A Sociological Autobiography: 33 – A Statement on Sex Work

Chronology is not everything, especially in the context of the kind of disjointed fragments that comprise this ‘sociological autobiography’. So I am jumping ahead a few years, the rational being that it makes sense to build on my comments on sex work now rather than later. I have published two main papers since the early 1990s. The first was on ‘sex work stigma’ in 2007 in Sociology. This drew on a small interview-based study I conducted with a snowball sample of a dozen escorts who had travelled to London for a defined period (usually 1-3 months) to bank some money. The second was on ‘health work, female sex workers and HIV/AIDS’ in 2008 in Social Science and Medicine. The intention here was to develop a conceptual frame within which barriers to the delivery of health care for sex workers might be better understood. The principal aim on both occasions was to stress the importance of social structures.

The focus in the 2007 paper was on the salience of social structures for processes of stigmatization, and that in the 2008 paper on the role of social structures in fashioning barriers to effective health interventions. In particular, I emphasized the significance of class-based ‘exploitation’ and state or command-based ‘oppression’ in ‘informing’ (without ‘determining’) cultural norms of shame and blame and their policing and access to health and social care.

A further output from these excursions was a typology of sex workers. I distinguished six career ideal types: (a) coerced (e.g. abducted, trafficked), (b) destined (e.g. family or peers in the trade), (c) survivors (e.g. drug users, debtors), (d) workers (e.g. permanent job), (e) opportunists (e.g. project financing), and (f) bohemians (e.g. casual, without need). If I had any aspirations to completeness, these were dashed when a researcher at the University of Hertfordshire, where I was giving a seminar at the invitation of Hilary Thomas, added that some sex workers offer their services exclusively to ‘disabled’ clients; and so they do.

By this time it was something of a mantra of mine that agency and culture are alike structured but not structurally determined.

I also delivered one of the UCL Lunchtime Lectures on the mythology surrounding sex work in the autumn of 2011. This was and is a great concept: the lectures are given by UCL academics but the brief is to make their research intelligible to the wider community, who on the whole comprise the audiences. People turn up with their sandwiches if the title appeals. When I was invited to talk about ‘sex work today’ to mark World AIDS Day however I hesitated. What concerned me was the implication that sex work and HIV/AIDS were intimately connected. In some parts of the world they are – with 80-90% of sex workers HIV-positive – but not in the UK. Anyway, I overcame my qualms and constructed a personal agenda to set records straight.

The lecture is available on YouTube and on the home page of my website (www.grahamscambler.com) and has been debated on Twitter, so I will here offer the most succinct of summaries of the messages I was hoping to convey. Then I move on to address the nature of the fallout from talks and stances like mine (I was going to write ‘ensuing debate’ but it is far more conflictual than that). My principal messages can be represented as follows:

There is a good deal of research on the sex industry in Britain and overseas. For obvious reasons there are no probability samples of sex workers, however, so we must be cautious. Studies allow us to ‘estimate’ that there are around 80,000 sex workers in the UK. In London, the focus of my talk: 30-40% of the sex workers are men (a phenomenon unique to London among UK cities); 80% work indoors; nearly two-thirds were born overseas; the media age of entry to the industry is 24; drug use is lower in indoor than outdoor workers; and there is currently a declining rate of STIs and HIV.

This research provides an evidence-base for policy formation and implementation at global, regional, national and local levels. The kind of data I cited for London are available for other parts of the UK and across the globe. They should inform policy-making much more than they do currently. The wealthy and powerful should not be permitted to swap policy-based evidence for evidence-based policy. But I also bemoaned the lack of comparative studies. If we could compare female sex workers with, say, secretaries, then we might find that just as many of the latter as the former come from broken families and save ourselves from incautious inferences!

The sex industry between and within nations is varied and its workers heterogeneous. The typology cited above is testimony to heterogeneity with the UK and elsewhere; and individual sex workers can and do switch types of work. Moreover, there are ‘visible’ drug-using women who work the streets and give hand jobs for £30, and ‘invisible’ women escorts who charge £1000 for a night’s companionship.

Stereotypes of sex workers are simplistic, replete with errors of commission and omission. As this heterogeneity suggests, media stereotypes of sex workers contain errors of commission and omission. The street worker is the exception rather than the rule; moreover the street worker is as likely to be a brave and subtle improviser as an out-of-control alcoholic.

Two major discourses have come to dominate discussions of the sex industry: (a) the public health discourse, and (b) the sexual trafficking discourse. A lot of the research into sex work that received funding in the mid-to-late 1980s arose out of a concern that sex workers might be vectors of disease, precipitating the spread of HIV into the ‘respectable population’ (presumably via their respectable clients). They found rates of condom use approaching 100%. Like gay men a little earlier, sex workers were quickly onto the risk of HIV. Why would they not be? The principal risk of HIV, studies showed, was to sex workers themselves. While the condom provided a symbolic barrier with clients, it was intolerable with boy- or girlfriends, who not infrequently had multiple sexual partners …

The public health discourse has contributed to our evidence base and has tended to be open and liberal. Lessons were learned and most public health researchers acquired a respect for sex workers and opposed any attempt to (further) criminalize them.

The sexual trafficking discourse has largely ignored our evidence base and has tended to be closed and oppressive.

The weird admix of radical feminists and Christian and allied right-wingers who emphasize ‘sexual trafficking’ come into another category. Of course there are sex workers – the coerced – who are trafficked (e.g. young girls out of Burma to the brothels of Bangkok). And it occurs in the UK too. But it is rare: the Pentameter operations mounted by the police were a dismal failure, and Nick Mays’ ESRC study found that 6% of women had been either ‘deceived’ or ‘forced’ into selling sex. But those who push the sexual trafficking discourse are resistant to data: they would wish the public to believe that any sex workers born overseas and working in the UK have been trafficked. Their prejudice or ‘moral crusade’ is to legislate for the abolition of the industry (a forlorn hope, as we have seen).

That is enough. I end this important, non-chronological digression with an assertion that seems to me self-evident. It is an obnoxious and unacceptable conceit, a form of abuse, to deny sex workers their agency. Agency, like culture, is structured for all of us, but it is never structurally determined.



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