Long Blog Post #2-Notes on “Sociology of Sex Work” by Ronald Weitzer

Weitzer, Ronald. 2009. “Sociology of Sex Work.” Annual Review of Sociology. Vol.35,pp.213-234.


  • This article, by Ronald Weitzer, starts off by pointing out that many areas of sex work have been highlighted while others have been ignored (he cites the pornography industry, indoor prostitution, telephone sex agencies, managers, customers, and male as well as transgender workers as having been under-studied).  He states that this article will examine understudied areas of prostitution in the hope that it will broaden the understanding and depth of research on sex work.


  • Weitzer starts this article off by summarizing two different views of the sex industry.  He first talks about the oppression paradigm which focuses on the oppression and abuse of women in this industry.  He states that the oppression paradigm views sex work as a result of patriarchal gender relations and that it ignores any positive experience associated with sex work.  He also talks about the empowerment paradigm which tends to do the opposite.  This view sees sex work as potentially empowering for the workers and sometimes ignores the more negative experiences of sex workers.  Weitzer claims both views are one-dimensional.  He then goes on to start a discussion about what an alternative perspective would be.  He calls this perspective the polymorphous paradigm.
  • Weitzer states, “Unlike the other two, this paradigm is sensitive to complexities and to the structural conditions shaping the uneven distribution of agency, subordination, and job satisfaction” (p. 215)


  • This section starts by looking at the work done on pornography.  Weitzer notes that most of the research done has been gathered in a lab which may not correspond with actual experiences in the real world.  He also says that research has shown that pornography doesn’t increase negative views of women, only when it is depicted with violence.  Other studies have focused on whether pornography changes the real-world treatment of women.  This research was made difficult by many other variables.  Some studies reveal that both women and men decode porn in many and varied ways.  Weitzer also states that porn is not a fringe market, with many viewers every year.
  • Weitzer goes on to say that both the porn industry and telephone sex agencies are neglected in sociology studies, except for a few cases.  He then starts a discussion about strip clubs, which have been studied extensively.
  • Strippers have been studied in situations where they were exploited as well as in situations where they felt empowered over their customers and enjoyed the thrill of the chase and getting money from customers.  Studies comparing male strip clubs with female strip clubs reveal that women were shown to be more aggressive and would typically go in groups while men wanted an individual experience and were more likely to become repeat customers.
  • After discussing strip clubs, Weitzer looks at prostitution.  He states that prostitutes vary in their reasons for joining the industry as well as how they enter the work.  There is also variation in the impact on surrounding community, exploitation by a third party, access to protection and freedom of choice in their work.  He says that the most important division in these studies is between street and indoor prostitution, with the majority of the studies focusing on street prostitution, which is actually much less prevalent than indoor prostitution.  While reasons for entering the trade vary, economic motives are the most prevalent reason.
  • Weitzer states that, “Street prostitution is stratified by income, race, drug dependency, and third-party involvement” (p. 218).  Many of these workers are in the business to survive and would best fit the oppression model.  Street prostitutes are much more at risk than indoor prostitutes because they are more likely to engage in risky behavior and do not have intermediaries to intervene for them as is more often the case with indoor prostitutes.  They are more likely to experience violence on the job and to be victimized.  This is not to say that indoor prostitution is free from risk, it simply is statistically less likely.  It is also important to note that “the safety of indoor work increases where prostitution is legal” (p. 218).
  • Weitzer also looks at the age of entry of sex workers into prostitution.  He states that the norm age of entry as 13-14 appears to be a myth.  Street prostitutes do enter at a younger age on average than indoor prostitutes, but even then that almost half of street prostitutes enter the work after the age of 19.  Street prostitution also appears to have more of an impact on the surrounding community with consistent complaints across cities where street prostitution takes place.  Weitzer adds that indoor prostitution has much less of an impact on the community (if any at all) and so is much less likely to be the target of community groups simply because it is not seen.
  • Another area of prostitution that Weitzer looks at is “love and sex” vs. “simply sex” in prostitutes’ sexual encounters.  Many studies show that indoor prostitution is much more likely to include romance and reciprocal sexual actions (including experiencing orgasm) while one study revealed that 70% of street prostitutes never had orgasms when with their clients.
  • Weitzer notes that “like other jobs, prostitution does not have a uniform effect on workers’ psyches and self-images” (p. 220), while some patterns still exist.  Street workers are more likely to have psychological disorders and indoor prostitutes are much more likely to be well-adjusted.  In fact, one study showed that indoor workers showed no difference in mental and physical health when compared to women not in the sex industry.
  • Another interesting study that Weitzer looks at says that a large percentage of call girls experience increased self-esteem, which can be contrasted with a lower percentage of women working in brothels and an extremely low percentage of women working on the street who said they experienced an increase in self-esteem.  Weitzer postulates that this could be for a number of reasons.  One being that call girls can make a large sum of money while street workers make very little and a percentage of a brothel worker’s earnings goes to the owner or brothel itself.  He also says this could be due to the praise call girls receive from their customers.
  • While Weitzer states that many call girls are proud of their work, he also notes that sex work is still condemned and stigmatized by society which “compels workers to engage in various normalization strategies, including compartmentalizing their deviant work persona from their real identity, concealing their work from their family or friends, distancing themselves from clients, using neutral or professional terms to describe their jobs, and viewing their work as a valuable profession” (p. 221-222).
  • Weitzer also points out that there is potential for movement between types of sex work…for example, a porn star could work some as a prostitute or as a stripper.  Despite this ability to move between types of sex work, there is little upward or downward mobility for sex workers.  It is rare for a street prostitute to become a call girl or vice versa.
  • Weitzer finishes up this section by re-iterating the point that many of the views of the oppression model are shown to be myths by this research.  He also shows how research has been skewed in that “workers have been studied much more than customers and managers, female workers much more than male or transgender workers, and systems of criminalized prostitution much more than legal prostitution” (p. 222).


