voices drowned out by others who believe either that (a) all sex workers are being exploited, no matter what they may say, or (b) selling sex is morally wrong under all circumstances.

The topic of sex work provokes a strong response in many people. Whatever your own feelings about it, this lecture is meant to be an overview of two academic perspectives about consensual sex work. I’m not asking you to subscribe to any particular idea, merely to “try on” some different ways of thinking about consensual sex work. By consensual, I mean that the person performing the work is doing so by choice and is not being coerced or manipulated.

Sex work or “prostitution” is defined as the exchange of sexual services for money. Sex work may involve sexual or erotic activity other than oral or penetrative sex. Sex workers can also provide emotional experiences, such as “sugar daddy/sugar baby” relationships or “The Girlfriend Experience,” in which the sex worker provides the client with the emotional and physical experience of having a girlfriend (note that the name suggests that this is mostly gendered as a heterosexual transaction). Sex workers sometimes offer services that do not involve genital contact at all, such as domination, fetish play, or role play.

Often called “the oldest profession in the world,” sex work has been around for thousands of years. Tolerance for it has waxed and waned alongside changing expectations for gendered behavior in society. For example, Puritan sexual culture made little provision for sex between any unmarried persons in the 17th-century colonial United States, but men’s patronage of women prostitutes was socially acceptable – even desirable – in Victorian England.

The majority of sex workers are women, which feminist scholars read as evidence of women’s persistent sexual objectification in patriarchal societies. As you will recall from your reading, sexual objectification is the process through which someone comes to be valued chiefly for their sex appeal. Given that the vast preponderance of societies today is patriarchal, this seems like a logical conclusion. However, not all sex workers are cisgender women. Some sex workers are men (serving a clientele of mostly men), and some sex workers are also transgender (also serving a clientele of mostly men). Regardless of who is providing sexual services, the services are overwhelmingly – not entirely, but mostly – provided to men.

Our perceptions of sex work are filled with striking contradictions. For one thing, the desire to have sex for pleasure is not particularly stigmatized in the United States these days. We see plenty of evidence in popular culture (like Sex in the City, for example) that women are allowed (to some degree) to enjoy sex just as much as men. Yet, something about the exchange of money when it comes to sex seems to upset people. This contradiction gives us insight into the gendered double standard discussed in your textbook. For example, we see pervasive negative attitudes about sex workers, yet their customers are not subject to the same critiques. The criminalization of sex work means that most of law enforcement’s attention is on arresting and prosecuting sex workers, with comparatively little focus on their clients.

The message here is that it’s normal for men to want or need sex with prostitutes, but abnormal for women to be prostitutes. The only time that men clients are consistently hauled out into public view are when they are high profile (politicians, religious leaders) and someone is seeking to damage their reputation in the public eye, or to “out” them for hypocrisy if they have taken a public stance against an activity that they privately pay someone to provide them (such as men politicians who are vocal opponents of queer people, and are then discovered to be paying other men for sex).

When we ask, “Who is threatened by prostitution and why?,” we are also asking, “What is the status quo that some opponents of prostitution are trying to preserve?” This question, as I am certain you will already have recognized, has much to do with the maintenance of the gendered status quo, in which women are objectified by the heterosexual male gaze, and men’s patronage of sex workers is excused by the notion that men are entitled to look at and touch women’s bodies (and by extension, to the bodies of people with subordinated masculinities such as trans men, genderqueer people, and gay men). The sex/gender system is infused into many different institutions that reinforce things like sexual scripts and unequal access to social power.

The debate around sex work is particularly interesting to gender scholars because it is sharply divided, even within groups of people who all identify as feminist scholars. The debate looks something like this:

Scholarly and Activist Critiques of Sex Work

· Most sex workers are exploited poor women who lack access to “legitimate” sources of income.

· Prostitution is a tempting form of income to support a drug habit.

· The prostitution of women reinforces exploitative gender relations between men and women, and positions women as sex objects.

· Prostitution highlights the ways that women suffer in a sexist society.

Scholarly and Activist Support for Sex Work

· Sex work is a source of income that some workers describe as more pleasurable (or less onerous) than working for low wages elsewhere.

· Sex work provides a benefit to people who lack sexual partners because of their location, physical disability, social anxiety, or unusual sexual desires.

· Prostitution can save marriages in cases where partners have very mismatched libidos, or where one partner is physically unable or unwilling to have sex.

· Sex workers who have chosen the profession are empowered by and proud of their occupation.

There is a similar debate around the idea of legalization. Here are some of the highlights of that debate:

Arguments Against Legalization

· Making sex work legal would increase the number of people participating.

· Since the existence of prostitution victimizes all women (by increasing their objectification by men), legalizing prostitution would increase the number of victimized women.

Arguments in Favor of Legalization

· Sex workers would be safer because they could report violent clients to police without fearing their own arrest.

· Legalization would take prostitution out of the hands of pimps and organized crime, and would decrease rates of sexual slavery.

· Workers would be safer with a regulated industry that mandated medical screenings and condom use.

· Legalization would help ethical customers to be certain that they were not purchasing sex from a trafficked or pimped sex worker.

Interestingly, the arguments in favor of legalization mirror similar arguments made on behalf of the legalization of recreational drugs: namely, that they are consensual acts that should not be legislated by the state on the ground of “morals.”

A little more food for thought:

· Models and athletes also “sell” their bodies in the sense that they accept money in exchange for allowing others to look at their bodies in objectifying ways. Is this exploitative?

· Neither opponents of legalizing sex work nor proponents of legalizing sex work seem concerned about the sex work performed by transgender sex workers, qenderqueer people, and men. Are they not also being exploited?

· Arguments against legalization tend to assume that all sex workers are exploited, even when sex workers say that they are doing sex work voluntarily and with pleasure. Should sex workers get to have a say in how they understand their work?

· What does the condemnation of sex work say about our attitudes toward sex in general? Why do we not have the same attitudes about paying for physical services that involve pleasure but not orgasms (such as massages), or paying for emotional services such as psychotherapy?

· Is there a qualitative difference between sex surrogacy (Links to an external site.) and prostitution?

· What does the addition of money do to our perception of a sexual encounter? If a man invites a woman on a date and pays for the date, and they have sex as part of the date, is that prostitution? Why or why not?

· Putting all moral questions aside, what are the differences in terms of physical risk between using your body for sex and using your body for dangerous physical jobs, such as coal mining?

I hope that I have given you a sense of just how muddy the boundaries are when it comes to defining sex work, thinking about the major debates, and considering the many contradictions in those debates.

See you in our discussions!

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