When researching prostitution – sex workers (escort-girls) and their male clients – we face an object with a particular kind of social, political, ideological visibility. This obstacle can be better translated by adapting the concept of imaginative geographies coined by Edward Saïd (2004). Instead of geographies, in our research, on escort girls and their male clients, we look at an ‘imaginative prostitution’, designating a set of dreams, images, vocabularies (produced and disseminated both by non-scientific, political, and social sciences discourses) available to those researching or thinking about prostitution and its protagonists.
But, why is this imaginative prostitution an obstacle for research? Briefly, ‘imaginative prostitution’ produces a geometrical and social segregation: a ‘here’ and a ‘there’, isolating those people positioned ‘there’ from the social world, or at least far from a mainstream social world. That is, imaginative prostitution allows the production of existential inequalities (Therborn, 2006), giving unequal social recognition and social valuation of individuals. On the one hand it segregates women sex-workers from those non sex-workers: women sex-workers are perceived, described and theorized as particularly devoid of agency (i.e.: the use of the expression prostituted women rather than women sex workers or women prostitutes), objects of oppression and male domination, and even as instruments for the reproduction of patriarchal society.
On other hand, the set of images, representations, and discourses that are part of the imaginative prostitution allow no room to fully understand, analyze and explain men who seek commercial sex. Because their place in the prostitution system (the ultimate oppressor mechanism of women) is somehow predetermined: those men are oppressors, and agents of violence against women (Sanders, 2008).
Besides all this, from the point of view of imaginative prostitution there is a structural inequality segregating women sex-workers and men seeking commercial sex. This objective inequality (accessing resources, social prestige and power) would define prostitution and sex-work as a place of male dominance, oppression of women and reproduction of patriarchy.
On the other side of the imaginative prostitution wall
Sociological research into prostitution and its protagonists (both women sex-workers and men clients) needs to jump to the other side of this theoretical, ideological and political wall.
In doing so we define a specific theoretical, analytical standpoint (Myrdal, 1969), which can be defined by (i) mainstreaming prostitute women and male clients voices and lives; (ii) understating prostitution as social context; and (iii) by adopting two important theoretical steps – and dealing with the analytical consequences of those theoretical positions.
Mainstreaming prostitute women and male clients voices and lives
Women prostitutes are, most of the time, normal women systematically and ideologically represented as something extraordinary. The social visibility of women prostitutes is based on the exceptionality of their sexuality, which tends to overshadow other aspects of their lives. At the same time, client men and their lives will be as mundane as that of other men (clients or not) and women (prostitutes or not). They are ‘normal’ men ideologically represented as extraordinarily violent, aggressive and misogynistic.
Prostitution as a social context
Prostitution, as a specific and commercial form of sexuality, is a dimension of social reality and not any social structure that organizes or guides action. On the contrary, prostitution is a sphere of reality crossed by structural forces that help to define it. A context permeable to social conditions external to its borders, but is also defined by a restricted set of rules, norms and rituals confirmed and reproduced by social interaction.
Two theoretical steps
The first step is to adopt a sociology of motives (Mills, 1940). By doing so, the insuperable question that we must achieve as a research objective is that of the whys. Why do women begin to engage in prostitution when they are socialized against it and aware of the threat of the stigma of being a whore? Why do men resort to their paid sexual services in a general context of transformations in sexuality and rupture with the double moral standard towards equality between men and women in sexual experimentation? Moreover, a sociology of motives (Mills, 1940) is more concerned with socially defined situations than inner will or individual drives. Motives and actions are originated not by individuals’ inner will but by situations in which individuals find themselves. That is, the motivational structures of individuals depend on their societal and practical intelligibility frameworks. The reasons used to justify a certain behavior are immediately linked to a social situation, integrating that action into a broader relational framework and aligning the behavior with the norms that potentially evaluate it.
Taking into account this concern with the social roots of motives, the second theoretical step is to activate the concept of ‘ways of life’ (Capucha, 2005; Certeau, 1998) in order to make possible articulation between the biography of the actors, in this form of prostitution, social structures and their structural insertion. This is possible because the concept of ways of life works as a pivot between the structured and socially conditioned character of existence, the random and accidental nature of what happened and the conscious, intentional and reflective nature of individual history. The concept of ways of life takes account of the modalities through which individuals articulate the conditions of existence with the multiplicity of situations and needs for action that everyday life imposes. It enables the, unveiling of individually internalized social processes which orient the action, assigning of meaning to existence in the social world (position and view on others and the world) and the manipulation of the demands of daily life and structural conditions that function as mechanisms that generate entry in prostitution.
