Landing : Athabascau University

Sex work in the context of "the neoliberal university"

Last updated March 20, 2013 - 8:11pm by sarah beth Comments (3)

Note to undergraduate students who find this page: 

THIS IS NOT A PEER-REVIEWED SCHOLARLY SOURCE. This is a draft of a lecture presented in "Sex Work and Sex Workers" and "Queer Communities and Pop Culture" at Brock University in 2011. You may read it, and if you use the ideas from it you should cite it, but your teacher will NOT count it as a scholarly source (also, don't plagiarize it - if you found it with Google, so can your teacher).

If you want to learn more about neoliberalism and sex work, check out the article by Sarah Lantz in the bibliography. For more about research on sex work, read the Laura Agustin article. For more about neoliberalism in general, read the articles by Duggan, Smith and Peck, Theodore and Brenner. In all cases, using your library's databases instead of Google will help you make sure you find only appropriate scholarly sources. 



In 2005, Laura Agustin called for the development of cultural studies of commercial sex. Despite the appearance of a proliferation of sex work-related research, media attention to sex work because of Bedford v. Canada, and a certain amount of mainstreaming of sex-positive and queer feminisms in universities, the bulk of the research I've looked at continues to isolate sex work as an exceptional category for study: it's almost as if sex work happens in a void. We can study nearly anything and everything about it, sometimes including things that are transgressive and often including things that are unethical, but we still study sex work as if it's totally unrelated to any other industry or any other aspect of culture and as if we will eventually produce findings that define, once and for all, what sex work is like. Agustin writes:

Little work exists in a sex-industry framework, but if we agree that it refers to all commercial goods and services of an erotic and sexual kind, then a rich field of human activities is involved. And every one of these activities operates in a complex socio-cultural context in which the meaning of buying and selling sex is not always the same. The cultural study of commercial sex would use a cultural-studies, interdisciplinary approach to fill gaps in knowledge about commercial sex and relate the findings to other social and cultural concepts. [...] An approach that considers commercial sex as culture would look for the everyday practices involved and try to reveal how our societies distinguish between activities considered normatively ‘social’ and activities denounced as morally wrong. This means examining a range of activities that take in both commerce and sex. (618-19)

What I’m going to talk about takes academic work – studying, researching, teaching, and being in the university “community” – as the normatively “social” and investigates its interactions with sex work, an activity “denounced as morally wrong.” 

My premise is to understand academic work as something that sometimes includes "services of an erotic and sexual kind." I don't mean I think profs are secretly selling blowjobs out of their offices on their off-hours (though I'm sure someone, somewhere is), but rather that universities do often deal in sex in other ways -- as subjects for research and teaching -- and definitely, while they might sometimes try to deny it, deal in bodies: student bodies, bodies of knowledge, people role-playing teacher and student, people filling chairs and offices, people bringing their sexual, gendered, racialized bodies with them everywhere they go. On the very odd occasion, that's even sexy (e.g., the Northwestern thing in 2010). At the same time, academic environments, for better and for worse, are often the context in which sex work is assigned meaning. Is it violence against all women? An empowering experience of being the petty bourgeoisie? Plain old work under capitalism? Let's do some research and decide. 

What we’re missing when we do this is what I hoped students will get out of looking at the Pivot Legal Society’s research and recommendations in Beyond Decriminalization. I asked them to just check out the table of contents and executive summary because I want them to understand how huge, complex, and sometimes contradictory the sex industry – and, consequently, research about the sex industry – actually is. No one person can deliver a polemic about “the industrial vagina” or stand up and “tell her story” or  show up to class with a “sex work 101” speech and actually tell you about the sex industry in a systematic way. What’s needed is for students taking classes about sex work, in labour studies, women’s studies, social work, sociology or wherever, to develop the skills to research sex work in detailed and contextual ways and, more importantly, for sex workers to have access to those spaces and skills for doing that research themselves.

The contribution I want to make here is to figure out how to investigate sex work in a way that turns the lens on the environment where the investigation takes place, while still acknowledging the role of sex work environments in shaping and interpreting research. I want to give students some interesting information about the sex industry and about education as an industry, but I also want to model a way of investigating sex work that doesn’t treat it as simple, easily totalized, or exceptional.

