Prostitution in postindustrial societies such as the United States is experiencing dramatic reorganization – sex workers are no longer necessarily the poorest, most marginalized strata, but are instead coming from the more educated middle class. This demographic shift is intricately related to and reflective of a shift in the character of the variety of sexual labour being bought and sold from a quick and dirty sexual release to an authentic experience of sexual intimacy, eroticism, and desire. The unremarkable advertisement of sex workers as providing the girlfriend experience, in which women attempt to provide a level of intimacy typically ascribed to intimate interpersonal relationships, exemplifies a deliberate attempt to fill a growing niche market for the sale and purchase of sexual activity with a greater value than that of traditional prostitution – the additive qualities of intimacy, sensuality and eroticism – to a market of largely overworked professional men.
The rapid shift from public outdoor street prostitution to privatized indoor sex work is actively encouraged by political figures worldwide, who seek to clear regions of public exposure for inner-city gentrification, not necessarily to eradicate solicitation of the new sexual leisure activities. Sex work has experienced dramatic changes in its character in the last twenty years due to sometimes subtle yet highly influential structural mechanisms, such as the rise of post-industrialism and hence subsequent changes in socioeconomic patterns/ economic restructuring, which served to redefine the character of sex work; that redefinition has been termed bounded authenticity by sociologist Elizabeth Bernstein.
I. Postindustrialism, Socioeconomics, & Sexual Commerce
The increase in the depth and extent of service economies in postindustrial societies eases the ability with which women are able to transition into sexual labor using similar models. The emergence of vast, popularized information technologies, which initially expanded in large part due to the influence of sex-related material (VHS, camcorders, DVDs, etc.) has allowed for cell phones and internet to be used for advertising and arranging sexual encounters, which expands women’s abilities to develop their businesses while largely remaining out of the public (and hence legal) eye.
Cultural shifts toward a lessened procreative imperative, especially in high socioeconomic rate cities, is most visible in existing and idealized family structures. As a reflection of the greater theme of postindustrial economic change, it is becoming less ideal or necessary to have children; the nuclear family, non-reproductive couples, and lifetime singles are becoming more common, as is greater recognition and acceptance of other non-procreative relationships. Plastic sexuality, in which sexual encounters are for explicitly non-procreative, recreational pleasure is, in many regions, becoming the expected norm. The idea of companionate sexuality and a more recreational sex ethic exists, according to Bernstein, in a circular manner, as both men and women desire to express sexuality with no strings attached. This leads for sex workers’ clients to the forming a realm of comfortable relationships with them, yet with precisely delimited boundaries as a main component of their participation in commercial sexual encounters. This coincides with a changing ideology of romantic love, as “increasing numbers of young, urban middle-class people are restructuring their intimate lives – either by delaying marriage and childbearing until these are more economically viable options, or by defying the expectations of heterosexual monogamy entirely.” This is an expectation of increased flexibility and reduced permanence in interpersonal relationships, which I argue is the next logical step in a society with a historical legacy of serial monogamy.
A liberalization of non-reproductive, recreational sex has allowed for a shift to more popular support of decriminalization and/or legalization of commercial sex. It is no longer seen as a predominantly moral issue, but instead communities and business owners are simply annoyed with the high visibility and noise disturbances of public solicitation. These communities are instead encouraging law enforcement to increase their focus on clearing visible street prostitution, while decriminalizing the non-visible indoor sex trade.
“Contemporary sex workers are often situated in highly complex ways vis-a-vis axes of domination and subordination (both economically and sexually) and that the forms of oppression they experience within sex work may be less severe than those they experience elsewhere.”
Sex inequalities in employment, even within the middle-classes, disenfranchise women; college-educated women in areas such as San Francisco are placed in the precarious position of inability to attain solid employment positions they are qualified for, (even perhaps especially in the technology sector) often leading them to consider sex work as a viable alternative.
In addition, class inequalities and the shift to what Pierre Bourdieu terms “the new petite bourgeoisie” tends to alienate women from what they feel are their social and educational “rights.” According to this theory, individuals are denied either the qualifications and hence professional employment their social positions imply or their perceived entitled qualifications. Individuals denied these qualifications or employment tend to distinguish themselves via an ethic focused on pleasure and fun, as opposed to the “old petite bourgeoisie” ideals of “upwardly mobile restraint and asceticism.”
