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Totem: The University of Western Ontario Journal of

Anthropology
Volume 20 | Issue 1 Article 9

7-1-2012

A Brief History of the Anthropology of Sexuality,


and Theory in the Field of Women’s Sex Work
Sophie A. Maksimowski
University of Guelph, smaksimo@uoguelph.ca

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Recommended Citation
Maksimowski, Sophie A. (2012) "A Brief History of the Anthropology of Sexuality, and Theory in the Field of Women’s Sex Work,"
Totem: The University of Western Ontario Journal of Anthropology: Vol. 20: Iss. 1, Article 9.
Available at: http://ir.lib.uwo.ca/totem/vol20/iss1/9

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A Brief History of the Anthropology of Sexuality, and Theory in the Field
of Women’s Sex Work
Abstract
This article provides an overview of the historical development of theory in the Anthropology of Sexuality.
Taking a Foucaultian perspective, the discourse on sexuality that emerged in the Victorian era will be critiqued
as a constructed tool to ensure social and moral conformity. Discourse, particularly with respect to sexuality,
has been a means to conscript bounded groups of people to serve historically defined goals in the production
of knowledge. The application of discourse on sexuality in an attempts to understand the “primitive Other”
will be contrasted to the discourses of sexuality applied to prostitution. Building on this knowledge and
evolution of anthropology theory on sexuality, post-modern conceptualizations of sexuality, resistance, and
social constructionism will be explored and applied to sex work in a contemporary female-bodied context.

Keywords
Anthropology of Sexuality, theory, history, knowledge, power, discourse, sex work, Foucault, “the Other”,
social constructionism, resistance

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iss1/9
Maksimowski: The Anthropology of Sexuality: Discourse and Sex Work

A Brief History of the political and social upheavals of the times


Anthropology of Sexuality, and (Lyons and Lyons 2004:119). This is
especially true of the Victorian attitude of
Theory in the Field of Women’s Sex
discovery, in which upper-class men sat
Work down in their studies or set out on ships to
collect and analyze information about sexual
Sophie Maksimowski practices in exotic climates. Spawning
cultural evolutionist models, the purpose of
Introduction these exploits was to gain a better
Since the Enlightenment, Western understanding of the path of progress within
discourse has employed reason as a tool in European civilization through knowing the
prevailing over irrationality through the Other – the savage at the bottom of the
pursuit of scientific fact over fiction. As evolutionary chain from whence we came.
theorists such as Michel Foucault (1980) Thus, to know ourselves and understand our
argue, the dawn of scientific professions and human nature, we must understand our
specifically the medicalization of the body former Other self.
enabled the production of discourses on These early first-contact accounts
sexual deviance and normality, justifying the were merely a starting point in the
need for regulation and control of the sexual production of discourse on sexuality as a
body, and the criminalization of non- tool to conscript bounded groups of people
conformity by the state. Foucault theorized to serve historically defined goals in the
that the ultimate representation or production of knowledge. Lyons and Lyons
manifestation of such power is the self- apply the term conscription to the
regulating, conforming individual. The use
of public and academic discourse as a tool deployment of data about sexual
for the construction of sexual bodies, discourses and practices among
identities, practices and communities ‘Others’ within discourses of
politically and historically situates them in a power, morality, pleasure and
manner that reifies categories, creating therapy in the metropolitan
people within them as objects for control, as cultures where anthropological
well as subjects for community and disunity. texts have predominately been
However, Marshall Sahlins (2002) on produced and read. Conscription
Foucault wrote that power in this sense may imply the reaffirmation of
comes from above and below; as it existing social hierarchies or it
constructs and embodies us, individuals can may involve what Marcus and
potentially harness this power for other Fischer (1986) call ‘cultural
purposes through resistance to counter critique’ (2004:18).
hegemonic discourse and its (re)production.
Carole Vance (2005) also writes that Thus, conscription is a diachronic process,
marginal groups who do not fit within the entailing forces of power and inequality, and
dominant discourse are able to “create their the privileging of certain voices over others
own subcultures and worlds of meaning” through dialogue formation: the author-
(26). itative ethnographic account. It can be
As numerous authors have noted, positive in its Othering, viewing processes
“[m]uch writing on the history of of colonization as assimilative toward the
anthropology occurs as though the discipline sexual behaviours of peoples. It can also
existed in a social vacuum” ignoring the