One thing we need to understand is that knowledge production isn’t a one-way street. These are just brief bits of trivia, and I can recommend a source for finding out more for those who are interested, but the sex industry does produce a fair amount of “knowledge” about the university: how many of us had encountered, in sexual fantasy or in porn, the “professor/student” trope – i.e., “I’ll do anything to get an A in this class!” – before ever stepping foot on campus. Of course, in porn, the professors are never socially awkward nerds who are scandalized by the very idea (which is good because that would make for some really boring pornos), but this is one way that the sex industry reflects on, denounces, envies, satirizes, and reproduces the imbalanced power relationships, the economic pressures, and the race and gender politics of the university. Some other examples might be the continued meaningfulness of the word “coed”: we all know what a “sexy coed” is, but the term’s academic meaning has long been moot. And the last point of note is how marketable “student” identities are in the sex industry: flip through prostitutes’ ads online and you’ll find that they’re almost all students, probably because it connotes a justification for sex work and an element of class privilege that’s good for business.

clips from “Angel” (1:05:53-1:10:33) and “The West Wing”

what do these representations tell us about sex workers?

what do these representations tell us about school?

why does “Angel” have to be an honour student, why does Laurie have to be a law school student?

are there any other ways the clips reinforce that these women are living a contradiction?

What does it mean that are the women represented as heterosexual?

what’s up with that “community food” line in The West Wing?

If we look more closely at the media reports, we see a pretty common, sensationalized narrative coming out at least once a year, for at least the last ten years. It’s probably been going on a lot longer, but the last ten years is what my research for this lecture covered. It has every element of a moral panic—suggesting new or newly increased “immoral” sexual behaviour among youth, in a narrative designed for adult consumption. This is combined with a new labour reality for youth—or at least for the youth we see pictured in these media image: people who are young, white, middle-class and “expected” to go straight from high school to university to long-term, full-time, sustainable employment. The “new” reality, of course, is not so new for racialized, working class and immigrant youth who haven’t had these privileges in a systemic way. The reality is that no matter what field you get into, what kind of training you have, you’re not guaranteed that “dream” job, and fewer and fewer of those kinds of jobs exist.

This is a part of a way of thinking about education that no longer sees it as a social good, as something that a whole community invests in because a well-education population (and this was still a very exclusive idea of who a “real” citizen was) can participate in society in ways that benefit everyone. Now, education is seen as a personal investment: we try to calculate the return on investment and to pick the right fields, but if we fuck up and don’t get jobs, it’s our own fault (Lantz). The way this kind of “fucking up” gets analyzed in the media is through an analysis that says there are “too many” students – we need some people to be labourers! – getting “useless” degrees (what did you expect with an English degree?). A lot of the commentary on why students are “turning to” sex work focuses on how they’re middle class kids who have spent too much money on iphones and beer, or they are the “wrong” kind of people—people who should be working in disappearing manufacturing jobs, staying at home while their partners work, or who are somehow stepping out of their place and encountering costs they can’t handle. And of course, because they’re represented as universally young, white, and female, the purity of the whole middle class is at risk.

What I think is more interesting, though, is this language of “turning to”: if students are “turning to” sex work, what are they turning from.

There are a few different ways to talk about neoliberalism: what it is and what it does to culture and society.

First, neoliberalism is an economic ideology. It tries to represent itself as very neutral, which I’ll get to in a few seconds, but it’s a belief system, just like my socialism is. The dominant ideology in north American national and international economies since the early 70s, neoliberalism advocates for a small and relatively powerless state, a completely free market, individual responsibility based on the idea that everyone has equal opportunity, and the elimination of all or most “safety nets” for those who don’t prosper. In reality, there are a lot of contradictions here: neoliberalism also insists on a powerful security state to protect capital, and that force is used to keep some people in prisons, or surveilled, or subject to violence, or otherwise without those elusive “equal” opportunities. The reality is a “welfare state” for capital and a “security state” for everyone else.

