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'For me, it's a job': A Discursive Interview Project with Two UK Sex Workers

Scarlett Redman[1], School of Sociology and Social Policy, University of Leeds

 

Abstract

This article addresses the experiences of two women, aged 40 and 45, who work as independent escorts within the UK sex industry. Conducted from the discursive psychological perspective, this research is informed theoretically by related works on sexuality, feminism, stigma and authority. A dominant 'sex as work' discourse is identified; both women focusing upon the relative merits and pitfalls of exchanging sex for money as a considered career choice. Polarised repertoires demonstrate an area drowning in contention and contradiction, particularly with respect to media depiction of prostitution and the women who engage in it. For current discourses to allow (and accept) that sex work can be a choice, the 'stigma' surrounding prostitution needs to be tackled. This article concludes that as long as risks to the individuals speaking out remain high, significant shifts in perceptions and ideology remain problematic, although the circulation of accounts is undoubtedly a step forward.

Keywords: Sex work, attitudes, society, choice, stigma, acting

 

The 'Problem' of Prostitution

In 2006, social worker Yvonne Doyle was suspended from her job following the discovery that she also worked as an escort, advertising on the internet. Her disciplinary hearing resulted in the maximum two-year suspension, citing the reason that her escort work brought into question her suitability to work within social care (Brindle, 2006). Presently, to work as an independent escort in the UK is legal; even overt offering of sexual services is legal, as long as 'periphery' laws related to soliciting, brothel keeping or coercion are not contravened. Clearly, then, the issue is not about the law, but about how prostitution is perceived. Foucault discusses how power, sexuality and punishment are intertwined, detailing how it is 'authority that penalise infractions' (1976: 29), while Nagle elaborates on this, stating that 'our culture uses sexual shame and ignorance for purposes of social control' (1997: 250). In the case of Yvonne Doyle, being an escort in her private life mutated into a judgement which cast her as 'unsuitable' for social services; legality became overshadowed by morality – her punishment served up as career disruption alongside public humiliation.

 

The Dictionary Prostitute Versus the Theoretical Prostitute

The term 'prostitute' is used as both a noun and a verb; a prostitute is a person who 'engages in sexual activity for payment', while to 'prostitute oneself' is to 'put oneself or one's talents to an unworthy or corrupt use for personal or financial gain' (Oxford Dictionaries online, 2010). This latter definition, distinctly hostile, forms the spine of this article; prostitution by definition has negative connotations attached.

In the late nineteenth century, Lombroso (1893) wrote of how prostitutes had a different physiology to 'normal' women, ignoring any interplay of social, cultural and historical structures in relation to paid sex. While this idea of the 'born prostitute' was situated in its time and has since been discredited, two diverging 'ideas' have since stoked the prostitution bonfire: the radical feminist notion that all sex work is inherently violent, pitched against the more liberal idea that the selling of sexual services can be a choice for some women. Advocates of the former argument attest that 'prostitution remains morally undesirable […] because it is one of those most graphic examples of men's domination over women' (Pateman, 1983; Scoular, 2004: 343). This view of prostitution as inextricably linked to oppression removes the agency of the women involved, rendering them passive victims in the sexual transaction. Jeffreys' (1997) absolute refusal to refer to sex workers as anything but 'prostituted' reflects the radical feminist stance that prostitution is not chosen, but inflicted upon a woman by a patriarchal society.

Conversely, a shift towards prostitution as choice reflects a more considered starting point. In the late 1990's, Ussher explored different stories of sexuality, concluding that 'the physical act of sex can have many different meanings or many interpretations' (1997: 103). Another strand of research from the same year opined that

the act of making men pay is, in fact, quite subversive. It reverses the terms under which men feel entitled to unlimited access to women's bodies. Sex workers provide very clear limits on that access, refiguring it on their own terms (Pendleton, 1997: 79).

