Vice as a tourist attraction?

This week in North Philly Notes, Andrew Israel Ross, author of Public City/Public Sex, writes about the “problem” of public sex in cities. 

I recently visited Amsterdam for the first time and I could not help but be struck by how successfully the city marketed what once would have simply been considered “vice” as a tourist attraction. After making their pilgrimage to the Anne Frank House, for example, tourists can take advantage of the walking tours of the Red Light District. Meandering along the streets of the Dutch city, gawking through windows at nearly-naked women hawking sexual services, women, men, and children can tell themselves that they participated in a venal economy even if they did not actually purchase anything from the women. Indeed, the success of the Red Light District as tourist district has outstripped the imaginations of those who legalized it. The Dutch government has considered limiting how many people could enter the area and permitting sex workers to work elsewhere in the city. The legalization of sex work may or may not have actually made it safer for those engaged in the profession, but it definitely made it into an apparently appropriate experience to the millions of international tourists who flock every year to the Dutch capital. Inscribed in the city, but also cordoned off into its own zone, female sex work becomes a carefully curated experience of the urban center.

Public City Public SexTwenty-first century Amsterdam represents the height of trends I explore in my book Public City/Public Sex: Prostitution, Homosexuality, and Urban Culture in Nineteenth-Century Paris. The book traces the relationship between those who participated in and sought out a culture of public sex and those who sought to regulate, understand, and control that culture in Paris over the course of the nineteenth century. In doing so, the book shows some of the ways that public sex was more central to the nineteenth-century city than to the twenty-first. Public sex —primarily evidence of female prostitution and men seeking sex with other men — was not “marginal” to the life of the city. Rather, it was central. Indeed, I show how nineteenth-century urban culture relied upon a culture of public sex that could not be evaded. It was only with the rise of modern consumer culture in the latter decades of the century that public sex came to be a “safe” attraction for Parisians and tourists, sold by male entrepreneurs to a willing audience of middle-class men and women.

During the nineteenth century, state administrators, expert moralists, and private entrepreneurs collaborated in an effort to transform Paris in ways that would open the supposedly “medieval” city to control by the police, to business by capitalists, and to movement by residents. Coupled with new systems of regulation, urban development enabled greater surveillance of the city by the police, but it also offered opportunities for social practices the authorities had intended to prevent in the first place. In an effort to remove sex workers from the streets, the Prefecture of Police “tolerated” brothels that could and would be recognized by anyone passing one by. In an effort to clean the city’s filth, public hygienists advocated for the provision of public urinals that could and would be appropriated by men who sought sex with other men. The creation of new boulevards, parks, and commercial spaces such as cafés and dancehalls where people interacted and encountered one another all enabled public sexual interaction that could be viewed by anyone at any time. The existence and availability of public sexual activity became a key feature of the nineteenth-century city, as administrators, businessmen, prostitutes, men seeking sex with other men, and other Parisians all competed to define urban space in their own terms. The urban culture of the nineteenth century emerged through these tensions.

By arguing that the origins of “modern” urban culture rested on forms of public sexual activity recognized and recognizable by anyone and everyone, Public City/Public Sex historicizes efforts to manage the experience of urban environments, both those explicitly sexualized like the Red Light District and those meant to be asexual. Understanding our own responses to the sexualization of space depends on acknowledging the thin line between the two. Public City/Public Sex historicizes the experience of public sexual encounter by showing how female prostitutes and men who sought sex with other men in deployed city space to locate sexual partners and assert their right to the city. The emergence of the Red Light District as a solution to the “problem” of public sex, therefore, was as much as way of taking power away from sex workers as it was an attempt to ensure their safety in the modern city and can only be fully understood as a direct response to the more fluid sexual culture of the nineteenth century.

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Rethinking theories of sex work and sex tourism

1965_regIn this blog entry, Amalia Cabezas, author of Economies of Desire: Sex and Tourism in Cuba and the Dominican Republic, discloses why she studied the topic of sex tourism.

Looking back, I didn’t realize when I set out to research the new manifestations of sex work in post-Soviet Cuba that I would end up in the Dominican Republic as well. I thought that I would be investigating sex work: simple sex-for-money exchanges between local women and foreign men.

But the universe I encountered was far more complex and intriguing. The eroticization of labor in Caribbean beachfront resorts, spiritual divination, violence against women, a budding sex  worker movement that sought to confront and redefine the relationship of sex workers to the nation state and wider society, and love, a lot of love.

These are some of the topics and issues that I encountered and which I write about in Economies of Desire, a book that challenged me to rethink theories of sex work and sex tourism.

Sex, money, romance, reciprocity, solidarity, and affective exchanges are intermingled as tourists and locals rework identities and meanings crafting relationships to preserve integrity and dignity in what is an otherwise crushing system of local and global inequalities.

For more information about Economies of Desire by Amalia Cabezas, visit: http://www.temple.edu/tempress/titles/1965_reg.html

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