Sex in the City: Reactionism, Resistance and Revolt – AAG #Geosex16 sessions in San Francisco (March/April 2016) **POST 3/5 – SESSION III**

 III – Otherness, Transgression & Normalisation

Emilia Ljungberg (@emljungberg) (Karlstad University): “Distinction, fluidity and discretion in the striving toward respectability for high class sex workers”

Emilia’s paper draws on her research about Ohlala – a locative media app (first launched in 2015 in Berlin) that aims to connect clients and sex workers based on proximity. She discussed that the Ohlala website presents sex work as “paid dating” while simultaneously emphasizing the monetary transaction.  Emilia argued “that class distinction, fluidity and discretion are used as representational strategies by sex workers and sex businesses that define themselves as upscale and that strive toward respectability”.  The app is presented as being similar to other trendy tech start-ups and the website relies heavily on the aesthetics of middle-class lifestyle media. Emilia’s paper explored how classed spaces and places (both virtual and physical) are used in the representational practices of what Bernstein calls ‘sex work for the middle-classes’ (2007)

How the app works: Only women can sell dates and only men can buy.  Men post a date request, suggesting a place and price.  Women can see the date requests and, if interested, the men can see their profiles and then chat.  Then they decide on a date.  Requests are only visible for up to 21 mins.

Emilia argued that the “use of such apps aims to create social acceptance by positioning app in hook-up culture and actual escort services”; thus “exploiting the grey zone and blurring several lines”.  Paid dating is a “slippery concept, presenting SW as remunerated non-work (and thus a way of making it invisible)”.  Paid dating is then both work (= providing a service, ideally on demand and instant) and non-work (dating = a leisure activity).  Ohlala, she argues, also refers to a service that is highly mobile and on demand; part of an urban lifestyle.  In dating, both parties are seen as doing the same thing.  “The blurring of roles implied in paid dating should be understood as a feature of the sharing economy, in which producers and service workers are represented as ordinary people rather than buyers/sellers”.

Emilia also drew attention to the fact that, interestingly, the owner of the app is herself very visible as a tech entrepreneur, presenting herself as a rebel, broken free from conformity from her job as an investment banker, often in arenas such as conferences, that aren’t open for more traditional sex businesses. The idea of fluidity, Emilia argues, is something the owner is constantly making use of to make the app respectable. The app states ‘this is not for escorts’ and that what she’s created is a service seen by mainstream society as respectable, “by taking work and sex out of sex work”.  This is the “reinforcement of a society that is both fascinated and repulsed by sex work”.  Instead of challenging stigma, Emilia stated, she makes a business out of reinforcing it.  She finished by saying that “the stigma attached to sex work should not be understood in terms of historically remaining, not just an unfortunate remnant of traditional morals – but it should be challenged”.

Erin Sanders-McDonagh (@erinsandersmcd) (Middlesex University): “Mapping transgression/gentrification: Lights of Soho”.

Erin initially outlined the aims of the recently formed interdisciplinary collective seeking to document and map marginal or transgressive urban spaces (the work of which this paper is based on). The project focuses on mapping London’s Soho, using multisensory approaches and with a particular interdisciplinary methodology that the collective has developed. The collective is hoping to understand how current neo-liberal market forces are changing Soho, and what impact this is having both on a Soho as a physical geographically-bound place, but also as a social and cultural space.

Erin began by outlining the socio-economic context of the study area. Soho is centrally located and has always been seen as a transgressive area (Walkowitz 2012).  Erin stated that the gentrification in Soho in recent years has been ‘one place, top-down gentrification’, whereas with the neighbouring Shoreditch this was an organic process.  This has been neither slow nor organic in Soho.  The majority of this, Erin explains, has been single-handedly influenced by one organisation (Soho Estates).  The police are quite happy to work with Soho Estates and, in 2013, there were raids on sex worker flats in Soho where sex workers were brought out into streets into underwear, arrested and taken away. They then had to go to court to reclaim their work spaces.  Porn shops have been particularly at risk from such tactics.  Erin outlined that opposition has ensued – for example groups such as Save Soho argue that ‘the changes are being made without proper consultation with residents/local businesses’.  Processes are, Erin argues, intensely neo-liberal and hyper-capitalist.  Businesses such as cafes have been taking over the spaces.  Rents are “hyped up in certain businesses (eg sex businesses) so that they can’t afford them in order to get rid of who they want”.  Those sex businesses that remain – e.g.  The Box, a burlesque venue – only cater for the very elite, niche of people.  Erin said that prices of such venues included around £1000 for a table with minimum requirement purchases.  Any such venues, she stated, are also stripped of any real transgression, making it vanilla”.  Erin labels this a ‘sexy Disneyland for people who want a little bit of titillation…but not too much’. 

Erin then moved on to present one of the sensory maps – of neon lights in Soho.  “As in other red light districts in other cities, neon lights are a distinctive aesthetic feature and emblematic of red light districts”. While some argue that neon lights are empty signifiers of projected fantasies and desires, the collective maintains that they have particular significance for Soho and reveal a critical aspect of gentrification processes.  Erin outlined how many of the older shops/venues (particularly sex shops) use neon, but newer venues (restaurants and bars) use the same neon ironically and hipster-like, creating a juxtaposition that is literally illuminated.  Hipster cafes, she argues, are happy that the sex workers are going as it makes the area cleaner, but are also equally happy to utilise the symbols of sex work.  Indeed, a new exhibit called Lights of Soho has revealed the contentiousness of lights in this space.  Erin finished by drawing attention to a couple of examples of such venues that have kept the ‘nod’ to the sex work history, but also warned of the differential exclusion that such gentrification processes creates; often excluding those who have historically occupied a huge part of the social fabric of the area.

