Straight for Pay. Lesbian and queer sex workers: understanding the effect of capital on identity and community.

Author: Kate Toone

Toone, Kate, 2023 Straight for Pay. Lesbian and queer sex workers: understanding the effect of capital on identity and community., Flinders University, College of Education, Psychology and Social Work

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Sex workers and lesbians have long been compared to, or grouped together with, deviants in the literature on female sexuality. To date, little attention has been paid to the women who are situated at the intersection – lesbian women working in the sex industry – despite an overrepresentation of lesbian women engaging in sex work.

Using a visual research method and qualitative approach to data collection, I argue that Bourdieu’s theory of practice provides a rich theoretical structure to examine the identity and community experiences of these women. From a phenomenological standpoint, data were obtained through semi structured interviews with twenty women (n=20) who identified as current or past sex workers. Positioning myself as a peer researcher, following the traditions of sex working academics was integral to this project that focused on an over-researched and hard to reach population of sex workers. Participants responded enthusiastically to my position as a peer and the data generated were rich and reflexive.

I extend Bourdieu’s concepts of habitus, field, and capital to argue that lesbian sex workers possess two particular forms of cultural capital. I propose that Intra Industry Whore Capital (IIWC) and Community Whore Capital (CWC) are two field-specific forms of capital that exist due to the juxtaposition of a lesbian identifying sexuality identity and sex industry work with a heterosexual clientele. The overall finding of this study is the way in which two forms of whore capital, IIIWC and CWC, are attached to the habitus. The habitus impacts the ability of the individual to navigate a range of fields including sex work and client interactions, familial relationships, and engagement with the queer community. In particular, participants with high levels of IIWC were able to navigate the field of the sex industry incredibly successfully by using a reflexive approach to understand and perform the role of heterosexual woman that they were expected to play. CWC, on the other hand, supported sex workers to navigate the field of contemporary queer communities with varying levels of success that were impacted by geographic and temporal contexts. Thus, I argue that these forms of capital are field-specific and unique to lesbian sex workers due to their position at the intersection of these two identities.

Keywords: sex work, lesbian, queer, women, gender, prostitution, Bourdieu, gay, identity

Subject: Women's Studies thesis

Thesis type: Doctor of Philosophy
Completed: 2023
School: College of Education, Psychology and Social Work
Supervisor: Associate Professor Priscilla Dunk-West