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Most research focuses on street prostitution and female sex workers, with much less attention devoted to indoor prostitution, male and transgender workers, clients, and third parties including managers. Furthermore, most of the literature examines prostitution where it is illegal, neglecting nations where it is legal and regulated by the government. This research paper summarizes theory and research and argues that research on neglected topics will enrich our understanding of contemporary prostitution.
Prostitution is one of the “vices” that is distinguished by moral ambivalence: It is considered both deviant and enticing or pleasurable at the same time. Unlike predatory crimes with a clear victim, prostitution involves exchanges between willing buyers and sellers, which leads some members of the public to view it with a measure of tolerance even if they hold an otherwise negative view of it. The same moral ambivalence applies to pornography, gambling, and marijuana use.
The research literature on prostitution is sizeable but remains deficient in some important respects. Much more attention has been paid to street prostitution than to indoor prostitution and to female prostitutes much more than other actors (male and transgender workers, clients, managers). This research paper highlights key aspects of contemporary prostitution and then draws attention to several under-examined issues. The focus is mostly on Anglo-American societies.
Three main theoretical perspectives have been applied to sex work. One of these, the oppression paradigm, holds that prostitution reflects and reinforces patriarchal gender relations. Advocates of this paradigm argue that exploitation, subjugation, and violence against women are intrinsic to and ineradicable from sex work (Barry 1995; Jeffreys 1997), and these advocates typically use dramatic language to highlight the plight of workers (“sexual slavery,” “prostituted women,” “survivors”). Such terminology is meant to emphasize the notion that prostitutes are victims and that prostitution is not something that can be chosen. Likewise, clients are called “prostitute users” and “sexual predators.”
Some of these claims are not amenable to verification or falsification, and the very definition of prostitution as inherently oppressive is one dimensional. Oppression theorists typically describe only the worst examples of sex work and treat them as representative, and they tend to ignore counterevidence that challenges the theory. Despite being a fairly extreme paradigm, it remains one of the three main theoretical perspectives on sex work.
The empowerment paradigm is radically different. It focuses on the ways in which sexual services qualify as work and may be potentially liberating for workers (Chapkis 1997; Delacoste and Alexander 1987). This paradigm holds that there is nothing inherent in sex work that would prevent it from being organized like any other economic transaction for the mutual gain of buyers and sellers alike. Prostitution can benefit sellers economically and can, under the right circumstances, provide greater control over working conditions than many traditional jobs.
Writers who adopt the empowerment model also argue that most of the tenets of the oppression model reflect the way in which some sex work manifests itself when it is criminalized.
Most empowerment theorists argue that sex work is potentially empowering, not that it is necessarily so. They tend to neglect sex workers who labor under harsh conditions and instead highlight success stories in prostitution. It can be liberating for those who are “fleeing from small-town prejudices, dead-end jobs, dangerous streets, and suffocating families” (Agustin 2007, p. 45).
Both of these paradigms are one dimensional. While exploitation and empowerment are certainly present in prostitution, there is sufficient diversity across time, place, and sector to demonstrate that prostitution cannot be reduced to a single phenomenon. An alternative perspective, the polymorphous paradigm, holds that there is broad variety of occupational arrangements, power relations, and experiences of those who sell and buy sex. This paradigm is sensitive to complexities and to the structural conditions shaping the uneven distribution of agency, subordination, and job satisfaction (Weitzer 2010). The polymorphous perspective is superior to the other two paradigms because it is supported by a wealth of social science evidence (see Shaver 2005; Vanwesenbeeck 2001; Weitzer 2010).
Types Of Prostitution
Prostitution is defined as the exchange of sexual services for material compensation. There is a great deal of variation in prostitution within and between societies and across different echelons. Prostitutes differ in their reasons for entry, number and type of clients, freedom to refuse clients, access to resources for protection, relationships with colleagues, dependence on third parties, experiences with the authorities, public visibility, and impact on the surrounding community.
