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Sex work research needs to focus on money

SexworkmoneyResearch into sex work is too heavily skewed towards examining the childhoods of sex workers, with questions about whether they were sexually abused as children too often being the focus. This ignores the elephant in the room: financial considerations and motivation. Most sex workers who choose to be in the industry are there for the money, not because they need the sex, writes Jo Weldon.

“I’ve been getting a bit introspective about my work in the sex industry for the past several weeks. I just had a memory of some guy passing out thousands and thousands to the dancers one night (he had just gotten a fat cash bonus on a deal), and he had a pretty good vibe about him.  

He half-jokingly said, ‘I really resent that you ladies are just after my money,’ and I half-jokingly said, ‘Dude, I don’t want this chump change, I want your fucking job.”

The above quote is from me, speaking in my blog on 4 October 2006. The story, which is true, is illustrative of precisely why we dancers were there that night – for money. 

As it happens, I’m terrible with money. Because I’m often in speculative conversations about strippers, their place in our culture, and their motivations for stripping, I frequently hear how terrible all of us are with money. 

Over the years I’ve considered this: I started stripping less than a year after graduating from high school, and have stripped the majority of my adult life. 

Almost all the men I saw were successful and responsible (as far as I knew) and they were throwing away large amounts of cash on something they didn’t need. Where would I have learned to be good with money? (Note: this was written before the economic crisis we are currently enjoying.)

How does anyone learn to handle money? Marian Friestad, PhD, professor of marketing at the Lundquist College of Business at the University of Oregon and past president and fellow of the Society for Consumer Psychology, says, “In the United States, talking about money is harder than talking about sex.” 

As a sex worker who is frequently interviewed for research and theses, I believe Friestad is right. While every interviewer asks me whether I was sexually abused as a child, none of them have ever asked me a single question about the financial mindset, or even the financial motivation, involved in my decisions to work in the sex industry. 

No one – including the casual interviewer who is not doing research but is curious about my job – has ever asked me if my parents argued about money in front of me, if I got an allowance, if I had a job in high school, if I was raised to value money as a form of status or simply as a means to an end, and so on. 

This makes me question the socially acceptable assumption that leads researchers to believe that the questions they are asking are worth asking. The implied attitude seems so widespread that I wonder if it doesn’t enter into many other areas. 

I’m going to touch briefly on a few areas where I’ve noticed that the discussion of money tends to be taboo when sex work is discussed in academic and legislative environments. 

Of course there are more pressing issues – HIV/AIDS, child prostitution, trafficking. I amcertainly not suggesting that these issues take a back seat to the issue of money. But if you want to know why sex workers get into sex work and want to understand their psychology, wouldn’t you ask how they think about money and work? 

When research is conducted as to how and why sex workers enter the industry, the questions ‘How were you raised to think about money? Did both your parents work? Did your mother stop working after she had you? Did your parents fight about money? Did you have an allowance?’ are rarely, if ever, asked.

The questions that are asked often presuppose the conclusions the researcher has reached before outlining

their research. The question ‘Were you ever sexually abused as a child?’ certainly expresses an attitude toward sex work. That attitude, and the reasons that the question is considered appropriate to ask, should not be ignored. 

I believe that the reason questions about money are so rarely asked is that people continue to think only about the sex involved, and not about the labor. I suppose that if you did ask, you’d be supporting the idea that sex work is partially about money.

This seems to be the elephant in the room whenever prostitution is discussed in academic and/or legislative environments. We can understand why second-wave feminists never ask.

But I am not even talking about them, honestly. I understand that they cannot afford to concede any points sex worker advocates make because they would lose their funding if they did (speaking of money issues which are rarely discussed when sex work is the subject). But I digress. 

Much of the current psychological literature about sex work refers to either deviance or post-traumatic stress disorder resulting from sexual abuse. I believe that these are vital issues and should not necessarily take second place to the psychology of earning and handling money.

However, it seems to me that if the financial element does not enter the picture in any form, the results of these studies can provide only a fragmented view of the psychology of sex workers, and certainly not a view complete enough to be applied to developing legislation, whether that legislation is designed to address the needs of sex workers, or – if sex work is considered an ill of society – how to prevent it from happening. 

I reviewed many lists of names of papers and studies about sex work, looking for research on the needs of labor – sex workers at work – rather than research related to or supporting suggested governmental controls.

Papers that addressed the financial concerns of sex workers were so rare that at first I thought there were none at all. Since money is generally the source of food, shelter, status, health care, community, child care, and more, it seems odd that all these issues are addressed primarily as they are affected by the sexual standards and behavior of the interviewees, and rarely as they are affected by their understanding of and feelings about money.

I am simply puzzled that financial psychology seems to be viewed as almost entirely irrelevant. My own experiences in both casual conversations and interviews by journalists or researchers are telling. People who find out I have worked in adult entertainment, and sometimes even my sex work clients, have so frequently asked me certain questions that it seems to me that the assumptions they reflect must permeate our society’s consciousness. 

Because researchers are a part of our society, I assume that they are not immune to the common perceptions of sex workers as desperate, abused, amoral, predatory, lazy women. I believe that the research questions that they ask must be examined on this basis, and the reasons for those questions explained.

