Respatialising the Digitised and Globalised Sex Industry

There is a consensus that sex work and the sex industry have been globalised owing to factors such as the development of sex tourism, neo-liberal economic policies and the influence of the sexual revolution. This paper attempts to pose the question: How have digitisation and globalisation altered the spatiality of sex work and the sex industry? I use Saskia Sassen’s framework provided in "The City: Localizations of the Global" in this attempt to propose a new lens for understanding the spatial changes that sex work has undergone. The notion of the globalised sex industry’s spatiality needs to be reconfigured—spatiality of sex work can no longer be seen as purely physical as there is an imbrication of the digital in the non-digital. The globalised sex industry is a local environment placed in a global network, whose notions of centrality have changed as well with changes in the spatiality of the functional and locational centrality of the red-light districts. This diffusion of centrality has manifested itself at the level of the world system as well via the formation of “third-world” business centres.

Respatialising the Digitised and Globalised Sex Industry

Forces of globalisation such as sex tourism (Bishop and Robinson 1999; Bunn 2011; Carr 2016; Enloe 2014; Munshi 2006; Richter 1989; Wonders and Michalowski 2001), sexual revolution (Giddens 1992; Hills 2014; Norma 2017; Yadav 2020), and neo-liberal economic policies (Brents and Sanders 2010; Chin 2015; George et al 2010; Richter 1989; Shah 2003) have globalised the consumer base and the supplier side of the sex industry while also weakening economic, physical and moral barriers by way of policies, opportunities and advocacy of moralities that prioritise liberty and mobility. This is in line with the argument that the 21st-century sex industry is qualitatively different from that of the 19th and 20th centuries (Norma 2017) vis-à-vis new developments and the expansion in the scope of the industry, as a result of internet-based promotion of the sex industry, and adaptations in cyberspace to cater to varied customers fuelled by the increasing penetration of the internet. It is this phenomenon and its spatial implications that this paper now takes up and seeks to explore and place within the context of a digitised and globalised sex industry.

The Spatiality of Sex Work: Differential Experiences and Demarcated Spaces

The literature on the intersection of sex work and space challenges the notions put forward by both sides of the “sex wars” (Rubin 1984) which homogenise experiences of sex work. Such inspections make the experiences of sex worker [1] contingent on the locations of their work and how they negotiate their ways around these spaces. The literature identifies that indoor and street sex workers are separated based on violence experienced, the differences in the experience of the work, the varying degrees of stigma and community opposition faced and based on different kinds of portrayals of agency (Sanders 2016; Weitzer 2005). Location of work is often found to be indicative of the experiences of sex workers. Street workers experience the most discrimination, stigma and victimisation, whereas the public is more tolerant of indoor prostitution and stigmatises street workers accordingly. As a consequence of stigmatisation, street workers are often othered and shifted from open, public, safe spaces to the margins of the city (Sanders 2004). The margins are seen as immoral as opposed to the moral centre. Red-light districts (RLDs) or “vice areas” (Ashworth et al 1988: 201), concentrated in urban areas, are seen as manifestations of the “unfettered sexuality of the street” (Hubbard 1998: 58), being relegated to the margins due to danger and deviance of prostitutes and the pollution of the urban landscape (Armstrong 2019) acting as a physical divide between the moral (pure) and the immoral (polluted).

In addition to the discussion of stigma, which takes the form of izzat (honour) (Sinha 2015)  and violence, Indian scholarship highlights class and caste differences, and the HIV risk differences between indoor and street workers. Socio-economic well-being is a determinant of who operates in the public RLDs and who works from a private setting. Non-brothel-based sex workers such as escorts and their clients are understood to belong to middle and upper classes and castes, whereas streetwalkers and brothel-based workers belong to the lower classes and marginalised caste groups (Bhattacharjya 2021). As flying or mobile sex workers operate irregular schedules and operate “clandestinely” in attempts to avoid the stigma of being ‘brothel-based,’ they also face a higher risk of HIV infection as compared to brothel workers owing to the former’s irregular use of condoms in personal and professional sexual encounters (Dandona et al 2005; Sinha and Prasad 2020).

