Vendere sesso con le parole: narrazioni, sessualitĂ  e tecnologie al lavoro.

Selmi, Giulia (2010) Vendere sesso con le parole: narrazioni, sessualitĂ  e tecnologie al lavoro. PhD thesis, University of Trento.

PDF - Doctoral Thesis


This research deals with the exchange of sex for money through technologies. In the last decades in Italy, it has become common to talk about new forms of prostitution – both in academic and popular debate – to describe how the national sex industry is changing. For instance, alongside street prostitution carried on by migrant women and transexuals, which has been the main feature of the Italian sex market for a long time, indoor prostitution, especially escort services, peep show and exotic clubs are greatly increasing, as well as new forms of soliciting costumers through blogs and websites. Among these new forms of prostitution, I focused my attention on what has been called virtual prostitution (Velena 2003) or forms of commercialization of sexuality that occur through technological devices: erotic chat, web cam services and phone sex, where sexual experiences are sold without any physical contact between sellers and buyers. These kinds of sex work lie at the intersection of two interesting social phenomena: the commercialization of sexuality and the reconfiguration of social interactions in the face of technological mediation. In fact, on the one hand, albeit through the mediation of technology, in this type of services what is sold are “real” sexual or emotional experiences. On the other, these services, unlike all other forms of sex work, can not rely on the "real" body as a primary resource for sexual (and therefore working) action. In fact, the mediation of technology requires a separation between the physical location of the social actors and the interactional space in which the exchange of sex for money happens. In this thesis, I explored how occurs the technological transformation of the “world’s most embodied profession” as we can call sex work by subverting one of its most famous definitions. How do people sell sex when they do not share the same space of interaction and when there is not the body? What knowledge workers must be able to mobilize in order to make their performances successful? What kind of work becomes sex work when it is done through technology? To answer these questions, among the new forms of sex work made possible by the technologies of communication, I choose as empirical field erotic phone services. On the one hand, although the phone can be considered the "oldest" technological mediation of social interactions it also requires the more radical transformation of sexuality because it completely removes the presence of the material body from the scene. For instance, unlike web cam services, where the sense of sight is stimulated through the exhibition of the body, erotic phone sex interactions are performed exclusively through words. On the other, in the Italian scenario, these services are exclusively working interaction against others - such as erotic chat - where the working component is residual and sexual interactions are played on a reciprocal basis and are free of charge. I devoted the first chapter at exploring the different interpretations that, within the social sciences, are given to the exchange of sex for money. As its title suggest - from prostitute to sex worker - I embarked on a path in the literature that has led me from the interpretations of the sex trade as a form of deviance and female subordination to those that define it as real work. First, this helped me to frame how the elements that come into play in this work - such as sexuality or emotions - are resources for the working performances of sex workers rather than definitional aspects of their identity as deviants or victims. Secon, it helped me to stress the polysemy of the term sex work that, differently from prostitution, invites us to consider the many and different jobs that require a form of commodification of sexuality and to question the specific ways in which this occurs. However, this exploration of the litterature on the sex industry showed a gap: in fact, even if in the last decades are increasing the studies on different form of sex work, those works mediated by technology have received very little attention and in the few available studies on phone or cam sex, it’s not payed specific attention to how and if the technological mediation change the practice of selling sex. Starting from this consideration and from the research questions I asked myself while carrying on the research, I dedicated the second chapter to build a theoretical framework able to answer the interpretative issues that the analysis of this specific kind of sex work placed in front of me. If in phone sex work sex is sold, this is done in the space of interaction created by technologies and it relies solely on words. Therefore, I firstly built an interpretative framework to account for the "conversational space" in which the interaction between operators and customers takes place and for the process of reality construction through language. I didn’t define language as a set of signs that represents reality, but as a specific form of social action both embedded in social worlds and able to create itself social facts, that is being perfromative (Austin 1967). In the case of phone sex, this linguistic action is also the working action or it is through words that operators lead their daily work. I have therefore provided a framework for interpreting these erotic interactions as a type of institutional talk (Drew and Heritage 1992) where the work can be considered a conversational accomplishment (Licoppe 2006): it is a "knowing-how with words" (Bruni and Gherardi 2007) which mobilizes specific expertise as resources for the work. In the case of phone sex, what operators must be able to mobilize is the experience of sexuality. Then, in conclusion I offered a framework to illustrate how sexuality (and gender) may be qualified as social repertories for the working action rather than being considered a natural experience or an ascribed feature of individuals. In the third chapter, I deepened the