Critiquing Bernstein–When an Ethnographer’s Personal Morality Underpins Their Work & Overshadows Their Subjects

Temporarily Yours: Intimacy, Authenticity, and the Commerce of Sex (2007) by Elizabeth Bernstein

Bernstein’s book excels more as a history lesson into prostitution in San Francisco from than as a theoretical explanation of the effects of a post-industrial economy on prostitution/sex-work.  While I understand Bernstein is demonstrating that the exchange of finances for sexual favors has largely moved indoors, I remain unconvinced that the model of San Francisco can be extended to cover the U.S. as a whole—after all, many of the streetwalkers leave town to seek business elsewhere.  Where do they end up?  Ultimately I was unimpressed for several reasons: 

This study is fairly outdated (blogging and “Craig’s List” were new creations at the time Bernstein conducted her fieldwork),

I felt parts of the book were largely self-serving.  A picture of her arrest and stories of her being mistaken as a streetwalker would have been better served in a methodological appendix—particularly when she purports to be telling other women’s stories.

Bernstein’s own sense of morality and decency certainly underpin all of her interactions (a Victoria’s Secret display shocks her as pornographic, a store I would personally consider tame—especially in San Francisco of all places).  I was also especially taken aback by her statement about the women participating in John School, “…women, acutely and tangibly fascinated by the spectacle of so many sheepish and docile men before them, and by the feminist fantasy of having the gender tables turned…” (Loc 1700) I am not sure what kind of feminism Bernstein subscribes to, but my idea of a feminist fantasy is equality, not retribution.

Nevertheless, this book was absolutely thought-provoking, albeit in a different way than the author intended.  According to the author, “This book is about the ways in which recent transformations in economic and cultural life have played themselves out at the most intimate of levels:  the individual experience of bodily attributes and integrity, and the meanings afforded to sexual expression” (Loc. 67).  In addition to these aspects, and using the context of our class and the intersectional approach we have taken, I am intrigued by the racial, class, spatial, and economic disparities between “street walkers” and “sex workers.”

The following are questions I have been working through, and the reason I found Bernstein’s work to be valuable:  Do groups like COYOTE create problems for women who are not sex workers/prostitutes as a career choice, but because of their financial circumstances?  Is it an instance of (white) middle-class women propagating prostitution because they have the privilege to choose it?  To what extent are they/should they be held responsible for the fact that their voices get heard and may be wrongly taken as “…general characterizations of women in the sex industry.”  Is the idea of an adventurous erotic woman who enjoys her work a myth?  Are all women ‘forced’ into prostitution for financial reasons? 

If gender disparity disappeared on all institutional levels (education, employment, fair wages), would prostitution still be as widespread as it is now?  Or is it another case showing ‘class divide,’ where people do it for a variety of reasons, but the thing that most separates street walkers from sex workers is their class?  After all, there seems to be a pretty clear divide, and it is questionable as to whether a street walker would even be classified as a “sex worker.”  Sex workers seem to engage in more “high end” engagements, advertise via newspapers (and, now, the internet), charge more, and spend more time with clients.  By contrast, a street walker generally charges much less and spends a very short time with clients, in cars or alleys, and is more likely to be targeted by police.  And the thread of the police caring more about street-level prostitution makes me wonder to what extent racism is at play versus just wanting unsavory elements ‘out of sight, out of mind.’

I wonder if the law has a problem with prostitution (historically more with the workers than the johns) because it is women literally reclaiming agency over their own bodies?  If we take normative ideals and institutions to be inherently male-stream, aren’t we also to take normatively accepted morality as patriarchal as well?  And I wonder how much of the public/moral outcry comes from feeling threatened by a challenge to this internalization of male superiority.  Contrastingly, Bernstein’s work shows that with the increase of gentrification in certain neighborhoods, residents were more concerned with

property values and physically seeing the exchange of sex for money, not the act itself.  Following this thread, I am curious about the extent racism affects interactions between prostitutes and the police.

What is clear is the exploitation of sex-worker women has tended to cross all lines—streetwalker and stripper:  Pimps don’t protect the women from much of anything but other pimps, strip clubs charge exorbitant fees to force women to engage in more than stripping.  It’s almost as if men are in it to get the money back ‘on behalf of’ the men who paid it in the first place.  I read it as an odd show of solidarity and superiority, and the losers are always the women.

Bernstein makes two assertions that I am particularly critical of and pose a more subversive interpretation of:

1.  “Theorists of gender have sometimes regarded the recent growth of the commercial sex industry as a reactionary reassertion of male dominance in response to the gains of second-wave feminism, or as compensation for men’s economic disempowerment in the postindustrial public sphere” (Loc 1536)

2.  “Commercial sex provides access to multiple attractive partners that…many male sexual clients feel that they are entitled to” (Loc 1571).  —I take particular issue with this as I feel that the particular johns Bernstein interviews recognize that they would not get such attractive women without payment. 

Nevertheless, I believe there is a point here—that men have felt entitled to women’s bodies for centuries, and the rise of commercial sex comes from women exploiting this.  The rise of sex-work (and here I am particularly referencing “high end” escorts and women who offer the “girlfriend experience”[1]) comes from entrepreneurial women recognizing a market niche and filling it.  They are reclaiming their own bodies, commodifying and selling them to the very men who have historically had agency over them.  This is not male dominance, this is women dominating men.  The rise of male escorts and sex workers shows that this is increasingly moving toward a business model, less about one gender having control over another, and more about making a profit. 

[1] Of the most unnecessary comments Bernstein makes, her concept of “bounded authenticity” tops the list.  She really tries to push this ‘new’ term she has coined, this concept she has named…which she uses alongside existing terminology regarding the same phenomenon.  I understand the push to publish new contributions, but it was neither new nor remotely useful. 


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