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demonstrate sexual difference in the Recognizing the ambiguity of the term sex
practices and customs that serve beneficiary worker as an individual whose work may
purposes in some cultures, such as two- not entail heterosexual intercourse, given the
spirited individuals in First Nations cultures, limitations of space, this one aspect of sex
who often act as community mediators or work is generally what I will refer to in this
healers occupying both gender fields. paper. Taking such a simplistic definition of
Negative conscription is exemplified in the the term sex worker in this way does not
racialization of primitive sexuality, a process adequately grant space to GLBTQI (gay,
in which early anthropologists like Mead lesbian, bi, trans, queer, and intersexed) sex
and Malinowski were complicit. Ethno- worker voices, yet it complies with
graphic accounts also demonstrate that mainstream understandings of what sex has
conscription can be more ambiguous: come to be defined as: an invented term with
questioning the basis of sexual fact is the a typically heterosexual (though also male
manner in which the same ethnographic data homosexual) understanding of implied
can and has been used to support both penetration.
negative and positive conscription of
peoples to specific categories and discourses Victorian discourses on sexuality
(Lyons and Lyons 2004:18-19). Regardless Foucault wrote that in the nineteenth
of their use, conscription and discourse century, public discourse about sexuality
creation are largely a means for was effectively used
essentialism, and the representation of
difference; they are tools to delineate …to bring the sexual behaviour
boundaries of what things are and what they of women, children, patients,
cannot be. This essentialism can be strategic church members, and private
in its exotification, as a tool for the political citizens under the control of
representation of identity to gain access to agents of authority (husbands,
community or rights. doctors, teachers, courts) but
Rousseau (1991:xiii) writes that the also to aid in the legitimation of
purpose of theory is “to reinvigorate that authority by providing, as a
historical studies” through the critique of the major justification of the
paradigms and discourses that produced hierarchy upon which it was
them. In this essay, I seek to apply the above based, evidence of a dangerous
conceptualizations of discourse, and sexual depravity among the
discourses of sexuality, to female sex work. lower ranks (Foucault 1980, in
This essay will focus on predominately cis Lyons and Lyons 2004: 52).
females following the continuum of Western
discourses on sex, sexuality and prostitution His use of discourse in this sense implies
since before the Victorian era. Trans refers that discourse is a means through which
to individuals whose gender and biological power becomes rationalized and enacted
sex cannot be conflated, while cis is a upon the individual. Discourse determined
categorical representation of women whose “where and when it was not possible to talk
biological sex aligns with the socially about such things in which circumstances,
accepted gender role they perform (The among which speakers, and within which
Peak, October 2011). In this paper, I use the social relationships” (Foucault 1980, in
term prostitute in a historical sense and sex Lyons and Lyons 2004: 55). How discourses
worker in a more contemporary context. are conceived and perceived is historically

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determined, and discourses change through- who suffered from a biologically-determined


out human history as does culture. predisposition to immoral and lewd sexual
In the eighteenth century, European behavior (Foucault 1980; Rousseau 1991;
society needed to talk about sex in order to Truong 1990). All these aspects of Victorian
sanction what is normal and morally society set as the preferred standard a
allowed, and to control sexual practice. monogamous Christian family that practices
Publications on the dangers of masturbation sex as reproduction.
and the immorality of contraception served Early anthropological discussion of
this purpose. Further, laws against sexuality in the Victorian era silenced
prostitution and homosexuality between female voices and privileged the voices and
consenting adults acted to police deviant sexual concerns of middle-class male
persons and prevent the spread of Europeans. The discourses on sexuality that
immorality and disease to non-deviant emerged from these dialogues were then
families. Medicalized discourse in the later applied to contemporary topics such as the
nineteenth and early twentieth century institution of marriage or slavery and the
naturalized the status of the middle-class debate between polygenesis and monogeneis
heterosexual, problematizing other-sex lust - of whether savages and civilized
as perversion, along with masturbation, and Europeans belonged to the same human
the use of contraception (Foucault 1980; species (Lyons and Lyons 2004). Weston
Freedman and D’Emilio 2005; Katz 2007; (2011) argues that this “search for a missing
Lyons and Lyons 2004). This discourse link” between primitives and apes “cannot
served to control citizens and bring them be understood apart from the concomitant
under the authority of the state and its search for a rationale for domination” (15-
institutions. Under this discourse, “the 16). Early anthropologists explored human
Victorian concept of the ‘true’ mechanically sexuality at a distance during this period,
linked biology with psychology” as studying exotic sexual practices of other far-
“anatomy equaled psychology” (Katz away peoples in order to better understand
2007:33). The ‘normal’, married human sexuality. Lyons and Lyons (2004)
heterosexual was never the object of study, write that through these discourses, “the
as they were legitimate and did not need to Other or the primitive [was] conscripted in
be studied and fixed (Foucault 1980). the service of pressing contemporary
Foucault (1980) theorized that we have concerns, whether or not that conscription
repressed sexuality, but that it has been used [was] expressly acknowledged” (55).
as a key tool in constructing identity around Early anthropologists such as Maine
a powerful discourse, defining normal and and Morgan viewed primitive societies as
deviant sexual practices and conflating those less morally evolved, as they lacked
with sexual identities (Foucault 1980). To an European-like institutions of marriage.
extent, prostitution has been tolerated Human evolutionary progress was equated
throughout history as an institution with decreased sexual license and challenges
necessary to maintain social order and against primitive promiscuity (Lyons and
prevent other deviant acts, such as sodomy, Lyons 2004). Thus, the evolutionary model
from challenging the heterosexual order and of family forms privileged notions of
patriarchal values (Truong 1990). However, patriarchy and ignored the possibility for
prostitutes along with other ‘lustful’ women equality between the sexes, naturalizing
were medicalized, labeled as nympho- unequal sex and gender relations in
maniacs, ‘hysterical’ and nervous creatures Victorian society (Lyons and Lyons

