Is there still a ‘prostitution stigma’?

The Department of Criminology and Sociology of Law invite you to a seminar on the concept of stigma in relation to commercial sex.

"Madeleine 1920" - Adolphe Wilette. Photo: Wiki Commons

The concept of stigma has always been central in criminological scholarship on social control. People who are or are suspected of being involved in deviant acts face the risk of being shamed by family, friends, neighbours and strangers. While the concept of stigma is not as central in scholarship as it once were, it has been appropriated in everyday language and by various social movements who fight for recognition of their rights. In literature on prostitution/sex work, the existence of a prostitution or ‘whore’ stigma is often taken for granted, though seldom developed neither comparatively between different groups, arenas and parts of the world, nor analytically. In its contemporary use it often appears as an all-encompassing signifier of everything bad people who are involved in prostitution experience.

Invited speakers have been asked to think about the whether the concept of stigma is fruitful when we are to understand the challenges people who sell sexual services experience today:

  • Lorraine Nencel (Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam): Sex worker self-led organisations and combatting stigma: Do they make a difference?
  • May-Len Skilbrei (University of Oslo): Is there an escape from the stigma of prostitution?
  • Astrid Renland (PION–Norwegian sex workers’ rights organization): About whores and stigma

Coffee, tea and biscuits will be served.


Lorraine Nencel: Sex worker self-led organisations and combatting stigma: Do they make a difference?

In the period 2014-2017 I have been involved in collaborative research with sex worker led organisations in Kenya and Ethiopia. In both countries sex work is not "officially" illegal – third party involvement in all shapes and forms is- thus, these organisations are confronted with similar legislative barriers that impede on sex workers to improve their positions. Nonetheless, there were great differences to observe regarding the way the different organisations dealt with stigma and also to the degree to which sex workers have internalized the stigma they feel daily. This talk will attempt to make sense of how these differences have arisen. While both cases are positive examples of how self-led organisations are an asset in sex workers' right struggles, at the same time it is clear that organising cannot entirely erase the stigma sex workers negotiate and embody daily.

May-Len Skilbrei: Is there an escape from the stigma of prostitution?

Throughout the years, I have done research among women from many different nationalities involved in prostitution. I have noticed that they talk about fears over being ‘outed’ in different ways. Some of them have been interviewed in national media and has suffered some consequences of that that they had not expected, which indicates to me that they underestimated the power of stigma. Others have lived their lives carefully considering how their every move can create a risk of being identified as ‘a prostitute’, in a way that appear to be too apprehensive. In this paper I will describe and analyse some of the differences I have identified, and I will take this as a starting point for thinking about the concept of stigma and its helpfulness in understanding the trials and tribulations of people who sell sexual services today.

Astrid Renland: About whores and stigma

Tackling stigma is a fundamental part of having experiences with sex work. Stigma is not only about naming and shaming; it’s a powerful means to control and censor the voices of people taking part in sex work. The origin of the whore stigma might have been related to the construction of bad women and inappropriate sexuality, but sex work is also a field populated by different groups that have been scapegoated or marginalized for social problems. Transgender, gays, lesbian, migrants, drug users, single mothers, black people and people from ethnical minorities groups faces and are tackling multiple stigmas. Stigma has of course different impact on people both within and between groups, but in general it affects people’s physical and mental well-being - as well as their relatives. The concept of stigma is therefore an important means to explore the governing of sex work and how it shapes the lives of sex workers and affect the relation between different groups and individual of sex workers and the society.

Published Mar. 3, 2017 9:26 AM - Last modified Mar. 27, 2017 9:27 AM