These ideas encapsulate an alternative view that sex may not have the same value to different individuals, nor can the act of payment for sex be defined purely as abusive. The debate of whether sex can be 'just work' is queried, however, with the idea that 'the labour of a prostitute is qualitatively different from that of other workers' (Brewis and Linstead, 2000: 226). Physical labour aside, the work of O'Connell Davidson presents the challenge that prostitution serves a greater risk to the self-identity of individuals than (almost) all other occupations (Brewis and Linstead, 2000) thereby making simplistic comparisons to other forms of employment problematic.

If these more nuanced stances are to be addressed and that some people freely choose to enter the sex industry, then what role do attitudes and societal perceptions play when exchanging sex for money? This article aims to examine the joint accounts of two female escorts in relation to three areas:

  • How the two women view themselves and their role as sexual service providers;
  • How people in their immediate social circle perceive their job;
  • What impact the macro, societal view of prostitution has upon them as individuals.

 

Participants and their Reasons for becoming Sex Workers

Thelma

Both women adopted pseudonyms for the purposes of anonymity. Thelma entered the sex industry through 'disenchantment with the conventional rat race' and has been a sex worker for ten of the last twenty years. She is 45 years of age and works as an independent escort. Previously, Thelma worked as an administrator and has accounting qualifications. She entered the sex industry first through working in a parlour (two years) before a break of eight years. She then worked from an 'incall flat' (where clients visit sex workers) for two years then left for two years. Thelma returned to the industry, taking up escort agency work for a year, before creating and maintaining her own personal website on the internet, which has been her mode of working for the last seven years. Thelma is currently single though did maintain a long-term relationship while involved in the sex industry.


Louise

Like Thelma, Louise also advertises via her own internet website and has been escorting since 2001. She has been married since 2005 and entered the sex industry while making the transition from a law-based profession to retrain in mental health. 40 years old, Louise first worked for an escort agency (where she met Thelma) before becoming an independent escort. Both women are British born, well educated and hail from middle class backgrounds.

 

Brief Glance at Analytical Framework and Ethics

Plummer recalls that 'when talking about their lives, people lie sometimes, forget a lot, exaggerate, become confused and get things wrong. Yet they are revealing truths' (1995: 187). This research relies upon the recounted experiences and ideas of two women, examining the construction of their joint accounts in relation to how they feel sex work is viewed. A critical discursive psychological framework was chosen as the perspective to be used, primarily because of its focus upon language. Briefly, this perspective comprises the synthesis of traditional Foucauldian 'top down' analysis which examines wider, cultural representations and 'bottom up' analysis looking specifically at discourse practices and nuances of conversation (Horton-Salway, 2007). Prostitution is a topic which straddles the public and the private, from being a social problem to individual choice – this chosen perspective engages how sex work discourses serve to affect those involved.

Gergen and Gergen assert that 'to abandon the discourse would render the accompanying practices unintelligible; without convention of construction, action loses value' (2007: 463). This article looks at how two women discuss 'attitudes' towards prostitution; how their act of offering sexual services for money is viewed by them, by their immediate social circle and by society more widely, hence a discursive interrogation of data seems fitting. For a detailed account of social constructionism, the impact of language and the discursive psychological perspective, see Potter and Wetherell (1987), Burr (1995) and Gill (2000).

This research is governed by the British Psychological Society's Ethical Guidelines and Code of Conduct (2008) and was subject to rigorous scrutiny prior to data collection. Lee's (1993) text 'Doing Research on Sensitive Topics' provided the backbone for approaching the joint interview in a manner that was unlikely to arouse distress or discomfort in the two participants.