One way to talk about the reality of neoliberalism is to talk about “actually existing neoliberalism” (Peck, Theodore & Brenner). “Actually existing neoliberalism” refers to the study not of its ideological expressions, but to how practices and policies manifesting that ideology are embedded and acted out in institutions and spaces around us.

Another way to talk about the reality of neoliberalism is to talk about how people, as groups and individuals, participate in a neoliberal society and economy. Two examples are revanchism, defined by Neil Smith as the “ugly cultural politics of neoliberal globalization,” and “homonormativity,” defined by Lisa Duggan as “the sexual politics of neoliberalism.” Both have bearing on how sex workers live and on how we produce knowledge about sex work. Revanchism is a municipal politics that reacts to the problems of poverty created by neoliberalism by taking revenge on the poor, and homonormativity is a sexual politics that reduces the space in the public sphere available for sexual identities and queer political critique.

So what forms does neoliberalization in universities take?

The first thing we can look at is the working conditions around here: the new “norm” is academic work is contingent labour – that’s usually semester by semester, without benefits or job security. Your TAs, some of your professors, and many of the administrative and maintenance staff are contingent workers, on limited contracts. If any of you go to grad school, you will probably become contingent academic workers, too.

And this is happening in the context of privatization. Many contingent workers are sub-contracted through private corporations instead of working for the university directly. That decreases the university’s responsibility to provide good working conditions, or to pay for benefits, disability, EI and CPP contributions, workers’ compensation claims. But the university itself is becoming less and less a public institution. As government funding decreases, universities have to look to private corporations. York, U of T, and the University of Ottawa have recently been involved in or considered deals with CIGI, a think tank connected to Research in Motion, to open research centres. And all CIGI wants is control over things like hiring and what research gets done—public control over public institutions is up for grabs, and universities are becoming less democratic.

There is also a cultural politics at work, connecting news media, popular opinion, and university governance. As everyone’s employment conditions – if they can find a job at all – get worse, a popular anti-intellectualism has built. Many of us have probably seen news stories about how “too many” people are getting “useless” degrees—and these kinds of attacks have focused especially on anti-racist, queer, and feminist teaching and learning. Universities are under increasing pressure to train students for specific jobs, and to deliver information in easily-measured ways, and critical thinking skills, resistance to dominant culture, aren’t easily measured. At SUNY Albany, five humanities programs were outright cancelled because they were providing the right kind of knowledge.

In universities, the responsibilities for cost-cutting and increasing revenue are being downloaded from to individual departments. If your department has a lot of costs – like human resources – but isn’t a money-making department, can’t attract private funds, attracts a few interested students, but not cohort after cohort of soon-to-be workers, you’re going to have funding problems.

This situation can have a lot of effects on students, instructors, and researchers involved with sex work. For students, we might ask who has access to education in the first place? As tuition fees rise and funding and support decrease, maybe more students will need to do sex work. Classes like these could actually be made very useful by those who have never been sex workers who want to engage in the industry in informed ways. But what about people who are already sex workers? Will the support they need to become students, if they want to, be provided? Or they will be a part of that imagined group of “useless people” who are stepping out of their places (but also skewing unemployment rates – imagine what they would look like if so many people weren’t in school) by going to university?

For students and for professional researchers, commercialization, assessment, and funding competition are all big issues for studying sex work. In social services, which are under the same pressure of neoliberalization, there’s very almost no for programs for sex workers, aside from limited HIV/AIDS prevention funding. Studying sex work – or “frivolous” sexuality issues of any kind – can be a risky decision for people who need to prove that their research is useful, that they have “real” skills, that they can fit in to the cultural and sexual norms of neoliberalism we talked about a few minutes ago.

And when students have increasingly unstable and unsupported access to education, and researchers and instructors have less and less job security (Lantz), the consistent, details, systematic attention that sex work needs as a research topic is harder and harder to deliver. So there is the question of how these learning and working conditions actually prevent quality research from happening. For instructors, who depend on good evaluations and on being “beneficial” in a way that offsets their human resources costs, teaching abotu prostitution or pornography might appear too risky. Popular anti-intellectualism can make it really risky, as public figures raise moral panics about leftist “indoctrination” in schools – that old idea that knowledge corrupts, sometimes expressed in culture in the form of English professors who are failed writers, failed husbands, emotionally dead, and spend all their time chasing undergraduate tail (Deresiewicz).

