Good Review for Sex Work Books in Qualitative Sociology

Just wanted to make sure people know about a review essay of four books of interest to sex-industry students and activists. Academics AnneMarie Cesario and Lynn Chancer published it in Qualitative Sociology 32:213–220 (March 2009) – which is a mainstream academic journal in the USA. The essay begins:

When Eliot Spitzer was forced to resign as Governor of the State of New York after revelations that he regularly patronized the elite “Elite” agency, conversations among friends, family and colleagues turned for a while to the topic of prostitution. Suddenly sex work—as many women working in the business of selling sex from the ‘80s onward have preferred their occupation, more respectfully, to be deemed-was central to day-to-day discourse on contentious events in the news. Why, people wondered with understandable incredulity, would a man of Spitzer’s prominence risk his career and reputation by seeing prostitutes, high-paid or not? Even more peculiar, why would a prosecutor-turned-governor, well-known for fighting corruption and advocating stricter penalties for johns, indulge so
hypocritically in the very private activities he sought publicly to decry?

Starting with this incident is useful in several respects for a review essay centered on four works recently published about sex work. For one thing, the fact that prostitution can “bring down” high-level politicians—not only here but in other countries (think, for example, of the 1963 high profile case involving British cabinet minister John Profumo’s connection with a high-class prostitute that led to his resignation)—immediately reveals the complexity of this topic in and outside of sociology. Within our discipline the theorist’s antennae may well be stimulated, and a qualitative researcher’s sociological imagination aroused, by situations that blatantly challenge any easy notion that rational choice and utilitarian self-interest are adequate explanations of human behavior. Rather incidents like Spitzer’s, and the interesting issue of whether sociologists can explain them, encourage researchers to focus on several theoretically and empirically intriguing questions. What keeps men (still, it seems, far more than women) patronizing the sex industry—from prostitution to pornography, nationally as well as internationally, in the fearful age of AIDS and often when sex “for free” with girlfriends and wives may be readily available—to the tune of maintaining and sustaining a multi-billion dollar industry? What does their doing so suggest about unconscious and emotional, as much as about conscious and logical, social/ psychic processes? Then, from the “supply” rather than “demand” side of the two-sided calculus prostitution necessarily entails, why do women and men (for here, though less frequently, both genders are often involved) go to work in this industry? While money is a necessary explanation, feminist writers of the ‘80s and ‘90s have hastened to point out that it may not be a sufficient one. Instead, motivations run a complicated gamut from the stark realities of economics to oscillating dynamics of power and powerlessness,  sometimes sadomasochistically tinged. Take a hypothetical example: a girl whom gender has rendered vulnerable as a child may feel thrilled when, as a grown young woman perhaps working as a dominatrix, she can now hold the reins of power over a man whom desire has rendered dependent at least for a while. Last but hardly least, how can the Governor’s fall from grace be understood without considering how sex and government, legality and illegality, are themselves interrelated? Would Spitzer’s apparently schizoid position, at once prosecutor and now prosecuted, police and policed, have been the same in the Netherlands—if prime minister of Holland, might he also, quite possibly, have had to resign? For how it comes to pass, historically and culturally, that some societies criminalize (the U.S., except in Nevada) while others (Belgium, the Netherlands) legalize prostitution likewise begs investigation—not only but also by Foucault-influenced scholars—into sex, society, marriage, economic, family, politics, and their interrelationships.

The books are:

Sex at the Margins: Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry. Laura María Agustín. London: Zed Books, 2007. ISBN 1842778609, $31.95 (paper), 224 pp.

Temporarily Yours. Elizabeth Bernstein. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007. ISBN 0226044580, $24.00 (paper), 288 pp.

Male Sex Work: A Business Doing Pleasure. Todd G. Morrison and Bruce W. Whitehead (Eds.). Binghamton: Haworth Press, 2007. ISBN 1560237279, $32.00 (paper), 354 pp.

Sex Work: A Risky Business. Teela Sanders. Portland: Willan Publishing, 2005. ISBN 1843920824, $26.95 (paper), 256 pp.

Sorry but copyright law prohibits quoting the whole thing, which anyway occupies seven pages. You must have access to an academic library to get the essay, which I don’t, which is one reason why I didn’t know about this review until now. If you don’t have a friend who can help, contact me via the form in the right-hand column at Border Thinking, where you’ll also find the concluding words from the essay.

One Response

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