Men, Women, & Society in Global Perspectives
Men, Women, & Society in Global Perspectives SOC 2370
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THE SOCIAL CONSTRUCTION OF SEXUALITY STEVEN SEIDMAN STATE UNIVERSITY OF NEW YOR Rim ALBANY CONTEMPORARY SOCIETIES jeffmy C Alexander Sade Editor 555 W W Norton 8 Company New York o London Chapter Nine SEX WORK 813x WORK is the exchange of sex for money There are many diffhrent types of sex work from stripping to porn cting to prostitution The nature and conditions of sex work vary tremendously It can be very dangerous and exploitative as in the case of street hookers or it can be safe and playful as in the case of male strippers at gay bars or straight clubsx We will focus in this Chapter on prostitution prostitutes sell particular sex acts We need to be mindful that the work conditions and income among prostitutes vary enormously There are street walkers highClass escorts sesthow workers who are part of the tourist industry both men and women can be prostitutes At the heart of this issue is the question ofwhether sex work is just another kind of work that should be regulated in terms of work conditions and worker rights or whether it is different because it involves sex Sex work raises a boundary dispute over the relationship between sex and commerce If we permit graphic sexual images in pornography magazines advertise ments and movies why not allow the buying and selling 0 sex acts The Victorian era may have celebrated sex only in marriage and for the purposes of procreation but during that time there was a ourishing illicit sexua world that included prostitu tion As Cities became the center of industry and commerce in 1H SEX Voxn l 1 5 the nineteenth century many Americans left the small towns and rural regions where they had been born and raised Many of the new urban denizens were single mammalone and too poor or unsettled to marry They created a demand for prostitutes In particular in port towns mill towns and Coal mining towns single men and married men who lived for long stretches of time alone sought out prostitutes America in the nineteenth century was male dominated Men controlled the public sphere the world of politics and paid work women were expected to be wives and mothers caretakers for men and their Children Women did not have equal rights and were legally socially and often physically con trolled by men Women had few legitimate economic opportu nities WorkingClass and immigrant women sonwtimcs looked to prostitution for individual survival or to help support their families As many individuals were freed from the con trols of kin and church after they migrated to cities prostitu tion ourished throughour the nineteenth century For example according to a contemporary observer over ve hun dred brothels operated in Chicago in 18602 Prostitution was never legal in America but the laws against prostitution often went unenforcedl However during the waves of religious fundamentalism that periodically swept through America in the nineteenth century moral crusaders campaigned against prostitution Arrests were made brothels were Closed and prostitutes and rarely their clients wcre pub licly stigmatized Despite being illegal and despite these crusades brothels survived in seaports small western towns and large cities in the East Some people advocated that America fellow the l 16 TH SOCIAL CONSTRUCTYON 0139 SEXUALITY European practice of decriminalizing and regulating prnstitu tion but this offended Americans sense of what was proper and clecent Criminalization and the abolition of prostitution were the Chief aim of the moral crusaders and most Americans supported their agenda Moral reformers found support in the women s movement which criticized prostitution for its exploitation of women and for its double standard Women were punished for providing a service but men who purchased that service were not punished 1 rr By the late century groups anti obscenity crusaders such as Anthony Comstock and a variety of business and government agencies all viewed prosti tution as evil and sought its abolition Throughout the twentieth century the US government has backed the criminalizarion of prostitution Today it is esti mated that over ninety thousand arrests are made in the United States every year for prostitution Nationwide cities spend well over a hundred million dollars a year enforcing prostitution laws Although most arrests 06cm in large cities prostitution thrives in small and midsized cities as well The aim of crimi nalization today is not abolition but containment Police focus on con ning prostitution to certain districts and preventing it from becoming Visible in respectable society With the exception of Las Vegas the United States has not setinusly considered alternatives to criminalization The public has had little sympathy For legalizing prostitutiun In the pub lic mind prostitution continues to be associated with crime drugs immorality and social decadence In the 19805 Feminists entered the debate over sex work As the women s movement expanded its focus from rights to sexu Sax WORK 1 17 illit39y it turned to prostitution Klan feminists saw in prostitu ion another form of male domination women sex workers are used and exploited by men Groups such as WHISPER Women Hurt in a System of Prostitution Founded in 1983 argued that prostitution reinforces male dominance The warld of prostitutes they held is one in which women are abused violated and degraded Not all feminists as we will see share this viewpoint The debate became more complex with the emergence of sex worker advocacy groups in the 19705 and 19805 Paralleling civil rights groups and movements advocacy groups such as COYOTE Call OfI39X39Our Old Tired Ethics sought tights and respect for prostitutes They defended the right to engage in sex work which they de ned as a legitimate type of paid labor They advocated dccriminalizarion Americans have long been divided over prostitution society stigmatizes and criminallzes it but still tolerates it and many people suppcrt it with their hard earned wages llowever the social context of prostitution has changed In the last few decades sex has been brought Fully into the world of cam merce Prostitution is now a facet ofa billiomdollar sex indus try that is part of American comnletcial and social life From this perspective the selling atquot actual sex may seem like a mere extension of the cornmercializntinn of sex Blurring the line between using sex to sell gaods and selling sex itself continues to stir public anxieties Many Americans do not want that line crossed But as a result of the commercialization of sex many sex workers and perhaps many Americans in general now see sex as just one more good or skill to be sold This defense of sex work gains credibility ifsex and the need for sex are viewed 118 THE SOCIAL CONSTRUCTION OF SEXUALITY as natural or as an ordinary part of life Moralists once objected to women working or to blacks occupying certain jobs objec tions to sex work is said by advocates to be a similar prejudice that should not guide social policy Is sex work different from other types of work In many jobs workers exchange