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Commodification of sexual labor: The contribution of Internet communities to prostitution reform

ProQuest Dissertations and Theses, 2009
Dissertation
Author: Jeffrey R Young
Abstract:
This is an ethnographic study of a self-regulated Internet site that facilitates illegal female prostitution in South Florida. The purpose is to identify the social and economic characteristics of the site that can contribute to acceptable prostitution reform. The members of the site appear to sustain an orderly and mutually respectful exchange of sexual services for money, suggesting that certain social and economic features of this form of transaction diminish barriers otherwise present in typical forms of contemporary prostitution exchange. The study evaluates the thesis that when commercial sex is conducted in an open atmosphere of respect, trust and mutual understanding, within certain economic parameters, the beliefs and practices that stigmatize prostitutes and prostitution are neutralized. Evidence was generated through extensive observation of an online venue that approximates what prostitution would be like if open market exchange in sexual labor did exist. These data are supplemented by interviews with participants of the online community. Features of mutual respect, trust, and understanding, characteristically absent in traditional prostitution venues, appear to be part of an emerging community phenomenon that facilitates prostitution online. Thus, this study engages with the larger scholarly position that normalization of sex work is necessary for successful prostitution reform. This community utilizes a non-legal enforcement mechanism to facilitate cooperative exchanges based on establishing trust between participants. At the center of the cooperation system is a reputation mechanism that fosters trust between potential partners by encouraging participants to post honest reviews of their encounters with each other. Understanding the social order as a cooperation game where participants publicly signal each other in an attempt to find the most desirable partners explains the mutual trust and respect that participants have for each other. Because stigma and disrespect are founded on mistrust, this cooperation mechanism is effective in minimizing undesirable attitudes, beliefs, and practices that stigmatize and oppress prostitutes. This study suggests that prostitution reform acceptable to many feminists is possible. But in order for meaningful reform to work in practice, it must be accompanied by regulations carefully designed to protect the sexual autonomy of women without stigmatizing prostitutes.

of participants who come together at Indygirls.com. (The website of the subject venue has been changed, as well as the names of all participants and locations.) The data consists primarily of discussion threads posted at the Internet site in addition to data collected from personal interviews and observations. This data is presented in terms of a number of themes outlined in the table of contents that describe the social structure; communication; risk management; initiative; personal agency and goals; money and commodification; and hobbyist's attitudes. The goal is to sketch a picture of this community and its participants, as both buyers and sellers, and individual men and women; and to identify how this community is able to maintain a safe and orderly environment for commercial sex that has been difficult to achieve by intentional legalized regimes. Chapter six discusses the data and attempts to model the interactions using game theory in order to show how the themes identified contribute to the unique and admirable characteristics of the sexual exchanges that take place among the community members. This analysis reveals the presence of a non-legal enforcement mechanism at the site, describes how it encourages good behavior through trust and respect, and explains why it is dependent on open communication, and the absence of coercion, based on principles of game and signaling theory used by social scientists and animal behaviorists' to model human and animal interactions. The model presented is helpful for understanding why this particular social formation results in the attitudes and behaviors found at the site that tend to minimize mistrust, disrespect, and stigmatization; and why legal regimes that prohibit or severely proscribe prostitution have the opposite effect. 13

Chapter seven summarizes the study's findings by answering the research questions below, discusses the study's application to prostitution reform as well as its limitations, and sets out a heuristic trajectory for further research. In particular, it addresses the questions: 5) What are the social and economic mechanisms that appear to make the venue unique? 6) Are the transactions as orderly and mutually respectful as they appear? Are the beliefs and practices that stigmatize prostitutes absent at the site? And do the conditions at Indygirls.com approximate a free market? 7) Do the exchanges facilitated at Indygirls.com constitute reform acceptable to those feminists who believe that prostitution reform is possible? 8) Can the findings be applied to other prostitution venues in order to advance prostitution reform policy? 14

II. LITERATURE REVIEW AND THEORETICAL BACKGROUND Historical Context of Prostitution Prostitution exists in every patriarchal society. A written record of it goes back over 2500 years. In ancient Greece, prostitution was legal and accepted as a legitimate sexual outlet, and men had no reason to feel ashamed about it. According to Hamel, prostitutes in Greece provided a necessary service because unmarried men had few other options for intimate relations with women. For the most part, respectable women of ancient Greece were confined to their home, and even there, were permitted very little contact with males who were not their relatives. Other than slaves and homosexual men, the unmarried man of Greece had few alternatives to prostitutes and although prostitutes were highly stigmatized, the practice that men enjoyed was generally "sanctioned by popular opinion" (Hamel 13-14). In ancient Greece, there was no mystery about who prostitutes and their clients were, or what motivated them, because prostitution was not considered a deviant behavior, but a necessary alternative for many men and unfortunate women. Street prostitutes in designated areas of the city painted their faces and dressed in provocative clothes to attract the attention of potential customers. Some, who were often slaves, even wore shoes with soles that left an imprint in the dusty streets spelling out erotic messages such as "follow me." "A man who did follow might be led to some out- of-the-way place outdoors — an alleyway, for example, or some other semi-private 15

Full document contains 307 pages
Abstract: This is an ethnographic study of a self-regulated Internet site that facilitates illegal female prostitution in South Florida. The purpose is to identify the social and economic characteristics of the site that can contribute to acceptable prostitution reform. The members of the site appear to sustain an orderly and mutually respectful exchange of sexual services for money, suggesting that certain social and economic features of this form of transaction diminish barriers otherwise present in typical forms of contemporary prostitution exchange. The study evaluates the thesis that when commercial sex is conducted in an open atmosphere of respect, trust and mutual understanding, within certain economic parameters, the beliefs and practices that stigmatize prostitutes and prostitution are neutralized. Evidence was generated through extensive observation of an online venue that approximates what prostitution would be like if open market exchange in sexual labor did exist. These data are supplemented by interviews with participants of the online community. Features of mutual respect, trust, and understanding, characteristically absent in traditional prostitution venues, appear to be part of an emerging community phenomenon that facilitates prostitution online. Thus, this study engages with the larger scholarly position that normalization of sex work is necessary for successful prostitution reform. This community utilizes a non-legal enforcement mechanism to facilitate cooperative exchanges based on establishing trust between participants. At the center of the cooperation system is a reputation mechanism that fosters trust between potential partners by encouraging participants to post honest reviews of their encounters with each other. Understanding the social order as a cooperation game where participants publicly signal each other in an attempt to find the most desirable partners explains the mutual trust and respect that participants have for each other. Because stigma and disrespect are founded on mistrust, this cooperation mechanism is effective in minimizing undesirable attitudes, beliefs, and practices that stigmatize and oppress prostitutes. This study suggests that prostitution reform acceptable to many feminists is possible. But in order for meaningful reform to work in practice, it must be accompanied by regulations carefully designed to protect the sexual autonomy of women without stigmatizing prostitutes.