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2004:75). Binaries of civilized and savage anthropologists of the day to report on


women were maintained by evolutionary observed primitive sexual practice such as
theorists of the time, describing all Africans marriage by capture and other forms of
as oversexed, sensual, immoral and without ‘barbarism’ as real. However, imaginations
shame (Lyons and Lyons 2004). Early of these acts, or fictions, such as literary
anthropology was imbued with a male sense novels on primitive-European sexual
of exploration, which defined the Other encounters would not be acceptable to a
“female as the object of discovery” (Gilman Victorian public readership (Lyons and
1985:108). Female sexual nature was Lyons 2004:76). Early ethnographies in this
medicalized within scientific discourse with way were removed from the imaginary
the aid of ethnographic accounts. For contexts of the persons who had constructed
example, this statement from the 1819 them, were read as true, scientific accounts
Dictionary of Medical Sciences theorized of sexual difference, and granted moral
that the higher degree of lascivity among implications in a public discourse of
black females could be attributed to “their sexuality.
sexual organs [which are] much more
developed than those of whites” (Gilman Late 19th to early 20th Century and the
1985:85). Like prostitutes, African slaves – emergence of anthropology as a discipline
through their pathological sexual difference Ideas of racial and sexual difference
- were said to contribute greatly to the were circulating in a period in which
spread of syphilis and venereal disease to Victorian moral ideals were being
European men and their families. European questioned, along with the institutional
women and men were alternatively believed arrangements they maintained (Lyons and
to be respectable and sexually controlled, Lyons 2011). Social upheaval and liberalism
the epitome of progress (Lyons and Lyons during this period called into question the
2004). Thus, we can see a very early prevailing discourse on sexuality within
equation of prostitutes with anomalous European society, and these trends were
sexuality, savagery and a lack of civility and reflected in the discipline of anthropology
morality – as opposed to the European men (Lyons and Lyons 2011). The replacement
who acquired sex from prostitutes, slaves, of the “promiscuous savage” with a more
and other primitives. These constructions of ambiguous primitive sexual nature occurred
the oversexed savage women and the during a period in which “…the institution
‘criminal’ or ‘insane’ prostitute, contributed of marriage and sexual relationships of all
to the discourse on sexuality the need to kinds had become a matter for public
control the Victorian female body (Gilman scrutiny” (Lyons and Lyons 2004:119). But
1985:107; Lyons and Lyons 2004:104). insofar as this was occurring, state control
It was deemed appropriate to filled spaces in which religious control had
theorize about sex and sexuality removed become more lax (Foucault 1980; Vance
from a civilized Western Europe that had 2005). Thus there existed in this time
surpassed the stages of promiscuity being multiple and conflicting discourses of social
studied in the habits of Other, non- purity and liberalization (Lyons and Lyons
Europeans. This was a necessary part of 2004). Feminism grew in response to the
constructing one’s own (Western European) double standards set in place for men and
history, and knowing how civilization women, and feminists positioned themselves
(defined in male European terms) had on either side of the social purity movement
emerged. It was acceptable for of the late 18th and early 20th Centuries.

