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This paper adds to the understanding of the female sex industry in Britain and is distinct in three ways. First, it presents empirical findings from an ethnographic study that explores the concept of occupational risk from the sex workers viewpoint; second, it focuses attention on the types of risk experienced amongst sex workers who mainly work from indoor sex markets such as licensed saunas, brothels or as escorts; third, I argue that, although health and violence are real concerns to many sex workers, the emotional risks of selling sex, in particular the chance of ‘being discovered’, is prioritised in the hierarchy of harms.
The sociological concept of risk can be understood not only as an objective, calculable event associated with certain actions, but relative to the individual and their social circumstances. Scholars argue that risk behaviour needs to be understood as a socially organised phenomenon rather than conceptualised only from the viewpoint of individual rationality. Social structures influence risk, and individuals respond to the dangers around them. Douglas (1992) examines how the social and cultural environment must be taken into consideration when understanding individual risk behaviour. Douglas (1986) suggests that individuals not only assess an objective possibility of risk but also take into account their own ability to react and cope. Warr and Pyett (1999: 291) also explain how individuals cope with risks by interpreting the world around them and reacting to their social circumstances. Rhodes (1997: 210) argues for a ‘socially situated’ paradigm of risk behaviour that encompasses both the actions of individual behaviour and the interplay with social factors. Rhodes (1997: 216) considers that social relationships need to be included in any theorising of risk because of the necessary power dynamics that are involved in risk behaviour: ‘Risk behaviour is not simply the outcome of “individual choices”, it is the outcome of “negotiated actions”’.
Recently, the gendered nature of risk has been theorised in relation to the specific hazards that women face. Chan and Rigakos (2002) describe how the nature of risk is different for various social groups and that women’s taking and avoidance of risk is inherently gendered: ‘What constitutes risky behaviour is filtered through a masculine lens that conditions what we identify and define as “risky”. Moreover, when women do take exceptional risks, the tendency is to conflate women’s exceptional risk taking with “amorality” as in the case of promiscuity’ (Chan and Rigakos 2002: 743). Walklate (1997: 44) suggests that there is a gendered conceptualisation of risk that encourages a preoccupation with risk avoidance and calls for an ‘explanation of risk as a gendered concept subjectively experienced’. Other scholars note how concepts of risk avoidance are related to assumptions of femininity: ‘Dominant notions of femininity tend to represent the careful avoidance of danger . . . they are more often portrayed as the passive victims of risk than as active risk takers’ (Lupton 1999: 161).
Women who work as prostitutes, by contrast, appear to be risk taking by the standards of others in the community and are excluded from the rights to protection granted to other citizens, and are placed outside acceptable conceptions of femininity. Failure of women to take appropriate actions to prevent risks and danger are considered immoral and to lack citizenship responsibilities. Stanko (1996: 51) points out that there are public discourses in relation to female safety that consider those women who do not follow the rules of responsibility are either ‘asking for it’ or are outside the realms of public protection.
As Miller (1991) argues, however, the ‘voluntary’ nature of female risk taking must be understood within the social, economic and political situation that shapes the constraints and opportunities in women’s lives. My research explores how a group of women who are marginalised in society interpret risk through what Douglas (1992) calls a contextual approach that uses qualitative work to explore cultural, individual and interactional aspects. Although the women in my study defined themselves as making an economic choice to sell sex and said they were free from coercion, it must be recognised that they were making decisions within a particular set of social, economic and political constraints that are defined by inherent gendered power relationships.
Evidence in my study suggests that the women actively weigh up the costs and benefits of an action and make calculated decisions to determine the outcome. The probability of encountering risks is not only determined by varying dispositions to risk taking and risk avoidance but also by competing preferences. Sex workers were constantly juggling three preferences: the desire to stay physically safe, the desire to maintain their sanity and the desire to earn money. The nature of selling sex and the sex industry in Britain means that often individuals are faced with competing preferences. The desire to stay safe and remain sane is often at odds with the desire to earn money. The outcome of these competing preferences is determined by an individual’s propensity to avoid or take risks.
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