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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Yes, trafficking is bad for sex workers. But “getting tough on traffickers” can make their lives worse.

This week in North Philly Notes, Carisa Showden and Samantha Majic, co-authors of Youth Who Trade Sex in the U.S., write about the importance of listening to sex workers, and not just passing laws and policies that aim to catch and punish traffickers.

Through newspaper stories, popular films, and Dateline exposés (to name just some sources), the term “sex trafficking” is now commonplace, bringing to mind images and stories of young girls trapped in vans and sold for sex in strange and dark places. These ideas about sex trafficking have informed public policy in the U.S. and internationally: local, regional, and national governments, as well as international governing bodies, have supported and passed laws and policies that aim to catch and punish traffickers and other parties who fuel this crime. Yet despite these laws, those they are supposed to help are also often their most vocal critics.

This disconnect between the ideas about an issue and its related policy outcomes is not unique to sex trafficking, but recent legal changes make interrogating this gap particularly urgent. The 2018 Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) and Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) (SESTA/FOSTA) provides a recent example of popular narratives trumping evidence. By making website publishers responsible for third parties who post ads for prostitution, SESTA/FOSTA effectively renders illegal the websites that sex workers use to sell services, screen clients, and warn other sex workers about dangerous clients. SESTA/FOSTA is based on the idea that persons in the sex industry are there against their will (trafficked), and that websites only enable their victimization.

Sex workers resisted this characterization, arguing mightily, but unsuccessfully, against  SESTA/FOSTA, and the effects have been immediate. For example, out of fear of violating the law, many sex workers started “preemptively closing sex work-related Facebook groups, … talking about taking down bad date lists, etc.,” all of which were essential to their safety and security. In another example, Backpage immediately shut down its dating and related ad services. With Backpage gone, some sex workers have returned to the streets and law enforcement receives fewer tips from online activity, making the tracking of actual trafficking more difficult. As Notre Dame Law Professor Alex F. Levy writes, “Backpage sets a trap for traffickers: lured by the prospect of reaching a large, centralized repository of customers, traffickers end up revealing themselves to law enforcement and victim advocates. There’s nothing to suggest that Backpage causes them to be victimized, but plenty of reason to believe that, without it, they would be much harder to find.” And outside of the U.S., including places like New Zealand where sex work is legal, the disappearance of Backpage “has, without warning, taken livelihoods away, leaving workers without the resources to operate their businesses or, in some cases, survive.”

Youth Who Trade_smNeither the failure to listen to sex workers nor a new law making it harder to fight the very thing it targets is surprising to us, given what we found when researching our book Youth Who Trade Sex in the U.S.: Intersectionality, Agency, and Vulnerability. For example, policies that target trafficking of young people take a law-and-order approach, focusing on criminal gangs, “bad men” (pimps), and very young girl victims. But as our research indicates, young people commonly enter the sex trades through a highly variable mix of “self-exploitation,” family exploitation, and peer-recruitment, most frequently to meet their basic needs for shelter and food. And youth who are poor and housing insecure because of racialized poverty and gender discrimination are particularly vulnerable. All people under the age of 18 who sell or trade sex for any reason are defined by the Trafficking Victims Protection Act as trafficking victims, yet most of them are ignored by “get tough on crime” policies. As a result, while we must protect all youth from persons who may harm and exploit them, the majority of young people who trade sex need interventions like housing support that is safe for youth of all genders. And when they are trading sex to afford food or shelter, they need to do this in the least dangerous way possible—something online services facilitated.

The more vulnerable people are, the less likely they are to be listened to, and the more likely they are to be talked about. We saw this in SESTA/ FOSTA, where sex workers and their allies lobbied hard to prevent the bill’s passage. And we see this with youth-specific bills as well. Politicians talk a lot about vulnerable youth in the abstract, but they rarely talk or listen to them directly. Yet sex workers and young people have a lot to say about what works and doesn’t work for helping them survive and improve their lives. Hopefully researchers and policy makers will start to listen to them.

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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