Bad Ideas and Worse Realities: A Primer on Sex Work Stereotypes and Stigma

The purpose of this post is to begin to articulate the conceptual and material differences between a stereotype and a stigma, as each relates to sex work. My hope is that it will be useful to students in the “Sex Work and Sex Workers” class that I TA (which is why it reads as a primer on these concepts—because it is), as well as to sex work activists who are looking for rhetorical and theoretical tools to better explain how social beliefs and attitudes about sex work affect their lives.

The fundamental difference between a stereotype and a stigma is that a stereotype is a specific belief about a person or group of people, while a stigma is a more general negative attitude towards a person or group of people. Stereotypes can be negative, or they can be (ostensibly) positive or neutral. Stigmas are always negative. Stereotypes tend to focus on concrete, “fixed” identities, including social statuses taken to be inherent (such as race, gender or sexual orientation) and social statues taken to be voluntary or circumstantial, but still somewhat stable and universal (such as occupation or subcultural “style”). Stigmas can relate to fixed identities, too, but they can also include associations with amorphous or ill-defined groups, such as “ugly people” or “people from bad neighbourhoods.”

Stereotypes

Stereotypes are a form of generalization. When you generalize about someone, you assume your beliefs about that individual apply to the whole group of people they belong to. Sometimes, we generalize by finding out something about an individual (“my TA was mean to me”) and then applying it to the whole group (“all TAs are mean”). Other times, we generalize by adopting a belief about a group (“queer women like cats”) and applying it to individuals in that group without bothering to investigate (“Sarah is a queer woman, so she probably has a cat”).

There are lots of stereotypes about sex workers floating around in the cultural imagination. Once, in a seminar in “Sex Work and Sex Workers,” a student told me she didn’t believe that a sex worker had really written the article “I’d Rather be a Whore than an Academic” because she didn’t believe a prostitute could get a PhD. Her argument was informed by the stereotype that all sex workers are unintelligent and uneducated. Other stereotypes about sex workers include:

  • All sex workers are victims of human trafficking, so Sally needs to be rescued from prostitution.
  • All sex workers are sluts or nymphos, so Matilda must love sucking cock.
  • All sex workers were sexually abused as children, so that is why Romita does porn.
  • Sex workers are dishonest and will do anything for money, so Michael can’t be trusted.
  • People do sex work because they are too lazy to get real jobs, so we can’t hire Emily for this sales job.

These statements are stereotypes because they use commonly-held prejudices (“pre-judgments,” or ideas formed before investigation or research takes place) to generate beliefs about a whole group of people and then apply them to individuals within that group.

Are stereotypes ever true?

Sometimes stereotypes are true. Emily may well be lazy, and Matilda may well love sucking cock. The issue is not whether or not the stereotype is accurate or inaccurate in any given individual case. Rather, stereotyping is a lazy and erroneous way of analyzing an issue because it is a shortcut around actually thinking and learning about the subject of the stereotype. Stereotyping makes-believe that there are universal truths to be known about a group of people and then skips over learning entirely and just assumes those truths apply to everyone. Even a stopped clock is right twice a day, and sometimes stereotypes are “right,” too, but they are still not the same as actual, evidence-informed knowledge about a group or person.

“Positive” stereotypes

Stereotypes are not necessarily “negative” either. Sometimes stereotypes assume “good” things about groups of people and then apply those beliefs to everyone in those groups. Perhaps you believe that fat people are jolly, or black men are good at basketball, or women “just know” how to take care of children. Or, for example, you may hold some of these supposedly “positive” stereotypes about sex workers:

  • Sex workers are sexually liberated and more empowered than other women and men.
  • All sex workers are talented, shrewd businesswomen.
  • Sex workers have strong intuition and can tell when a potential trick is dangerous.
  • Sex workers don’t take shit from anybody.

None of these are things that I would feel offended over, if you said them about me. They appear to be positive beliefs about sex workers. But they are still generalizations—beliefs formed without investigation or evidence. And generalizations are dangerous.

