Prostitutes have often been at the forefront of challenges to gender conventions. Already at the fringes of “respectable society,” by choice or circumstance, these women often have less to lose than others.
The Mardi Gras Baby Dolls are an excellent example. NPR’s Tina Antolini writes that the baby doll tradition began in 1912. That year a group of African American sex workers dressed up like baby dolls and took to the streets to celebrate Mardi Gras.
Calling your lover “baby” had just become part of the English language. Meanwhile, actual baby dolls, the toy, were rare. By dressing up this way, they flouted both gender and race rules. Women were largely excluded from masking for Mardi Gras and African Americans were still living under Jim Crow. Black women, by virtue of being both Black and female, were particularly devalued, sex workers ever more so. Asserting themselves as baby dolls, then, was a way of arguing that they were worth something.
“[I]t had all that double meaning in it,” explains historian Kim Vaz, “because African-American women weren’t considered precious and doll-like.”
It was a bold thing to do and the Baby Dolls carried walking sticks with them to beat off those who accosted them.
Today, honoring those brave women that came before, the tradition lives on in a city with the richest and most creative and unique traditions I have ever encountered. Happy Mardi Gras, Baby Dolls! Have a wonderful day tomorrow!
The term secularization is typically used to describe the process by which something becomes increasingly distant from, irrelevant to, or uninfluenced by religion. But what about religions themselves? Can religions undergo secularization?
Sociologist Jeremy Thomas tested this proposition, looking at changes in how authors writing for the popular magazine Christianity Today frame their opposition to the use of pornography between 1956 and 2010 (article, summary). He compared three anti-pornography frames:
religious (e.g., against the bible, a sin),
harm to others (e.g., performers), and
harm to self (e.g., porn addiction, marital troubles).
Thomas found that the last frame — harm to self — had increasing come to dominate the discussion at Christianity Today. This figure shows the proportion of paragraphs that make each argument. The last frame clearly dominates.
Thomas calls this “outsourcing moral authority”: religious leaders are relying on other authorities to back up their points of view. This suggests that even religion is undergoing secularization.
In many parts of the Western world, Halloween (for adult women, and increasingly for girls too) has morphed into an opportunity or imperative to dress sexy. These costumes for women and girls are par for the course, where men usually go for scary, funny, or creative. Brandi H., however, found a link to “sexy costumes for men” at msn.com that claims “There are sexy options for men, too.”
Let’s take a look. While women’s sexy costumes are typically decidedly sexy (tight with lots of exposed skin), these men’s “sexy” costumes are simply suggestive. In two cases, they “suggest” that men should be sexually serviced or played with (the “breathalyzer” and the “ring toss”):
In a third, the joke is that he is a perfect candidate for casual sex (the “one night stand”):
In a fourth, the costume is simply sexy because it’s related to (stereotypes) about prostitution (the “hustler”):
So, when women go sexy for Halloween, it usually means being seen as a sex object for others. When men go sexy, it means joking about how men should be sexually serviced, have access to one night stands, or being in charge of and profiting from women’s bodies. A different type of “sexy” entirely.
The other two costumes are simply non-sensical in context. I suppose policemen (and men in uniform in general) are supposed to be sexy in American culture. And I guess bunnies are related to Playboy bunnies? But the costume certainly misses the mark.
In this short video, Mitchell Moffit and Gregory Brown of AsapSCIENCE discuss the neurological processes behind porn addiction. High levels of porn consumption, they argue, can create a feedback loop that molds sexual desires and behaviors.
Looking at porn, then, doesn’t just reflect a person’s existing desires and preferences; it’s a mechanism for creating new ones or channeling them in particular directions. This is the problem critics such as Cindy Gallop see with the narrow, unrealistic (and often violently misogynistic) set of messages about sexuality that porn offers us.
Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.
John Millward, a self-described “ideas detective,” has done something intriguing. He cracked the Internet Adult Film Database (IAFD) and used a sample of 10,000 porn stars to tell a story about porn. Here are some of his findings.
The average female porn star, he discovered, was 5’5″ and weighed 117 pounds. She doesn’t have a double-D bra size; she’s a 34B. And she’s not blonde:
She’s also not disproportionately white. Millward found that the racial breakdown among porn actresses somewhat matched U.S. population demographics:
Race % of actresses % of the population
White 70.5 78.1
Black 14.0 13.1
Latina 9.3 16.7
Asian 5.2 5.0
American Indian no data 1.2
The average woman begins her career at 22. This has been unchanged for the last 40 years. The average age for men was 29 in the ’70s, but it’s dropped to 24. Careers were longer in the ’70s. Men quite after 12 years, women after nine. Today men quit, on average, after four years and women after three.