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Some called for male abstinence on the basis sexual identity are absent in many groups,
of disease prevention or morality, and others though the ethnographer was able to label
for women’s liberation (Lyons and Lyons sexual practices in accordance with Western
2004:121; Truong 1990). discourse. As a functionalist, Malinowski
Anthropological representations of viewed a society’s role in regulating sex as
primitive sexuality were radically altered necessary to its functioning, since human
during this time period, but this does not sexuality was an instinctual force needing
mean that evolutionary fantasies were regulation. Rather than focusing on sexual
replaced by true accounts featuring native difference as a product of racial difference
voices. In these new discourses, primitives or cultural evolution, anthropologists in the
were often cast by anthropologists as under- early twentieth century wanted to explain
sexed, not possessing the basic human sexual practices in the context of specific
sexual drive. Margaret Mead’s ethnographic bounded cultures – the ways in which
work during this period highlighted the culture naturalizes sex and a fixed sexual
rigidity of Western notions of social identity (Vance 2005). Institutions thus
morality rather than danger in the primitive functioned to control the sex drive, and
sex. Mead did not believe in a universal reproduction, irrelevant of a need for labour
human nature, but saw sexual behavior as organization within economic systems
socially conditioned by culture and (Truong 1990). More complex societies
environmental factors. We could study these were able to progress through the control of
specifics of sex and sexuality in other sex through such institutions.
cultures to better understand our own and its To the extent that early anthropology
limitations, as Mead did in 1928 with questioned sexuality as universally biolog-
Coming of Age in Samoa. However, ically given, they made a significant
functionalism took an apolitical and contribution to cross-cultural studies of
ahistorical approach to the study of sexuality. These studies, especially those
sexuality. It failed to question in whose popularized by Mead, caused the West to
interest these controls were placed, on question its discourse on sexuality as natural
whose bodies and which particular and necessary for the functioning of human
sexualities (Lyons and Lyons 2011). society. While Mead described the existence
Through anthropologists such as of sexual norms and taboos in Samoa, she
Bronislaw Malinowski, there was a greater also demonstrated the absence of Samoan
attempt to bring ethnography into the realm conceptualizations of adult sexual per-
of science, and to be more precise in the versions, and an accepted fluidity of gender
discipline’s use of language applied to social boundaries and sexual practices outside of
groups and customs (Lyons and Lyons institutional confines, such as marriage
2011). Malinowski (1929) wrote that sex (Lyons and Lyons 2011:127-8; Mead 1928).
permeates everything and that one can study She also demonstrated this in Sex and
its cultural meaning in a scientific way. He Temperament in Three Primitive Societies
studied Trobriand Island culture and wrote (1935). Thus, anthropologists like Mead and
The Sexual Life of Savages in 1929. Malinowski presented practices from other
According to Malinowski, less organized cultures in a way that necessarily challenged
societies also conceived of sexual morality the dominant Western discourse on
in a rather loose way, and thus prostitution sexuality.
was absent (Malinowski 1929; Truong 1990:
22-24). Similarly, notions of homo/hetero-

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Mid to late 20th Century and 1970s questioned male dominance and
anthropological discourse on sexuality patriarchal institutions that perpetuated
From the 1930s until the 1970s, there women’s oppression and sexual exploit-
was a silence in anthropology on the topic of ation. Conflicting views of prostitution arose
sexuality (Lyons and Lyons 2004; 2011), in which female sex workers could be
which was subsumed under the subfield of viewed as victims or as rational actors, paid
kinship studies – sexuality as marriage and for a service women are traditionally
reproduction (Vance 2005). To this day, a expected to give for free (Truong 1990:31).
great deal of the material written by The 1970s debates about prostitution and
anthropologists regarding sexuality has pornography were rooted in the discourse on
remained peripheral to the discipline’s gender of the times, which viewed
theoretical and practical framework. Weston prostitutes as either exploited by male
(2011:9) argues that anthropologists patriarchy or complicit in its reproduction
typically have taken a “flora-and-fauna (Freedman and Thorne 1984). This victim/
approach” to sexuality, collecting accounts agent debate is largely ongoing among sex
of sexual acts as ‘facts’ occurring in the workers, activists, scholars, and organiz-
natural environment and recording them in ations today in the debate over sex work as
the ethnographic form. Carole Vance (2005) exploitation or empowerment.
similarly argues that the theoretical During the late 1970s, Marxism grew
framework structuring anthropological as a theoretical paradigm within anthrop-
studies of sexuality remained little changed ology. Political economy deconstructs
between 1920 and 1990. Institutional forms ideological assumptions about gender roles
were privileged over human practice, and relations within historical and economic
especially silencing same-sex narratives of processes of production and exploitation.
sexuality (Lyons and Lyons 2004). This Under this paradigm, “[s]exual morality and
silence also applies to the study of sexuality ideological assumptions about sexual roles
in the West, predominately of white and are analyzed in terms of the formation of
working-class sexuality (Freedman and subjects fit for historically specific socio-
D’Emilio 2005:169). economic relations” such as slavery, or
In the 1970s, early Structuralism à la prostitution (Truong 1990:4). This approach
Levis-Strauss took an ahistorical account of tends to theorize about and categorize
sexuality through its focus on ideology and people based on their class or ethnicity and
social systems as manifestations of deeper, is not as subjective (individual-focused) as a
all-pervading cultural and psychological social constructionist approach (Truong
structures (Truong 1990). Feminist anthrop- 1990:3-6).
ologists like Sherry Ortner (1972) used In the 1980s, feminist anthrop-
structuralist theory and the binary ologists like Henrietta Moore (1988) were
oppositions of Levi-Strauss to question the critiquing the discipline for its white male
passive role assigned to women in the bias, and the dynamics of power involved in
domestic sphere as Others, outside of men’s knowledge production within a sexist
domain of culture. There was a recognition ideological framework. The impact of
of women’s oppression as specific to feminism politicized sexual theory and
historical processes and social and economic brought theories of biological determinism
systems, and perpetuated through cultural and essentialism under question, contrib-
structures and discourses (Truong 1990). uting to social constructionist approaches
The second wave feminist movement of the (Vance 2005). The essentialist tradition had