Street Versus Indoor Settings
In street prostitution, the initial transaction occurs in a public place (sidewalk, park, truck stop), and the sex act takes place in either a public or private setting (alley, car, park, hotel, etc.). Indoor prostitution takes place in brothels, massage parlors, bars, hotels, private premises, and other places. In many countries, indoor prostitution is much more prevalent than street prostitution. On many dimensions of prostitution, street and indoor sectors differ substantially. It is not the sheer fact of being indoors that distinguishes indoor from street prostitution; instead, certain features of indoor settings are preconditions for a work environment that can differ substantially from street-level work. Such indoor features include the capacity for better screening of clients, less accessibility to street predators, and greater safety if one works indoors with other prostitutes or with a manager. In addition, prostitutes who work indoors generally come from at least somewhat more advantaged socioeconomic backgrounds than those who work on the streets.
Individuals enter prostitution through different paths. Some are recruited by pimps or otherwise coerced into the trade; others drift into prostitution gradually and tentatively, often at the encouragement of friends. Some initially worked in other branches of the sex industry (e.g., strip clubs, phone sex) and later decided to experiment with prostitution. Many street prostitutes are runaways who end up in a new locale with no resources and little recourse but to engage in some kind of criminal activity. Economic motives predominate throughout the trade, ranging from survival to a desire for financial independence or upward mobility.
A segment of the street population is involved in “survival sex”: They sell sex out of dire necessity. Many street workers have a history of childhood abuse (violence, incest, neglect). Many work and live in crime-ridden areas; are socially isolated and disconnected from support services; use addictive drugs; are in poor health; are exploited and abused by pimps; and are vulnerable to being assaulted, robbed, raped, or killed on the streets. Off-street work is less hazardous. Studies that compare street and indoor workers, using well-constructed, purposive samples, find substantial and sometimes huge differences in victimization rates. In addition to street-indoor differences in ever being victimized, similar disparities have been documented in the frequency and severity of victimization.
This does not mean that off-street work is risk-free: Indoor work in the Third World, for example, is typically conducted under harsher conditions than in developed countries. Still, there is no doubt that indoor settings are generally safer than the streets: Indoor workers and their managers are in a better position to screen clients prior to contact; they may work in a place with video surveillance and alarm systems and if they work with others, can rely on colleagues to intervene in the event of trouble with a client.
Street and indoor prostitutes also differ in the services they provide. Street workers spend little time with customers and conversation is kept to a minimum. Indoor interactions are typically longer and richer and include conversation, foreplay, nonsexual intimacy, and a semblance of romance. Studies also show that escorts and brothel workers are much more likely than street workers to receive a massage, manual stimulation, or oral sex from their clients (Lever and Dolnick 2010; Woodward et al. 2004). Some indoor workers expect such conduct from clients as a routine part of the encounter. For them, the experience revolves around both party’s sexual pleasure.
Like other jobs, prostitution does not have a uniform effect on workers’ psyches and self-images. Research indicates, as one would expect, that street prostitutes are much more likely than both nonprostitutes and indoor sex workers to exhibit psychological disorders and low self-esteem. The stress and danger associated with street work contribute to psychological problems.
A comparative study of 75 streetwalkers and 75 call girls in California and 150 legal brothel workers in Nevada found that 97% of the call girls and 50 % of the brothel workers reported an increase in self-esteem after they began working in prostitution, compared only 8 % of the streetwalkers (Prince 1986, p. 454). And an Australian study found that half of the 102 call girls and 103 brothel workers interviewed felt that their work was a “major source of satisfaction” in their lives, while 7 out of 10 said they would “definitely choose” this work if they had it to do over again (Woodward et al. 2004, p. 39). A majority of indoor workers in other studies similarly report that they enjoy the job, feel that their work has at least some positive effect on their lives, or believe that they provide a valuable service. Self-esteem and job satisfaction are higher at the mid and upper levels of prostitution because of workers’ higher education, greater income, control over working conditions, and better screening of clients.
