Body work and sexual services

Stressing how important it is to see sexual service consumption in the context of our contemporary political economy does not mean it is exactly like every other service. Sex is the source of deep and powerful emotions, our very humanity in some sense - intimately private and yet, in consumer society, ultimately public. Sex in a public market has been a source of great anxiety for our culture and touches on deep ethical and moral beliefs. At the same time, more and more services once considered private, intimate or done just for love, such as cooking, listening or touching are now commodified in restaurants, massage services or professional therapy. Sexuality is a part of many occupations. Research into employment relations and the labour process comparing sex work to other forms of bodily labour finds that there are fewer differences than we would expect; nor is it simply ‘selling one’s body,’ as feminist abolitionists frequently claim (Bindel 2018).

Body work is any paid labour that involves direct handling and manipulating of bodies (Wolkowitz et al. 2013; Wolkowitz 2006; Cohen 2011; Kang 2003, 2010; Twigg et al. 2011). Such work is a central component of health care (especially that involving older individuals), including for doctors, nurses, dentists, paramedics and physical therapists. It is central to various alternative therapies, such as forms of massage, chiropractic care, acupuncture, shiatsu, reiki, ‘rolfing’, craniosacral therapy, breath work and energy therapies. Body work has grown tremendously in fields such as fitness instructing, personal training, tattooing, hairdressing and beauty services. And it includes various forms of stigmatised and/or dirty work, including preparing the dead for burial and, of course, sex work. It is estimated that at least 11.5% of the UK labour force (Cohen 2011) and roughly 8% of the US labour force (Wolkowitz and Warhurst 2010) are employed in occupations which involve body work. Notably, such work is performed mostly by women and racialised minorities and accounts for 21% of all female self-employment (Cohen and Wolkowitz 2017).

Body work is a confusing form of work. It potentially violates norms of touch, smell and/or sight among strangers or acquaintances. Care workers, health workers and sex workers must often deal with bodies in intimate ways or with bodily functions typically considered distasteful. All body workers need to negotiate the boundaries of their own body and that of their client’s or patient’s (Twigg et al. 2011). As Twigg et al. points out, all body workers, as well as their clients/patients, struggle with how the human body is read or known, and how it may be handled, transformed and understood.

The labour process in sex work, as in other forms of body work, includes: physical labour, using the workers’ body; aesthetic labour or workers’ work on their own bodies; bodily labour, i.e. managing the client’s body; emotional labour, that is, managing their own and/or their client’s emotions (Hochschild 1983) and interactive body labour, involving the client’s touch on the worker’s body (Brents and Jackson 2013;Wolkowitz 2006).

It is this last aspect, interactive body labour, where the client touches back, that sets sex work apart from other forms of body work; sexual services are one of the few forms of service where the client touches back in a way similar to how the provider touches the client. Much research has dealt with unique boundary issues in such situations (Sanders 2002). Body parts are commodified: just as a boxer’s hands are fetishised, so too are the breasts, hair and lips of models, musicians and actors, as well as the physique of a jockey, or the bodily strength of an athlete.

That said, studies of body work find that the provider and client are both subject (doing something) and object (having something done to them) at the same time, and we have little evidence that that is not the case in commercial sex. The interaction necessitates an interplay of subjectivities, involving both the body parts and the emotions of each. It is not just bodies that are being acted upon but human beings, and, as such, the labour involves emotional, caring and intimate work. As we will see from our data, clients pay providers to manage both the physical labour and the emotions of both parties. Cohen et al. (2013) compares hairdressing and stripping work, both using skills around emotional and bodily labour, though one is more sexualised than the other.

Power relations between the client and the body worker can vary, and the same is true for sex work. Research on body work finds that social class and educational status can tip power, as is the case with doctor/patient dynamics. Certainly, in many cases, clients belong to a higher social class and have more money than sex workers. But also the provider is in a position of expertise and, potentially, organisational authority, and so can have sources of power over the client interaction (Wolkowitz 2006;Twigg et al. 2011).

While some see clients as fundamentally objectifying the sex worker, those who do body work may also objectify the clients’ bodies. Different sex workers conceptualise the ‘body-worked-upon’ in different ways as they get the job done. Indeed, research finds that sex workers vary in how they do this. For instance, some see clients as objectified bodies, manipulated to elicit orgasm at a time determined and controlled by the sex worker — similar to how birthing bodies receive labourenhancing drugs to speed birth for the doctor’s schedule. Others, meanwhile, particularly those who provide longer or tantric experiences, see mindful, holistic bodies — their attitudes toward the bodies are in some ways similar to the views of those who work in alternative health fields (Brents and Jackson 2013).

While it may be a hurdle for some to consider sexual services as similar to other forms of service provision, examining paid sex as a service forces us to consider details of the labour process and work relations. In addition, like workers in many other occupations, many sex workers see themselves as providing a service. Whether or not a mutually respectful relationship exists between client and practitioner, the work — like other service work - is premised on and shaped by a three-way interaction between client, practitioner and an employer/manager. For work performed by an independent contractor, the regulator)' or workplace context acts as this third layer with rules established by the government, advertising or marketing platforms or by each private business. Relationships in the service triad mirror those in other service sectors.

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