This article explores the understudied and undertheorized role that fiscal policies play in shaping the relationship between the state and sex workers. It highlights the importance of looking at tax policy and its implementation to understand how inequality is reinforced against sexually marginalized populations. Drawing on the Italian case, it explores the ways in which ambiguous taxation arrangements operate to penalize sex workers, excluding them from the status of full taxpayer citizenship, and demonizing them as individuals who exploit the fiscal system at the expense of “good” tax-paying citizens. Fiscal policies, I argue, need to be considered in the context of the governance of prostitution as social mechanisms that have the potential to contribute to the sexual and economic citizenship of this marginalized population, but which, when unequal and ambiguous, reinforce the social and political liminality of sex workers as lesser citizens, and add to the stigma, damaging stereotypes and violence already waged against them. The complex ways in which inequality against sex workers is maintained is revealed as a dynamic process that reflects the ever-shifting interplay of economics and morality.
This research used a semi-structured interview method and Smith and Osborn’s (2003) interpretive phenomenological analysis to investigate a female prostitute’s experiences of stigma associated with her work. To structure the interview schedule, Seidman’s (2006) in-depth phenomenologically based interviewing method, which comprises three areas of focus, “focused life history,” “details of the experience” under investigation, and “reflection of the meaning” of the experience, was used as a general guide. Ten broad psychological themes were identified: 1) awareness of engaging in what people think is bad; (2) negative labeling by people who discover she is a prostitute; 3) hiding and lying about her identity as a prostitute to avoid being labeled negatively; 4) hiding and lying about her prostitution identity result in stress, anxiety, and exhaustion; 5) wishing she did not have to hide and lie about being a prostitute; 6) questioning and objecting to the stigmatization of prostitution; 7) managing the sense of stigmatization by persons who know about her prostitution by shifting focus away from devaluing and toward valuable qualities of prostitution; 8) developing occupational esteem and self-esteem through reflection of values; 9) compassion towards other people who suffer from stigma; and 10) resiliency.
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While the scholarship on sex work is substantial, it neglects to explore whether sex work and associated stigma affect sex workers’ cognitive expectations. Drawing on observations of street-based sex work as well as in-depth interviews with Jewish-Israeli sex workers, this study suggests that because stigma is a moral experience that threatens and often destroys what really matters to stigmatised individuals, it leads to recurrent disappointments, which, in turn, may alter sex workers’ cognitive expectations. Sex workers learn to see certain life goals, including maintaining healthy social relationships and a workspace free of violence and humiliation, as unobtainable. However, they also begin to see other aspects of their lives, such as economic autonomy, as achievable through sex work. Tracing how whore stigma becomes a transformative experience allows us to add another layer to the heretofore suggested link between the structural, cultural and individual aspects of stigmatisation.
Accounts of the governance of prostitution have typically argued that prostitutes are, in one way or another, stigmatised social outcasts. There is a persistent claim that power has operated to dislocate or banish the prostitute from the community in order to silence, isolate, hide, restrict, or punish. I argue that another position may be tenable; that is, power has operated to locate prostitution within the social. Power does not operate to ‘desocialise’ prostitution, but has in recent times operated increasingly to normalise it. Power does not demarcate prostitutes from the social according to some binary mechanics of difference, but works instead according to a principle of differentiation which seeks to connect, include, circulate and enable specific prostitute populations within the social. In this paper I examine how prostitution has been singled out for public attention as a sociopolitical problem and governed accordingly. The concept of governmentality is used to think through such issues, providing, as it does, a non-totalising and non-reductionist account of rule. It is argued that a combination of self-regulatory and punitive practices developed during modernity to manage socially problematic prostitute populations.
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The journal “Sexualities” published a discussion around Ronald Weitzer’s piece “Resistance to sex work stigma” in its September 2018 issue.
From the Editor’s Note:
“Professor Ronald Weitzer has written a short piece to Sexualities. It is a commentary in which Weitzer examines the notion of stigma in the context of sex work. He points out that stigma is not determined but has the possibility of change and suggests ‘a set of preconditions for the reduction and, ultimately, elimination of stigma from sex work’, which includes neutralization of language, a more balanced representation of sex work in the mass media, decriminalization, industry mobilization, sex worker activism, and intervention from the academia. We thought this piece would generate discussion and thus open up theoretical debate as well as practical concern about policy and legislation regarding sex work and stigma. We then invited scholars to comment and the following have agreed to write a commentary: Professor Teela Sanders, Professor Wendy Chapkis, Professor Jo Phoenix, and Professor Minichiello (together with Professor John Scott and Mr Cameron Cox).”
The contributions to the discussion can be found here (paywall).
- Chapkis, Wendy. 2018. „Commentary: Response to Weitzer ‘Resistance to Sex Work Stigma’“. Sexualities 21 (5–6): 743–46. https://doi.org/10.1177/1363460716684511.
- Kong, Travis SK. 2018. „Editor’s Note: Ronald Weitzer“. Sexualities 21 (5–6): 715–16. https://doi.org/10.1177/1363460717690714.
- Lee, Na-Young. 2018. „Un/Forgettable Histories of US Camptown Prostitution in South Korea: Women’s Experiences of Sexual Labor and Government Policies“. Sexualities 21 (5–6): 751–75. https://doi.org/10.1177/1363460716688683.
- Minichiello, Victor, John Scott, und Cameron Cox. 2018. „Commentary: Reversing the Agenda of Sex Work Stigmatization and Criminalization: Signs of a Progressive Society“. Sexualities 21 (5–6): 730–35. https://doi.org/10.1177/1363460716684510.
- Phoenix, Jo. 2018. „A Commentary: Response to Weitzer ‘Resistance to Sex Work Stigma’“. Sexualities 21 (5–6): 740–42. https://doi.org/10.1177/1363460716684512.
- Sanders, Teela. 2018. „Unpacking the Process of Destigmatization of Sex Work/Ers: Response to Weitzer ‘Resistance to Sex Work Stigma’“. Sexualities 21 (5–6): 736–39. https://doi.org/10.1177/1363460716677731.
- Weitzer, Ronald. 2018a. „Additional Reflections on Sex Work Stigma“. Sexualities 21 (5–6): 747–50. https://doi.org/10.1177/1363460716684513.
- ———. 2018b. „Resistance to Sex Work Stigma“. Sexualities 21 (5–6): 717–29. https://doi.org/10.1177/1363460716684509.
Sex workers have reported a history of stigma associated with their identity and labor, which has resulted in numerous barriers to justice, social services, and healthcare. The current study aimed to experimentally investigate the effects of sex work stigma on observers’ victim blame and empathy toward sexual assault survivors. The participants included 197 undergraduate students from the Midwestern US who were randomly assigned to read a newspaper article reporting a sexual assault in which the victim’s identity was manipulated as a sex worker or a non-sex worker between the conditions. Results indicated participants assigned to the article describing the rape of a sex worker responded to the article with statistically less victim empathy and more victim blame than participants who read an article describing the rape of a non-sex worker. Integrating stigma theory and qualitative research on sex work stigma, the implications of the results demonstrate a significant barrier sex workers may face within the criminal justice system when reporting acts of violence against them. Recommendations for sex work decriminalization, changing the conversation of academic discourse on sex work, and educational initiatives are proposed to reduce the stigma of this marginalized population.