The insertion of middle-class women into the sex economy leads to dramatic alterations in the sex work itself through application of new petite bourgeois work ethics, business strategies, and application of social capital. These women not only possess the bodily capital of previous generations of sex workers, but the new addition of a cultural capital that appeals dramatically to their clientele. Cultural capital includes the social knowledge and connections bestowed through higher social status that grants one advantages in the social sphere. The new middle-class sex worker linguistic and educational capital allows for women to utilize of the service economy to receive monetary compensation for labour which was historically provided for free, the ability to utilize technology to advertise and communicate with clients, as well as allowing for personal identification with clients, making them more comfortable and adding to the authenticity of the experience. These reconversion strategies, in which “cultural capital is employed to ‘professionalize’ marginal spaces within the labor market and to invest them with a sense of personal meaning and ethical value” not only encourage the new pattern of continuing sex worker education to advance and expand their sexual skill set, but add to the value of bounded authenticity for both sex worker and client.
II. The Meaning of Sex Work
The new recreational sexual ethic, as opposed to the former relational model, shows a developing preference for clearly defined sexual contact as an alternative to or escape from complicated and messy interpersonal relationships. This reflects relational changes between information and technology and sexual consumerism, as well as social shifts in the private versus public spheres, as it allows for the retained ability to experience very real sexual encounters without the side effects of relationships. This construct is especially important to high-performance professionals with little leisure time and/or little desire to maintain a relationship. Interestingly, this model stands in opposition to the common assumption that clients are by default sexually handicapped or flawed, as it allows for the removal of ambiguity common in personal relationships as to what is appropriate and what will transpire in the sexual realm. Bernstein refers to to this pattern as bounded authenticity, or “the sale and purchase of authentic and physical connection” with predefined limitations. It is not only reflective of, but recursive to the afore-mentioned changing ideology of romantic love and the decline of the procreative imperative, as it focuses on development of enhanced recreational sex outside the family structure and no-strings-attached, clearly defined sexuality.
This new ideal of bounded authenticity has led to the further divide of heterosexual male sexual desire and consumption as both problematized and normalized. A common assumption that male heterosexual purchase of sexual labour serves to fill a need that could or should be fulfilled at home, yet it is becoming increasingly clear that the sphere of commercial sexual labour is often seen as facilitating and/or enhancing private family sex life – it is not necessarily a substitute, but may in fact be a supplement. However, the rise of late capitalism has led to a criminalization of heterosexual male sexual consumption as inner city gentrification leads to similar goals between disparate groups to remove commercial sexual behavior from the visible realm of the streets to the indoor private realm. Collaboration between politicians, businessmen and anti-prostitution feminists to eradicate streetwalking in particular serves to assist in business and tourism development, remove visible aspects of poverty and deviance, and on the surface, leave the appearance of satisfying anti-prostitution feminist goals, though the actual extent of attainment of those goals is debated. In addition, the shift from a product-based to service-based economy has led to a concurrent development in attitudes regarding fault and blame in sexual transactions, causing a social shift in blame of commercial sexual encounters from the (victim or worker) prostitute to the (consumer) client.
Seemingly contrary to the problematization of heterosexual male desire is the simultaneous normalization of male sexual consumption. The viewpoint of non-marital, commercial sex as necessary for full male heterosexual satisfaction has become increasingly accepted. Theories on this matter are split, as some argue it is a response to social power loss due to feminism (i.e.: the need to re-assert dominance somehow), while others theorize that male heterosexual sexual consumption may allow a more intimate sexual exchange than that available in the more complex private realm (i.e.: the market exchange actually enhances the sexual exchange.
Whichever perspective is followed, it follows that there has been a massive expansion and normalization of pornography, especially since the 1970s, and that sexually explicit material is not only becoming a larger and more profitable industry, but consumption of sexual material is becoming increasingly more socially acceptable.
The interaction of both the preference for clearly defined sexual contact as opposed to complicated relationships and development of bounded authenticity as well as the dual redefinition of male heterosexual sexual desire and consumption have pushed for major changes in the character of sex work discussed above, including the movement of sex work into the private indoor sphere, the socioeconomic shift in sex workers to middle class, more educated women, and the naturally following technological shift in sex work.
The structural mechanisms that come with postindustrial service economies have – and continue to – completely transform sex work as the marginalization of women in the social sphere takes on new forms, sex becomes (though arguably it always was) a exchange-for-service Marxist financial transaction, and gentrification along with the new social ideal of the “girlfriend experience” or put more intellectually “bounded authenticity” move sexual transactions into the privatized sphere outside of public observation and surveillance.
- Bernstein, Elizabeth
2007 Temporarily Yours: Intimacy, Authenticity, and the Commerce of Sex
Chicago, University of Chicago Press
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“Sex Work for the Middle Classes”
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2001 “The Meaning of the Purchase: Desire, Demand, and the Commerce of Sex”
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1999 “What’s Wrong With Prostitution? What’s Right With Sex Work? Comparing Markets in Female Sexual Labor”
Hastings Women’s Law Journal 10:91
- Schlosser, Eric
1997 “The Business of Pornography”
U.S. News & World Report 122:5 42