It is about opening a theoretical space for the problematization of the material conditions of those women and men in a relation of paid sexuality, reaffirming that the choice and reflective processes, where the actions and interactions of commercial sexuality are inscribed, must be understood can be an unevenly distributed resource.
Prostitution intersects with broader ways of life
We must not mistake the analysis of broader ways of life defined and lived by prostitution protagonists (escort-girls and male clients), which is our aim, with the idea of prostitution as a way of life. Prostitution, as it is experienced by escort-girls and clients, constitutes a social and interactional context. That is, a specific locus produced both by the inputs brought by the contextual plurality through which the social lives of women (escort-girls) and men (clients) are defined, and also by the structural forces and objective social conditions of life faced by them.
The analysis of the social and biographical pathways, through which women became escort-girls and men became clients of this specific type of prostitution, allows for the identification of three main ways of life intersecting several dimensions and the entrance to and maintenance of a position in the prostitution realm.
Way of life of a peaceful restlessness
Here we find modalities of daily existence marked by the oscillation between the peace of life apparently determined by external structural forces and the restlessness of the struggle to guarantee better living conditions. The restlessness is intensified when, paradoxically, the main ambition would be the routine and stabilization of life.
In this way of life we find those women more deprived of objective and symbolic resources, women living an incessant state of struggle to find new strategies for transforming living conditions allowing them to escape from cyclical situations of economic and existential precariousness.
Way of life deceiving life
In this way of life we find escort-girls who have lost hope, the illusion and expectations created during part of their lives and, above all, throughout their school career. These women live their lives managing the disparity between the aspirations produced by the education system and the opportunities that the world of work offers. We could say they are part of a deceived or disillusioned generation (Bourdieu, 1979): the labour market does not offer the comfort and economic security that they envisioned and needed to enforce individual projects based on the permanent intensification and emotionalization of life and distinctive consumption expectations. The labor market does not present insertion solutions that combine prestige with attractive work, and do not determine imprisonment for bureaucratic routines and repetitive processes. It does not offer them a job that is itself synonymous with escape from routine. Therefore, to become escort-girl is a way to escape deception of these expectations.
Way of life of stable excitement
Here we find both women (those escort-girls with privileged access to material, social and symbolic resources) for whom prostitution is only a part-time activity complementing a formal intellectual and highly skilled job) and men (clients) combining two distinct ethics of life (Thomas and Znaniecki, 1958) in a particularly intense way: (i) the traditional work ethic, marked by the desire for security and stability; (ii) the adventure ethic that is defined by the constant desire for new experiences and excitement, and the desire for recognition. Very briefly, we could say that for both women and men the entrance into prostitution is, at least partially, motivated by the quest of excitement for their lives.
Bourdieu, Pierre (1979), La Distinction: Critique Sociale du Jugement, Paris, Editions Minuit.
Capucha, Luís (2005), Desafios da Pobreza, Oeiras, Celta.
Certeau, Michel de (1998), A Invenção do Quotidiano 2 vols., Petrópolis, Vozes.
Mills, C. Wright (1940), “Situated actions and vocabularies of motive”, American Sociological Review, 5 (6), 904-913.
Myrdal, Gunnar (1969), Objectivity is Social Research, London, Random House.
Sanders, Teela (2008), Paying for Pleasure: Men Who Buy Sex, Cullompton, Willan.
Therborn, Göran (ed.) (2006), Inequalities of the World, London, Verso.
Thomas, William, Znaniecki, Florian (1958), The Polish Peasant in Europe and America: A Classic Work in Immigration History, New York, Dover Publications.
Bernardo Coelho is a sociologist and invited assistant professor at ISCSP and a researcher at CIEG-ISCSP, University of Lisbon. His latest research projects are: ‘Sexual harassment and bullying in the workplace in Portugal’ – funded by the EEA Grants – and ‘Gender equality in life course: Portugal in the European context’. He is consultant on gender issues, equality