In a recent conversation on a message board at, a person relatively new to the group asked if it was really all about money. 

Every respondent to her post said that yes, they began dancing for the money. In another recent conversation on the same message board, a person posted that she was doing research about dancers and wanted to ask them about their childhoods.

She posted, “I am looking to examine the psychology of women in the adult trade and need to have conversations with various women, of any legal age, regarding their upbringing, childhood, young adulthood and current life status.” 

The respondents to this all objected vehemently to the poster, saying things like, “I am a little bit sick of people wanting to question our childhoods and upbringing to see if it somehow relates to us choosing to strip for a living.” “Who’s to say that we have any type of special “psychology?” “Are we not normal human beings just like everyone else?” 

When the message poster reprimanded them for jumping to conclusions and said she was surprised by their reactions, one said, “I’m actually very open a lot of the time to talking about dancing, answering questions and whatever people want to relate to it at the time for free. I just get a bit tired of the whole childhood issue being brought up time and time again that’s all …” 

The one thing the workers talk about most, the one thing they show up for day after day, is very rarely discussed in research. How they feel about money is rarely, if ever, compared to the way other workers feel about money.

Instead, their sexual deviance is questioned at every turn. 

Yet few workers ever say, “I got into it because I needed the sex.” In Taking It Off, Putting It On, Chris Bruckert observes of the studies she has read that: “Perhaps the most telling finding was how few comments were made by interviewees about sexuality; it appeared to be largely incidental.” 

An article by SWEAT says, “People enter the profession for various reasons, the most common being unemployment or a desire to improve their income.” 

Bruckert also documents the ways sex workers seek to make more money, writing, “Workers [strip joint dancers] may see themselves as entrepreneurs, and put a great deal of effort into maximizing their income through grooming and other skills.” 

Often researchers approach the concept of whether or not sex workers make a lot of money. It is not so much the amount of money they make, but the immediacy of access to money that motivates them.

I am compelled to state what I believe is a fact: prostitutes, as well as legal or semi-legal workers such as strippers or dominatrices, can apply for a job in one day, work the night of that same day, and make enough to pay a bill the next day. There is no substitute for this in our society.

Until we acknowledge the unique economic need sex work fulfills, and acknowledge money as a primary motivation for working in the sex industry, there can be no useful approach to solving any of the problems in and around the sex industry.  

Yet, as I stated at the beginning, this money comes at a unique cost.  

It separates the women who would do such a thing for money from the women who would never do such a thing for money. The constant search for a single unified field theory of why sex workers are doing what they do cannot be solved by addressing only the sex side of the equation when a worker claims to be doing it for the money.  

That some researchers claim these workers are in denial shows that the researchers themselves must also be in denial. They are in denial about their inability to accept that their theories are not comprehensive enough to address the many issues that occur in sex work.

The work side must be addressed. Prostitutes aren’t just having sex; they are having sex for money. They have a different relationship with an agent who takes 20 percent of their money than with a trafficker who takes 100 percent of their money.  

The flow of money in the sex industry is the most likely indicator of the motivations of those involved in the transactions. And yet the questions are never asked; financial desperation is examined, but never financial motivation. 

Beliefs about sex and morality are examined, but rarely beliefs about money and the work ethic. The simple exchange every other laborer makes – doing something relatively undesirable for compensation – is treated as deviant, when in fact that element is the most normal thing about the decision to enter the industry.

The financial experience the women are having is often assumed to be completely irrelevant compared to the sexual experience the men are having; the experience of the men is taken to define the exchange, in a way that to me doesn’t seem very feminist. 

In Money, A Memoir, author Liz Perle notes that “when it comes to money, women everywhere have so many fears and fantasies in common”. The word ‘prostitution’ is not in the index of her book, but it’s safe to say that many women often default to the idea of prostitution when they are broke. 

Many women who would never actually have sex for money have told me they wished they ‘could,’ or have suggested that they might as well have. Of course my saying this is anecdotal, but I’m fairly certain that thorough research among women who are not from rich families would prove that at least half of them would say that when they were broke, the thought had crossed their minds – not, perhaps, very seriously, but in the sense that it’s something they might do. 

I have no idea if this question has ever been asked of women outside the sex industry, but wouldn’t it be useful information in the debate about whether or not sex work is work to know how often women who are having financial trouble consider prostitution, even just as a pure fantasy? 

And to know how often that fantasy is not about sexual expression, but about easy money? 

When I read about stripping, certain sentences leap out at me, such as this one from Alison Fensterstock, a former commercial stripper who is one of the founders of the burlesque convention Tease-O-Rama: “You make money … You watch your income come in physically bill by bill … This is the most immediate way of making money. 

This is a psychological experience that as a former stripper I can easily identify with; it is one of the conditions of sex work that influenced the way I handle money.  

I believe similar conditions influence most workers who handle cash and that they contribute to creating a significantly different understanding of finance than the understanding of the more commonly recognized population of workers who receive checks twice a month.