 

Analysis

Within critical discursive psychology, three analytical concepts are applied to the data – interpretive repertoires, subject positions and ideological dilemmas. Interpretive repertoires are defined as the 'building blocks' of conversation (Edley, 2001; Horton-Salway, 2007) and are used to construct accounts and arguments, for example constructing escorting as 'fun' or as 'work'. The term 'subject position' refers to the discursive adherence to the idea of identity being fluid, looking at instances of where individuals 'take up' a certain position to meet the immediate demands of the conversation, for example, as daughters or as independent women. 'Ideological dilemmas' relate to how discourses can be contradictory and problematic (Billig, 1988; Horton-Salway, 2007), for example by discussing escort work as 'easy' at one point to then detail quite the opposite later. This article is constrained to offering only a limited breadth of themes, though the dominant points of analysis are detailed below.

 

Interpretive Repertories: Work, Scapegoats and Acting

Sex as 'work'

When recounting reasons for entering sex work, Thelma immediately constructs herself against structural norms, stating 'I really struggle to get up in the morning, in the conventional pattern that other people take for granted' while detailing how previous jobs left her 'either bored by the work being too simple or feeling out of my depth'. Philosophically, she asks of more mainstream work, 'what quality of life is there, what's the bigger picture?' She concludes that 'escorting presents a better lifestyle for me' with emphasis upon the flexibility and freedom of having spare time and being able to march to her own drum. Thelma recognises that 'there are disadvantages to escorting as well, but not nearly so many as with other types of work'.

Louise, too, first entered escorting with a view to improving her work situation. She details disappointment concerning how after 'all that studying for years […] my quality of life was just shit, I was working hideous hours', and wished to retrain in a mental health career instead. Like Thelma, she was attracted by the prospect of having more time, though less emphasis was placed upon the financial side; instead she focused on how escorting would allow her an income sufficient to live on while training for a different career. For both women, it is clear that sex work is seen as just a different form of employment, a replacement for unsatisfactory predecessors. Florida's (2004) discussion of the 'creative class' (Bernstein, 2007: 475) refers to late 20th century 'technologically advanced' urban economies, where middle-class women find themselves disadvantaged in the gendered workplace; economic factors shape their move towards sexual labour. Certainly for both women in my sample, entry into sex work was out of considered choice when weighing up alternatives.

Throughout the joint discussion, accounts of escorting as being easy, difficult, problematic, fun and life-enhancing surface. Louise recalls moments of joyously thinking 'I can't believe I'm being paid for this' while Thelma 'gets treated well', stating than 'if a client is a nice client and you click well, then it's a delight'. However, both talk about the downsides of the intimate nature of their work. Louise openly states she finds one regular client 'physically repulsive' and Thelma alludes to escorting as 'certainly not always a rose garden' because 'you have to put yourself through experiences which are sometimes distasteful, unpleasant and uncomfortable'. The imagery of sex work as 'money for old rope' contrasts with 'sometimes it's like pulling teeth' highlighting the subjective, changeable nature of the work. Following an in-depth ethnography, Sanders notes how 'sex workers [… ] work hard to exploit their femininity, sexuality, bodily capital and emotional labour to provide the customer with his ultimate fantasy, albeit for a few hours' (2005: 142). Thelma and Louise exchange accounts of the efforts they make to ensure they fulfil their clients' requirements, sometimes at the expense of their own comfort, to be elaborated further in the 'sex work as an act' section.

On a more pragmatic level, Louise states that 'for me it's a job, to the client it's an experience' and Thelma agrees that ' you've got to treat it as work' with emphasis placed upon repeat business, good business sense and repetition of sex work as a 'service industry'. Escorting is constructed, first and foremost, as a job to both women.


Prostitutes as societal scapegoats

Contrasting with each individual's appraisal of sex work as 'just a job', both women reveal the myriad of ways in which the societal view of prostitution impacts upon their status as sex workers. The media is discussed as the main point of concern. Thelma states:

Even though things have liberalised over the last ten years or so […] the media just love reporting it, but they will say it is vice, they will always put a twist at the end where they are showing you she's somehow gone bad for it, or come a cropper.