Someone who believes that sex workers don’t take shit from anybody is not much use for discussing or resisting the reality of domestic violence in many sex workers’ lives. Someone who believes all sex workers are shrewd businesswomen may not recognize the economic coercion faced by survival sex workers, or even the possibility that a workshop on filing taxes might be useful to many independent escorts (uhm, or that some sex workers are men). Someone who believes that all sex workers are liberated and empowered cannot understand why some sex workers feel traumatized or otherwise harmed by the fact that they have done sex work. Even “positive” stereotypes harm their subjects because they lead us away from actually learning about other people and their complex realities.

Stigmas

Erving Goffman called stigmas “spoiled identities.” Stigmas are negative associations with groups of people or types or persons, which have attitudinal, affective and material manifestations. Stigmas are not specific beliefs, but instead are more general, attaching a negative response to a person or group’s whole existence, and not just one characteristic.

Attitudinal manifestations of stigma

A stereotype can be an attitudinal manifestation of a stigma. For example, our culture holds a negative association with sex work. That might make us more willing to believe a stereotype about sex workers than we are to believe a stereotype about someone our culture holds a positive association with, like a cop.

Of course, how much we buy in to stigma depends not only on what the hegemonic (or popularly agreed-upon) association with a thing is, but also on where we fit in to hegemony. Thus, someone who knows and loves a sex worker or who faces a high risk of experiencing police brutality might be less willing to believe a stereotype about sex workers and more willing to believe a stereotype about cops.

Stereotypes and stigmas often have mutually constitutive relationships. That is, negative stereotypes about a group of people can provoke us to hold a negative association with them, while our negative association with a group of people can lead us to dream up negative stereotypes. For example, if I believe that fat people are lazy, I might think badly of and act badly towards fat people in general. I might be unable to see any good in them (or in myself, if I consider myself fat). Meanwhile, if I already have a negative association with students in general, I might take an isolated incident of a student pretending her grandmother died to get an extension and turn it into a negative stereotype: “students are liars.” It is useful, when investigating and analyzing cultural imaginings (or our own imaginings) about sex workers, to be able to articulate how a particular belief stems from and/or supports a stigma and vice versa. Knowing how these things work is the first step towards stopping them from happening.

Other attitudinal manifestations of sex work stigma include:

  • Refusing to learn or even talk about sex work at all.
  • Deeming discussions of sex workers’ lives and experiences inappropriate for children or women or elders or whatever other group to know about.
  • Believing “experts” on sex work over sex workers themselves.

You’ll notice that stigma has real-world effects. That is, it’s not just that people have negative attitudes and beliefs about sex workers, but also that they act on these ideas in ways that are harmful to sex workers—by denying their realities and experiences, by isolating and excluding them or by peddling false information about them.

Affective manifestations of stigma

The affective (or emotional) manifestations of sex work stigma include feelings-based responses to sex work and sex workers, such as anger, hatred, pity, disgust, envy, shame, shock, resentment, blaming, Othering, or otherwise engaging in a negative emotional response for no reason other than that we have been exposed to sex work or a sex worker. On the one hand, your feelings are your business. It’s not up to me to tell you not to feel angry towards sex workers if that’s what you feel. But on the other hand, the automatic association of negative emotion with sex workers has real, dangerous consequences.

Othering sex workers by feeling as though they are not like you, and maybe even totally different from you, is a way of excusing yourself from empathizing with sex workers. You claim a position from which you cannot even imagine how a sex worker might think or feel. Hatred of or anger towards sex workers might lead you to excuse, or even commit, acts of violence against them. Or the pity you feel towards sex workers might inspire and support your belief that violence against sex workers is inevitable and unremarkable.

At the extreme, people use sex workers as affective “blank slates,” taking their feelings about women, Indigenous people, poor people, drug users, sex, or whatever other tabooed or Othered person or thing, and projecting them onto sex workers. As “blank slates” sex workers cease to be unique human beings and instead become stand-ins for or representations of hated or feared objects or issues. For example, a misogynist might look at sex workers and think “all women are basically whores,” and then act out his hatred of women by assaulting a sex worker. Or a homeowner might look street-based sex workers in their neighbourhood and think “having poor people and druggies around my house makes it less valuable.” She might then act out her sense of devaluation and pity by trying to push sex workers out of her neighbourhood and into a place she considers more appropriate for poor drug users.

