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History of Sex Work

[ 37 ] February 20, 2013 |

Melissa Gira Grant provides an excellent overview of the history of sex work in the United States before about 1920. Highly recommended read.

Comments (37)

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  1. Speak Truth says:

    When is one a “sex worker” and when is one a “whore”?

  2. wjts says:

    I say “willing” in a deliberate pushback against our contemporary ideas about sex, sex for sale and consent: the false premise that no one, and in particular, no woman would sell sex if she had any other options.

    Perhaps I’m wrong (I’m not even remotely up on the sociology of attitudes towards sex work), but it seems to me that two much more common premises about sex work in the U.S. are that the women in question are either too lazy/stupid to get “real” jobs or are so wantonly promiscuous that given that they were going to be having all that sex anyway they might as well get paid for it.

    • Linnaeus says:

      You’re not wrong (at least from what I’ve seen as well, though I am by no means an expert on the issue), but why Grant made that statment is made a little clearer when put into the context of current feminist debate and discussion about sex work.

      • wjts says:

        Yeah. Thinking about it a little more, I suspect that the attitudes I outline are the unreflective conservative view of sex work while the attitude she describes is the unreflective liberal/feminist one. Neither, of course, is particularly apt or useful.

    • nixnutz says:

      I’m not sure that depictions in popular culture are the best indicators of “common premises” but I’m not sure I’ve ever seen either of those portrayed. Prostitutes are almost always portrayed as victims either of deceptive pimps/traffickers or of addiction, with a rise more recently in more positive, “willing”, versions, which still generally get some kind of either tragic or redemptive arc.

      I think they’re portrayed very positively, although “positive” in a way that’s enormously problematic in many dimensions. Of course fiction is the public face of the discussion and that contempt could lie just beneath the surface. Obviously lots of fucked-up attitudes lurk there, but I don’t recognize the particular ones you’re referencing.

    • wengler says:

      I would say that ‘other options’ included minimum-wage McJobs, but those aren’t even fallback options for people anymore.

      It’s simple economics. Sex work can be a very easy job for the money. If you are at all young and good looking, you are looking at around 1000 dollars for a couple hours on the high end of escorting. That is a middle class income for only a couple of hours of work every week.

      The people that can write for a living are usually from a class where these calculations aren’t even a consideration. But really, 80 hours of a degrading, tiring service job versus 2 hours of variable sex with strangers? It’s not much of a contest for those that don’t have qualms about sex.

      • Anonymous says:

        This has been another episode of Proclamations, Dudely.

        • Anonymous says:

          Pardon. Proclamations, Dudely, Middling Class.

          Pro-tip: most sex workers are not “high end” / top shelf / some other dehumanizing bullshit.

          • Dave says:

            Indeed not, but then most anythings are not at the high end of their thing. To deny the agency of the ones that are seems as unreasonable as pretending that there is no such thing as a crack-whore [and if there were, it was her own fault].

            • Anonymous says:

              What in the hell is a crack-whore, really? Anything like a young buck or a welfare queen?

              Who’s denying their agency? Their experiences (safe, clean, completely consensual, probably a bit of fun, very profitable) are not the norm–and that’s perfectly fine.

              wjt wonders above what myth about sex workers is the most insidious. I take the position that the Young, Safe, Clean, White, Female Sex Worker (happy hooker, heart of gold, popular cultural icon), while it describes a tiny sliver of sex workers world-wide, is a particularly undesirable one because it allows people already afforded the greatest privileges to drown out, intentionally or inadvertently, the women, children, and men who don’t share those positive experiences.

              • wengler says:

                I never said it wasn’t a shit job. I just placed it on a spectrum of shit jobs. It would become less shitty if it was legalized and regulated, but whatever. You don’t even think as a guy I can comment, so I don’t really care what you have to say.

        • wengler says:

          If you had a real response, it might be interesting to hear. Instead you don’t even bother with a name. Lame.

  3. Erik the Parrot says:

    We’ll meet again,
    Don’t know where,don’t know when.
    But I know we’ll meet again, some sunny day.

    • MAJeff says:

      JenBob want a pancake?

    • Latin Declension Mynah Bird says:

      *chirp croak chirp*

      GENDER CASE NUMBER
      GENDER CASE NUMBER
      GENDER CASE NUMBER
      GENDER CASE NUMBER
      GENDER CASE NUMBER

      *chirp croak chirp*

    • Erik cares about people who aren’t white and male and the issues that affect them. What a fag, amirite?

      Fuck you, Auto Correct. If I want fucking “emirate,” I’ll fucking type “emirate.”

    • Murc says:

      So is Erik the Parrot best friends with LoomisBot, or are they enemies?

      • Latin Declension Mynah Bird says:

        Bitter enemies. I don’t ever remember the LoomisBot mentioning critical theory, so by bringing it up Erik the Parrot is introducing extraneous, irrational elements into the rigidly-defined merciless logic of the LoomisBot’s programming.

  4. Richard says:

    Interesting article but the reliance on the work of Herbert Asbury is problematic. Asbury’s books are weirdly fascinating (especially The Gangs of New York) but they have absolutely no citations to books, newspapers, etc and its impossible to know how accurate they are.

  5. [...] media, I’ve seen a fair number of things about prostitution today. Erik Loomis points to an interesting history of sex work. Then there’s this Julie Bindel piece arguing that “the Dutch experiment in legalized [...]

  6. Dave says:

    Prostitution/sex-work is so absolutely ubiquitous in the historical record that the question of whether and under what conditions it has been ‘legal’ is of entirely marginal consequence to its reality – although, of course, not to the individual lives of those working under different regimes. It is only the ongoing pretence that it is somehow a marginal and dangerous innovation that is remarkable, and worthy of analysis. There is, after all, a reason they refer to espionage as the ‘second oldest profession’.

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