Academic journal article Wagadu: a Journal of Transnational Women's and Gender Studies

One Editorial

Academic journal article Wagadu: a Journal of Transnational Women's and Gender Studies

One Editorial

Article excerpt

Sex workers throughout the world share a uniquely maligned mystique that simultaneously positions them as sexually desirable and socially repulsive. In order to better understand the dynamics of this phenomenon cross-culturally, this special issue presents thirteen articles that focus upon the everyday lives of sex workers, broadly defined as those who exchange sexual services for something of value. While recent years have witnessed a dramatic outpouring of feminist scholarship that situates sex work within its broader socioeconomic and political contexts cross-culturally2, there remains a tendency for academic scholarship to unconsciously reinforce the social stigmatization of sex workers by depicting them solely through their income-earning activities. This burgeoning research has convincingly demonstrated that sex work is embedded in a complex social matrix that often centers upon sex workers' perceptions of their individual choices and responsibilities3.

Accordingly, this special issue fills a significant gap in the literature by examining how individual biography intersects with structural position to condition certain categories of individuals to believe that their self-esteem, material worth and possibilities for life improvement are invested in their bodies and sexual labor. Such beliefs inevitably combine with sex workers' knowledge of their marginal, conflicted social status to inform many of their decision-making strategies. Articles in this issue thus illustrate the processes by which sex workers are able to see themselves as agents and entrepreneurs despite pervasive social messages to the contrary.

In the articles that follow, a nuanced and multi-faceted image emerges regarding the social networks and survival strategies sex workers throughout the world employ as they navigate social stigma and, in some cases, criminalization. Kathleen Weinkauf beautifully illustrates how street sex workers use language as a tool with which to establish quasi-familial bonds that provide privileges as well as obligations. Drawing upon her interviews with street sex workers in the Southwestern United States, she argues that insight gained from these forms of linguistic usage vividly demonstrates the impact that criminalization has had upon the women she studied, particularly in terms of their constant need to seek protection from potential violence through participation in social networks. Thus a female street sex worker might refer to "my folks" or "my wives-in-law" to describe the group of women she works with under a single pimp, called "Daddy", who controls the group's finances and activities, while a highly respected "bottom bitch" fills a somewhat maternal role by providing for sex workers' basic needs, such as food and shelter. Most notably from a policy perspective, Weinkauf argues that the level of risk and violence the women in her study faced encouraged sex workers "to maintain kin structures and the sense of obligation and protection that accompany such structures", even when this seemed a counterproductive exercise.

Tiantian Zheng further analyzes the theme of social networks in her compelling portrayal of sanpei xiaojie, sex workers in the hostess bars of Dalian, a bustling port city in northeastern China. She argues that sex workers' opportunities to advocate for their rights by forming allegiances based upon their rural places of origin are limited because of state anti-prostitution policies that, in practice, result in a violent working environment. The vast majority of sanpei xiaojie are rural migrants who, without a coveted urban residence permit entitling them to work, are pushed into low status service sector jobs. Sanpei xiaojie do form bonds and alliances with one another, yet the atmosphere of constant competition for clients, social stigma and the hierarchical structure of the sex industry render such bonds fragile and unstable at best. While such women have some social status "in their hometowns as brokers of urban 'modernity'", they are also constantly subject to arrest through random police raids (which take place under the guise of anti-trafficking activities) and face a climate that constantly reminds them of their precarious positions as rural migrants. …

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