Material manifestations of stigma

Stigma also has material (concrete, real) effects. A “bad neighbourhood,” for example, is saturated with stigma—the hegemonic negative association with that place becomes an association with everyone and everything inside it or from it. “Bad neighbourhoods” are more heavily policed than “good” ones, leading to higher rates of criminalization for the people inside and an increased likelihood that residents will face police brutality. “Bad neighbourhoods” receive less investment from business and government than “good” ones, leading to higher rates of unemployment, lower-quality education, fewer recreation options, less desirable or less healthy food choices, and poorer housing conditions. Meanwhile, these bad conditions serve to reinforce the negative stigma.

In the real world, stigma manifests itself in public policy, community behaviours and infrastructure. For sex workers, this means realities like being punished under criminal law or regulated by civil law (like laws requiring massage parlour workers to purchase expensive licenses). It means being subject to NIMBYism (“Not In My Back Yard” actions) and community vigilantes who aim to evict them from their homes and neighbourhoods. It means having less access to health care and harm reduction, or having access only to health care interactions that make sex workers feel shamed and judged. It means choosing to live in sketchy housing because nicer places either won’t rent to them or have evicted them on the basis of their occupation. It means working in isolated industrial areas where predators can more easily operate because sex workers are not welcome in residential areas. It means losing their children to child protective services, for no reason other than their sex work.

Conclusion

Unlike a stereotype, which is a specific belief that may or may not lead to a specific discriminatory action, stigma is all-encompassing. It “spoils” a stigmatized group’s very being, not just by spreading bad ideas or bad feelings about them, but also by turning those bad ideas and feelings into bad relationships, experiences and environments. For students researching and writing about sex work (and for sex workers attempting to get others to understand how stereotypes and stigma affect their realities), understanding these concepts and how they work together, reinforcing each other as they create bad circumstances for sex workers, is a necessary step towards developing a critical analysis of sex work. Once you can understand and explain how stereotypes and stigmas work – how they affect our beliefs and feelings, how they affect our realities and how they relate to each other – you can begin the work of creating knowledge about sex workers that leads towards human, civil and labour rights, towards mutual understanding and towards true empowerment.

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4 comments

  1. badblood

    Hello from Bad Blood, a blog about stigma and public health. I love Goffman’s work but there’s a sense in which it’s very ‘low level’, i.e. looking at interactions between individuals and how they add up into between-group status and power relations. That can sometimes make him a tricky place to start for people wanting to get their heads around stigma. In my own teaching and training I use a couple of other papers — you may already be aware of them and I apologise if it’s familiar territory, but I thought it might be worth mentioning for other readers. One is Link & Phelan’s (2001) component definition of stigma as consisting in the co-occurrence of labelling, stereotyping, separation (us vs them), discrimination and status loss, and power relations. Their conceptualisation of power is a bit clunky, e.g. they don’t think powerless people can use stigma to assume power over others. I got a lot out of Parker & Aggleton’s (2003) paper looking at how stigma is implicated in maintaining and justifying unjust social orderings, such as the hierarchy that has marriage at the top of the ladder, sex workers at the bottom, and gay men like me in between (but climbing ever upwards).

    • sarah m

      Hi! I love your blog. I subscribe to it. Thanks for recommending these papers. I started out wanting a resource for students to get them beyond conflating stereotypes and stigma and towards recognizing stigma as a force that materially affects sex workers’ lives. (That is, to get past labeling only false negative beliefs as stigma and start to recognize a pervasive, concrete atmosphere of stigma that has real, life-or-death effects on people.) But now that I’ve gotten into the topic, I find myself really curious to learn more about the mechanics of stigma, or how it actually works step-by-step. I will check out these papers and then add a section above on the mechanics of stigma. Would you take a look at it again once I’ve done that and let me know if you think I’m on the right track? I really appreciate feedback from an expert on the topic!!

  2. Mary McNabb

    Great paper, Sarah. It’s very readable and I understand it even without a theoretical background in the subject. I particularly like how you move from concrete examples to theory and back again. Here’s the link to a very interesting letter written by two students in Grade 3 to the Disney people regarding stereotypes. They’ve obviously been taught well and are independent thinkers.
    http://us2.campaign-archive2.com/?u=13eb080d8a315477042e0d5b1&id=702ce5340a&e=501c467b64

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