Bad Girls: Social Class, Gender, Race, and the World’s Oldest Profession

Recently, I spent a weekend reviewing music videos that would help bring Sociology to life for my students. Reflecting upon what my life had been like as a college student, I remembered the music that was popular my freshman year. Disco was in vogue when I was a freshman, and the “Queen of Disco” was Donna Summer. Even “hard-core wall-flowers” would start to dance when Summer’s “Bad Girls” was played. “Bad Girls” was released in 1979 and immediately became a mega-hit, remaining at the top of pop charts for six weeks.  Hard core-and erotic, “Bad Girls” seemed to signal the sexual liberation of all women—including those “bad girl” prostitutes Donna sang about. It would take my girlfriends and me several years to understand fully the social class, gender, and race dimensions of prostitution.  But eventually we would come to believe that Dona’s “bad girls” were not empowered but oppressed.

Sexual liberation implies release from oppressive people, conditions, and beliefs that control a person’s sexuality. It implies a level of freedom, autonomy, and human agency, which most literature on prostitution indicates prostitutes do not have. Rather, research shows that prostitution dominates, degrades, and exploits people fundamentally because they are women in precarious social-class positions, and even more so if they are African-American.

  • Research indicates that prostitution is largely defined, organized, and regulated on the basis of gender. Most prostitutes are women.  And most of the people who manage or buy sex from prostitutes (“pimps” and Johns”, respectively) are men. About a half- million women in the United States work as prostitutes each year, and 40 million women work as prostitutes annually worldwide.   Within this context, female gender seems to increase vulnerability to prostitution.  Being female also seems to increase the likelihood of prostitution arrest: About 2/3 of the people arrested for prostitution in the United States in 2005, for instance, were women (Federal Bureau of Investigation 2005) Research finds that female prostitutes are regulated more than their male customers, and prostitution laws are more strictly enforced against the women who sell sex  than the men who buy it .
  • Revealing a connection between social class and prostitution, most women say they prostitute for financial reasons. While a few highly-paid call girls say that the work allows them a  lavish lifestyle and others do it to pay for crack cocaine and other drugs, the vast majority of prostitutes simply seek economic survival. Studies reveal that environmental and social-class- constraints—poverty, unemployment, limited educational opportunities, limited transportation, and the presence of strip-joints, “crack-houses”, sleazy bars, and cheap motels in low-income neighborhoods— “push” poor women into prostitution. Can we reasonably argue that these  environments provide women with real alternatives to prostitution for survival?  Social class also influences who gets arrested for prostitution: about 90 % of women arrested for prostitution are streetwalkers of lower social-class origins, and not the high-end call girls who “serve” the rich and famous.
  • Race also plays into this story.  Economic precariousness and stereotypes that define them as sexually promiscuous and immoral by nature, make Black females especially vulnerable to sexual exploitation and prostitution .  Arrest rates for prostitution also correlate with race: the advocacy group COYOTE reports that although  most prostitutes are white, most of those arrested are African American.   

  • Regardless of prostitution venue (e.g., brothels, massage parlors, escort service, or the street) all women in prostitution are subject to harm. (See Melissa Farley’s “Prostitution and the Invisibility of Harm”).  All women “in the life” may experience violence from customers, pimps, hotel managers, and/or the police. All must confront the threat of sexually transmitted disease. And, in effect, all are objectified and treated like commodities.

Stricter enforcement of laws against the men who solicit prostitution, and their public exposure, is a short term solution and is therefore insufficient.  The legalization of prostitution is also insufficient, because like stricter enforcement of laws against the solicitation of prostitution, this does not eliminate the institutionalized inequities that push some women and girls into prostitution.How long shall we attribute prostitution to people’s poor planning, immorality, laziness, and craziness?  How long will we fail to address the lack of jobs, low-wages, poor schools, classism, sexism, racism, ablest ideas, and other systemic problems that force some women into prostitution?  In the words of another disco song that was popular during my youth, shall we simply “throw our hands in the air like we just don’t care”?  As the song says, “Now somebody scream.”