These words spotlight the power of the media to dualistically enable and strangle accounts of prostitution. At a more sinister level, the discourse that sex workers pose a 'disease risk' is discussed, with both women dismayed at this perception of implied recklessness. Sex work and disease share an enduring perceived association, the overarching view of 'prostitutes as a deadly conduit of disease' (Hershatter, 1997; Brewis and Linstead, 2000: 231). Regaling the story of an escort who had to take some time off because of illness, Thelma was shocked at one friend's assertion of 'oh that must be because she's an escort', implying that a sexually transmitted disease was to blame (when it wasn't), serving to support Thelma's assertion that 'it is the hooker that everything can be blamed on'. The idea of trust is raised for both women. Louise's words

Trust is a good issue, somehow along with the disease and the questionable moral values, is untrustworthiness […] whether you can trust this person as a human being, as a colleague, as an anything. Some women think 'oh, she's going to try and seduce my partner'. It's ridiculous really, not unless he pays me!

appear to be a modern day emulation of Goffman's stance that 'we believe the person with a stigma is not quite human' (1963: 15). Both women demonstrate acute awareness of the negative connotations many people attach to prostitution and the attempts to 'shame' female providers and male purchasers for transgressing from the ideology of sex associated with love. Day asserts how 'media images, childhood memories, academic and official reports, and other people seem to assume that sex should not be sold; it belongs to the private person' (2007: 35). Turning sex into a commodity proved problematic for Louise's lifelong friend who 'thought it was wrong, disgusting, immoral […] she didn't want anything to do with my "dirty" money'. Despite this, both women allude to how nearly all of the friends they chose to tell 'have understood' and friendships have continued in the same vein as pre-disclosure.


Sex work as an 'act'

Throughout the discussion, the language of 'acting' is adopted. Louise states that 'you make up the lies that sell the package', with reference to manufacturing a desirable escort identity before adding 'I wouldn't want them to know anything real about me'. Thelma expands upon this, talking of how 'we create the illusion we are something special, but we know we are just us at the end'. The escort 'act' or persona is seen as crucial for clients or experiences deemed to be difficult, detailed by Thelma as 'you're pretending to be happy when you're not […] you are acting' and that for some clients 'it takes all the acting skill in the world'. The women detail the 'act' as crucial in creating 'the fantasy, the suspension of reality, of disbelief'. This idea of acting in the name of creating an illusion often extends to emotional labour, detailed below.

The idea of prostitution involving emotion management is demonstrated in O'Neill's stance that 'emotional labour is a central aspect of women's relationship with the client and involves them in manipulating, suppressing and falsifying their own feeling life in order to do intimate work' (O'Neill, 2001; Sanders, 2005: 143). Both Louise and Thelma corroborate this idea, with Thelma wryly stating that 'I pretend to be caring'. However, sex work simply as an 'act' for a specified amount of time becomes a little more complex when examining Louise's account of staying over the allotted time for the benefit of the client. She muses 'I think, well it's been an hour over time and I really ought to go, but I do think it would be quite hurtful to the guy to say "right, time's up"', thus questioning the business-like transaction of sex for money. This highlights the role of consideration and tact needed in some instances, to ensure the client 'doesn't feel it was just about the money' but also shows a flexibility that would not be present in more mainstream service transactions. Imagine Kwik Fit spending three hours fixing a car but charging only for two or BT not charging for the latter half of a marathon phone call because they don't want customers to think they are only interested in money; sex work as a profession is imbedded within gendered and cultural norms concerning sex, rendering the economic transaction much more complex.