The literature on sex work and spatiality deal with the differential work experiences, associated violence, demarcating spaces and sex work at the margins, but there are only occasional mentions of how the internet has altered the spatiality of sex work, and that too, often in terms of movement of some of the street work indoors as there are platforms for advertisements and as indoor markets are safer (Sanders 2016). Indian sex work scholarship has sparsely focused on the implications of internet sexual commerce. The more prevalent focus on technology so far concerns the usage of mobile phones by sex workers—how this facilitates client solicitation, fosters new client relationships and strengthens existing ones; how the increase in surveillance places sex workers at risk from various actors ranging from clients to the police (Panchanadeswaran et al 2019); and how this affects HIV-risk behaviours (Navani-Vazirani et al 2015). The domain of online sexual commerce in India is so far an under-researched area: questions of sex workers and the internet have addressed how the widespread consumption of pornography affects clients’ expectations from sex workers in Andhra Pradesh (Beattie et al 2013), Kamathipura and Bengaluru  (Panchanadeswaran et al 2019); how WhatsApp video calls rescue sex workers from the “spatial entrapment” that accompanies Banaras’s RLD (Minestroni and Avio 2020); and how escort websites construct the ideal escort and the ideal client using caste and class signals in Mumbai (Bhattacharjya 2021).

Sassen, Spatiality and the Sex Industry

The global sex industry can be seen as an instantiation of the spatial reconfigurations associated with globalisation and the influence of technology. Sassen (2005) provides a framework to understand a city as a localisation of the global, while viewing the industries that form the city in their global character and networked nature. She highlights the digitisation and dematerialisation of economies, through which operations and processes get digitised but some components—such as the material and cultural conditions within which the economies are embedded—remain physical. She advocates a move beyond exclusively topographic or solely technological representations and readings of the city as the former fails to capture trans-urban processes and the latter renders invisible engagements with social conditions. Spatial concentration is affected as well owing to these changes. Notions of the central business district (CBD) or downtown associated with that of centrality have been altered. Spatial correlates of the centre can extend into metropolitan areas in the “form of a grid of nodes of intense business activity” (Sassen 2005). It is this framework this paper loosely follows to explore how the spatiality of the sex industry has changed under the forces of digitisation and globalisation.

The Physical and The Digital

The sex industry has transformed with the internet and digitisation. Sex work, conventionally seen operating through call girls (or call boys), escorts, brothel workers, massage parlour workers, bar or casino workers and streetwalkers, has taken on the digital world with the advent of mobile and web-based applications for escort booking (Weitzer 2009). The world saw its first mobile web application for availing the services of prostitutes when ‘Peppr’ was made available in Germany in 2014. Following this, a flurry of mobile applications has been released in the market, often pertaining to regions where prostitution is legalised, are housed off-shore in such countries or operate under the banner of “dating”, “fiction” or “adult connection” (Weissmann 2015). Ohlala (an extension or a modification of ‘Peppr’), Rendevu, Smooci, etc, are few of the applications in the category (Alvi 2020).

Online sex work is not limited to the usage of the internet as a medium for booking escorts or as a platform for the functioning of brothels. Jones (2015: 560) defines online sex work as “the internet-mediated exchange of sexual commodities and/or services”. This is inclusive of sex work with digital and physical aspects as well as sex work with only digital aspects. Sex work advertising applications, escort directories, dating applications that permit sex work advertising, agency websites, individual sex worker websites, etc (Sanders et al 2018), make use of the internet to market sexual services online but the delivery of the service remains physical. There are forms of sex work that use the internet to deliver a service; these have no physical counterparts at all. Web camera platforms, erotic video and photo providers, multi-service adult entertainment platforms and content delivery platforms (for instance, OnlyFans, the recent phenomenon in digital sex work) are examples of the same (Jones 2015).

Away from Topographic and Techno-deterministic Readings

The digitised sex industry requires a move away from topographical as well as techno-deterministic readings that Sassen (2005) argues against in her work. There is a need to look at the “imbrication of the digital in the non-digital” (Sassen 2005). There is a careful interlinkage of the digital and the non-digital when it comes to the transformations in the sex industry. With the internet and digitisation, sex workers have the option to deliver their services online or to market their services online and deliver it in a physical space. With the former, the sex worker and the associated service are materialised in the network while the customer (who is also part of the sex industry) experiences it in a remote, private, physical space; with the latter, the sex worker brands the labour via the internet, granting a digital side to advertising, booking, marketing, and security checks but conventionally experiencing the service in its physical form. A sex worker could move from one platform to another, one service to another, and one could offer both types or none. In its myriad forms, it is difficult to classify sex work into this or that. With digital and physical attributes in constant engagement with each other, sex work, sex worker, the consumer and the sex industry become components of a sited materiality with a global span. Granted the potential digital existence, it is insufficient to read the global sex industry in topographical terms, wherein trying to locate sex workers or their workplace only serves to render invisible the multitudes of sex workers who have translocated to online work and also hides crucial factors behind the changed quality of lives of many sex workers, more of which is explored later on in this article (Jones 2015). Similarly, granted the non-erasure of the physical, it is insufficient to stick to a technological reading of the sex industry as change is real but it is not yet all-encompassing as is denoted by the existence of purely or mostly physical forms of sex work, like the window brothels in Amsterdam or streetwalking, the oldest form of prostitution (Weissmann 2015; Wonders and Michalwoski 2001).

What is digital and non-digital in the sex industry depends on the structures within which we operate. For instance, brothel-based sex work is on the decline in Mumbai, Maharashtra as the land of red-light areas has been lost to gentrification and also as the flexibility of labour has improved with globalisation and the influx of migrants and as a result, sex work has given way to being more street-based and casual labour and labour in itself has become inclusive of several activities of income generation rather than a reliance on a single type of employment, as Shah (2003) argues. Here, the physicality of sex work and the extent of social networks is being affected by larger societal, economic and cultural factors.

Sex Industry: Global, Transnational, Networked

The sex industry resembles Sassen’s (2005: 74) conceptualisation of “a micro-environment with a global span” in multiple ways. It is an entity which cannot just be viewed as local anymore. It is part of a global network and not just a localised entity that can be read and understood topographically. The sex industry gains its global nature partially due to the reconfiguration of the mode of dispersal of services to the globally accessible internet and the transfer of certain processes over to the digitised world, via which e-window shopping from across the world is made possible. In addition to this, pornography attracts billions of dollars every year from all over the world and pornographic models and actors are also entrenched in the global network, especially owing to the demands of the consumers, which has resulted in ethnic or racial categories such as Asian, Black, Hispanic, etc (Campbell 1993). It is not just particular types of sex work that have gained global reach; there are also attempts to incorporate local sex industries into a network by forming a uniform front. For instance, the World Sex Guide (2021) which was launched in 1994 presented information about the local sex industries of numerous countries, their popular brothels, lap-dance bars, working streets, pricing information, local regulations, etc, thereby forming an image of the local branching out of the global. Its deeply internetworked nature is seen in this unification of the sex industry at various levels and as transactions between consumers, providers and mediators weave in and out of the network (physical and social). Yet another manifestation of this internetworked nature is the formation of a network of sex workers, especially derived as a result of sex worker forums in which sex workers post their reviews of customers, especially in cases of mishaps like abuse or refusal of payment, which allows sex workers to contact each other to enquire about clients; and the formation of a network of customers as a result of customer review forums, in which the consumer review the sex worker whose services they availed (Sanders et al 2018; Weissmann 2015).

Being active participants of these networks, sex workers' lives have been impacted in positive and negative ways—while they have the option to focus-advertise, build a reputation for their work, target higher-paying clientele, screen clients beforehand and have safer payment options, they also face perils of data leaks, capping and doxing. Online sex workers feel “agency and decision-making power” over decisions such as working hours, work location, and client selection (Sanders et al 2016). Sex workers and their interconnectedness due to these online networks catalyses “enhanced sociality”, provides a chance to develop “persona and brand” and build their reputations through sex work review websites (Cunningham and Kendall 2011), facilitates sex workers to implement “varied business models”, and provides them with “access to useful articles/resources and spaces for peer support and community building” (Swords et al 2021).

Sex workers also report experiencing a different safety regime owing to online sex work. It grants sex workers—who operate physically but advertise digitally—options to remain anonymous with respect to their phone numbers, and to advertise on websites that cater to ensuring the safety of workers. They can screen potential clients by researching their financial and criminal backgrounds or by accessing information shared by their peer sex workers on hostile clients through shared networking platforms (Campbell et al 2018). Cunningham and Kenall (2011) note that online sex workers “see a lower volume of clients, more repeat clients, and engage in high-risk sexual activities less frequently”. However, a contradictory effect of the penetration of online sex work is on conventional sex workers—as noted in a study from India—who report having to cater to increased anal sex requirements from customers, which is seen by the sex workers as a byproduct of the popularisation of pornography (Beattie et al 2013).

Workers also note their use of a variety of digital spaces—advertisement platforms, personal websites, emails, blogs, social media accounts—to “reinforce messages about services, etiquette and expected client behaviour” to construct boundaries deemed essential in “signalling the sorts of customers they wanted, avoiding misunderstanding, unrealistic or unreasonable customer expectations and shaping customer behaviour”.

Workers who operate digitally and deliver services such as webcamming consider online sex work safer than conventional sex work, as they avoid meeting clients in;person, and are protected from forms of physical violence. However, they face newer risks such as “the misuse of information, 'doxing' of personal information without consent, stalking and harassment through digital technologies” (Sanders et al 2016). Campbell et al (2018), in their interviews with online sex workers, find that “threats to expose and ‘out’ sex workers, other threats to privacy and anonymity and the misuse of information are everyday worries and likely experiences for sex workers”.

Dismantling Centrality: RLDs and Indoor Sex Work

As networks are formed, processes are transformed and spatiality of the network, actors and the industry is reconfigured, and spatial concentration is affected as well. The diffusion of the spatiality of the centre from the CBD into metropolitan areas as well as electronic spaces can be viewed within the sex industry. Owing to the public concerns about morality, discomfort with the female sexual flâneur and the prevalent violence against sex workers, the need to create zones or spaces specially dedicated to sex work resulted in the creation of RLDs, the visible business hub of local sex work. Often urban in nature, RLDs house outdoor and indoor sex work, by opening the streets for prostitution as well as by accommodating brothels, adult cinemas, sex shops and thereby creating an arguable theme park-like experience on account of providing the spectator experience and the proximity to entertainment avenues (Aalbers and Sabat 2012). RLDs can be viewed as the counterpart of CBDs due to their brimming activity and concentration of sex work services in a physical area. Not only are they the counterpart, but studies also show that RLDs are often located near CBDs as well (Aalbers and Sabat 2012). Burgess (1925: 49) locates vice in the “area of deterioration” proximate to the central business section and home to crime, poverty and disease. Reckless (1926) contested Burgess’s claims by arguing that vice is located in transition zones, residential districts and peripheries of the city. This was later followed up by Ashworth et al (1988) who located RLDs in traditional inner-city locations as well as in suburban locations of Madrid and parts of Italy, etc, and by Ryder (2010) who talks about the dispersal of RLDs which can be in zones of discard as well zones expected to expand. Therefore, though the location of RLDs is a contestable one, their role in solving the information deficit associated with commercial sex and its claim to centrality is more strongly supported.

The diffusion of the centre can be seen in two ways: diffusion of the locational centrality of the RLD (where centrality is the proximity of CBD) and diffusion of the functional centrality of the RLD. Regarding the diffusion of locational centrality, RLDs which have been previously visible and in city centres have been moved or have expanded to the peripheries as well, partially due to expanded accessibility on account of increased car travel, reduced mass transportation and removal of ports to urban fringes (Aalbers and Sabat 2012; Ryder 2010), partially due to gentrification—which happened in many European RLDs since the 1990s (van Liempt and Chimienti 2017)—and partially due to attempts at making prostitutes (especially illegal immigrants) invisible, mainly by relying solely on the trafficking discourse and ignoring the agency discourse (Aalbers and Sabat 2012; Ryder 2010). Globalised RLDs are therefore more likely to be diffused into metropolitan areas.

Regarding the diffusion of functional centrality, there is a coexistence of the RLD as a central hub (no matter where it is located) along with decentralised and personalised sex work services. The existence of RLDs can be attributed to the thrill and acceptance of transgression and the growth of sex tourism (Aalbers and Sabat 2012; van Liempt and Chimienti 2017). RLDs are “moral regions” (Park 1915) where loose sexual norms and transgressions are more or less accepted or tolerated. Such liminal spaces may occur not out of demand at that particular location but out of the tolerance threshold. RLDs like De Wallen in Amsterdam are world-famous and almost can be called the “paradigmatic red-light district” (Aalbers and Sabat 2012). The functional diffusion to electronic spaces and diluted indoor sex work can be explained using two variables previously used to justify the locational choices of RLDs: opportunity (potential customers and anonymity of customer and sex workers) and a lack of constraints (legal, social and moral) (Ashworth et al 1988). With increasing internet penetration and advertisement platforms, sex workers do not lose their client base and can migrate to online and/or indoor sex work in various forms. As these are situated in residential localities or places other than moral regions, there are lesser suspicions and conclusions and, therefore, these are capable of providing customer anonymity. This challenges the notion of the centrality of the RLD (Aalbers and Sabat 2012; van Liempt and Chimienti 2017). Even though there are online communities and sex worker forums, there is a decentralised existence of online and indoor sex workers. This can be attributed to relaxed legal constraints. Sanders et al (2016) state that in the United Kingdom, if internet-based sex workers work collectively, they come under the purview of brothel management laws and their gains could be limited. Similarly, Hubbard (1998) argues, from within the context of prostitution in Birmingham, that prostitutes were immune from arrest under soliciting regulations if they operated on their own from private premises.

Third-world Cities in Global Sex Work

Viewing such diffusion of concentrated business areas against the backdrop of the world system, Sassen (2005) argues that third-world cities are also included in the network of business centres. The interconnected nature of the sex industry can be seen in the presence of transnational migrant sex workers in cities far from home as well as in the preferential consumption patterns of online sex work as noted previously in this paper. Chin (2015) argues about the existence of an interlocking network of global cities, instantiated by the migration of sex workers from one global city to another. Assisted by the forces of globalisation—sex tourism, migration and sexual revolution—and digitisation, the business centres of the sex industry are expanding beyond the “major ... business centres: New York, London, Tokyo, Paris” (Sassen 2005), via the transactions in digital space and conventional transport and travel. Beyond the well-documented nature of globalised sex tourism and the sex industry in centres like Amsterdam, “primate cities” (Wonders and Michalowski 2001) in the third world like Havana (Cuba) are also gaining significance in the map of sex tourism and the sex industry. Since the 1990s, there has been a re-emergence of sex tourism in Havana, the inclusion of tourism as a developmental project and policy changes that facilitated sex tourism (legalising United States currency, rental of private rooms and taxis, etc). Bangkok and Pattaya of Thailand have similar stories to tell. Since the 1970s, Thailand has invested in tourism as a developmental strategy and this has subsequently led to Thailand becoming one of the foremost sex tourism destinations in the world, quite obviously indicated by the titles it holds such as “the brothel of Asia” (Munshi 2006). The Dominican Republic is another example of a booming sex industry, made quite so by the forces of migration and tourism. Denise Brennan (2007) argues that Sosúa is a “sexscape” (a node within a new kind of global sexual landscape) and a “transnational sexual meeting ground” made so by increased travel. The experiences in a third-world centre may differ from that of a major business centre, perhaps by how the jineteras (female sex workers) or jineteros (male sex workers) in Cuba undertake a “soft sell” (subtle trade) compared to the “hard sell” in Amsterdam (Wonders and Michalowski 2001) or by how the demand for sex workers in Thailand or Philippines is reflective of tourist desires for other or non-White or exotic bodies (Pettman 1997).

Digital, Physical, Spatial: Sited Materiality with a Global Span

Changes in the spatiality of sex work by virtue of digitisation and globalisation is a research area that has not received much attention till date. In light of the understanding that the sex industry is not a homogeneous, monolithic block incapable of change, it is imperative to pay attention to the qualitative changes that the “world’s oldest profession” has undergone. It is important to do away with purely topographical readings and inculcate the idea of digital networks into our understanding of the spatiality of sex work. The sex industry is witnessing an imbrication of the digital in the non-digital, by expanding the variety of services provided and by transforming existent services. The sex industry is a local environment placed in a global network, a sited materiality with a global span. Conventionally, the sex industry’s most visible centrality has lain with the RLDs but this can longer be consumed as the gospel truth. There have been changes in the spatiality of the functional and locational centrality of the RLDs. The spatiality of the centre has functionally and geographically diffused to electronic spaces as well newer geographical terrains within local and global spaces.


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