sex: sex work

Mild Spoiler Alert for Season 3 of House of Cards

Where is Rachel Posner?

Representations of sex workers on popular shows such as Game of Thrones, The Good Wife, and, of course, any version of CSI, are often stereotypical, completely incorrect, and infuriatingly dehumanizing. Like so many of these shows, House of Cards offers more of the same, but it uses a somewhat different narrative for a former sex worker and central character, Rachel Posner. Rachel experiences many moments of sudden empowerment that are just as quickly taken away. She is not entirely disempowered, often physically and emotionally resisting other characters and situations, but her humanization only lasts so long.  

The show follows Rachel for three full seasons, offering some hope to the viewer that her story would not end in her death, dehumanization, or any other number of sensational and tumultuous storylines. So, when she is murdered in the final episode of Season 3, viewers sensitive to her character’s role as a sex worker and invested in a new narrative for current and former sex worker characters on popular TV shows probably felt deeply let down. Her death inspired us to go back and analyze how her role in the series was both intensely invisible and visible.  

Early in the show, we learn that Rachel has information that could reveal murder and corrupt political strategizing orchestrated by the protagonist Frank Underwood.  She is the thread that weaves the entire series together. Despite this, most characters on the show do not value Rachel beyond worrying about how she could harm them. Other characters talk about her when she’s not present at all, often referring to her as “the prostitute” or “some hooker,” rather than by her name or anything else that describes who she is.

The show, too, devalues her. At the beginning of an episode, we watch Rachel making coffee one morning in her small apartment.  Yet, instead of watching her, we watch her body parts; the camera pans over her torso, her breasts in a lace bra, and then her legs before we finally see her entire body and face.  There is not one single scene even remotely like this for any other character on the show. Even the promotional material for Season 1 (pictured above) fails to include a photo of Rachel while including images of a number of other characters who were less central to the storyline and appeared in fewer episodes. Yet, whoever arranged the photoshoot didn’t think she was important enough to include.

Another major way that Rachel is marginalized in the context of the show is that she is not given many scenes or storylines that are about her—her private life, time spent with friends, or what’s important to her. This is in contrast to other characters with a similar status. For instance, the audience is made to feel sympathy for Gavin, a hacker, when an FBI agent threatens the life of his beloved guinea pig. In contrast, it is Rachel’s ninth episode before the audience sees her interact with a friend, and we never really learn what motivates her beyond fear and survival. In this sense, Rachel is almost entirely invisible in her own storyline. She only exists when people want something from her.

Rachel is also made invisible by the way she is represented or discussed in many scenes.  For instance, although she’s present, she has zero lines in her first couple scenes. After appearing (without lines) in Episodes 1 and 2, Rachel reappears in Episode 7, although she’s not really present; she re-emerges in the form of a handwritten note to Doug Stamper (Underwood’s indispensable assistant).  She writes: “I need more money.  And not in my mouth.” These are Rachel’s first two lines in the entire series; however, she’s not actually saying them, she’s asking for something and one of the lines draws attention to a sexualized body part and sexual act that she engaged in with Doug. Without judging the fact that she engaged in a sexual act with a client, what’s notable here is the fact that she isn’t given a voice or her own resources. She is constantly positioned in relation to other characters and often without the resources and ability to survive on her own.

This can clearly be seen in the way Rachel is easily pushed around by other characters in the show, who are able to force their will upon her. When viewers do finally see her in a friendship, one that blossoms into a romance, the meaning that Rachel gives the relationship is overshadowed by the reaction Doug Stamper has to it. Doug has more contact with Rachel than any other character on the show; in the beginning of the series, he acts as a sort of “protector” to Rachel, by finding her a safe place to stay, ensuring that she can work free from sexual harassment in her new job, and getting her an apartment of her own. However, all these actions highlight the fact that she does not have her own resources or connections to be able to function on her own, and they are used to manipulate her. Over Rachel’s growing objections, Doug is able to impose his wishes upon her fairly easily. The moment she is able to overpower him and escape, she disappears from the show for almost a whole season, only to reappear in the episode where she dies. In this episode, we finally see Rachel standing on her own two feet. It seems like a hard life, working lots of double shifts and living in a rundown boardinghouse, but we also see her enjoying herself with friends and building something new for herself. And yet, it is also in this episode where she has leveraged her competence into a new life that she also meets her demise. Unfortunately, after seeing this vision of Rachel on the road to empowerment, more than half of her scenes relate to her death, and in most of them she is begging Doug for her life, once again reduced to powerlessness. 