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privileged male/female sex as a dichotomy, “structures of agency” - are also able to


ignoring the contextual issues of gender, transcend them (12-19). Thus, agency is not
class, and ethnicity as they inform one’s acted out in a social vacuum but within
understanding of sexuality and one’s sexual relations of power.
identity (Truong 1990). Social construct-
ionists conceived of gender and sexuality as Postmodern discourses on sexuality within
formulated by the individual, through their anthropology, 1990s to the present
roles and identity within community and Postmodern theorists have critiqued
society. In this way, gender as a biological the discipline for its approach to sexuality,
construct is de-naturalized. Carole Vance its failure to challenge the dominant
(2005) notes that, “at minimum, all social discourse, and its treatment of the many
construction approaches adopt the view that voices silenced throughout historical
physically identical sexual acts may have accounts. Freedman and D’Emilio (2005:
varying social significance and subjective 170) note that we must be especially careful
meaning depending on how they are defined in making assumptions about the place of
and understood in different cultures and such voices within the dominant discourse
historical periods”(20). Gender and either as victims, or as agents complicit in or
sexuality came to be understood as distin- resistant to the dominant ideology. It is
guishable, rather than a unified system. important to recognize the ability of people,
Similarly, behavior and identity, which had such as sex workers, to challenge discourses
been fused together in Western discourse that constrain them, and to build discourses
since the seventeenth century were severed of their own that may remain peripheral, but
(Parker and Gagnon 1995; Robertson 2005; are still powerful in affecting the lives of the
Vance 2005). people who shape and are shaped by them.
Feminist anthropologists have Postmodern discourse attempts to
questioned the status of sexuality in feminist deconstruct the numerous sex discourses
theory and the ways in which power within their varied historical and social
divisions, such as class, race, ethnicity, age contexts along with their situated methods of
and gender construct sexual freedoms and control and regulation. It adopts a social-
meaning (Lyons and Lyons 2004). Thus, constructionist conceptualization of gender,
sexual meaning is not fixed and neither is which considers the relations of power and
identity. Ideologies can be challenged control in creating and maintaining sexual
through practice (Robertson 2005). Ortner categories, as well as the power of
(1996) in her theory of practice wrote that individuals to challenge those categories,
“…the denial of the intentional subject, and create identities of their own, and condition
of ‘agency’, both misreads and works sexualities (Parker and Gagnon 1995:10-12;
against the intellectual and political interests Valentine 2011). Sexuality is fluid and is
of women, minorities, postcolonial and other continuously being redefined. Carole Vance
subaltern subjects”(8). Female agency had (2005) notes that the non-essentialist
been unmade through an emphasis on a discourse on sexuality emerged less from the
bourgeois discourse by writers such as discipline itself than from its periphery,
Foucault, and an overemphasis on structure particularly from the humanities. It was
(Ortner 1996). Ortner’s (1996) view of integrated from theorizing in other
agency is one structured by social life, its disciplines, and from the participation of
categories and rules, in which relationships GLBTQI theorists, as well as representatives
among agents positioned within webs – the of racialized and colonized groups.

