Cultural studies and commercial sex: a form of liberation

Laura Agustín's picture

Much of what is said about the sex industry revolves around a single question: Is it okay or not? This question can be phrased in many ways: Is it okay that prostitution exists? Can street hooking ever be a real job? Is everyone who sells sex exploited or free? To address this question, most people talk about their own experience or that of the people they know personally or did research with, after which they extrapolate to a bigger group. But in the end it’s a question with different answers for different people in different places and moments in their lives.

Although it is appealing to imagine that we could definitively settle the question once and for all, decades of repetitive debate, particularly amongst different sorts of feminists, teach us that the end is not in sight. I (cheerfully) imagine this debate to be eternal, because it addresses key questions about individual autonomy and the extent to which more disadvantaged people have it. In academic circles, students are supposed to work within a discipline, such as sociology, or law. They may pursue interdisciplinarity or some kind of Area Studies but are still meant to use and rely on some specific theoretical framework, such as symbolic interactionism, or feminism, or a specific theorist, such as Foucault.

When I began formally studying (12 years ago), I wandered all over the place, intellectually, trying to figure out where I needed to be. In the early years I ran into academics who derided my ideas because they did not fit into a proper framework - or a proper politics – and the two intersected.

At some point I realised that the great majority of useful research studies were presented defensively: researchers who showed, for their subjects, that it was okay to sell sex felt they had to acknowledge that it is not okay for some other people, and so on. This seemed to me to be a lot of extraneous static.

During the time I was doing all this reading and reflecting, ideas about trafficking in human beings became a major social concern, and rhetoric began to predominate heavily over research studies. All sorts of social actors felt compelled to comment on the connexion between migration and the sex industry, and, despite the complexity of the topic, discussion quickly turned into a version of Is it okay or not? When I gave talks in academic and NGO settings about my various findings, I was often impatiently challenged to provide a solution to the ambiguities – right now! From the beginning, there was a drive to pass laws on trafficking, when really, it was obvious to me, very little was understood about informal migration, the main issue at hand.

In the interests of what might be called pure knowledge, but also in order to provide information on which less clueless rhetoric and ineffective laws might be based, I proposed a new framework for research to be called the cultural study of commercial sex. Cultural studies in the British tradition are concerned with revealing the practices of everyday life: how people do things and how they think about and describe the meanings of what they do. I said in the first article I wrote about it, in 2005

Little work exists in a sex-industry framework, but if we agree that it refers to all commercial goods and services of an erotic and sexual kind, then a rich field of human activities is involved. And every one of these activities operates in a complex socio-cultural context in which the meaning of buying and selling sex is not always the same.

That’s the main point: selling sex isn’t a single thing for all people; it isn’t even a single thing for any one person. Instead, like sex without the commercial aspect, its meaning shifts according to where we are in our lives, where we were before, where we wish we could be. So, logically, the answer to Is it okay? will continurally change.

Some people find my unwillingness to ascribe a fixed meaning to the sale of sex unacceptably relativistic. I decided early on that I could best explore matters of sex and sexuality, and carry out long-term participant observation, by adopting a traditional anthropological stance known as cultural relativism. But having lived in so many different cultures during my life, I already looked at the world that way, and nothing I have discovered during that time or after has changed my mind. Which does not mean that I have no moral feelings myself.

The fact that meanings shift means it won’t be easy to pass effective laws to regulate commercial-sex activities, because there are too many things going on. Too many different experiences are involved, lots of which feel ordinary and everyday to the people involved. When laws try to prohibit or regulate such diversity, people resist. They resist, elude and disobey laws and rhetoric that ignore a myriad of experiences, many of which they know to be okay. We need to know a lot more about all sorts of commercial-sex phenomena before passing more laws about them. I don’t mean we should do nothing but that we can muddle along for the time being with the hotch-potch of laws we’ve already got, while we learn more about what’s going on.

I edited aspecial issue of Sexualities on the cultural study of commercial sex in 2007, and I was careful to make sure that no article in that volume asks or answers the question Is it okay to sell sex? And at Border Thinking I publish all sorts of material that adds to our growing store of information on sex markets. Consider such titles as

The full list of titles makes fascinating reading. I also collect photos, specially those that show how commercial sex sits in the middle of everyday life. The other day I put up some showing European brothels in the daylight.  The sex-industry photo collection currently lives at facebook, but you don’t have to be a facebook member to see it.

Best wishes,

Laura Agustín

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