Sex workers do not necessarily confine themselves to one type of work for their entire career. There is some occupational mobility. Some strippers and porn performers, male and female, engage in paid sexual encounters with their fans. It is rare, however, for workers to experience substantial upward or downward mobility. Transitioning from street work to the middle and top echelons is quite rare, because most street workers lack the education and social skills associated with upscale work.
The studies reviewed here provide strong evidence contradicting some popular myths as well as the oppression paradigm in academia. While certain factors are universal (minimizing risks, managing client behavior, coping with stigma), other work-related experiences, as well as the harms typically associated with prostitution, vary greatly. The prostitution market is segmented between the indoor and street sectors – marked by major differences in working conditions, risk of victimization, and job satisfaction and self-esteem.
Male And Transgender Prostitution
Most theory and research centers on female prostitutes. Transgender prostitutes rarely have been studied, whereas male prostitutes have attracted somewhat more attention from scholars. The limited research points to both similarities and differences between the three types. Like women on the street, young male street prostitutes often enter the trade as runaways or to support a drug habit. Like mid-and high-end female workers, men working at those levels have at least some regular clients and may develop emotional attachments to them. And, like female workers in the mid-and upper-level tiers, similarly situated men are more likely than their street counterparts to view their work positively (Minichiello et al. 2001; West 1993). Uy et al. (2007) found that a sample of male escorts felt desired and validated as a result of being generously paid for sex; their self-confidence and body images improved the longer they sold sex.
Gender makes a difference in the following areas. Compared to women, men:
- Are less likely to be coerced into prostitution, to have pimps, and to experience violence from customers because males are able to exercise greater physical power over customers
- Exercise greater control over their working conditions
- Are less stigmatized within a sector of the population (the gay community) but more stigmatized in the wider society because of the combination of prostitution and homosexual behavior
Too little is known about transgender sex workers to draw even tentative conclusions along these bulleted dimensions. However, transgenders do face greater challenges than both female or male prostitutes: They have higher HIV infection rates, “usually have the least desirable prostitution location, make the least money, and are stigmatized and ridiculed by non-transvestite male and female prostitutes” (Boles and Elifson 1994, p. 85). Transgender sex workers are also more likely than males to be assaulted or raped while at work. Many male transgenders conceal from customers that they are not biological women, increasing the chances of altercations with deceived clients. Other customers expressly seek out transgenders who appear to be women but are anatomically male – something the customer may find “kinky” or thrillingly transgressive and allowing them to have the “best of both worlds” physically and sexually. This dynamic is unique to transgender sex workers and their customers.
A Brazilian study reported that for transgender sex workers, prostitution was the only sphere of life that enhanced their self-image: Prostitution gave them a “sense of personal worth, self-confidence, and self-esteem” (Kulick 1998, p. 136). They sold sex not only for the money but also for emotional and sexual fulfillment. In a San Francisco study, researchers discovered that “sex work involvement provided many young transgender women of color feelings of community and social support, which they often lacked in their family contexts.” Another advantage was that sex work gave these individuals a “sense of independence and non-reliance on others (i.e., managers, co-workers) who might express discrimination or harassment” (Sausa et al. 2007, p. 772). Sex work was one of the few arenas in which they could shield themselves from societal rejection.
A significant number of men have bought sex. The General Social Survey reports, in ten polls from 1991 to 2008, that 3–4% of American men had paid for sex in the past year and 15–18 % saying they had paid for sex at some time in their life. Similar figures are reported for Australia (16 %) and the average within Europe (15 %) (Rissel 2003). The real numbers are likely higher given the stigma involved in revealing such conduct. The majority of customers appear to have bought sex only once or a few times, while a minority are repeat or frequent clients.
Customers vary demographically (e.g., age, social class, marital status) just like the wider male population: A study comparing a large sample of customers with a nationally representative sample of American men found few differences between them (Monto and McRee 2005). Most clients do not act aggressively or violently: There is “no evidence to suggest that more than a minority of customers assault prostitutes” (Monto 2010, p. 243).
Customers buy sex for very different reasons:
- They desire sex with a person with a certain demeanor or physical appearance (e.g., physique, race, transgender).
