Commodification of Bodies : Education and Prostitution

We are used to (if appalled by) the entertainment industry and journalism’s obsession with the buying and selling of women’s physical bodies because we know that both industries have a strong profit motive to objectify and demean women. But we generally think of educational institutions as bastions of liberalism, where at least the profit motive is restricted from the need to reduce women to purely sexual objects, endlessly for sale. Apparently that was until now.

As part of a course on consumption, a Virginia college decided to take a field trip to the Chicken Ranch, an infamous Nevada brothel. Listed among the materials the students used to prepare for the visit were The Beauty Myth and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, both popular books, neither of which academically treat prostitution. Nowhere listed are materials by escaped/former sex workers, anthropological treatises on the cultural stigma of sex work, or even human rights materials on the status of women engaged in sex work – all of which are readily available via even the most cursory academic database search.

Essentially, this university has unicorned prostitution and prostitutes into a more exotic form of service work and wanted to interview the women engaged in prostitution as if it were any other job, with up- and downsides which equate to an ordinary workplace. The (extremely cursory) questions are revealing of both how extra-ordinary prostitution is, and how thoroughly the students manage to miss the point:

Do you consider yourself a feminist?
Alexis: "Most women in this business wear
the pants in the family."
Is there a certain look most men prefer?
Alicia: "Every man wants something
different. There's all different kinds
of girls."
Why aren't there brothels with male
prostitutes?
Rivenburgh: "Former Hollywood Madame Heidi
Fleiss is trying."
Do you still give a military discount?
Rivenburgh: "Yes."
What's the worst part?
Alicia: "Being confined, being cooped up.
I have to be here 24 hours a day."

Where are the questions about who constitutes family, and why? The questions about what it means to be “feminist”, and what kinds of self determination and independence are possible when your physical appearance is dictated by men who will be consuming your body? Perhaps most important, what does it do to someone to be not simply on call, but bound to your post 24 hours a day?

Frankly, I think the “field trip” is a shameful excuse for both ogling the ‘other’ (prostitutes) and pretending that doing so is a legitimate source of academic inquiry. Even accepting that the reporting cut significantly into the work the students did (which, given the length of the article would not be surprising), this project shows no sign of critical thought at all.

Read the “full article” here: Class trip to Nevada brothel

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~ by heycarahe on April 11, 2008.

One Response to “Commodification of Bodies : Education and Prostitution”

  1. It sounds like the entire course is dedicated to “ogling the ‘other'” without any real, valid, academic reason for doing so. I’m trying to figure out how water rights and conservation led to prostitution, and I wonder whether this pathway added to the superficiality of the study in this course. I suppose the consumption of water might eventually lead to the consumption of “entertainment” — but it seems to me that a good researcher would recognize the differences between studying the consumption of material resources and the consumption of human beings.

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