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Goodbye, Bi-Co...Hello World!

Alice's picture
To exist outside of the Bi-Co bubble (link)
As I walked into Rittenhouse square, I was nervous and excited. But mostly nervous. I knew what my goal was. I had a purpose. But the idea of approaching random people on the street, of disturbing their time to answer my questions, was daunting. Would if no one will talk to me? Would if no one wants to answer my questions? Would if I’m too scared to actually approach anyone? I began to contemplate why I ever decided to do this in the first place. Wouldn’t it be easier to just draw a picture? Or read a book and talk about it? Probably. But then I remembered why I was there in the first place.
            Throughout the course we’ve discussed copious amounts of gender and sexuality theory. We have read texts by Kate Bornstein and Sherry Ortner, learnt about disability, watched films on sex work, yet a common theme in our discussions is how these texts relate to the world around is. While it is important to learn the history of a movement in order to gain a historical context and formulate opinions on issues with a theoretical base, it is important to gain knowledge from experience. To seek knowledge from sources outside of academia. To find out what people of different social and cultural locations think.
            We went around in class talking about what we learnt through this course and many, including myself, concluded that much of our knowledge came from stories our classmates told. So I thought, if I learnt this much from the people in the class, I wonder what I could learn from people outside of the bi-co. I also was curious to hear men’s perspectives on issues, coming from a class of predominantly self-identified women. Therefore, I decided to journey out of the Main Line and into the city of Philadelphia to conduct a survey and learn from the experiences of others.
            Now that I had an action plan, picking the topic to explore was easy. Coming from a class in which we discussed issues of sex work extensively, I understood the current issues. I understood Kamala Kempadoo’s argument that sex work should be legitimized in order to provide better conditions for sex workers. To provide them with the agency to make choices about their own bodies and to obtain protection from the government to ensure their health and safety is not compromised. I understood Chandra Mohanty’s idea of social history in that we, as western, first world feminists must avoid imposing our own understanding of what is moral and right onto those who have experienced an entirely different history. Having an extensive theoretically basis, I have formulated my own opinions on sex work and am passionate about the issue, yet what I still crave are perspectives outside of academia.
            Thus, I found myself walking through Rittenhouse Square, looking at the faces, the body language, of people as I walked by, mentally evaluating their hypothetical receptiveness to my questions. I hesitatingly approached my first candidates, an older couple standing and talking. They took one look at me, said they were busy and proceeded to walk in the opposite direction. Hmm, I thought, perhaps this won’t be so easy…Yet, I was not discouraged and continued on my way. An hour and a half later, with thirteen interviews completed, I felt satisfied. I managed to interview ten men and three women and gained interesting insights into not only sex work, but feminism, gender, and sexuality.
            Of the ten men interviewed, the youngest were 22 and the oldest, 55, with an even distribution of men in their 30s and 40s. All the men interviewed self-identified as men and were often surprised to be asked what their gender was at all. Typical responses were, “Well,” pointing to themselves, “obviously I’m a guy.” Of all the men interviewed, only one identified themselves as a feminist. When asked to elaborate, it seemed like they were uncomfortable taking on the term feminist because they didn’t consider themselves “die-hard” and we’re “not going to protest in the streets or anything.” Yet, even those who said they agreed that men and women should be equal were reluctant to call themselves a feminist. One man who identified as gay had an interesting opinion on the question. He claimed that he used to consider himself a feminist, and that his opinions are the same, but that contemporary society treats men differently and it is now difficult to be a man. He felt that feminism was not as important of an issue these days. His partner, when interviewed, disagreed and “totally” identified as a feminist. He argued that men still rule the world and coming from the perspective of a gay man and therefore a marginalized point of view, he identified with women in their marginalized role. He went on to say that his role models have always been strong, female women. When asked whether he thought sex work was immoral, he said no. He claimed that there are issues with forced prostitution, but that if it is a choice, it is ok. He made an interesting parallel to an office job in that even there, you are selling your body and your mind. What I found to be the most interesting in my interview with this couple was that both stated that they had been call-boys in college and thus were directly affected by the issue.
            Interestingly, all but one man said that sex work is not immoral. While that one man said that sex work is inherently dirty and gross, the others (to generalize) claimed that it is a profession and as long as someone engages in sex work by choice, then it is ok. What was considered immoral was engaging in sex work, being a consumer. Many did agree, however, that it is degrading to women, but if it is going to happen anyways, the best course of action is to legitimize sex work to ensure the safety and health of the workers. A system should be instituted that requires regular health clinic check ups and controlled wages. While most men interviewed had already formulated opinions on sex work, rarely were they passionate about the issue and claimed that it was quite separate from their lives.