  • Weitzer starts off this section by citing some similarities and differences between female and male sex workers.  Like female workers, male workers are likely to be at a disadvantage working on the street and are also likely to feel empowered and have a higher self-esteem when they’re working as call boys or escorts.  Male workers are more transient in their line of work, are less likely to be taken advantage of or to become victims of violence, and have more control over their conditions.  Weitzer adds that there haven’t been many comparative studies between male and female workers.
  • Weitzer goes on to explain that it appears that transgender sex workers occupy the lowest stratum of the hierarchy and are more at risk in a lot of areas (including HIV).  He notes that one study showed transvestites are more likely to act belligerently towards customers and often hide that they are male if transgendered, which can lead to violence.  Some customers request transgendered workers and find it exciting.  Weitzer adds that there needs to be more comparative work between transgender workers and female and male workers.


  • Weitzer starts this section by examining the demographics of customers of prostitutes.  He shows that a very small minority are responsible for the violent crimes against sex workers and that a relatively large percent of men in the world have paid for sex (around 15%).  The reasons men pay for sex also vary-from wanting more variety, to being excited by the idea of an encounter with a prostitute, to actually seeking a long-term relationship.  Weitzer goes on to note that sex workers often view sex work as a means of upward mobility, sometimes through a long-term relationship.
  • Weitzer notes that few studies have looked at the customers’ experience during the encounter or their feelings about it, but adds that internet sites devoted to reviewing the performance of the worker, location, and other details about encountering a prostitute (such as acceptable behavior towards a prostitute) reveal that there is a certain code of ethics among customers and that many value romance alongside sex (referred to as the GFE-girlfriend experience, where a worker is attentive as a girlfriend would be).  Feelings customers have about the encounters vary-from satisfaction to guilt and shame.  Weitzer adds that providing the GFE can add extreme emotional strain on the sex worker, which most street workers are free from.
  • This section also covers motivations for venue choice-which include easy access, low commitment and low cost for street workers, and the desire for a more GFE experience for call girls.  Weitzer also discusses the smaller population of female customers.  What is interesting to note here is that female customers were often rich European or American tourists looking for young Caribbean men, which is important to note because, “Economic inequality can translate into unequal power relations between the parties, with some female tourists ‘expressing a preference for keeping a man dependent on them’ so that he will be ‘fully available to meet her needs’” (p. 227).  Weitzer notes that more studies need to be done on the experiential differences between interactions of different genders and same genders.


  • This section discusses various types of managers in the sex trade.  Managers of massage parlors and brothels are there to manage the money and typically screen the customers.  There are many different reported experiences with managers-from being protected by them to being exploited by them.  The information on pimps is much more negative-the majority of prostitutes do not see the advantage of having a pimp and often he does not perform his role as protector, in fact he may rape the prostitutes or otherwise mistreat them.  Weitzer notes that much remains hidden about the managers of the sex trade.  Some of this may be due to a lack of knowledge because of the illegality of the trade in many places.  He says that more research would shed light on power relations within the sex trade.


  • This section is devoted to contrasting the conditions in legal contexts of prostitution with places where prostitution is still illegal.  Overall, this section says that legalized prostitution provides a much safer environment for sex workers as the government can have an active say in the business when it is legalized.  Weitzer also says that legalizing prostitution can make it less stigmatized, although there are still cases where prostitutes working in a legal environment avoid being found out by family and friends (e.g. in Holland).


  • Weitzer’s main point in all of this is that “the literature is lopsided in its concentration on street prostitution, female sex workers, and illegal prostitution, resulting in a distorted picture of the world of commercial sex” (p. 230).  He says that more research on the areas he has highlighted in this paper would give a more accurate view of this world and that it would also show that this industry is polymorphous in nature.
  • Take-away: after reading this paper, I do feel I have a more holistic view of sex work.  Weitzer makes many good points, although I am not convinced that the sex industry makes a positive impact on society as a whole.  I agree with him that this industry is multi-faceted and needs to be studied in a more in-depth manner.

About Mary Casteen

Linguistics and people fascinate me. I also get really excited about God's love for the whole world! Can't wait to get to know all you lovely folks in ANTR 320 =)
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