The Sociology of Prostitution

Elizabeth Bernstein’s book Temporarily Yours serves as a corrective to a dearth of information in the sociology of bodies and desires. The San Francisco Bay Area served as Bernstein’s primary field site for an ethnography of prostitution between 1994 and 2002. Bernstein collected data through participatory observation and 45 in-depth interviews collected through a snowball sample. The book draws on a decade of research built on Bernstein’s field notes from prostitute strolls, visits to luxury brothels or police holding tanks, and meetings with policymakers and startups. The purpose of Bernstein’s book is to:

  • Examine how recent economic/cultural shift affects sexual expression via the lens of sexual commerce
  • Relay the message of how relatively privileged folk engage in market-mediated sex
  • Illustrate how diverse/shifting social geographies of sexual commerce map public and private zones of postindustrial urban space

Bernstein’s literature review begins with an assessment of sociological research on post-industrialism, which she notes has a little discussion on its effect on sex. The sociology of the family notes that post-industrialism has altered how members of a family unit experience time. The sociology of culture also alleges post-industrialism has ushered in a sense of disenchantment among members of advanced capitalist societies.

Bernstein then assesses scholarly perspectives on prostitution in general. Social historians like Kristin Luker and John D’Emilio advance a relational model of sexuality to describe how post-industrialism has altered how members of advanced capitalist societies see sex. This departs from the foundation of the sociology of sex advanced by Marx and Engels in the later nineteenth and early twentieth century. These scholars viewed prostitution as a “market inalienable.” Georg Simmel described the contradiction between sex in the private sphere and prostitution.

Early twentieth-century scholars like William Sanger would frame prostitution as a social evil, while others like Sigmund Freud would name it a necessary evil. Kingsley Davis would go on to promote a structural-functionalist argument of prostitution. The sociology of deviance would propose labeling theory and symbolic interactionism as possible explanations in the midcentury. Ultimately, feminist scholars took shape in the field in the late twentieth century.

Bernstein shapes her work on prostitution through sociological and feminist ethnography. This enables her to examine local behaviors through their political, economic, and historical conditions. Four general questions guide Bernstein’s work:

  1. What is the relationship among contemporary sex labor markets, other service work, and changes in the labor process ushered in by post-industrialism?
  2. How do anti-prostitution campaigns in cities remap the boundaries of public sexual expression?
  3. What is the significance of white middle-class men as the majority consumers of sexual commerce?
  4. Does engagement in sexual commerce cause further injury to women or does it in some way provide an escape from other, more harmful social conditions?

Bernstein argues that the global restructuring of capitalist investment and production since the 1970s has shaped the international sex trade. The argument elaborates on work by D’Emilio and Luker to state that service work, the new global information economy, and postmodern family units of ‘isolable individuals’ transformed the erotic labor market due to several factors:

  • Corporate-fueled consumption
  • Increase in tourism and business travel
  • The symbiosis between information communication technologies (ICTs) and the privatization of commercial sex
  • The rise in service and temporary work
  • The increase in labor migration from developing to developed countries
  • The emergence of new paradigms of family and community

The result, argues Bernstein, is a performance of bounded authenticity in the erotic labor market. Thus, significant material transformations are emblematic of economic and cultural life.