Every time we begin to see a new narrative for Rachel, one that allows her to begin a life that isn’t entirely tethered to Doug Stamper and her past, she is almost immediately drawn back into his web.  Ultimately, in this final episode, she can no longer grasp her new narrative and immediately loses hold of it.  In her final scenes, after kidnapping her, Doug temporarily lets her go.  She begins to walk in the opposite direction of his van before, only moments later, he flips the van around and heads back in her direction.  The next scene cuts suddenly to her lifeless body in a shallow grave.  The sudden shock of this scene is jarring, yet oddly expected, given how the show has treated Rachel’s character throughout the series.  It’s almost as if the show does not have any use for a sex worker character who can competently manage their own affairs.  Perhaps that idea didn’t even occur to the writers because of the place in our society in which sex workers are currently situated, perhaps it disrupts the fallen woman narrative, or perhaps for some reason, a death seems more “interesting” than a storyline where a sex worker has agency and takes an active role in shaping her own life and affecting those around her.  Whatever the reason, House of Cards ultimately fails Rachel and sex workers, in general.

Paige Connell is an undergraduate sociology student at Chico State University. Her areas of interest include intimate relationships, gender, and pop culture. 

Dr. Danielle Antoinette Hidalgo is an Assistant Professor in Sociology at California State University, Chico, specializing in theory, gender and sexuality, and embodiment studies.

Monday is Labor Day in the U.S. Though to many it is a last long weekend for recreation and shopping before the symbolic end of summer, the federal holiday, officially established in 1894, celebrates the contributions of labor.

Here are a few dozen SocImages posts on a range of issues related to workers, from the history of the labor movement, to current workplace conditions, to the impacts of the changing economy on workers’ pay:

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

Work and race, ethnicity, religion, and immigration

Gender and Work

The U.S. in International Perspective

Academia

Just for Fun

Bonus!

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Flashback Friday.

Monica C. sent along images of a pamphlet, from 1920, warning soldiers of the dangers of sexually transmitted infections (STIs). In the lower right hand corner (close up below), the text warns that “most” “prostitutes (whores) and easy women” “are diseased.” In contrast, in the upper left corner, we see imagery of the pure woman that a man’s good behavior is designed to protect (also below).  “For the sake of your family,” it reads, “learn the truth about venereal diseases.”

The contrast, between those women who give men STIs (prostitutes and easy women) and those who receive them from men (wives) is a reproduction of the virgin/whore dichotomy (women come in only two kinds: good, pure, and worthy of respect and bad, dirty, and deserving of abuse).  It also does a great job of making invisible the fact that women with an STI likely got it from a man and women who have an STI, regardless of how they got one, can give it away.  The men’s role in all this, that is, is erased in favor of demonizing “bad” girls.

See also these great examples of the demonization of the “good time Charlotte” during World War II (skull faces and all) and follow this post to a 1917 film urging Canadian soldiers to refrain from sex with prostitutes (no antibiotics back then, you know).

This post was originally shared in August 2010.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Today is Labor Day in the U.S. Though many think of it mostly as a last long weekend for recreation and shopping before the symbolic end of summer, the federal holiday, officially established in 1894, celebrates the contributions of labor.

Here are some SocImages posts on a range of issues related to workers, from the history of the labor movement, to current workplace conditions, to the impacts of the changing economy on workers’ pay:

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

Work and race, ethnicity, religion, and immigration

Gender and Work

The U.S. in International Perspective

Academia

Just for Fun

Bonus!

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

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Today is Labor Day in the U.S. Though many think of it mostly as a last long weekend for recreation and shopping before the symbolic end of summer, the federal holiday, officially established in 1894, celebrates the contributions of labor.
Here are some SocImages posts on a range of issues related to workers, from the history of the labor movement, to current workplace conditions, to the impacts of the changing economy on workers’ pay:

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

Work and race, ethnicity, religion, and immigration

Gender and Work

The U.S. in International Perspective

Academia

Just for Fun

Bonus!

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

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.

—————

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, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

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, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

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.