Street sex workers do emotional labor to build customer loyalty

According to a study conducted by UC Riverside and published in Work, employment and society. Although numerous studies have examined the role that emotional labor plays in indoor sex work, researchers have often taken it for granted that outdoor sex work is short-term and strictly transactional. The new study, based on interviews with 36 mostly black transgender respondents who take several popular outdoor “walks” in Washington, D.C., is the first to establish that street sex workers also invest emotional effort considerable to retain their customers. The authors suggest that this emotional labor could help transgender sex workers avoid potentially violent or abusive clients in addition to providing them with a stable income.

“Our results suggest that the presumed experiential differences between sectors of sex work may be overestimated,” said the corresponding author. Sharon Oselinassociate professor of public policy and sociology at UC Riverside and director of the Presley Center of Crime and Justice Studies.

Sharon Oselin

Companies use many strategies to retain their customers, which have increased profits by 25-85%. Emotional labor, the way workers are expected to manage or display their emotions while performing their jobs, contributes to customer loyalty and is especially important in service industries. The illicit and stigmatized nature of sex work presents challenges for workers wishing to cultivate a loyal following. Many men report having hired a sex worker in their lifetime, but few report having visited one in the past year, indicating that most men who hire sex workers only do so occasionally. To convert casual clients into loyal clients willing to brave legal and reputational risks, indoor sex workers, such as escorts, use a variety of strategies to build a relationship that provides the client with benefits beyond sexual pleasure.

Oselin and co-author Katie Hail-Jares of Australia’s Griffith University wanted to test the common hypothesis that street sex workers, who solicit potential clients on sidewalks and often serve clients in places semi-public, are not interested in developing a regular clientele. . They identified several popular spots for street sex work, known as boardwalks, and selected two that were not also associated with open-air drug markets. Most previous research on street sex work has focused on drug-associated rides and found them to be largely based on survival and drug acquisition, which deterred relationship formation. long time with customers. Oselin and Hail-Jares therefore focused on rides associated with transgender sex workers of color and upscale rides in more affluent areas where workers charged higher rates.

The vast majority of people surveyed by the researchers – 83% – said they had regular, or “regular” customers, and about two-thirds of the sample estimated that their regulars made up between 26% and 100% of their total customers. . Most sex workers defined a ‘regular’ as a client who visited more than a certain number of times, was consistent with visits or was loyal to the supplier, had the worker’s phone number or another important quality. Most of them had clients who visited them one to four times a week.

Sex workers have retained these regulars through relational work activities – being friendly, providing good customer service, offering flexible payments or hours, or providing additional services. They compared the customer service they offered to other service industries, where customer satisfaction involves many elements that come together properly.

“Like I said, it’s a business, so I treat them with respect. They are here looking for something, because they know I understand what it is,” one worker said. ” I take my time. I don’t rush them. I treat them more like we’re friends. We know we have a bond instead of a commercial transaction. I make them feel more comfortable, more wanted, that they’re not spending money just on sex,” another said.

Offering flexible payments, such as providing service before the full amount was paid, or accepting whatever the client could afford, also built customer loyalty and fended off competition from other sex workers. It also indicated that the sex worker trusted the client not to take advantage of her generosity, which strengthened the client’s trust in the provider and built rapport between them.

Other workers impose strict limits on payments. They stressed that a delicate balance had to be struck between keeping their client involved enough to keep coming back and reminding them that the relationship was still fundamentally a business transaction, not a romantic one.

Flexible hours offered similar opportunities. Giving clients a little extra time or stopping when they wanted made them feel valued and special, but could also blur the lines between romance and business or present scheduling difficulties that harmed the relationship.

Some of the sex workers – 14% – offered a “girlfriend experience”, a service orchestrated to convey emotional closeness through intimate sexual and physical acts such as kissing and cuddling, and by avoiding conditions that openly characterized interaction as a business matter, such as strict deadlines. Like their indoor counterparts who offered this type of service, outdoor sex workers felt that the girlfriend experience was all about camaraderie, where worker and client played the role of a happy couple, and the maintaining professional boundaries could be difficult when clients fell too much in love with fantasy. For this reason, many respondents did not offer this service.

Customers also go the extra mile to create or maintain stable relationships with workers. They left tips, gave gifts, bought the sex worker dinner, or covered monthly bills. If the client had the worker’s phone number, these relationships could become frightening if clients repeatedly ignored the worker’s boundaries. In these cases, the worker cuts all ties with the client.

“These scenarios suggest that, instead of being extraordinary, street-based sex work is an entirely ordinary service business – and much more like other types of sex work than has been previously documented. “, conclude the authors.

They also suggest that because black and transgender street sex workers experience even higher levels of violence and abuse than other sex workers, they may be more likely to perform the emotional labor necessary to acquire a clientele. safe and predictable, and recommend further research.

“Further comparative studies of cis and transgender sex providers across racial groups are needed to investigate this practice and determine the extent to which disparities exist even among sex workers in the same situation,” said said Oselin.

The article, “It’s Not Just Sex: Relationship Dynamics Between Street Sex Workers and Their Regular Clients,” is available here.

Header photo: Jing Xi Lau to Unsplash

Joseph P. Harris