Is there really a clean-cut difference between work and sex work? Is sex work really or always sexual? Are all the other jobs asexual? Where do we draw the line? Can we draw a line? Should we?

These were some of the questions that we discussed in my power and sexuality class this past semester and, like magic, an article appeared asking whether “bikini-clad baristas” at sexy-themed coffee shops are sex workers. Well, are they?

These coffee shops require women to wear bikinis or lingerie. At The Atlantic, Leah Sottile writes that “bikini” is an overstatement. On that day, a Wednesday, the employee slinging coffee wears lacy underwear. It’s their slow day, she explains, because on Tuesdays and Thursdays she wears only a thong and pasties.

“It’s like a really friendly drive-through peep show,” writes Sottile.

School administrators have re-routed buses.

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There are some interesting players in this debate, people who sociologists would call stakeholders.

Mike Fagan is one. He’s a politician and some would say that he’s responsible for making sure that city rules match the values of his constituents. He’s pro-regulation, explaining:

In my mind we’re talking adult entertainment. We don’t want to shut down the stands. We want to say, “Look, you either put the bikinis back on, or you move your business to an appropriately zoned area.”

Business owners — at least the ones that own sexy coffee shops — are generally anti-regulation. They’re not interested in relocating their businesses to an “appropriately zoned area,” the sad, skeezy corners of the city where we find strip clubs. One explains that she’s “just selling coffee” and if her girls want to wear a bikini when they do, who’s to say they shouldn’t?

Sex worker advocates are also involved. Savannah Sly, a representative of the Seattle Sex Workers Outreach Project, argues that bikini baristas are sex workers:

…because their work involves using sexual appeal… Because they may be stigmatized or their place of employment scrutinized due to the erotic nature of the work, I deem it worthy of the label of sex work.

Right or wrong, this is a convenient conclusion for Sly. If more workers are classified as sex workers, than sex workers become more powerful as a group, enabling them to better advocate for better working conditions, more protection, and rights.

The bikini baristas themselves surely have a variety of opinions. The one interviewed by Sottile points out that models often wear as little or less clothing, but no one’s debating whether they’re sex workers.

It’s a fair point. And it gets back to our question — and the question for the cities of Spokane, WAClovis, CAForest Grove, OR; Aurora, CO and more — where do you draw the line between sex work and not sex work?

Honestly, I don’t think it’s possible.

Sex is a part of lots of jobs. It’s not a binary, it’s a spectrum. Sex is a part of modeling, dancing, and acting. The bartender, the waitress, and the hostess all sometimes deploy their sex appeal. How much does sex play into how lawyers are viewed in courtrooms or personal trainers are evaluated? Is sex a part of pro sports? The therapist’s relationship with their client? Selling pharmaceuticals to physicians? Heck, even college professors are evaluated with chili peppers.

Maybe the difference is the contact or the penetration? But there are other jobs that centrally involve bodies and some involve kinds of penetration. What about the dentist climbing in your mouth? The phlebotomist drawing your blood? The surgeon opening up your chest? All these things are invasive and risky, but we manage them.

If not the penetration, maybe it’s the stigma? But there are other jobs that are stigmatized, too: undertakers, sewage plant employees, slaughterhouse workers, abortion providers, politicians (only sort of kidding), and many more.

The truth is that the things involved with sex work — emotional vulnerability, intimacy, emotional manipulation, physical contact, health risks, and moral opprobrium — all characterize at least some other jobs, too. So, the only thing that separates work from sex work is sex.

And, this might sound weird but, I don’t really think that sex is a thing that lines can be drawn around.

Is penile-vaginal intercourse sex? Is oral sex? Is manual stimulation of the genitals? Is making out? Is kissing? Is thinking about kissing? Would you offer different answers if I asked if those things were sexual? Would you answer differently if the question wasn’t about what counted as sex, but what counted as abstinence?

Is the penis a sexual body part? The clitoris? The anus? Breasts? The inner thigh? The back of one’s knee? The back of one’s neck? How do you decide? Who gets to?

So when is work sex work? I can’t conceive of an answer that would satisfy me.