empirical context and the methodology used to conduct the research. I then explained the rationale, already partly disclosed, which led me to choose phone sex work made possible among the forms of sex work made available by technology and I provided an accurate description of how these services work both in organizational ans legal terms. Then I explained the methodology or a case study research strategy (Eisenhardt 1989, Stake 1994) through qualitative data collection techniques and analysis: participant observation in two call centers, audio-recording of the performance of the operators, field interviews and analysis of documentary material. The two call centers were selected through a process of theoretical sampling (Glaser and Strauss 1967) using as criteria for selecting the mode of organization, the type of service offered and the sex composition of the staff. Therefore, the research was conducted at Kappa - a home-based call center where exclusively female staff works - and Lambda - a medium sized office-based call center where the the staf os both female and male. In the last section of the chapter, I articulated a methodological reflection on my experience as a young woman in a "sensitive" and stigmatized field as the sex industry is by focusing on two specific moments of the research: getting in and getting out from the field. The next three chapters are devoted to the data analysis. Chapter four provides the elements needed to understand and place the analysis of the working performances in the specific context in which they occur. It provides a thick description of the most significant feature observed in the two call centers by highlighting the similarities and differences related to different methods of organization: first I offer a description of the style and the organizational values of the two call centers, then I described the physical premises where the operators are located, the relationship between this physical space and the conversational space where the interaction happens, and the role played by time in this kind of job. In the second part of the chapter, I focused on operators and customers. I provided a brief biographical description of the operators that I have met, their relationship with this work and the path that leads them to work in phone sex work. Afterwards, I discussed the types of customers and the types of conversations the operators are involved in. Chapter five and six are devoted to the analysis of the process of selling sex with words through the phone with a particular focus on three dimensions - sexuality, body and gender - which I considered simultaneously as privileged objects of analysis and as "tool-concepts " (Sassatelli 2002 p. 323) helpful to lead it. In phone sex work (and not only there) these three dimensions are deeply intertwined into one another, but for the sake of analysis and the organization of the text in chapter four, I analyzed thoroughly the role of the body and that of sexuality, while in the suxth chapter I went for gender as the interpretive lens. In chapter four I examined how the operators are able to account for the body and sexuality without being able to rely on the physical co-presence with the customer. In the first part of the chapter, then, I illustrated, through a detailed analysis of the conversational work of operators, how the body is materialized in the interaction through a narrative that draws on the relevant and shared cultural embodiment's code and how sexual interaction is translated from operations into culturally intelligible sexual scripts (Gagnon and Simon 1968, 1976) that allow the client to interpret the situation and to feel it as sexual. A side of the conversation’s analysis, I focused my attention on two other feature of this work: the process of " erotic learning " of operators, or how they have learned to have sex over the phone, and the role played by their own material bodies, considered as perceptual devices and as a set of embodied resources you need to draw on to do this work successfully. In chapter six, I am explored how the process of selling sex with the words, operators should also "do gender" with words or frame their performances in the symbolic dominant universes of masculinity and femininity. I explained the process of creating gender-specific identity for the workplace through which workers manage interactions with customers and I analyzed the conversation - in this case both the erotic and the sentimental ones - paying attention to different facets of femininity and of masculinity that operators mobilize for customers and the role gender performances play in the success or not of the conversations. In the second part of the chapter, I focused my attention on what I called "gender tactics " (De Certau 199th) or the ways operators manage these dominant and stereotyped gender repertoires to their economic advantage. Next, I turned the gaze beyond the technological mediation to explore the narratives through which workers attribute meaning to their work and position themselves in relation to customers. In the conclusions I suggest an analytical reinterpretation of the process outlined in the empirical chapters to answer the research questions that guided this work. In particular I focused on the definition of phone sex work as a conversational performance embedded in a “reality deal” and exposed to specific constraints or the authenticity and the relation time-gain. Then I illustrated the ecology of knowledge that the operators must be able to mobilize to sell sex over the telephone. In this sense, I defined phone sex work as an expert work which rely on a form of erotic knowledge that allows workers to translate the complex angles of sexuality (Plummer 2002) in technologies and to do it by manipulating costumers erotic desires and emotions in order to gain as much as they can from each interaction.

Item Type:Doctoral Thesis (PhD)
Doctoral School:Sociology and Social Research (within the School in Social Sciences, till the a.y. 2010-11)
PhD Cycle:XXII
Subjects:Area 14 - Scienze politiche e sociali
Repository Staff approval on:29 Apr 2010 10:19

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