Denise A. Narcisse

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5 Responses to Bad Girls: Social Class, Gender, Race, and the World’s Oldest Profession

  1. Pingback: Shaniqua-No-Ho: Crowd-funding when the crowd is surly | SorryWatch

  2. Roxy says:

    The commentator “gangbox” draws an incorrect parallel between being a housewife and being a prostitute. Although both groups are marginalized and sometimes commodified, their professions are completely different.

    Housewives (or house-husbands) do not stay home to gain money, or to finance drug habits/pay the rent/etc. If anything, they lose money and have to give up certain habits to do their jobs. In particular, women often become housewives to provide “back-up” for her partner. Most working men/women cannot balance family and work without someone staying at home. Housewives unofficially work as “live-in care,” acting as a family’s secretary, babysitter, chauffeur, therapist, caretaker, personal shopper, maid, accountant, etc. Their services are valued at $125,900 annually. On top of this, women also lose workplace advantages and income by staying home instead of working full-time. Even if she lives “rent-free,” a housewife’s “salary” is peanuts!

    Furthermore. Buying dinner or a movie does not guarantee sex— it is not a business transaction. Movie tickets can increase someone’s chances for sex, but not guarantee it. Even men who buy tickets/dinner with the intention to get sex know they cannot expect it, whereas they can expect it with a prostitute. Not every courtship ritual is pursued with the intent of sex, or to ONLY satiate sexual desires. Mostly, people go on dates to get to know people who they might marry later, and possibly spend the rest of their lives with.

    That brings me to my next point: unlike wives or girlfriends, most men do not want to “get to know” or “date” their prostitute. Johns engage with a prostitute with the intention of fulfilling their own fantasies and having sexual relations with her. Nothing else. No one hires a prostitute with the intention to marry her, care for her children, meet her parents, or live with her until old age.

    Even if a man marries a prostitute with these intentions, he would not be marrying a “prostitute,” but someone he views as his wife! Big difference!

    Men do not pay housewives to fulfill a single service or fantasy, but rather pass money to her in order to keep THEIR (plural) family afloat. Charging her rent would not only be ignoring the (unpaid) work she puts into the family, but would also be counterproductive to preserving the family unit. Both partners normally have an interest in their family, and therefore invest resources in it/sacrifice for it. That is not the prostitute/john relationship, which is self-serving on both sides.

    This article is excellent, although I’d like to raise one point. The criminalization of prostitution often engenders the violence “the life” is often associated with, which often results from attempts to completely outlaw prostitution (without increasing the amount of choices for women most vulnerable to it.) It would’ve been interesting to read more about self-employed prostitutes, and the effect of criminalization on the amount of violence endured. Perhaps it is not the work alone that exploits people (although it plays a role.)


  3. MT says:

    Most arrested are actually white. Whenever the cops arrest a bunch of hookers together the women are always white and the men are usually black.


  4. This was such a great post, but I would like to encourage you to include sexual minorities such as the Queer, Lesbian, and Transgender community. Many queer and trans homeless youth are sex workers. I’m always disappointed that our stories as working-class LGBTQ people are ignored and marginalized in academia. I personally have worked to transcend my class but have faced barriers due to being a working-class lesbian at university. To create awareness I had created a blog disucssing my expreinces at Penn State and have a life long commitment to anti-oppression work with various disenfranchised populations.


  5. gangbox says:

    ALL sexual relations between men and women under capitalism are commodified – the non working homemaker who lives rent free in a man’s house is as much a prostitute as the women working the corners is!

    And, as long as sexual relations between men and women are commodified – as long as men “pay for sex” (no matter what the form that payment takes – be it dinners and movie tickets, access to health insurance and pension benefits or a direct cash transfer) there will always be prostitution.

    The short term solution is to end all of the persecution of sex workers, to legalize their jobs and allow them to organize and fight for their rights.

    The long term solution is the overthrow of the capitalist system, and the end of it’s commodified male-female sexual relations.


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