The Cultural Study of Commercial Sex: Needed more than ever

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 SexSexualities, 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

9 thoughts on “The Cultural Study of Commercial Sex: Needed more than ever

  1. Craig Spence

    This is such an absolutely sane approach to understanding the sex trade. Thank you for creating this perspective. I have been researching the ST as part of the development of a novel in progress and am astonished at how little real information is available. Thanks again.

  2. Sexworker Marc

    Sex drive (same as money making) is such a strong emotion or driving body force, that it creates many culturally unwanted or to someone wearing actions or presentations. The scale can be from a simple out of context postings up to out of context naked sex orgies or business making in the streets of our cities…

    For an amusement business field which exploits, serves and satisfies basic human needs, feelings or energies, it is not an easy task to create safe, culturally advanced, sustainable structures or careers. That’s why all the prostitution problems arise. Hence mainstream society is overstrained in its integration capabilities and tends to outcast, stigmatise, exclude, alienate, criminalize and prosecute prostitution (besides the benefits of scapegoting a sexual minority).

    Last point: the culture of sex 4 sale is quite easy to learn, but hard to bring to excellence. It is ubiquitous. But it has to be learned! It is an art, even for the consumer. As a client have a look to the great film clip: “The Sebastian Horsley Guide to Whoring” e.g. on youtube (clip id: hcuijtauGUc ).

  3. Maggie McNeill

    This is exactly the philosophy which drives my column, but I’m not a scholar and my approach isn’t scholarly so I’m very glad to see you working on the development of this view!

    1. Laura Agustín

      maggie: the format of this article conforms to academic conventions for such journals, but i believe most of it is common sense – saying things that a lot of people think or respond to. i published this 6 years ago, whether it has had any real impact i have no idea.

  4. asturiano

    A mi juicio, este marco cultural que tú estás proponiendo (consistente en el estudio cultural del ‘sexo comercial’) presupone un un cierto relativismo metodológico en la investigación que -tal y como se va viendo- nos acaba abocando a un relativismo ético. Esto se debería a que estas formas de trabajo y de comercio entre las personas se dan en el marco de un sistema económico neoliberal y de una filosofía (ética) de la libertad individual de corte pragmatista que va muy bien con él.

    En este sentido, aproximaciones a la prostitución como las de la antropóloga Paola Tabet, o las filósofas Nancy Fraser y o Ruth Mestre i Mestre me parecen que son muy cuestionables, cuando no directamente rechazables.
    Del mismo modo, investigaciones, en las que algunas investigadoras como tú, como Dolores Juliano o como Isabel Holgado, etc. , desde un “paradigma” que podríamos denominar el del ‘estigma de la puta’ justificáis la prostitución como un trabajo posible y también legítimo para las personas (mujeres en el caso de la ‘prostitución femenina’), considero que están causando un cierto daño en nuestra sociedad, al producir confusión más que otra cosa y al orientar conductas y prácticas sociales que son éticamente muy discutibles.

    He estado estudiando el fenómeno de la prostitución durante unos doce años (además de haberla probado como cliente), y a mí me parece que para investigar este fenómeno no se puede adoptar una posición que pretende ser neutral, que es lo que quienes procedéis del ámbito de la antropología social y cultural pretendéis hacer (y hacernos creer).
    Por contra, creo que la manera más acertada de aproximarse a la prostitución y en general al fenómeno del ‘sexo comercial’ es una manera que sea crítica, un modo en el que la prostitución se analice tanto históricamente, como sociológicamente o como psico-sociológicamente; una manera en la que la investigación dé como resultado una toma de posición ética de las personas que traten de conocer y entender este fenómeno de una manera plena o abarcadora de todos sus aspectos (y no sólo una manera que nos permite profundizar en el ‘estigma de puta’ o en la opresión sexual mantenida históricamente sobre la mujeres y otras minorías; que es lo que estáis haciendo realmente vosotr@s).

    En este sentido un ejemplo de aproximación acertada al fenómeno de la prostitución lo constituyen los análisis y testimonios contenidos en libros como los siguientes; “El Nuevo Desorden Amoroso” / P. Bruckner y A. Finkielkraut, y “Una Vida de Puta” / Claude Jaget

    Para mí la libertad individual que vale es la que va asociada a una ética de la responsabilidad y de la igualdad. Y un fenómeno como la prostitución no permite esto por mucho que algunas no queráis verlo; para empezar en noventa y muchos por ciento de la clientela de prostitución (relaciones u actos sexuales entre personas mediando un pago en dinero) la constituímos los varones, esto es así en España (¿dónde está aquí la igualdad?, ?¿no deberia hacernos esto sospechar permanentemente?).

    En mi opinión investigadoras como las que he mencionado aquí o como tú misma, con la ideología que transmitís acerca de las relaciones entre personas y de la sexualidad masculina que presuponéis acabáis por hacer daño al conjunto de la sociedad española (y europea también posiblemente) con vuestros planteamientos y análisis, totalmente ajenos e ignorantes de lo que serían propuestas verdaderamente críticas y conducentes hacia un modelo de vida buena.


  5. Thaddeus Blanchette

    The work Ana Paula and I have doing has been largely along these lines, Laura.

    Rio de Janeiro has a HUGE commercial sex scene. It’s immensely diverse and is one of the oldest in the western hemisphere. Nevertheless, you can count on the fingers of one hand the cultural studies that have been done about it.

    The first thing we did was map out all the sex venues we could and create an ideal typification of them. We found about a dozen discrete kinds of sexual commercial scenes, three moral types and two overall classifications (“open” or “closed”).

    It’s incredibly diverse and even making a matrix with these 19 variables (which leads to at lçeast 114 “types” of sexual exchange) I still feel we’re grossly simplifying what’s going on.

    And yet most Brazilians who talk about sex for sale in Rio see only 4 variables: high class versus low class; street versus brothel.

    We know hardly anything about the particulars of how sex is sold.

    It always amazes me, when I go to government shindigs, how people presume about what’s going on. “Oh, there’s this massage parlor in town,” they’ll say, “and we think the owner is abusing the girls.”

    You think? Why not walk right in and talk to the girls? Brothels are public space. What’ stopping you? The fear that you’ll be contaminated by whore and john cooties or what?

    I’ve come to the conclusion that the abolitionists don’t WANT to study what really goes on because facts get in the way of their carefully constructed fantasies. And you are right: the best way to counteract this, over the long haul, is by careful and methodological research.

    1. Laura Agustín

      Even short descriptive pieces about what different places look and feel like would be so helpful if they reached outside the academic walls. And even in quite small towns there can be a great variety of forms of sex-money exchanges and arrangements. We are up against a stubborn refusal to look at it on the part of crusaders and policymakers. Tourists, of course, know about it.

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