Weitzer and Prostitution Research

Ronald-WeitzerWeitzer, R. (2005) New directions in research on prostitution. Crime, Law and Social Change, 43, 211-235.

Ronald Weitzer is one of the biggest names in sex work research, and his article ‘New directions in research on prostitution‘ from 2005 is one that is very often cited in sex work debates. He’s published quite an impressive collection of books, studies and articles actually. Really cool. Oh and he works as a professor at George Washington University. Imagine having him as a teacher, how awesome would that be.

Anyway, a little information on scientific publications. Some articles report on a specific study done by that researcher. For example, last week I discussed the article by Wismeijer where the research team itself had contacted research subjects, administered tests and interpreted the data, and the article intends to present those findings to the world. But that’s not the only type of article that gets published in scientific journals. Another type of article is the review article, which does not cover original research but instead tries to make sense of a whole collection of already published articles. This is good for a variety of reasons:

  • It gives you a good summary of a lot of what we know about that topic at that time. Say, for example, I want to know the latest developments in the research on panic disorders. By reading a review article I get a good sense of what’s been found, and because scientists cite their sources I can look up the details if I want to.
  • It helps figure out of certain aspects of a topic are under-represented in research. By looking at lots of studies done on a topic and putting it all together it’s easier to see what knowledge we’re still missing.
  • It helps build a more coherent theory on that topic. It’s great when a single study finds that of the 20 sex workers interviewed in that study 18 like their job, but combine that with all the other studies and we might get a more holistic and nuanced idea of the realities of sex work.

So Ronald Weitzer begins by explaining why the dominant theory on sex work, radical feminism, is inadequate. Radical feminism starts with an obvious anti-prostitution agenda, which defines all forms of sex work as sexual violence. You can’t really investigate if sex work is violence if you consider all sex work violence because then obviously you’re going to find sexual violence because that’s how you define sex work and you’re not exactly investigating anything now are you. Other problems with this theory is that it is blind to any variation in prostitution experiences, it’s completely a-historic and makes generalising, essentialist claims that are not at all supported by evidence. It denies any agency of sex workers except when they leave the sex industry and uses a language that does not seem to be fitting. For example, radical feminists use the term ‘prostituted woman’ when prostitutes almost unanimously prefer ‘sex worker’. We need a more sophisticated, comprehensive model of prostitution.

Variation in prostitution

Almost all research is done on the least prevalent form of prostitution: street prostitution. These findings are then often generalised to all forms of sex work and that’s a bit of a problem, because it seems the prostitution market is very segmented between indoor and outdoor workers.

Of indoor workers:

  • 1% were beaten. Yes. One percent.
  • 2% were raped (compare that to the average population..)
  • 30% of call girls received a non-sexual massage from their most recent customer
  • indoor workers had the same physical health, self-esteem, mental health, and quality of their social networks as non-sex worker women
  • 97% report an increase in self-esteem since starting sex work
  • 75% feel their lives have improved after beginning sex work

And the list of wonderful happy findings goes on and on. But street-based sex workers, especially when they have drug-related problems, aren’t doing as well. And that’s an important finding, because that means that we have to figure out what’s going on with street workers. It’s obviously not the sex work itself that’s doing the harm, so how can we understand these findings in a broader context?

Male and transgender prostitution

Almost all research is done on female prostitutes, while male and transgender sex workers are often overlooked. What research so far suggests:

  • men are often involved in prostitution in a more sporadic and transitory way
  • men seem to be less likely to be coerced or forced into prostitution than women
  • male workers can view their work as another form of recreational sex, and seem to experience more sexual gratification from their work
  • male workers are less likely to be harassed or arrested by police than female workers, partly because of police homophobia which tends to discourage contact with male workers
  • transgender workers face greater difficulties than cis-male or even cis-female workers
  • transgender workers do not differ from cis-male and cis-female workers in their level of satisfaction with the work
  • prostitution often gives transgender workers “a sense of personal worth, self-confidence, and self-esteem”

Customers

Customers are by far the largest group in the sex work industry, but are rarely studied. Research so far has suggested:

  • customers wish to buy a sexual service.
  • they look for providers who are friendly, conversational, kiss and cuddle, with elements of romance and intimacy. Not just mechanical sex.
  • arrested customers often feel that visiting prostitutes has caused them troubles and report that they didn’t enjoy sex with prostitutes. Arrested customers, yes.
  • a majority of customers hold the same sort of beliefs the general public holds about prostitution: that prostitutes have pimps, don’t like men and don’t like their work
  • 8% would approve of their daughter becoming a prostitute
  • we know seriously next to nothing about female customers. As in, shockingly little. But we do know they exist.

Managers

Not all prostitution is organised by third parties, for example independent escorts and street workers often work by themselves. But a lot of sex workers do have someone who has some control over their work and extracts some of their earnings, they have some form of management. People familiar with the sex industry will probably think of (often female) managers of brothels, but there’s hardly any research on these managers and the little we have is usually done on (often incarcerated) street-level management, a.k.a. pimps.

This is not covered in the article, but it’s important to note that the term ‘pimp’ is an extremely stereotypical and racist term. We all ‘know’ what a pimp is: a black man with lots of bling bling who beats his ‘bitches’ when they don’t make enough money. Research mirrors this.

Studies so far suggest that street-level management (pimps) are often abusive towards workers. They offer very little protection, but become violent when one of their workers talk to another pimp. On the other hand, findings suggest that indoor workers are often very happy with their management. There is very little known about sex trafficking, partly because trafficking and voluntary migration to do sex work are so often lumped together.

Much more research is needed on the dynamics of recruitment, socialization, surveillance, exploitation, coercion, and trafficking. Such findings will help to provide a more elaborate model of varying power relations in prostitution, ranging from those types where workers experience extreme domination by managers to those where workers experience little exploitation and no coercion. (page 229)

Conclusion

Almost all research has been done on female street workers, arguably one of the absolute smallest groups in the sex industry. This has resulted in a distorted and unbalanced picture. We need more research on indoor workers, male and transgender workers, customers and managers.

Additional research in these areas will also have important theoretical implications, allowing for the development of more sophisticated theories that avoid the pitfalls of one-dimensional perspectives like radical feminism.

Weitzer, R. (2005) New directions in research on prostitution. Crime, Law and Social Change, 43, 211-235.

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