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Risky Bussiness_Sanders_Review Jane Scoular

Risky Bussiness_Sanders_Review Jane Scoular

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Published by: niggras on Jun 22, 2009
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Teela Sanders,
Sex Work:A Risky Business
.Cullompton,UK:Willan Publishing,2005.256 pp.ISBN:1–843–92082–4 (pbk).£18.99.
In a field dominated by research on street-based prostitution, Teela Sanders’s firstbook ‘Sex Work: A Risky Business’ offers a much needed analysis of the complex-ity and plurality of contemporary sex markets.Grounded in the lived experiences of 55 women operating in a range of settings(from saunas, escort agencies and streets to private flats) in the city of Birming-ham, this fascinating study offers a real insight into the more empirically signifi-cant sectors of the sex industry. Avoiding what Weitzer calls ‘gratuitousmoralizing’ (2000: 6), a tendency all too common in this field, and in keeping with a tradition of sound ethnographic practice, Sanders looks beyond the ascrip-tion of deviancy to uncover the more normative and routine elements of sex-work culture. In providing an empirically detailed yet analytically nuanced account of the organizational features of commercial sex this work complements an already rich body of scholarship in this vein (O’Connell Davidson, 1998; Brewis andLinsted, 2000; West, 2000).
Sex Work: A Risky Business 
is also reminiscent of other more complex works inthe field (Phoenix, 1999; O’Neill, 2001) in terms of its ability to contextualizeand present complex, three-dimensional accounts of women’s lives. ‘In contrastto the homogeneous, perpetually victimized, and linear subject embedded in legaldiscourse’ (Scoular, 2004: 352) and present in a number of domination theories,Saunders refuses to allow structural constraints to collapse and flatten subjects whoare presented as sentient and reflexive, resisting strictures imposed upon them andattempting to control their circumstances by assessing risks, adapting andchanging practices as they learn from their own and others’ shared experiences.By the same token the author is not naïve and is careful not to overplay theascription of agency, taking care to balance accounts with instances when struc-tural divisions and occupational contexts hinder an individual’s ability to controloutcomes. By combining a socio-psychological with a socio-structural analysis,Sanders is able to overcome the classic individual vs. structure/victimization vs.autonomy dualism. Rather, the interaction between women’s narratives andorganizational and societal structures appears as a dynamic, the balance of whichis highly contingent, and offers varying opportunities and varying quality of spacesfor control, self management and co-operation. Power in this context is not viewedas a commodity owned by one group over another but is relational and, whilerecognized as being in many cases both economically and legally structured, itsimpact and its attendant risks are ‘not accepted but contested and negotiated by  women in their interactions with both external structures and personal relationsincluding economic relationships with clients’ (p.41).By viewing women as subjects managing risks in prostitution, rather than as‘risky subjects’ per se, Saunders’s work joins a tradition of post-structuralist work  which marks a departure from previous studies on prostitution which focus uponan uncritical acceptance of negative criminological and/or epidemiologicalcategories and, in doing so, (sometimes unconsciously, sometimes not) consoli-date and legitimatize increased penal and medicalized forms of discipline and
Book Reviews499
control. Sanders achieves an important fissure between subjects and their apparent‘spoiled identity’ by moving away from modernist discourse and instead locatesher study within the wider academic literature of governance, risk and regulation.Risk becomes an important device which serves to animate a discussion of the varying degrees and opportunities for agency and control in sex markets accordingto the interaction between individual biography and distinctive market structures. At the same time Sanders’s work provides empirical depth to an often abstractdiscussion of risk and social theory, serving to highlight the importance of gender,class and location.Sanders’s absorbing account situates women within a complex milieu of normsnegotiated by a range of actors including managers and owners of premises whohave an interest in maintaining a professional and safe working environment andclients who, like women (and unlike the increasing rhetoric of criminality anddangerousness), operate as risk assessors – an approach Sanders will expand uponin her future work. This promises to make a similar impact on the discipline as thisstudy which is already an important and rich insight into sex workers’ self assess-ment of harms and reveals a shared hierarchy of risks, judged according to theirperceived consequences and the degree of control that can reasonably be asserted. Accordingly, health is viewed as one of the more straightforward and controllableaspects of sex work, with condom use seen as integral to safety. Violence isconsidered a more unpredictable harm and attempts are made by women to reduceits occurrence through a complex system of precautions and workplace practicesincluding careful selection of clients, information sharing and price setting all of  which leads women to report that violence is a rare occurrence in indoor settings.Strikingly it is the emotional and psychological consequences of selling sex that isof most concern, the biggest risk, the hardest to control and recover from. Main-taining a separation between private and work identities involves a great deal of emotional work on the part of sex workers who feel less able to control the risksto self and others of the ‘irreparable’ collapse between working and private lifethat discovery engenders. Yet rather than supporting women’s efforts to manage such risks, Sanders,following Zatz, notes that these organizational aspects are in fact negatively influ-enced ‘by its legal and social sanctions (Zatz, 1997: 300) especially regimes of criminalization which do little to support women’s capacity for control and agency.Indeed Sanders notes that the quasi-criminalization of sex work in the UK meansthat policing, rather than supporting women’s safety, contradicts many of theroutine elements of risk management, creating daily obstacles which women haveto evade in order to avoid detection and further stigma.This insight is vital in terms of recent policy reforms that continually fail torecognize the structuring effect of law and uncritically seeks to increase legalcontrol without critically reflecting upon the social, spatial and discursive exclusionthat previous efforts have reified. An optimist may see some hope in the recentHome Office review that seeks to ‘allow’ women to work in pairs indoors andTeela’s and others’ work may have been influential here. Yet one wonders if thefine detail of such rich empirical work has been read if one considers the way in which self regulation remains strictly constrained by the state who seeks to extend

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