Sex Work: Labour, Mobility, And Sexual Services

Sex Work: Labour, Mobility, And Sexual Services

Authors:  JaneMaree Maher, Sharon Pickering, and Alison Gerard
Publisher: London; New York: Routledge, 2012.  166p.
Reviewer: Samantha Majic | May 2013

As it’s title implies, Sex Work: Labour Mobility and Sexual Services is centrally concerned with sex workers’ mobility. But unlike predominant public and policy discourses focused only on sex workers’ mobility as it relates to exiting the sex industry, these authors consider this within the sex industry (between legal and illegal sectors), between regulated and unregulated spaces, and across state and national borders. Drawing from extensive interviews with sex workers in Melbourne, Australia to examine how they negotiate their labor in relation to existing local and border regulatory systems, and to changing conceptualizations of sex, intimacy and embodiment, Maher, et al. argue that understanding mobility is central to understanding sex work as an everyday practice, as a regulatory site, and as part of a global employment sector.

The authors frame their research within broader trends in human mobility, noting that the twenty-first century is shaped by changing family relations, alterations in the global economic order (towards service work), technological changes that facilitate more rapid travel and communications, and shifting notions of sex, sexuality and intimacy. Sex work then, operates and exemplifies key intersections of these trends yet, as the authors indicate, “in global markets and across national borders, ideas of workers’ vulnerability and trafficking dominate regulatory and enforcement responses, while the economic imperatives created by global inequalities and global markets that fuel sex work remain unaddressed” (p.10).

To illustrate how, within this broader frame, sex worker mobility is shaped, Chapter Two first situates sex work as work by showing that women’s decisions are shaped by local employment options, and within a broader context where feminized labors are devalued. Chapter Three then turns to examine the micro-practices of sex work, illustrating how female sex workers deploy various strategies to manage intimacies that arise with their clients. Next, Chapter Four situates sex workers’ individual health decisions and practices in the state of Victoria to show how the state mainly focuses on surveillance (for disease, for example), as opposed to promoting occupational health and safety more broadly. Chapter Five then turns to examine the regulation of sex work locally and globally, and how the punitive and protective imperatives of these efforts both support and limit women’s autonomy (and, hence, mobility). Chapter Six addresses the intersection of sex work, gender and migration. The conclusion then returns to the local-global nature of sex work, and how this shapes women’s mobility therein.

Sex Work provides a thoughtfully researched and carefully argued intervention into a broader public discourse about sex work, and in so do doing, the authors provide a model for other scholars conducting similar research. Sex work, while a highly globalized phenomenon, is also a very local practice. By conducting a case study of a particular region, the authors were able to provide great detail about a particular regulatory context and set of worker experiences. Arguably, the authors’ research benefited from (and was facilitated by) the fact that certain types of sex work are legal in Australia; this undoubtedly made certain research activities (such as recruiting interviewees and having them speak openly) more feasible than in regimes where sex work is criminalized. Therefore, to help other scholars conduct such high-quality research it would have been helpful to see more detail (in one dedicated section) about the authors’ sampling and recruitment methods (and some overall statistics about their interviewee sample).

By framing their data in relation to the issue of mobility, the authors highlight sex workers’ agency, but they do so in a way that does not simply re-hash (tired) debates about sex workers that dichotomize them as either “duped innocents” or “rational actors.” This is important because while many sex workers, scholars and members of the public are well aware that sex work is a multi-sited and varied practice, the mainstream media—notably in North America and Europe —have excessively focused on and conflated sex work with slavery and human trafficking. Although the authors do not deny that violence and exploitation may be part of some women’s sex work experiences, by positioning the activity as one shaped by broader socio-cultural, legal and economic factors, they broaden the discussion to encompass labor mobility issues more broadly.

This attention—and sensitivity—to sex workers’ positioning was especially apparent in Chapter 2, where the authors present data from interviews with students and women with children who decided to engage in sex work. Through the many interview vignettes, they show that within a broader context where feminized labor is largely devalued, the women they interviewed moved into sex work because it offered flexible, well-paying work that would enable them to care for their children and/or complete their studies. As Merry, a local student and worker stated, “I study full time, so these hours suit me because I get good working hours and the pay is really good. I’m not limited” (p.46). At the same time, the authors were careful to not glorify this work either, and they show that for many of the women they interviewed, stigma still looms large, even when sex work is legal.

In addition to presenting a more complex picture of sex workers’ decisions and working conditions, the authors also provide a more nuanced view of sex workers’ clients. Many mainstream media and policy discussions commonly characterize male clients (and managers, for that matter) as universally predatory and exploitative of workers. Sex Work, however, presents data showing that many sex workers viewed clients as individuals with whom they transacted who, oftentimes, merely paid them to have a conversation. Other times, however, the clients demanded unprotected sex, or became violent. Yet the sex workers were not passive in these situations, and their capacity to maneuver here was often shaped by workplace protections (such as emergency buzzers), or managers who were more or less receptive to their demands for safety.

Outside of the workplace, Sex Work must also be commended for its attention to how broader laws and regulatory practices also shape sex workers’ mobility and, by extension, agency. Oftentimes, these policy efforts are limited because of regulators’ ambivalence about sex work’s occupational desirability. As a result, health regulations, for example, focus on (excessively) testing sex workers (but not their clients) in the interest of “disease prevention.” It is therefore up to individual sex workers to manage their more holistic health needs on their own. And the broader licensing scheme (explained in Chapter Five) has left both sex workers and brothel owners frustrated by the lack of service that they receive from government agencies in exchange for their fees.

To complete their account of sex workers’ mobility, the authors conclude with guidance for how to understand and conceptualize sex work in other places. In Chapter 6 they propose that as opposed to considering sex work and mobility as a form of human trafficking, scholars and advocates alike would benefit from framing it as a “migration project” to reflect the diversity of women’s migratory experiences as sex workers. In fact, they demonstrate that sex workers across the globe move for many of the same reasons as other workers—most notably for remuneration opportunities—and understanding this helps promote broader conceptions of sex work as work.

Sex Work’s major strength is its attention to the relationships among actors, structures, and institutions, but as I completed the book, I wanted to know more about how the relationships—and the power dynamics in particular—between sex workers and the owners and regulators of sex businesses shape mobility. Although the authors touch on this in various chapters (for example, in their discussion of how sex workers’ negotiate client pressures to perform risky sexual practices), it would have been interesting to hear more about this in a dedicated section.  It seems that these interpersonal interactions would also shape sex workers’ prospects for mobility (especially, as one may presume, the mostly male owners have significant power in comparison to their largely female workforce). But even in light of this question, Sex Work is, overall, a must-read for sex workers, scholars and activists who are concerned with the sex industry, as well as with issues of sexuality, labor and mobility more broadly. 

Samantha Majic, PhD is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at John Jay College/CUNY.

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