Interestingly, success for male porn stars is much more concentrated than for female. There are fewer of them (70% of all porn stars are women) and they’re less interchanged. Millward reports that 96 of the most prolific porn stars of all time — measured by number of films — are men. Women, on average, do fewer films each. Just over half (53%) do three or more.
The IAFD records all of the sex acts that actors do on film. Accordingly to Millward’s analysis, this is what actresses do:
And here are the roles they play:
Wives in porn, by the way, are not typically having sex with their husbands.
In this post I’m happy to feature two short clips of sociologists at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas talking about the sex industry in Las Vegas.
First, in this two-minute clip, Barb Brents discusses the way that the sex industry in Las Vegas is set up in ways that protect “referral services” (the organizations that arrange for what often includes sex work), while exposing sex workers to policing and criminalization:
Second, Crystal Jackson, takes two minutes to explain that the stereotype of sex workers — women who have sex with men — makes male sex workers invisible and transgender sex workers seem deviant. This has consequences. It means that men in the sex industry are more able to evade the police (who aren’t looking for them), while transgender sex workers are even more likely than women to experience abuse from both the police and clients. This means that patriarchy is an insufficient theory with which to theorize sex work.
by Guest Blogger Margo DeMello, Oct 12, 2011, at 12:00 pm
Katrin sent in a link to a series of ads created by an organization called Stepping Stone Nova Scotia. Their mission is to advocate on behalf of, and offer resources and services to, prostitutes in the Maritime Provinces of Canada.
The ads, as you can see, depict quotes by friends or family members of prostitutes (“I’m proud of my tramp, raising two kids on her own”) which are intended to humanize sex workers; the bottom of each ad reads “Sex workers are brothers/daughters/mothers too.” They’re also intended to shock the reader into really thinking about prostitutes. The juxtaposition of words like “tramp” and “hooker” with the white middle-class faces of the speakers makes the viewer question our culture’s ease with using those terms, and forces us to see the person behind the prostitute.
Stepping Stone’s executive director, Rene Ross, points out that every time a prostitute is killed—sex workers have a mortality rate 40 times higher than the Canadian national average—media accounts emphasize that the victim was a prostitute, but not that she (or he) was also a mother, daughter, friend or, for example, animal lover. By thinking of sex workers only in terms of their stigmatized occupation, we don’t have to care about them as people.
In New Mexico, where I live, the remains of eleven women (and the unborn fetus of one) were found buried on a mesa outside of Albuquerque in 2009. The women had disappeared between 2003 and 2005, and most, according to police, were involved with drugs and/or prostitution. Why did it take the police so long to find the bodies of these women, and why do their murders still remain unsolved? Some observers have suggested that because the women were—or were alleged to be—prostitutes, there was less pressure to find them after they went missing, or to solve their murders once their bodies were found. As long as the victims were sex workers, then the non-sex worker public can feel safe in the knowledge that they are not at risk. We know that prostitution is dangerous, so it’s expected that some of them will die grisly deaths, and be buried like trash on a mesa outside of town.
I love the motivation behind the ads, and they do make me smile. I hope they have the effect that Stepping Stone intends—making people think of prostitutes as people, not trash. But they’re also funny, and I wonder if they won’t also have an unintended effect, of making prostitutes seem like a joke.
This week I watched the Comedy Central Roast of Charlie Sheen. During the roast, most of the jokes dealt with his well-known history with drug use and prostitution, and “prostitute,” “hooker” and “whore” were used as punch lines in the majority of the jokes, and each “whore” reference incited additional laughter. Sure, many of the women that Sheen paid to have sex were doubtless “high class” call girls, paid well, and not living on the street. But we also know that at least some of these women, as well as the non-prostitute females in his life, were subject to violence and threats of violence. He is alleged to have beaten, shot, shoved, and thrown to the floor a number of women over the years, but because many of these women were sex workers (or porn stars, which is the next best thing), the women were “asking for it.”
Let’s hope that Stepping Stone’s campaign does some good, making us think about sex workers as people, rather than punch lines and faceless victims.
Margo DeMello has a PhD in cultural anthropology and teaches anthropology, cultural studies, and sociology at Central New Mexico Community College. Her research areas include body modification and adornment and human-animal studies.