            After interviewing the ten men, I interviewed three women out of curiosity to see if opinions would differ. These women were aged 27 and 22, so it would be inaccurate to generalize based on a small information pool. That said, all the women interviewed did not identify as feminists. One elaborated by saying that she did not consider herself a feminist in the “former definition of the word [in which] women were way more strident and outright..[but that she was] all for women’s rights.” Their opinions of sex work were more varied. While one woman argued that sex work would be safer if it was legitimized, the other two women (who happened to be twins) felt that legitimizing sex work would make it seem like an “ok” profession and women would choose sex work over more “legitimate” and “less degrading” jobs.
            Coming out of the experience, I was fascinated that so many people were willing to talk to me about sex work or talk to me at all! While I did not venture into the city in search of a particular trend and I think it would be inappropriate to draw broad conclusions without a bigger and more random sample size, I did find some of the responses particularly interesting. Firstly, I was intrigued by the negative response to the word feminist. It seemed like most people did not understand what it meant to be a feminist at all. They assumed that all feminists were what are modernly called “nazi-feminists” who don’t shave their legs and are overly-aggressive advocates for women’s rights. While I was incredibly tempted to argue against the participants of the survey who said such things, I understood that the intent of this excursion was not an act of activism, but to learn from the people I interviewed. I was also surprised that most of the interviewees did not think that sex work is immoral. Without knowledge of the progressive ideas of theorists such as Mohanty and Kempadoo who specialize in issues of sex work, I thought perspectives of sex work would be more conservative. Yet, of the three women I interviewed, two of the women had more negative associations with sex work, as opposed to the men in which only two out of ten found the work to be immoral. I wondered if these differences in opinion were related to the gender of the participants.
            Upon returning from my learning adventure in the city, I asked the members of our class the same five questions and was interested in how the responses would compare. Twelve women answered the survey, all of similar ages (18-21 years old), and most of their responses were quite similar to one another’s. Only two out of the twelve participants do not consider themselves to be feminists. An explanation for the disparity between the two groups (in class and outside of class) on the issue of feminism is that the members of the class most likely have a more accurate perception of what it is to be a feminist. Also, the members of the class are likely more interested in feminism as it is a gender and sexuality class, which discusses a variety of feminist issues. When asked about their opinions of sex work, there was a surprising amount of similar responses. Most agreed that sex work is not immoral, but that the issue was more complex than ideas of morality. One participant said that, “[It] depends on the context and the environment. I don’t see morals as having much to do with it. People either participate in sex work because they have to or they want to. In cases where they have to, what might be “wrong” is the extenuating circumstances that lead them to be forced or have no choice but to participate in sex work.” The general consensus was that if men or women choose to enter into sex work, then it is ok because it is their bodies. It is forced prostitution that raises issues of morality. Therefore, it is not surprising that eleven out of the twelve participants said that sex work should be legitimized to ensure the safety of the workers. One person, however, said that decriminalizing and legitimizing sex work would not be an adequate source of protection and that sex workers would still be quite vulnerable.
             Reflecting upon this experience, not only venturing into Philadelphia and asking questions but comparing the answers to those of people from the class, I primarily learnt that sex work is not a feminist issue: there really is not a feminist response to issues of sex work. On the one hand, one could claim that sex work is immoral because it is degrading to women. This could be a feminist response in that they are trying to strengthen women and protect their bodies. On the other hand, if one claims that sex work is not immoral as long as it is a choice of free will, this is also a feminist response in that they are encouraging the embracement of sexuality and providing agency. I was also surprised by the negative connotations surrounding the word feminist. It appears that there is a lot of work to be done to clarify what it means to be a feminist in the first place. Going out and hearing all this negativity made me want to do an activist project as opposed to simply hearing what people have to say.
            That said, my intent for this final project was not to make broad conclusions about opinions of sex work within academia and outside, or between men and women because I simply do not have enough research to make those kinds of assumptions. My intent was to find out what people in the world have to say. To engage with something other than a text! I also feel like simply bringing up these issues with people who may not ordinarily think of them was, even in the slightest way, a form of activism. I feel satisfied that I was able to learn from the stories of others and perhaps those reading this will learn from the story of my experience. That’s what it’s all about, isn’t it? Revising and reformulating our opinions based on our experiences and what we learn from others. That is one of the many things I have learnt through this class: to always ask questions. You never know what you’ll discover.



Kempadoo, Kamala and Jo Doezema. "Globalizing Sex Workers' Rights: Introduction," Global Sex Workers: Rights, Resistance, and Redefinition. Routledge, 1998.

Mohanty, Chandra Talpade. "Women Workers and Capitalist Scripts: Ideologies of Domination, Common Interests, and the Politics of Solidarity." Feminist Genealogies, Colonial Legacies, Democratic Futures. Taylor & Francis, Inc, 1996.

Hubbard, Philip. Sex and the City: Geographies of Prostitution in the Urban West. Ashgate Publishing Company, 1999.

Butler, Judith. "Gender Trouble, Feminist Theory, and Psychoanalytic Discourse." Feminism/Postmodernism. New York and London: Routledge, 1990.

Chapkis, Wendy. "The Emotional Labor of Sex," Live Sex Acts. Routledge, 1991.