Where is the Sex in Sex Work History? Accessing sexual practices through histories of sex work and prostitution

Call for papers, deadline 5 July 2024
Workshop at Freie Universität Berlin, 10-11 November 2024

In the past decades, the history of commercial sex has become a burgeoning field of research. While early scholarship confined “prostitution” to the fields of social history and women’s history, the past decade has witnessed a broadening of perspectives and methodological approaches – from cultural history to global history and histories of labor, gender, the body, and sexualities. Despite the development of the field and the evident centrality of sex to sex work, it is precisely these sex practices that have received the least analytical attention in historical research. This stems in part from the methodological difficulties involved in accessing past sexual practices and experiences in historical sources. It might also be due to the “respectability” politics that historians engage in when trying to research sex work while avoiding the “prostitution stigma” attached to the topic and to the subjects who performed it. By focusing on governmental perspectives, social and economic factors, and media and social constructions of “prostitution”, historians could attempt to avoid the sex of sex work. Nevertheless, as trends in the fields of the history of sexuality and queer histories have shown, concrete sexual practices are situated in specific times and social environments.

Histories of sexuality have increasingly moved away from a focus on discourse and policing and towards a study of sexual practices and experiences. We propose using the sources and methodologies used by historians of sex work/prostitution to give us an insight into the sexual practices and the subjectivities of historical actors more generally. In doing so, we can also fight back against the stigma surrounding this topic, and against “respectability” politics, by openly and analytically discussing the still-taboo topic of sex practices in the history of sex work and prostitution. The goal of this workshop is to bring the sex of sex work into the centre of historical analysis and to thus truly integrate histories of sex work into histories of sexuality. We also hope to bring the history of sex work closer to queer history, where commercial sex so far had a problematic status since the sex of sex work was and is not associated with the leisure or sexual identity of the sex worker. We plan to explore the methodological, theoretical, and ethical dimensions of researching the histories of sexual practice and sexuality through sex work and prostitution history.

We welcome submissions that address one or more of the following questions (as well as all submissions that engage with the histories of sexual practice and sexuality in the field of sex work/prostitution from a variety of perspectives and methodologies):

- How do we access sexual practices in historical sources?
- Many sources used in sex work history are regulatory and transmit governmental and institutional perspectives, such as police reports, court records, and medical examinations: how can we best use these sources while still acknowledging their limits and biases?
- What methodologies can be made fruitful for the history of sex work and prostitution, especially when examining body and sex practices?
- How can we meaningfully frame, analyze, compare, and differentiate sexual practices and sexual identities in our work?
- How do historical actors themselves distinguish between sex for pleasure, sex for work, and other types of sex, how do they discuss sexual practices in general, and what topics do they engage in or avoid?
- What can this research add to the history of sexuality, gender history, and queer/trans- histories?
- What are the ethical concerns in this approach, and how can we approach our subjects’ voices and experiences while (as historians and researchers) avoiding voyeurism and over-sexualisation of the historical actors?

Submissions from all disciplines are welcome (and we hope to have a fruitful interdisciplinary exchange), as long as they have a historical perspective. We especially welcome submissions from MA students, PhD students and early career researchers. Please send an abstract of 250 words and a short bio to priska.komaromi@hu-berlin.de by the 5th July 2024. Please indicate whether you can get funding from your institution or require financial assistance to attend the workshop, as we have a limited budget.

10.10-11.10.2024, Freie Universität Berlin

Organised by Working Group: Sex work history (Adrina Schulz (Zurich), Alisha Edwards (Bochum), Annalisa Martin (Greifswald), Nora Lehner (Vienna/FU Berlin), Priska Komaromi (HU Berlin), Sonja Dolinsek (Magdeburg)


Nora Lehner (nora.lehner@univie.ac.at)