Monday, January 31, 2022

Lessons from the Whorearchy: What Can Sex Workers Teach Us about Stigma?

Here is one popular myth that many people hold dear: Those who are discriminated against, pursued, and stigmatized have at least one comfort in life – each other. Have we not seen many movies and heard many stories about how the downtrodden in life will band together and support each other, and may even fight back and gain the status they deserve?

In research published in Administrative Science Quarterly, Madeline Toubiana and Trish Ruebottom find a bleaker reality. They studied sex workers, meaning burlesque dancers, strippers, pornography actors, webcam actors, escorts, and dominants, who are stigmatized in society to such an extent that they typically try not to reveal the work they do. Given the difficult experiences that come as part of their work, they would seem like a group inclined to band together. Would it not be natural for them to confide in each other and help each other? Perhaps so, but as the researchers found, this is not exactly what happens.

Sex workers are united in being stigmatized by others but divided by how they stigmatize each other. They have different jobs, and the ones with greater physical exposure and contact with clients are stigmatized more. They have different backgrounds, and those who are minorities or come from poverty are stigmatized more. So, sex workers need to be careful in selecting who to interact with and how much to reveal even when they are interacting with each other, because there is always a risk that they will encounter stigma instead of support. Those who have enough initiative can still build or join groups that provide mutual support, but those groups are likely fractured and small as a result of all these divisions.

Does this seem like a specialized outcome from an unusual kind of stigmatized group? Maybe. But keep in mind that the myth of unity among the stigmatized is rarely questioned, and those of us who read online blog posts lack experience with such groups and know little about them.

In fact, we also know little about the groups who are not stigmatized but hold low-status positions in organizations we work for or buy products and services from. Are the cleaning personnel earning minimum wages (who everyone seems to ignore) at least on friendly terms with each other and willing to offer support? What about the servers working for the type of restaurant that offers little pay or tips, or the ubiquitous delivery-van drivers?

These questions are important because organizations are better off if employees at all levels work for them for a more positive reason than lack of a better alternative. If lack of a better alternative is the reason, as might be the case if pay is low and support from peers is hard to find, then employees will stay employed only as long as they have no better alternative. And usually, people are worth more to the organization than they are paid, sometimes much more, so assuming that the myth of mutual support keeps them happy can be costly.

One of the biggest changes in the US economy that has accompanied the Covid pandemic is the great resignation – a wave of resignations and retirements from industries with many low-status workers. Maybe this trend is unrelated to the research at hand. Or maybe workers in jobs with little money and no social support have found that they had a better alternative – not working.

Toubiana, Madeline  and Trish Ruebottom. 2022. Stigma Hierarchies: The Internal Dynamics of Stigmatization in the Sex Work Occupation. Administrative Science Quarterly, Forthcoming.