- If they have a regular partner, they may be unsatisfied with the sexual dimension of their relationship and seek satisfaction elsewhere.
- They have difficulty finding a partner for a conventional relationship.
- They find this transgressive conduct thrilling.
- They seek to exercise control over or violence against women and act out this desire by targeting prostitutes because of the ease of access and belief that they will not report abuse to the police.
- They want to be free of the obligations of a conventional relationship.
- They seek an emotional connection in addition to sex.
A survey of 1,342 customers in three cities found that 41 % sought “a different kind of sex than my regular partner” wants, 43% said that they were “excited by the idea of approaching a prostitute,” 42 % said they “like to have a variety of sexual partners,” 42% said they “like to be in control when I’m having sex,” and 28 % said they did not want the responsibilities of a conventional relationship (Monto 2010).
Some clients are motivated by the possibility of forming a short-or long-term relationship with a sex worker. This is particularly evident in tourist locations, such as Thailand, the Philippines, and the Caribbean, where Western men meet dancers or bargirls at nightclubs and pay a bar fine to leave the club with a woman. They may spend a night or several days together (perhaps visiting tourist sites) with the man paying for the woman’s time or for all expenses. Some of these men become boyfriends and enter into long-term or serial relationships, sending gifts and money from overseas and reuniting on return visits. Many of the women and some of the men are consciously seeking a long-term relationship, and some end up marrying. The women see such associations as a means of securing upward social mobility. A similar dynamic occurs among some gay tourists and male prostitutes, where paid sex can evolve into a protracted boyfriend relationship (Padilla 2007).
Some recent research sheds light on customers’ experiences during paid-sex encounters. In addition to those Internet websites where workers advertise (sites listing services and prices, biographical sketches, photos, etc.), some websites contain message boards for clients. These sites provide novices with information on what to expect in prices and services, client “reviews” of a specific worker (appearance, behavior), location of establishments, and other useful information and accounts of personal experiences. The sites provide unique insight into customer expectations, justifications, and conduct norms – dimensions addressed only partially in previous interviews and surveys. Derogatory comments about certain providers are made in some online entries but others lavish praise on specific workers. And many of the cyber exchanges among men draw from a code of ethics for consumers: discussing inappropriate behavior toward sex workers, with warnings for misogynists, those seeking underage workers, and other deviants. Internet forums offer a unique window into customers’ experiences, the meanings they attach to prostitution, and a new subculture.
Many clients of indoor workers seek more than sex. They also want a provider to be attentive and friendly; to engage in conversation; and to kiss, cuddle, and be otherwise affectionate. This kind of treatment has long been sought by customers of indoor workers, but recently, it has acquired a new label – the “girlfriend experience” (GFE), which borders on what one would expect from a girlfriend or the “boyfriend experience” for clients of male prostitutes. One study found that customers’ online entries focused on nonsexual aspects of the GFE to a greater extent than on a sex worker’s physical attributes or sexual performances (Sharp and Earle 2003). For some clients, the GFE is more physical and means that the sex is not mechanical but instead is experienced as “making love.” Many customers value reciprocity: They are interested not only in satisfying themselves but also in giving a sex worker pleasure. Such clients, as well as those who seek emotional intimacy and companionship, challenge the oppression paradigm’s assumption that commercial sex inherently involves objectification. Indoor clients in one study did not view sex workers as “targets of sexual conquest” or “simply as bodies”; instead, these men were paying for a meaningful, personal connection with a woman (Sanders 2008, p. 98).
Research shows that many have had very good paid-sex experiences and feel that their encounters have enhanced their lives. Others, however, have had negative feelings: They fear discovery, feel shame or guilt, or are dissatisfied with a particular encounter because of awkwardness, performance problems, being rushed, or feeling that they did not get what they paid for. Others feel embarrassed about paying for sex, fear contracting a disease, or fear being caught by wives, girlfriends, or the police.