 

Subject Positions; Relations and Independence

Within relationships – as a wife, a daughter, a friend

Thelma and Louise structure themselves within the realm of family and friends and discuss the impact of sex work upon these relationships. Louise talks of her husband and how they are 'quite cosy people' and that neither of them liked being away from each other overnight. She specifically draws upon two identities here, stating how her husband 'sees me as Louise the person, not Esmerelda, my working name'; she later elaborates that 'the fact that I escort isn't his most favourite thing about me'. Joffe (1997) suggests people living with a stigma may 'need to dissociate […] from deviance and associate […] with a societal ideal of exclusivity, represented as coupledom' (Ussher, 1997: 166). It appears both women prefer to have boundaries between their working selves and their private selves; however, once again this simplistic view is problematic in the knowledge that clients can occasionally mutate into partners.

Both women discuss their position as daughters. Louise believes her parents would 'just be so upset' if they found out about her escorting, preferring instead to adopt cover stories of alternative work. Thelma, conversely, decided to inform both parents one Christmas, detailing how 'they were relieved as they thought I was a drug dealer!' While this statement was delivered as an amusing aside, it serves to demonstrate the levels of deception involved with keeping sex work hidden. Thelma's previous attempts to deceive her parents resulted in them drawing false conclusions, based on opinions of friends she mixed with as a younger woman. Once acclimatised to this new information, her mother raised the issue of 'what will you do after this', recognising that sex work may have a shelf life, acknowledged by Thelma that 'every parent wants to see their child has a view to the future, to what's next'.


As a sensible professional in control

Escorting is discussed through the lens of work, professionalism and independence. Both women have their own websites which are used to market their services to the desired target audience. Both women had previously worked for agencies and spoke positively of the shift to being autonomous 'independents', as stated in the words 'we don't need go-betweens any more to organise our work, we don't need anyone who will make decisions about who we should or shouldn't see'. Thelma later goes on to talk of how 'anyone with an ounce of ambition quickly climbs the food chain' and how 'I've used my intelligence and my choices to carve a path' residing in a sector of the sex industry she is most comfortable in. The two women cajole each other on their varied modes and approaches to clients: Thelma states 'I think I give off an aura of expecting to be treated well and therefore I am' to which Louise replies 'it's not an aura, it's spelled out in black and white on your website!' Louise, conversely, sees professionalism a little differently, placing emphasis on concern for client's feelings and well-being over sticking to rigid boundaries of time. Despite their differing approaches, both women construct themselves as in control, capable and equipped to offer intimate experiences to men.

The role of condoms is discussed, particularly against the macro ideology backdrop of prostitutes as reckless. The statements 'escorts are so used to rigorously, religiously using condoms' and are 'far less likely to compromise her sexual health than a "civilian"' frame sex workers as sensible in comparison to non-escorting women. According to Day, this stance of looking after one's sexual health allows sex workers to 'counter the stereotype of "dirty" prostitutes', demonstrating responsibility towards themselves and male patrons (2007: 108).

 

Ideological Dilemmas

Being open versus being cautious

A problem exists between Louise and Thelma's desire to be open, and the need to be cautious when disclosing their status as sex workers. Speaking of bygone days prior to meeting her husband, Louise talks of how she would always tell potential boyfriends, deeming it 'important […] that it was out there'. Thelma too expresses a wish to be open, but counters this with hiding behind the mask of being a book-keeper in the initial stages of a romance. In Sanders' ethnographic study amongst sex workers, all participants in her sample 'said they told lies about their daily activities' (2005: 133). This concealment of information is mirrored in Louise's statement that 'I wouldn't want it to have anything to do with my new career' and that 'no one in my new job knows'. Thelma introduces evocative imagery of information being 'like this great bacteria, spreading' to show the negative and long-lasting impact disclosure can have. Louise extends this, personifying information as 'following' her, 'escaping' and 'coming back to bite' her. The future repercussions of being open about sex work sit awkwardly with both women and sinister depictions of skeletons in closets serve as points of discomfort, aware, as Thelma states, 'that it could act to my disadvantage'.