When comparisons to other jobs are made, this aspect is rarely if ever mentioned, as if, without the stripping, all other things about the jobs are equal to other jobs. But the ability to acquire a job entirely without a resumé and to leave your first working shift with cash makes more of a difference to most of the women who decide to do it than the social and sexual aspects. 

Another point of interest to me is that I constantly hear people say to women in the sex industry, “You’d better be saving up that money.” I find this to be presumptuous. 

First, most sex workers aren’t making as much money people think they are. Furthermore, most younger workers may be making a living for the first time and there’s no reason whatsoever to think that they would be any better with money than most young people. 

And on top of that, they make their livelihood watching men who are usually old enough to be authority figures spending money most unwisely.

And to put it all in context, “The Commerce Department reports that the average US household didn’t save so much as a penny last year, as Americans either accumulated more debt or dug into the savings they had to pay bills and buy goods.” (Money News, 2006).

So the odds are very much in favor of the person saying this to the worker having no savings themselves.

Furthermore, our society still encourages a ‘white knight’ fantasy for women. Some have commented that the movie Pretty Woman implies that prostitution is a great arena in which to find a white knight (which, given our society’s general attitude about how sex workers ‘end up,’ is unlikely to have much impact on a young woman’s expectations of the work). 

In studies, most sex workers aren’t even asked if they expect to meet a white knight, although it’s well known that many women, the majority of whom are not in the sex industry, dream of marrying a rich man.

In A Girl Needs Cash, author Joan Perry says that when she began to be concerned about her financial future, “I began to ask my female colleagues in the brokerage world and elsewhere what they were doing about their financial futures [and] I found an epidemic of the White Knight Syndrome, and a weird repetition of my own circumstances … debt, and virtually no investments.” 

When people assume that sex workers are particularly prone to bad financial decisions, they are displaying a prejudice against sex workers that is completely irrational. 

But this prejudice is widespread: just ask around. The belief that sex workers are somehow set apart from the rest of the human race extends to this assumption that they are not only different about money, but they are also worse with money than other people. 

In Women and Work by Paula Dubeck & Kathryn Borman, the segment on prostitution states, “Research consistently shows that the majority of prostitutes enter the field for economic gain.” Is this news to anybody? 

So why don’t researchers more frequently discuss how a limited job market can be a powerful motivator toward prostitution? Why do they call the economic constraints that motivate all of us to spend more hours than we want doing things we could care less about ‘coercion’ only when it comes to prostitution?

Why do they claim that it’s all about sex, when it’s so clearly so very much about money? And doesn’t ignoring these very important facts lead to proposed ‘solutions’ for ‘problems’ that have no practical basis for success? 

In the literature that I’ve encountered, several important issues related to money and sex work are not explored in any depth. 

Interestingly, while the significance of the financial psychology of sex workers has been minimized, the financial decisions of the clientele represent an area that has been even less explored.

I would like to suggest some starting points for looking to solutions to this telling – and, I suspect, crippling – gap in the studies regularly being conducted. 

First, researchers must be willing to suspend political polarization on the subject of sex work. That is, they must regard it as a form of work that is uniquely distinguishable from all other work by its sexual element, and uniquely distinguishable from all other sex by its financial element. 

That is not to say that it is isolated from the sexual and gender issues in other forms of work, but simply that its relationships are uniquely structured. 

Second, research that is in opposition to – or at least not in support of – government goals such as rehabilitation or abolition of sex work must be supported. 

No objective research can be conducted if the only research that can get substantial funding (there I go, talking about money again) supports only abolitionist agendas. 

And, third, some research must be conducted that does not ask the workers if they were sexually abused as children. 

The asking of this personal question presupposes not just the right of the interviewer to be intrusive, but also presupposes the answer to that question, and is an indicator of extreme bias. 

Finally, studies of coercion must be considered part of a body of studies about sex work, rather than the whole. Alongside such studies there need to be studies of more ‘privileged’ workers if we are to gain any kind of ‘larger picture’ that can usefully inform policy decisions. 

It makes no sense to try to apply the same solutions on the one hand to women who are bound, beaten, and deprived of any of their earnings, and on the other to women who are making a choice, even if the choice is an unhappy one. 

These two groups, which are not the only two groups in sex work, are not in the same position, and must not be assumed to be operating in the same structures. 

Demonizing clients is a dead end. It can only ‘clean up the streets’ while doing nothing to improve the lives of women in the sex industry. 

Every person in the sex industry who is not physically forced to work in the sex industry wants those clients. If they cannot have them in safety, they will seek them out under dangerous conditions.

Sex_work_mattersThis is an extract from Sex Work Matters: Exploring Money, Power and Intimacy in the Sex Industry, edited by Melissa Hope Ditmore, Antonia Levy & Alys Willman. Published by Zed Books. Reproduced here with permission of the publisher.

Jo Weldon has worked in the adult entertainment industry for over two decades. She is an advocate of sex workers’ rights and an expert on exotic dance. As an activist, her focus has been on better working toward a better understanding of sex workers’ realities, and on defusing prejudices against sex workers. Currently she is a burlesque performer, producer and photographer, as well as a teacher of burlesque dance. Her book The Pocket Book of Burlesque, with a foreword by Margaret Cho, was published in 2009. She blogs here.

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