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Anthropological theorizing continues of HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted


to view sexuality as informed by practice. diseases. The global transmission of a
Judith Butler (1999) explains that lesbian and gay discourse has contributed to
femaleness is a learned and performed role, the process of political identity formation in
in which societal expectations and a global cross-cultural community of self-
regulations condition behavior to conform identified GLBTQI peoples. Entailed in this
to, and in turn reproduce, traditional process is also the constitution of more
categories of gender and sex. Harvey and locally-defined communities that differently
Gow (1994:8) speak of persons as “gendered incorporate members of this mega-category
through daily practice”. This adds dynamism along lines of class, age, race, ethnicity and
to an understanding of gender as more status. The same applies to sex workers on a
relational to interpersonal experience than global, national and local community scale,
identity per se (Robertson 2005). Parker and as essential categories cannot represent the
Gagnon (1995), for example, see theory sexual diversities they represent.
moving from viewing sexual desire as being The meaning of terms like repression
determined from within the individual to and freedom, erotic, lust and sex have
ways in which the environment frames how changed dramatically throughout the
desire is “elicited, organized and interpreted development of discourses on sexuality
as a social activity” (12-13). In the context (Freedman and D’Emilio 2005:16;4-5). Like
of a commoditized world, desire for things reading past anthropological theorists, when
can be linked to the desire for “sexual looking at sexual history we understand the
experiences” (Parker and Gagnon 1995:13). terms being used in their own historical
The distinction between identity and context. Readings into the meaning of the
behavior, between “who I am” and “what I term prostitute in literature from Britain and
do” speaks to a modern ability to the United States in the 19th and early 20th
compartmentalize aspects of the self (Parker Centuries does not correlate with more
and Gagon 1995:13). The notion that the contemporary understandings of stigma and
individual can create multiple identities fixed identity, as these women could move
allows for the distinction between the kind in and out of prostitution and were
of sex women can do for work and for integrated into communities in various other
money, and their sexuality, which is an ways. Rather, “shifting modes of state
expression of who they are and who they regulation and the changing structure of
choose to be sexually intimate with. A urban life and politics, not simply the fact of
woman can identify as a sex worker who has selling sexual services, have accounted for
sex with men, but also have a personal the phenomenon of the prostitute as a
sexual identity that aligns with a non- woman apart” from society (Freedman and
heterosexual orientation or a fluid identity D’Emilio 2005:165). This relates back to
that does not associate with a categorically Foucault and the sexual discourse created by
defined sexuality. professional institutional authorities on
Society structures and limits sexual sexualities. Under a medicalized discourse,
expression, as do institutions and the people behavior had to be framed in terms of
with whom we interact who have a vested categories of deviant and non-deviant
interest in our sexuality (Parker and Gagnon sexuality and “people were persuaded to
1995:15). For example, the notions of think of themselves as possessing single
pleasure and danger in sexuality have identities and consistent sexual desires”
changed dramatically since the emergence (Lyons and Lyon 2004:185). Many could

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argue that the powerful discourse of of how they know the other and their sexual
prostitution as promiscuity that emerged nature.
from the Western scientific view of Employed under the colonial project,
sexuality has been maintained, in our minds the anthropologist was asked to help “do
and institutions, in the way many view sex something about the other” (Harvey and
workers in their communities (Truong Gow 1994:4), at times bringing others under
1990). the control and regulation of the colonial
However, in the context of multiple authority. Ann Laura Stoler (1996) draws
and shifting modernities, we are continuing upon Foucault’s (1980) History of Sexuality:
to question, what is sexual? This especially Volume 1 to trace the application of
pertains to same-sex studies of sexuality in bourgeois discourse and the colonial
cross-cultural contexts (Blackwood and treatment of other sexualities in the context
Wieringa 1999; Freeman and D’Emilio of empire “in which biopolitics was
2005:168). Our understanding of ‘the registered and racial taxonomies were
sexual’ has been conditioned by prevailing based” (Stoler 1996:53). The colonial
discourses on sexuality, which have tried to project was gendered, and its politics
condition human sexual behavior according contributed to the management of sex both
to defined parameters of what sex can be, abroad and at home (Stoler 1996:180-4).
where, when, and with whom. The self-other dynamics of desire and power
operated in the context of the discourse of a
Anthropology, Exotification, Colonialism dominant race justified and strengthened by
and Sexual Violence imperial rule (Stoler 1996:194). This can
Anthropology as an early discipline apply to particular sex-work relations today,
developed as an extension of the ethno- in which “images of the ‘exotic’ are
grapher’s exotic gaze, penetrating those entwined with ideologies of racial and ethnic
cultures most opposite from his own. This difference: the ‘prostitute’ is defined as
desire first manifested itself in historical ‘other’ in comparison to the racial or ethnic
sexual accounts of other peoples and origin of the client” (Kempadoo and
cultures, complete with pictures of half- Doezema 1998:10).
naked primitives, viewed as pornographic by The contemporary dynamics of
Western standards of the time. In power, domination and racialization have
Malinowski’s case, he took many such been imbued with the discourses of sexuality
pictures, and admitted in his personal diary from Western history. Remnants of these
that he was very sexually attracted to discourses persist and can shape relations
Trobriand women, and had “pawed” at least around sex. Paying for sex may encompass
one during his research stay (Lyons and “the desire for participation without
Lyons 2011:127). Indeed, as Weston (2011) responsibility” (Harvey and Gow 1994:2).
writes, “hypersexualization was integral to As a gendered relation, a sex worker-client
the invention of the primitive”(15). Mead encounter can be framed in terms of object-
was also guilty of such exotification, subject. For some clients, “the acting out of
describing Samoan youth as a period of fantasy and gratification is part of the
sexual promiscuity with many accounts of experience being paid for, the object or
“love under the palm trees” (Lyons and objective” (Day 1994:186). These fantasies
Lyons 2011:127). Imbued with authority, can focus on “the eroticization of
successive ethnographers could re-visit domination” (Harvey and Gow 1994:2).
those cultures, creating newer, truer versions This process of eroticization entails distance