Like any service occupation where workers spend an extended amount of time with clients, indoor sex workers view different clients differently. They like some clients tremendously and despise others and are indifferent to yet others. Some customers are demanding, belligerent, and difficult to handle; this does not appear to be the norm among clients of mid-and upper-echelon providers because they can be more selective. In one study, “most call girls have not had bad experiences, and more often than not, they have positive things to say about their customers” (Perkins and Lovejoy 2007, p. 112). As one call girl stated, “The only way I can sustain regulars is if I actually like them and I may like them for different reasons…. A number of my clients are intelligent men who are well informed and can carry on a stimulating conversation” (quoted in Perkins and Lovejoy 2007, p. 63). Bernstein (2007, p. 103) describes this as “authentic (if fleeting) libidinal and emotional ties with clients, endowing them with a sense of desirability, esteem, or even love.” This is certainly not true for all indoor prostitutes, as some maintain strict affective boundaries to avoid developing strong feelings for their clients: They engage in “counterfeit intimacy” – nothing more than a manufactured emotional connection that only appears to be a GFE.
It might be assumed that all customers would prefer to buy sex services indoors because these settings are associated with greater safety, hygiene, a more pleasant atmosphere, and a much lower risk of being arrested by the police than what is typical of street-level sex. Some indoor places, such as brothels and saunas, offer other kinds of recreation in addition to sex, such as a bar, karaoke singing, stripping, and gambling – attractions that clients may value as much as the sex for sale. Many clients indeed feel this way, but others prefer the streets. Streetwalkers may be preferred because of easy access and low prices, and some men get a thrill out of cruising for sex. These men are not seeking a GFE; the brevity of street transactions means that conversation is minimal and an emotional connection either impossible or rather truncated. Other clients would never consider buying sex on the street, because they are seen as dangerous places.
What about female customers? Little is known about this but it is a much smaller market than that catering to male clients. Vacation spots are one setting in which women may buy sex from men. In the Caribbean, for instance, affluent European and North American female tourists meet young local men on the beaches and at clubs (Phillips 1999; Pruitt and LaFont 1995; Taylor 2001). The similarities between male and female sex tourism include the economic inequality between buyer and seller. In both cases, local people may have few other options for earning the kind of money they can get from selling sex, while the foreign client comes from much more advantaged circumstances. Aside from this fundamental structural pattern, it is not known whether female sex tourists differ significantly from the male tourist/female provider type in terms of objectification of the worker, amount or type of exploitation, and the exercise of control over the workers. Finally, almost no research has been done on commercial sex transactions in which both parties are women. What differences, if any, are there between this type of exchange and transactions where both parties are men? Comparative research would help to clarify the ways in which gender differences affect the dynamics of commercial sex exchanges.
Most research focuses on either sex workers or customers, ignoring third parties. Much more research is needed on the dynamics of recruitment, socialization, surveillance, exploitation, coercion, and trafficking. The findings will contribute to a more comprehensive picture of diverse power relations, ranging from those types where workers experience extreme domination to those where they exercise substantial control and are free of mistreatment.
While many prostitutes work independently, others are managed by or involved with third parties. A manager is someone who exercises control over a worker and extracts some or all of the profit. This includes street pimps and those who run brothels, massage parlors, and escort agencies. Some management practices are consistent with those of any other business, while other aspects are unique to a sexually oriented and marginalized business. Workers generally expect managers to screen customers and act as allies, defending them against problem clients. But managers vary in the extent to which they live up to these expectations. Some provide the bare minimum of amenities to their workers, are lax about health and safety, favor certain employees over others, or treat all of their workers very poorly; others have collegial relations with their employees, rigorously screen customers, and generally take pains to ensure safe and healthy working conditions.
