When I first began reading about people who sell sex and people who want them to stop, in the late 1990s, I was struck by the repetitive nature of the majority of books and articles, both academic and non-academic. When research was done, it produced the same knowledge over and over, generally about women who sell sex in streets – which was odd since many were already pointing out the diminution and even dying out of most street prostitution. The Internet is the New Street, it was said – and that was 15 years ago.
When what I read was ideological, it centred on an abstract term, prostitution, but it soon became obvious that this term has no stable meaning, signifying a raft of different things to different people of different social classes and cultures. A great deal of academic research did exactly what had been done before but now in a new city – or country – or part of town! Identities tended to be essentialised, particularly regarding race, drug use and low income.
In 2005 I proposed that researchers use a broader framework to take in all exchanges of sex for money, presents or other benefits, anywhere and anytime (historical research included, in other words). I followed this up in 2007 when invited to edit a special journal issue for Sexualities that contained eight articles using the cultural framework. Given that so much research – not to mention campaigning for better laws and policies – relies on scanty knowledge of what is actually going on, this is more relevant than ever. Otherwise, you get collateral damage, penalising people and activities unintentionally (I am assuming most people do not approve of collateral damage, but some actually claim it is ‘necessary’ for the Greater Good).
The Cultural Study of Commercial Sex- Sexualities, 8, 5, 618-631 (2005). Click the title to get the pdf.
The article begins like this:
Why create this framework
Societies’ twin reactions to commercial sex – moral revulsion and resigned tolerance – have paradoxically permitted its uncontrolled development in the underground economy and impeded cultural research on the phenomena involved. Affirmations that the global sex industry is growing and its forms proliferating are conventional in government and non-governmental fora, in the communications media and in scholarly writing. Commercial sex businesses and trafficking for sexual exploitation are blamed for massive violations of human rights, but the supporting information is unreliable, given the lack of agreement on basic definitions, the difficulty of counting clandestine objects and the fact that much of this stigmatized activity forms part of conventional social life.
Little work exists in a sex-industry framework, but if we agree that it refers to all commercial goods and services of an erotic and sexual kind, then a rich field of human activities is involved. And every one of these activities operates in a complex socio-cultural context in which the meaning of buying and selling sex is not always the same. The cultural study of commercial sex would use a cultural-studies, interdisciplinary approach to fill gaps in knowledge about commercial sex and relate the findings to other social and cultural concepts. Recent work has demonstrated how people who sell sex are excluded from studies of migration, of service work and of informal economies, and are instead examined only in terms of ‘prostitution’, a concept that focuses on transactions between individuals, especially their personal motivations. With the academic, media and ‘helping’ gaze fixed almost exclusively on women who sell sex, the great majority of phenomena that make up the sex industry are ignored, and this in itself contributes to the intransigent stigmatization of these women. While the sexual cultures of lesbian/gay/ bisexual/ transgender people are being slowly integrated into general concepts of culture, commercial sex is usually disqualified and treated only as a moral issue. This means that a wide range of ways of study are excluded. A cultural-studies approach, on the contrary, would look at commercial sex in its widest sense, examining its intersections with art, ethics, consumption, family life, entertainment, sport, economics, urban space, sexuality, tourism and criminality, not omitting issues of race, class, gender, identity and citizenship. An approach that considers commercial sex as culture would look for the everyday practices involved and try to reveal how our societies distinguish between activities considered normatively ‘social’ and activities denounced as morally wrong. This means examining a range of activities that take in both commerce and sex.
The purpose of this article is to point out the scarcity of research in these areas and reveal the kinds of issue that are up for study. Although public debate and academic theory on commercial sex abound, few participants are familiar with the wide variety of forms and sites involved; most are dealing with stereotypes and interested solely in street prostitution. This is an area where more information and images need to be disseminated, a project for which I make a small beginning here with some descriptive material from Spanish sex venues.
Since this is the beginning of what I hope will become a new field, I do not here offer any solutions to what is too often characterized as a ‘social problem’. Rather, I hope to interest others in taking up the call to study not ‘prostitution’ but the sex industry in new ways and to gather much more information on the object of governance before offering blanket solutions. This does not mean that important moral and ethical issues are not at stake nor that there is not widespread injustice in the industry. On the contrary, my proposal takes these injustices very seriously, laments the absence of workable solutions up to now and hopes that with better research these may be found.
Further headings are How study has proceeded so far, Definitions of the sex industry in general, Local particulars: examples from Spain, Elements of culture and researcher positionality and a raft of good References.
More examples of writing on sex-industry cultures outside the well-worn paths:
–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist