Sex counts: An examination of sexual service advertisements in a UK online directory

Kingston, Sarah orcid iconORCID: 0000-0002-9226-1915 and Smith, Nicola (2020) Sex counts: An examination of sexual service advertisements in a UK online directory. The British Journal Of Sociology, 71 (2). pp. 328-348. ISSN 0007-1315

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Internationally, sex work research, public opinion, policy, laws, and practice are predicated on the assumption that commercial sex is a priori sold by women and bought by men. Scarce attention has been devoted to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer/questioning (LGBTQ) sex working as well as women who pay for sex. This is as much an empirical absence as it is a theoretical one, for the ideological claim that women comprise the “vast majority” of sex workers is rarely, if ever, exposed to empirical scrutiny. Focusing on the UK, we address this major gap in evidence in order to challenge the gendered and heterosexist logics that underpin contemporary debates. We do so by presenting large‐scale data gained from the quantitative analysis of 25,511 registered member profiles of an online escort directory. Our findings point to heterogeneity rather than homogeneity in the contemporary sex industry including in terms of gender identity, sexual orientation, and advertised client base. For example, while two‐thirds of advertisements self‐identify as “Female,” one in four are listed as “Male;” less than half list their sexual orientation as “Straight;” and nearly two‐thirds advertise to women clients. Our study thus challenges prevailing heteronormative assumptions about commercial sex, which erase LGBTQ sex workers and other non‐normative identities and practices, and which we argue have important political, practical, and theoretical consequences.

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