Monday, April 2, 2007

Solicitation in Different Prostitution Sectors

Prostitutes spend more time soliciting than actually servicing clients. Solicitation has a major impact on the experiences women face in sex work. But each prostitution sector is structured differently. I will briefly compare solicitation features of the various sex sectors in South Africa so that we gain a more complex understanding of the industry.

My previous post on dockside solicitation strategies reveals some of the key features of that niche. I showed how solicitation is the primary work of dockside prostitutes, that it is socially complex, that it is done in nightclubs, and that it focuses on a unique clientele—transient foreign seamen. If we compare the dockside to other sex sectors, we see that each niche is quite unique.

LOCATION: Dockside solicitation contrasts to streetwalkers who stand on sidewalks, to truck-stop women who hang around transport corridors, to courtesans who advertise through the internet, to agency ladies who solicit through newspaper ads, to 'beer prostitutes' who sit in working-class taverns, and to brothel women who wait for clients in the brothel's lounge.

Space is complicit with solicitation. Streetwalkers congregate on sidewalks that are publicly known for solicitation: their status is unambiguous due to the context of their loitering. Brothel women also work in spaces that are known—at least in certain circles—for prostitution. But the fact that they work indoors helps protect them, and to a certain degree, their clients from public view. Dockside women work at seamen's nightclubs, a space that is both "straight" and known for prostitution. However, since locals stay away from dockside dives, the women and the men are assured of a certain modicum of discretion.

A general rule is: the more that a space is known for prostitution, the less socially intensive solicitation will be. For streetwalkers and brothel women, solicitation amounts to "showing up" in the right space. They might dress sexy or make provocative gestures from the curbs, but solicitation in these contexts is often little more than "being available" for clients who have already made up their mind to buy sex. At nightclubs or tourist bars, the men are not yet clients, but "potential clients," because they may be there for other pleasures—drinking, dancing, socializing—not prostitution. For women who work from these "open" establishments, they must use a variety of social skills to entice a man to become a client.

DISCRETION: The more discretion a prostitute employs for solicitation, the greater status she will enjoy as a sex worker. Hence, streetwalkers—who offer almost no discretion—rank lower in the sexual services hierarchy than agency ladies or courtesans who rarely advertise in a way that protects their identities and the clients'.

Each niche is characterized by a certain standard of discretion, revenue, legal exposure, vulnerability, and violence (for both the prostitutes and the client). According to this formula, the hierarchy of South African prostitutes might be (from lowest status to highest): streetwalkers - truck-stop women - beer prostitutes - brothel women - dockside sugar girls - massage parlor ladies - agency girls - courtesans.

This is not an exact list—and some women move between these sectors during their careers—but each sector provides increasing layers of discretion for the seller and the buyer. The ability to provide discretion is usually linked to the class and education background of the women, their dependence upon drugs, their sense of autonomy, and their level of financial desperation.

CLIENTELE: Each prostitution sector is determined by the needs and constraints of an occupationally similar male clientele. It is they, not the women, who ultimately determine the shape, structure, and logic of each sector.

Docksiders cater to foreign seamen; courtesans look for international businessmen and tourists; truck-stop women go with long-distance truckers; 'beer prostitutes' hang out with mineworkers; agency ladies treat local middle and upper class professionals; streetwalkers handle local guys; and brothel women cater to a mix of local and foreign middle-class types.

This helps us understand why solicitation—and vulnerability, exposure, likelihood of violence, and stigmatization—differs from sector to sector.

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