These different patterns are illustrated in a small but important body of research, including Heyl’s (1977) study of the training of novice workers in one American brothel, Zheng’s (2009) ethnography of erotic karaoke bars in a Chinese city, Trotter’s (2008) ethnography of bars in the harbor areas of South Africa, where the bar girls cater to foreign sailors, Steinfatt’s (2002) analysis of bar prostitution in Thailand, and Perez-y-Perez’s (2003) participant observation in three New Zealand massage parlors. Each researcher documents the ways in which managers control, support, or exploit workers, and act as brokers between workers and customers. Like other businesses, the managers also deal with external forces, such as the police, political officials, and local residents when they attempt to intervene in the affairs of the establishment – for example, demanding bribes or free sex, imposing new restrictions on how the business operates, or calling for the place to be shut down. Middlemen are a different and unique third party, connecting sex workers with clients. They offer a vital service where direct client access to workers is hampered. For instance, middlemen in towns along transnational highways get paid by long-distance truck drivers who need interpreters and brokers to find a local prostitute; the middlemen recommend specific women based on the drivers’ preferences and protect both the clients and the workers from robbery, assault, or reneging on agreed-upon services. These are some of the ways that third parties organize and manage prostitution.
The legal context governing prostitution can be considered a critical variable, but most research has been conducted in nations where prostitution is prohibited. This means that what we think we “know” about prostitution may be distorted by the heavy focus on criminalized prostitution. The few existing studies of legal prostitution systems indicate that many of the harms often associated with prostitution are partly due to its illicit status. Where it is illegal, prostitution is set apart from legitimate work, workers are marginalized, and the authorities provide little if any protection. Legalization has the potential of alleviating these problems. And the fact that prostitution is legal and regulated in several nations shows that there are alternative prisms through which a population can view prostitution, perhaps including somewhat different moral universes within which this and other kinds of vice are regarded. It is possible, therefore, for this type of deviance to become at least somewhat normalized, as is true for some other vices, in the aftermath of legalization.
Certain kinds of prostitution are legal and regulated by the government in many more nations than is commonly thought, including the Netherlands, New Zealand, Australia, and Germany. It is technically illegal yet tolerated and even regulated in some other places, such as Belgium and Thailand. Regulations vary from place to place, but a common objective is harm reduction. Depending upon the nation, the law may give workers labor rights and provide for the screening of brothel owners and the licensing and taxing of their businesses; regulations may govern how establishments operate, dictate their size and their signage, and impose safe sex and other health requirements (Weitzer 2012).
The available evidence suggests that prostitution, when legalized and regulated by the government, can pay dividends although this is certainly not guaranteed. Nevada legalized prostitution in 1971 and currently has about 30 brothels scattered around its rural counties (but not in Las Vegas and Reno). These legal brothels “offer the safest environment available for women to sell consensual sex acts for money” (Brents and Hausbeck 2005, p. 289). Research on other legal prostitution regimes finds similarly that they tend to increase sex workers’ safety (Weitzer 2012). In most of these cases, brothels have implemented screening procedures, surveillance, panic buttons, or listening devices that reduce the chances of abuse by customers and allow for rapid intervention in case of trouble.
Legalizing prostitution is one thing; implementing and enforcing regulations in accordance with the new law is another, and it has presented serious challenges in many nations post-legalization. Some of the common problems include difficulties in getting prostitutes and business owners to comply with the law, eliminating parasitical third parties such as pimps and traffickers, and dealing with continuing opposition from a segment of the public that wishes to tighten restrictions or repeal the law entirely. We are just beginning to identify regulations that work well and those that are problematic, and policymakers continue to grapple with unforeseen challenges in governing a legal prostitution sector. There are some exceptions to these teething problems, such as Nevada and New Zealand, where the aftermath of legalization has been relatively smooth, but elsewhere (e.g., Germany, Australia, the Netherlands), the implementation of legal arrangements has been buffeted by a host of problems, including the simultaneous growth of illegal prostitution in tandem with the legal sector – a two-tiered situation that has been difficult to resolve (see Weitzer 2012). Such problems are not unique to prostitution post-legalization but apply to other vices as well, as illustrated by the recent challenges posed by legalized medical marijuana in the United States.
The literature is heavily weighted toward studies of street prostitution, female sex workers, and illegal prostitution. To facilitate a more balanced and comprehensive picture, a major shift in research is needed – investigating indoor sex workers of all types, male and transgender providers, managers, and legal prostitution systems. Research in these areas will enhance our understanding of sex work and its polymorphous character.
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