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(removal from subject) and through such ation of women around the world, and this
ambiguity, the objectification of sex- greatly includes sex workers.
workers as sexual subjects. Erotic exotic- However, the dominant Western
ization compels Westerners, predominately discourse on sexuality and sex work exists
heterosexual men, to embark on adventures within a framework of implied consent
of sexual tourism. Their destinations are rather than an obligation to obtain consent.
generally the exotic former-colonies in An economic exchange of sexual service for
which women of exotic sexual difference money can easily connote the objectification
exist to be discovered and experienced. In of women as sexual objects. Whether this
this way, national identity becomes tied up violence consists in racialization, breached
with an erotic sexual nature (Donnan and consent or violence, it is representative of
Magowan 2010:90). Eroticization on the structural inequalities that pervade the
basis of actual or perceived difference in economies of desire and sexual labour.
gender, sex, class, age, race or ethnicity can Typically, violence and work continue to be
entail power inequities and situations of defined in the public domain and sex and
exploitation (Harvey and Gow 1994). consent are viewed as private, subjective
According to Anthropologist Sophie and domestically constrained. This separ-
Day (1994), sexual violence occurs when ation perpetuates the idea of the bounded
conflicting discourses meet. This can entail self, when really the self and the sexual
on the one hand, agreed upon parameters of cannot be viewed in isolation from the
what is and is not allowed in a paid sexual context in which they are actualized (Harvey
service conflicting with client expectations and Gow 1994). This is not to restrict the
and objectification of the service provider, exercise of sex worker agency in negotiating
informed by a misogynist consensus that these structures, but merely to acknowledge
“consent is written into all sexual their embededness within them and their
relationships involving women” and with impacts on how gender and sexuality may
sex workers specifically (Day 1994: 186). be variably constructed and articulated.
This violence can be physical, emotional
and/or economic. She discusses the Discoursed Peoples’ (De)Construction and
conceptualization of rape among sex Reconstruction
workers in London as breached consent and Returning to dominant debates on
broken contracts. For example, a client’s sex work and concerns over structure and
refusal to wear a condom during the session agency, it is imperative to recognize both
as previously agreed upon. When this kind sides of the coin. On the one hand, some
of breach of consent occurs, it is especially women are conscripted into sex work
hurtful and physically damaging in the event through coercion and lack of choice, while
an STD were contracted or if the woman conversely we must recognize the agency of
became pregnant. This form of rape does not women to challenge that system, and to
fit with the standard definition of rape as capitalize on the desire implicit within it or
blatant physical coercion, but it is necessary on its periphery. But there has existed a
to understand its complexity. The legitimiz- strong discourse throughout history to
ation of sex work as work is essential, and in conflate female prostitutes to either end of
this it is integral that contractual consent this spectrum. Sex workers continue to be
building and respect are imbued in the labeled either as victims or as licentious
discourse on consent (Day 1994). This vagrants of society, threatening the morality
discourse is evolving through the particip- of institutions like the family and spreaders

