‘Prostitution Panic’: Sexwork and the Current American Climate by Ashley Gollmann

ashdupre.jpgI am writing this entry in light of the recent ‘scandal’ involving former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer and the Emperor’s Club V.I.P. prostitution ring. In addition and quite perfectly timed, I also had the privilege of attending a lecture given by Dr. Elizabeth Bernstein this past Wednesday here at the University of Maryland. The research surrounding sexwork and ‘the sex industry’ (as nebulous as that term can be) is incredibly interesting to me and I hope that this area of interdisciplinary work will continue to be pursued in the academy through a myriad of departmental programs. It also provides us with a provocative topic through which we can explore intersectionality and globalization. But enough of these legitimating politics and onto the actual topical discussion.

 

It is absolutely incredible how the mass-mediazation of public ‘scandals’ have such a profound role in creating over-night celebrities. The publication of information about ‘Kristin’, dubbed as the central woman in the link between Eliot Spitzer and the Emperor’s Club V.I.P., sparked intense public interest and a thirst for truth regarding her life story. Soon, ‘Kristen’ became known by her current name, Ashley Alexandra Duprè (pictured above) and currently occupies a prominent space on three of the most powerful online communities: MySpace, Facebook, and Wikipedia. Yes, these three social mediums are not at all considered ‘reputable sources’ by any scholastic means, but the very speed at which they produce and transfer information as well as the vast populations and sheer numbers of people they reach are indisputable. What does it mean then, that Ashley Alexandra Duprè has accumulated such a support (read: fan) base? Would this be the case if she were not offered immunity, or if she were not a white “petite, very pretty brunette”?

 

Since this story broke on March 10th, 2008, we have seen an explosion in the media attention to and subsequent law enforcement of sexwork. Leave it to a single high-profile case to provide the ‘incentive’ for police raids and disintegration of sexwork businesses across the nation and across the globe. Feelings of shock and disbelief are becoming a common response to the prevalence of sexwork, but given the omnipresence of the sex industry in American culture, why should this be a surprise to the public? We are witnessing the resurfacing of the Mann Act of 1910, ideas of victimization and trafficking of helpless women, the naturalization of male sexuality, purchasing sex as a form of social mobility, and of course, the unspoken enforcement of heteronormativity. It is convenient for publications to throw around the term ‘prostitution’ as a monolithic concept of ‘sex for money’, but is this really the case? What of the emotional interaction, connectivity, ‘intimacy’ and even ‘authenticity’ of such experiences? What is ‘sex’ and how do we define it? How do we respond to the policing of bodies and desires? The privatization of sexwork and scripts of authenticity interrupt and challenge traditional thoughts regarding ‘prostitution’ and sexual commerce as a meaningless transaction or even a transaction at all.

 

In one respect I view this current moment of ‘prostitution panic’ as typical of American moral enforcement and the effects of mass media involvement. But I also see this as an opportunity to engage such moments and ask ‘Why’? and ‘What if’? Why is it that the two most prominent ‘prostitution rings’ (the other being Wicked Models) recently broken up are characterized as ‘high priced’ or very lucrative enterprises? What if the central person in the Eliot Spitzer scandal was a man? What if ‘Kristen’ had been a migrant woman of color? It is unlikely that these situations would have gained the amount of publicity or national response of the current cases because they are not easily digestible or for that matter, acceptable. Yet sex tourism in developing countries, the dependency of the American sex industry on migrant women and men of color as well as the growth of gay and lesbian tourism exist without question and are topics that cannot be ignored.

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