The final interaction I want to look at today is how the university, as a privatized “community member,” interacts with communities that are also undergoing neoliberalization at a local level. In Oshawa, where I’m from, UoIT has had a big role in the downtown’s “revitalization.” This is a project undertaken by businesses and city council in reaction to the closure of the manufacturing businesses that were once the city’s primary employers. As has already happened to Toronto and Hamilton, Oshawa is becoming “creative.” Sex workers and, more broadly, the sex industry – strip clubs, dildo and porn stores, massage parlours – have been one of several targets for cleanup, which also include social services and homeless shelters. So as UoIT moves downtown, and the culture downtown is reconfigured to serve both students, imagined as a population of young, white workers-to-be, and the existing “creative class” (that’s people who work in health care, design, arts, anything that has more to do with making knowledge than with the “non-creative” labour of manufacturing or service); as this is happening, zoning laws are being changed to push social services, including the John Howard Society and the AIDS Network, the only places with services specifically for sex workers, out of the area. (I think, in Oshawa’s imagination, the “right” place for these services to go is to Toronto, but that’s a longer argument than I have time for.) Already faced with funding instability, if they want to change locations (because their leases are up, or they need more space, or they need something cheaper), they can’t relocate somewhere else downtown. The idea here is that the “undesirable” people – specifically constructed as undesireable company for UoIT’s and the “creative economy’s” target populations – will move with the social services.

For sex workers and for sex work researchers, these are communities that no longer have space for public sex or sexuality; that’s a facet of the homonormativity we talked about earlier. I’m going to close with one last example: an explanation of why this presentation has so few pictures. Not that I left it till the last minute or anything, but I made my power point this morning at the Coffee Culture on St. Paul St. To my suprise, the firewall there blocked all sexuality-themed websites: porn sites, feminist and queer blogs, sex worker sites. Because it is a “family-friendly” establishment, that knowledge was off-limits in public. I’m at a distance school, so instead of using a campus, I use a variety of online networks, including a site that’s a little like Facebook. So far, no one has complained about my blog posts about why anal sex is awesome and “check out this neat porn I saw,” but the university has a policy forbidding any use of AU’s computer networks to distribute pornography, nudity, or obscenity, except by “authorized faculty” doing so for the purposes of “serious” discussion. That policy regulates not only the kind of information that can be communicated, but also who can communicate it (reinforcing imbalances of power that can be very destructive in sexuality studies), how to respond to it and how to teach it. So one thing I’m curious about now, but didn’t have time to answer before class, is which businesses or buildings at Brock have computer networks that restrict porn access, or are there policies here restricting where and when and by whom sexual images can be consumed – we could investigate that as a kind of the “actually existing” sexual politics of neoliberalism affecting study, teaching, and research on sex work here.


Works Consulted

Agustin, Laura. "The Cultural Study of Commercial Sex." Sexualities 8.5 (2005): 618-31.

Deresiewicz, William. "Love on Campus." The American Scholar. Summer 2007. Web. <> [NB. This is also not a scholarly source.]

Duggan, Lisa. "The New Homonormativity: The Sexual Politics of Neoliberalism." Materializing Democracy: Toward a Revitalized Cultural Politics. Ed. Russ Castronovo and Dana D. Nelson. Durham NC: Duke UP, 2002.

Lantz, Sarah. "Students Working in the Melbourne Sex Industry: Education, Human Capital and the Changing Patterns of the Youth Labour Market." Journal of Youth Studies 8.4 (2005): 385-401. 

Peck, Jamie, Nik Theodore and Neil Brenner. "Neoliberal Urbanism: Models, Moments, Mutations." SAIS Review 29.1 (2009): 49-66. 

Smith, Neil. "Giuliana Time: The Revanchist 1990s." Social Text 57 (1998): 1-20. 


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