Ingrid Olson (University of British Columbia): “Abduction in the Public Sphere: Sadomasochism, Surveillance, & Governmentality **Notes taken were limited in this paper due to a chairing duty**

Several years ago, a negotiated, consensual abduction scenario took place in downtown Toronto which formulated the focus of Ingrid’s paper. Ingrid outlined the differing reactions of the public, with some citizens having stopped, observed, and considered using their cellular phones. The scenario endured a lengthy pause for consultation and explanation with bystanders troubled by what they interpreted as potentially criminal behaviour. This response, Ingrid argued, could be understood as policing non­normative sexualities in public space (Watney 1987) and raised interesting questions about the movement of kink from the S and M dungeon to the public sphere. and what the limitations of sexual conduct are in the public sphere (Habermas 1992). As Ingrid outlined, in the 21st century there has been a “mainstreaming” (Weiss 2006; Wilkinson 2009) of kink. Yet, there remain limitations of public tolerance (Brown 2006; Fagelson 2002) for S/m as sexual “counter­conduct” (Foucault 2007). More from the abstract: “Sexuality has become a strategic dispositif: an apparatus (Foucault 1980, p. 218). In “The Confession of the Flesh,” Foucault describes an apparatus as a “certain manipulation of relations of forces, either developing them in a particular direction, blocking them, stabilising them, utilising them, etc.” (Foucault 1980, p. 196). Unlike a dedicated S/m space, an abduction scenario, as an apparatus, eludes surveillance and “remains invisible until it explodes” (Foucault 2003, p. 215), Public S/m can be a counterpublic (Halberstam 2005) that is “legible only to the intimately initiated” (Warner 2005, p. 183). Sadomasochism, as perversion, pushes sexual boundaries (Bauer 2014), and lies outside the demarcation of sexual citizenship (Cossman 2007; Evans 1993). This paper positions the “schemas of obedience” (Foucault 2007, p. 211) to the private/public sexual divide (Delany 1999) alongside the resistant sexualities of S/m practitioners in the public sphere.”


Moriah McSharry McGrath, PhD, MPH, MSUP (Pacific University): “From sites of vice to sites of redemption: Community-led redevelopment of strip club sites in Portland, Oregon

Moriah’s paper discussed community-led redevelopment of strip club sites in Portland, Oregon; the aims of which she aptly described as the transition from “sites of vice to sites of redemption”.  She drew on case studies within Portland whereby, through community organizing strategies and creative financing mechanisms, community groups have purchased some of the city’s many strip club sites with the intention of opening social service and recreation facilities.

Sexually oriented businesses (SOBs), she explained, have historically been viewed as locally unwanted land uses, sites of vice whose siting or operation often provokes conflict.  However, Moriah outlined that recent work on relationships between strip clubs and neighbors in the politically liberal context of Portland, Oregon (where there are over 50 strip clubs), found that in the absence of land use regulation, neighborhoods can develop a grudging tolerance or occasionally a symbiotic relationship with this type of SOB.  In other words, she argued that neighbourhoods have more complicated relationships with sex work businesses than common political discourses might suggest – something that really resonated with my own work on brothels in Blackpool, UK!  She also discussed how regulations that treat sex work businesses differently than non-sex work businesses cannot be placed here, including no zoning regulations.  Nonetheless, such development strategies, as she outlines, “are underpinned by involvement from the local government and civil society and therefore the approach can be comparable to more typical patterns of SOB management, such as the moral crusade, policy-induced gentrification, and spatial segregation”.  Moriah then drew from some case studies to highlight and critique the narratives and motivations of transformation and redemption, and processes of inclusion/exclusion.  Here are a couple with some notes:

Soobie’s strip club – now Shepherd’s Gate Church.  As an SOB, it was known for frequent visits from police.  Signs were put up once the building was bought to let the neighbours know that things were changing. Events included worships and pony rides for the kids.  Moriah argued this a great metaphor for the faith – “the same bricks and mortar on the outside but totally different on the inside”.

Black Cauldron – now a family shelter.  Was originally a goth, pagan, vegan venue. This was renovated into a family home –  a shelter for 130 people.  The County Commissioner, involved in social services, said that if the alternative is a strip club instead of a homeless shelter then this is a good thing. One quote: “turning a situation from vice to nice”. 

Sugar shack – part of a strip mall of SOBS, with lots of calls for police services.  The neighbourhood wanted to buy it and campaigned for it, asking for redevelopment funds, with the adverts for such requests often featuring signs held by kids asking to buy it.  The campaign was successful and on Martin Luther King day, people worked on remodelling the strip club.  Moriah outlined two discourses: that the neighbourhood should be better, this is yucky; and second, the development angle: we (the community) want amenities and other services.

From such examples, Moriah questioned who is behind/benefiting from this, outlining that stakeholders differentially benefit.  The Sugar Shack had the most different, multiple government organisations involved – the investment firm supported the loan, and property owners walked away with $2.5mill. It since emerged that an investigation into trafficking, drugs, and prostitution was ongoing and the federal government probably would have seized this if they didn’t sell to the community.  Moriah argued that in some ways, these examples flip the script in terms of opposition to strip club – not following the typical nimbyism. But, at the same time, the government is giving money to get rid of such establishments, and perpetuating the invisibility of people working/customers in the process.  So, she questioned, is this a voluntary redevelopment, or a dynamic equilibrium of sex premises from this possible organic redevelopment?


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