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Maksimowski: The Anthropology of Sexuality: Discourse and Sex Work

of vice and disease. This was the Victorian acts, sexual identities, sexual communities,
view of the prostitute, and its stigma remains the direction of erotic interest (object
largely intact. Wright (2004) illustrates this choice), and sexual desire itself” may also
in her analysis of street sex worker identity be constructed in various ways (20). As sex-
in La Paz, and the conscription of these positive feminist pornstar and sex educator
women to the discourse of whore or puta as Nina Hartley wrote:
a powerful tool in devaluing their labour,
and their presence in public spaces. If I love that my job is sex. I like sex
female sex workers are cast as victims, this work. I like how cut and dried it is.
undermines their categorization as workers I’m a sex nurse. Our sexuality as a
as they are coerced and agent-less. If on the society is not well. It’s sick. People
other hand, they are viewed as professionals, so desperately need nursing around
in a sense this serves to further institute sex. I was a trained nurse. I’m a
male-female relations based in patriarchy registered nurse. Only now I nurse
and to entrench male sexualities as lustful people’s sexuality (Hartley
and dominating. In either sense, 2009:221).
homogenizing women sex workers under
either discourse is a disservice and Sexual acts, identities and communities
misrepresentation (Truong 1990:13). Sex are fluid, and people construct and contest
work encompasses a variety of economic, these in different ways across time and
sexual and psychological factors that space. Seemingly definitive categories like
determine choice and agency, and the degree sex worker, homosexual or queer, may be
of pleasure and danger experienced. crossed repeatedly by the individual in their
Sex workers necessarily engage with daily life, as practice deconstructs discourse
and operate within public (and academic) concerning what these categories mean or
discourses on gender, sex, work and ought to mean. Relationships among sex,
sexuality (Donnan and Magowan 2010). gender, sexuality, identity and work are
They operate within constructed realms of ambiguous, which is part of what enables
power and sexuality, which allow their sex workers to have separate sexual lives;
profession to exist. Ideologies and the one in which sex is work, and may at
economies enable the body to be times represent risk, danger and pleasure,
commodified and for sexual services to be and the other in which sex is personal,
bought and sold. In as much as one could emotional, and ideally about pleasure.
talk of bodies and sexualities being
conscripted within discourse, we can speak Conclusion
of individuals choosing a place for This essay has attempted to
themselves within economic relations of demonstrate the historical and political
power, and conscripting clients to discourses contingency of discourse as it constructs our
of desire. Ultimately, this entails creating ability to theorize about human sexuality.
political and economic subcultures of desire Sexuality is constructed within historical
and bringing those into public spaces as relations of difference, “embedded in
discourses of pleasure, danger, power, political, ideological, social and economic
morality, therapy and liberation. Vance systems” (La Font 2003: 69). As articulated
(2005) discusses the ways in which culture through a multitude of discourses, sexuality
and history play a role in creating itself is an ambiguous term (Lyons and
sexualities, but she also writes that “...sexual Lyons 2011). Robertson (2005) notes that

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“[p]roblems of accurate interpretation and Donnan, Hastings and Fiona Magowan.


representation arise when local, everyday 2010. The anthropology of sex. New
sexual practices are diluted and distorted by York: Berg.
an ethnographer’s fealties to a particular
theory or theoretical matrix”(7). She argues Day, Sophie. 1994. What counts as rape?
for the need to continuously deconstruct Physical assault and broken
these theories on sexuality and to apply their contracts: contrasting views of rape
new forms with the greatest caution. among London sex workers. In Sex
Essentialisms of race, gender and sex have and violence: issues of represent-
softened but they continue to persist ation and experience. Penelope
throughout dominant discourses on sex work Harvey and Peter Gow, eds. New
and in our imaginations. York: Routledge.
Sexual alterity, whether real of
perceived, can be used to justify dominance Foucault, Michel. 1980 (1976). The history
of one group over another. However, of sexuality volume 1: an intro-
essentialism and reference to sexual duction. R. Hurley, trans. New York:
categories can also be used as a tool to Vintage Books.
articulate identity in transnational
movements. Thus, in so far as discourse can Freedman, Estelle and Barrie Thorne. 1984.
be said to conscript individuals, individuals Introduction to the feminist sexuality
are also capable of challenging these debates. Signs 10(11):102-106.
conscriptions, or reconstructing them to their
advantage. It is impossible to land on either Freedman, Estelle B. and John D’Emilio.
end of the agent-structure spectrum in this 2005. Problems encountered in
brief theoretical application of discourse to writing the history of sexuality:
sex work. Lastly, through the analysis of sources, theory and interpretation. In
discourse about the other – sex worker, Same-sex cultures and sexualities:
prostitute, primitive – we learn as much an anthropological reader. Jennifer
about our own history, and the politics that Robertson, ed. Malden, MA:
frame knowledge, than we may every truly Blackwell Publishing.
know about the other.
Gilman, Sander L. 1985. Difference and
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