II – Sex Worker Voices: Encountering Consumption and Mobilities
Jennifer Heineman (University of Nevada, Las Vegas): “The Spectacle of Sex Trafficking: The Geopolitics of Sexualized, Victimized, and Fetishized Bodies”
Jennifer’s powerful paper discussed the ‘cultural fetishization with representation and authenticity at the heart of discourse surrounding sexual and erotic labor’. Her work employs non-traditional research methods and draws from her own experiences as a sex working academic and activist, as well as textual analyses of sex worker zines and anti-prostitution blogs. Her presentation highlighted questions posed by sex workers, their allies, and anti-prostitution feminists alike, such as “who gets to speak for sex workers?; whose narrative becomes representative?” Jennifer drew attention to the recent Amnesty International vote to support the decriminalisation of sex work and the subsequent opposition to it, including the celebrity endorsed letter.
She argued that “one-dimensional narratives” of sex trafficking victims are prominent, which “mainstream dehumanisation”. Examples include identifying ‘those deserving of redemption and those undeserving of it’, and ‘victims and heroes’ depictions via visual text and imagery selections. Jennifer drew attention to one advert for ‘young, girl-next-door average American girl’ for a story on sex trafficking. She argued the “attractiveness of self-referent images removes the burden of thinking complexly and thinking about disrupting normative notions of good/bad women”. She also argued that anti-prostitution feminists are part of a larger, neoliberal trend towards devaluing complex labor analyses in favor of moralistic, sensational, and fetishizing discourses—“discourses that create lucrative careers for all the State’s bosom buddies”. She argued against the notion that neoliberalism directly serves the interests of sex workers and allies.
Jennifer further outlined the social, cultural, economic, and historical meanings inscribed on the bodies of sex workers and queried why/how some bodies are able to access victim narratives while others are branded by the Scarlet Letter. She drew from Baudrillard’s notion of “The Death of Sex” and Debord’s work on “The Spectacle” to argue that the spectacle of trafficking/victim narratives fulfills our insatiable cultural desire for what Baudrillard called “infinite refractions.”…so long as said narratives exist within the context of socially sanctioned and morally appropriate bodies.
Jennifer outlined that “sex working academics challenge such normatives and resists the spectacle of the trafficking victim”. She also raised really interesting points about academia more broadly, querying the notion that “academia = the realm of the mind as if it is antithetical of the body”. Some thought-provoking points/questions from Jennifer to finish: “intellectuals and sex go hand in hand but no-one talks about it; people are afraid of the bodily knowledge SW academics bring to academia; is sex work really all that different from academia?”
Jason Scott, M.A., M.Sc. (University of Nevada – Las Vegas): “Transnational Migration of Male Sex Workers: Meeting the Thai Demand” **I didn’t take many notes from this paper due to computer updates!**
Jason’s paper discussed his research on the organisation of African and Afro-Caribbean male sex workers in the Thai adult entertainment industry, situated in Bangkok’s red light districts and surrounding tourist areas. This drew on thirteen months of fieldwork from 2013 – 2015, when tourists, male/female/trans people/sex workers/business owners, government officials were interviewed. He began by outlining that, despite the plethora of research examining female prostitution, little is known about female sex tourism (particularly the role foreign men play in sexually servicing female tourists and the financial logistics).
Preliminary findings: Jason drew attention to some of the geographies of working patterns from the different groups of male sex workers – e.g. although there are official adult entertainment zones, regulated by the Thai government, Afro-Caribbean (Jamaica/Dom Republic) sex workers tend to work primarily in Thai based bars/clubs outside the tourist zones. There is a financial draw to the Thai industry – participants indicated that they can make more in Bangkok than Jamaica and they often have legal paperwork on an entertainer visa. Best estimates are that there are less than 1000. African sex workers are often from West Africa and many indicated they were smuggled into Thailand. Most of them work primarily in the informal economy and sell drugs and/or provide protection to female sex workers. Jason’s preliminary findings indicate that economic necessity is a major influence for engaging as a migrant adult entertainer and increasing demands for their services are due to the bourgeoning Thai tourism industry. He also acknowledged some of the limitations of his work: 1. That it is still ongoing 2. The small number of African informants 3. The difficulties of generalising the findings
Barb Brents, PhD (@barbbrents) (University of Nevada, Las Vegas) and Christina Parreira, MA (@SinCityGrrrl) (University of Nevada, Las Vegas): “Consuming sexscapes: the impact of location and legality on prostitution clients”.
Barb and Christina’s paper centred on their research about the clients of sex workers. They argued that while there are many assumptions about clients (e.g. they are deviant/risk-takers), there is little research that does not rely on samples of arrested “johns,” or samples that do not specify the type of consumption (e.g., legal brothel, street prostitution, escort service). Their research disrupts this solely-deviant construction of clients, and examines consumers of sexual services through the lens of leisure consumers. This, they argue, situates it in diverse geographies of consumer culture, and makes sex work less about deviance and the sexual exploitation of women, and more about consumerism and services. The study also enables the diversity in prostitution and clients to be explored – e.g. no studies have compared client populations or clients of legal/illegal prostitution and so the research also examines if different markets draw different kinds of clients. Furthermore, they argue, their study explores “geographies of resistance” by examining how the legality and locations of prostitution can impact the patterns and meanings of sexual consumption.