Worry concerning the spread of information is tied into social perceptions of prostitution. Louise draws upon historical structures and how 'the values that have been in place for millennia are still there, men don't like it when women control their sexuality,' before elaborating upon the role of the media in perpetuating these structures. When discussing specific portrayals of prostitution, she asserts:

The moral of story is – she's made lots of money for herself, she's made lots of money for our media organisation, but, 'don't go there girls, get married, have as many babies as your husband wants'. The moral of the story is, other women should not do this, they should manage their sexuality in the 'correct manner' or have it managed for them.

This sarcastic regaling of gendered constructions within the media appears to be a modern-day replica of Foucault's stance that 'women are bound by their status as wives […] they (are) under his power' (1976: 145). Despite talking about acceptance of sex work in the context of personal relationships, neither woman mustered optimism for a less derogatory societal view for the future.

 

Mutating or Static Perceptions of Sex Work?

Feminists Mauthner, Birch, Jessop and Miller argue against 'moral absolutes', championing instead the role of situated context and 'specific representations' (2002: 48). The two women discussed in this article defy the stereotypical notion of the prostitute as downtrodden, morally destitute and having no other economic options available to them. Moreover, both women have chosen 'situated openness' with regards to their status as sex workers, refusing to shut the information away in a cupboard. Despite this, both demonstrate uneasiness and exasperation at circulating perceptions of prostitution, fearing future repercussions of their choice to engage in sex work.

A recent study by Swansea University (Wales Online, June 2011) looked at a sample of 400 'indoor' sex workers, 'many' of whom had left decent jobs in favour of sex work. This questions the 'effectiveness of current Government strategies, which are attempting to wipe out the sex trade for good' (Hutchinson, 2011). The article details how the internet serves as the enabling medium through which men and women can offer sexual services for money in a relatively anonymous manner, entirely of their own volition. How does this fit with the radical feminist assertion that sex work is inherently violent to those involved? Nagle fumes over how 'sex industry abolitionists are claiming that [...] like small children and dogs, they (sex workers) don't know what's in their best interests' (1997: 180). With this in mind, it would seem pertinent to allow for a multitude of sex-work discourses which accept that prostitution can be both violent and non-violent, coerced and free choice, detrimental and life-enhancing.

This small-scale interview project has skimmed the surface of a topic full of contention, while tentatively suggesting that the portrayal of sex work by the media dictates, on an ideological level at least, how it is regarded as a profession. Both women demonstrated that acceptance of their profession happens fairly readily amongst friends (with the very occasional exception): the challenge, then, is to tackle how sex work is represented and understood at a societal level. However, to conclude at such a simplistic level would mask the many complexities involved with sex as paid work. It may well be as simple as Plummer (1995) purports it to be, that stories need to be told, though this detracts from the risk posed to each individual who has to undertake such storytelling and these risks are not imagined (as the case of social worker Yvonne Doyle attests). It is here the potential problem lies: if story-telling poses such a risk, a cyclical process of stagnation occurs, supporting Parker's words that discourses in capitalist society 'hold in place chains' (2005: 89). Can this divergence between micro- and macro-acceptance be bridged? Louise's assertion that 'people do not want their daughters doing it' is illuminating here. Whether or not this is likely to change, Plummer eloquently surmises 'we are in the middle of a living experiment in rewriting our sexual stories' (1995: 160).

 


 

Notes

[1] Scarlett graduated from the Open University in 2010 with First Class Honours in Psychology, before embarking on an MA in Social Research at the University of Leeds. She was awarded a Research and Teaching Scholarship to commence PhD studies in September 2011.

 

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To cite this paper please use the following details: Redman, S. (2011), ''For me, its a job': A Discursive Interview Project with Two UK Sex Workers', Reinvention: a Journal of Undergraduate Research, British Conference of Undergraduate Research 2011 Special Issue, http://www.warwick.ac.uk/go/reinventionjournal/archive/bcur2011specialissue/redman. Date accessed [insert date]. If you cite this article or use it in any teaching or other related activities please let us know by e-mailing us at Reinventionjournal at warwick dot ac dot uk.