So, what should be done about bikini baristas? A strong minimum wage. Unions. Protection from harassment. Sick days. A nice vacation. Penalties for wage theft. Predictable schedules. A nice benefits package. I want all those things for bikini baristas. I want them for all the other “sex workers,” too. I want those things for all workers because the important word in the phrase “sex work” isn’t sex, it’s work.

Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

In her provocative book, The Technology of Orgasm, Rachel Maines discusses a classic medical treatment for the historical diagnosis of “hysteria”: orgasm administered by a physician.

Maines explains that manual stimulation of the clitoris was, for some time, a matter-of-fact part of medical treatment and a routine source of revenue for doctors. By the 19th century, people understood that it was an orgasm, but they argued that it was “nothing sexual.” It couldn’t “be anything sexual,” Maines explains, “because there’s no penetration and, so, no sex.”

So, what ended this practice? Maines argues that it was the appearance of the vibrator in early pornographic movies in the 1920s.  At which point, she says, doctors “drop it like a hot rock.” Meanwhile, vibrators become household appliances, allowing women to treat their “hysteria” at home. It wasn’t dropped from diagnostic manuals until 1957.

Listen to it straight from Maines in the following 7 minutes from Big Think:

Bonus: Freud was bad at this treatment, so he had to come up with some other cause of hysteria. After all, she says, “this was the guy who didn’t know what women wanted.” No surprise there, she jokes.

Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Flashback Friday.

While preparing a lecture on sex tourism, I ran across this video about men who have sex with female tourists in the Caribbean:

There’s a lot of interesting stuff going on there, no? I was fascinated by the female hotel owner who talks about the men “preying” on the female tourists, clearly placing the power in the hands the men who, she argues, use the female tourists for money but don’t really care about them. I tried to imagine someone talking similarly about female sex workers “preying” on foreign men’s need for affection and attention.

This might make for a great discussion about perceptions of sexual agency: how do gendered sexual norms, economic differences, and the different races and nationalities of the individuals involved affect how we think of their interactions and who we see as the victim?

In her chapter on sex tourism in Race, Ethnicity, and Sexuality), sociologist Joane Nagel discusses the role of racialized sexualities in making some groups attractive tourists looking for an ethnosexual adventure. In the Caribbean, dark-skinned men with dreads are particularly attractive to some female tourists because of stereotypes of Black men as extremely sexual and masculine, which plays into fantasies of being swept away by a strong, skilled lover. At the same time, White Western women may represent the possibility of a better life (through continued gifts of money even after the vacation is over) and sexualized adventures to the men they sleep with while on vacation. Nagel argues that these encounters generally reinforce, rather than challenge, existing racial and gender inequalities, since they play on stereotypes of sexualized Others as animalistic, primitive, and, in the case of men, as super-masculine (and super-endowed).

Then again, Nagel also questions whether any relationship between tourists and “local” men should count as sex work. The individuals involved don’t necessarily think of their interactions in those terms. And who is to decide if a particular situation is “sex tourism” as opposed to a “real” relationship? How does that assumption invalidate the possibility that Black men and White women might have real, meaningful relationships? Or primarily sexual relationships, but with both partners respecting the other?

Originally posted in 2009.

Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.

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.

Baby dolls, 1930s (CNN):

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Baby dolls, 1942:
babydolls1

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!

babydolls_2013

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For more, visit They Call Me Baby Doll.  Cross-posted at Pacific Standard and A Nerd’s Guide to New Orleans.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

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.

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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.

Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

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.

Cross-posted at Ms.; originally posted in 2010.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Course Guide for
SOCIOLOGY OF WORK
(last updated 9/2014)

Developed by Lisa Wade
Occidental College

Disclaimer: I am not a sociologist of work.  If you are, I would love to see someone take a more expert crack at this.  Please feel free to volunteer!

The Social Construction of Work

Work in Popular Culture

Unemployment, Underemployment, and the “Class War”

Unions and Unionization

Economic Change, Globalization, and the Great Recession

Gender and Work

Work and Racial, Ethnic, and National Identity

The U.S. in International Perspective

Specific Occupations

Flight Attendants

Sex Workers

Academia

Just for Fun

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.