the use of their bodies for wages Blue collar workers and professional athletes sell their physical strength and endurance models and actors exchange their physical attractiveness for money Isn t selling particular sex acts similar to marketing physical strength or beauty Until recently prostitution had few defenders and many critics On the whole critics View sex work as degrading and exploitative For some critics prostitution degrades the mean ing of sex Sex should be a special way people establish a loving intimate relationship Moreover sexual expression is said to stir up one s deepest most intimate feelings Exchanging sex for money not only degrades sex by betraying its spiritual and moral purpose but it also alienates both the buyer and seller from their true selves Accordingly there is a big difference these critics argue between selling an ability to do physical labor or an attractive self presentation and selling sexual favors The latter is dehumanizing and alienating Feminist critics underscore a telling point the vast majority of sex workers are women Their work degrades and exploits them as humans and as women Sex work makes women into whores and quotbad girlsquot lacking self respect and social value Feminist critics of sex work argue that most women do not choose to be prostitutes they are forced to by poverty limited opportunities for well paying jobs drug or alcohol addictions a history ofsexual abuse or the need to support their families SEX WORK 119 In addition prostitution reinforces women s low self esteem and inferior social status Women sex workers service men which reinfrirces a View of women as sex objects to be used and discarded Moreover most often men own the brothels and con trol women sex workers T116 whole sexwotk industry is domi nated by men and prostitutes are their victims according to these criticsS Those who defend sex work acknowledge that many sex workers are treated badly are often poorly paid and sometimes mviffer physical abuse Also defenders would agree with critics that many women d0 not Choose to be sex workers but are forced into it by circumstances Some defenders of sex work would admit that like porn sex work is largely an industry run by men for men and that it reinforces men s social luminance Some of these objections to sex work however would apply to many work environments Women who work as airline atten dants receptioniscs or models are also sexually objectified typically paid badly and exercise little control over their work conditions But to get to the heart of the niactcr is the buying aria sell ing of sex necessarily degrading From the point ofview of the client defenders of sex work Say it is not Although most of us including sex workers approach sex as a way to express love or establish intimacy and families many of us also value sex as a form of pleasure and self expression And though many of us value sex for pleasure in loving relationships some Hf us also choose to pursue sexual pleasure in more casual consensual rela tionships So in principle a person who purchases sex just for pleasure is not necessarily degrading the act or him or herself But is selling sex degrading or the prostitute It is reason 20 THE SOCIAL CONS J RCCTION or SEXL39AJJTY able to assume Wynn are selling sexual favors regularly that the sex will lose some of its pleasurable qualities and become just work Of course this is no dil ferem from many jobs that are repetitive and lack citllar expressive value or a clear social pur poss The issue is whether selling sex ruins a prostitutc s ability to also hays sex for pleasure and for love Some argue that it docs not PrQstltuteS are able to disassociate themselves from the act when they are at work and to experience sex as a means of pleasure or love outside of work Like any professionals sex workers think of certain feelingg and behaviors as having one meaning at work and other meanings outside of Work A skilled worker learns to separate his or her true self from the sacial rolcs required at work 391quot he ight attendant who has to be congenial day after clay for money does nut lose hat or his ability to be friendly outside of work Similarly many physi cians regularly examine naked bodies and learn to desexualize acts that would in Other contexts be considered sexual But we woul mar say that the physician 10565 his or her capacity to be sexual The physician like the attendant learns a role that makes it possible to gain some emotional distance from work rclared feelings and behaviors Defenders of sex work hold then that sex is not necessarily an integral part of one39s core self Sexual feelings are like other emotions we learn to give them meaning and to manage them Sometimes we have to use an emotion or behavior that carries strong expressive meaning in an instrumental way Sex work like Uthcr typ s 0f work involves skills and one of its chief skills is to treat sex during work in an emotionally neutral wayquot Defenders ofsex work concede one important point women SEX Vomc I 23 an the overwhelming majority of sex workerx and this both reflects and reinforces a society clommated by men Womcn become sex workers in part because ul39lhnixed economic oppor tunities for betterpaying jobs in part because of the exible work schedules and in part because of a culture that already values Them for their ssxual attractiveness A defense of sex work based only on the idea that adults have the right to Choose their work so long as it does not involve any nbvious social harm is a weak arguman Individual recedom is not absolum social and psychological pressures always cansrmin choices Because women have lt SS m nnumlu options then men because they are disproportionately among the poor because they are responsible for child are and for support in huuseholds in which there is no nther support and because they are raised in a society that makes selflestcrcm dependant on attractiveness sex Work may still be 3 chm cel but it is one nude under very mnstmincd conditions YetP it is misleading for critics CO argue that all women who become sex workers art forced to do 30 Rina of our work Choices are constrained and are not nelfmful lling The mere FaCt that sex work involves limited choice is not an argument either or nr against it The moral smcus of sex work rests ultinmt ly on how we View the nature of the work This debate is often polarizcd between critics who exagger ate the Victilnization 0f sex workers and advocates who Clnpha size the role of Choice and skill Personally l am persuaded by the argument that sex work involves skill and that selling sex is not necessarily degrading Sex wnrkcrs can manage emotions stirred up during sex without surrendering a satisfying per sonal sexual life Howmrzr sex walk 5 exploitative to the extent 122 THE 500M CONSTRUCTION OF Sexuaury that it is women who do the sex work While men control the industry and as long as there are low wages and poor working conditions Any defense of sex work needs to be connected to a critique of men39s dominance in the sexwotk industry In other words the issues raised by sex work are labor issues work con ditions worker rights and gender inequality in America