Methods: An online survey was conducted of the characteristics and attitudes of rural legal brothel clients in Nevada, and consumers of illegal sex work in the United States. Two groups of clients were in the study, 1) “hobbyist” groups and individual clients of Nevada’s legal brothels and 2) clients of illegal prostitution. The survey asks clients’ demographic information, consumption patterns, general attitudes and interests, and history of behavior with both legal and illegal adult industry commerce’. As of October 21, 2015, the survey had 347 responses. Barb and Christina outlined that there are 25 legal brothels in rural areas of Nevada with between 1-50 sex workers employed (and the majority of sex workers have to live in the brothel).
Some findings: it was difficult to note down all of the findings due to my slow typing and the 4 categories of clients: brothel only (85); illegal-only (284); clients of both (141); and non-clients (32). However, some include:
- Non brothel clients more likely to be married, brothel clients more likely to be single.
- In terms of risk-taking, there was no differences between legal and non-legal.
- In relation to questions about sexual tolerance e.g. underage sex, and porn consumption, non-brothel-goers have lower scores on measure of sexual tolerance.
- With regards to questions about location – eg how many times have you paid for sex at least 50 miles away? – brothel clients were more likely to have travelled. When asked about purchasing sexual services in same town where you live: over 90% said never.
Question design for the survey was adopted from the National Opinion Research Center’s General Social Survey (NORC-GSS) to compare client and non-client attitudes toward women, risk-taking and thrill-seeking behavior, and neoliberal attitudes on individualism and self-expression. Barb and Christina were thus able to compare respondents’ consumption across these dimensions and answer questions about the motivations for seeking sexual services, patterns of consumption as well as compare legal brothel and illegal sexual consumption.
Danielle Antoinette Hidalgo, PhD (@danielle_prof) (CSU Chico) and Cinnamon Maxxine (@CinnaMaxx): “Doing Sex Work Writing and Research: How to Not Take Up Space”
Danielle and Cinnamon’s paper offered some candid advice and reflections on doing sex work writing and research. Beginning with a story about an experience Cinnamon had at a Desiree Alliance Conference, they reflected on the ways in which non-sex workers doing writing and research on sex work have historically ‘taken up’ both physical and intellectual spaces. Cinnamon and Danielle outlined the issues of research and writing practices that ‘rarely serve the interests of sex workers themselves’; instead favouring the motivations of non-sex workers. They also discussed how sex workers have been challenging problematic research and writing practices in virtual spaces (via twitter and podcasts, for example), publication spaces (Porn Studies and related publications), and physical spaces (such as the 2014 Feminist Porn Conference). There were some good examples and suggestions for directly challenging practices that do not serve the ongoing goals of sex worker rights-based activism and writing. Here are the ones I could get down:
Questions to ask oneself when thinking about embarking on a sex work research project:
- Why am I doing this research project?
- What are your motivations/what experience do you have in/working with the industry?
- If anything ‘icky’ comes up, question why it does, and think about if it stays around – if so, maybe consider not doing the research?
- Consider the prostitute imaginary (Gira Grant) – how is it feeding into the imaginary? To constantly ask this question is important
- Ask sex workers what they think before you start a project – it could be harmful rather than helpful
- Make space for voices of sex workers, encourage lots of listening and centre their voices; this includes reaching out to marginalised sex workers eg women of colour, sex workers that use drugs – don’t judge because of the location it is done. There is a large spectrum of sex worker demographics.
- Don’t expect sex workers to work for you or with you without compensation. Encourage colleagues to pay sex workers and pay up front so that sex workers do not have to chase departments/individuals for money. Think about all practicalities of including sex workers e.g. offer a ride to and from the conference etc.
- Advocate for the sex worker, talk to them like a human being, and credit their involvement. Give sex workers the opportunity to look at how they have been used in the work
- Read and share work by sex workers and always be thinking about power and inequality and how it plays out in the speaking space. Use your platform to challenge narrow depictions of the sex industry and check with SWs about how you are using your platform. Don’t ever assume you are using the platform productively – use it creatively, and offer a variety of spaces e.g. invite them to your place or have a Skype discussion. A central point is making work more accessible too e.g. thinking about what is accessible language (a key question for academic generally too!)
- Challenge the tired sex work memoir – Cinnamon and Danielle drew on Gira Grant’s work which acknowledges the uptake in 1st person writing of sex work and argues this contributes to a culture obsessed with hearing about sex worker confessionals. They argued that the focus needs to be shifted on to the anti sex work discourse: those that create stigma.