Friday, 20 April 2012

The 'taint' of sex shops can simultaneously repulse and compel its employees


If you worked in a sex shop, how would you handle the taint associated with that line of 'dirty work'? People employed in such occupations take various approaches, including refocusing attention away from negative features, inflating the weight of positive features, or reframing the stigmatised elements to neutralise or even valorise them.

A recent paper by Melissa Tyler suggests another response to the physical, social and moral taints associated with sex shops. Her ethnographic account focusing on shops in the renowned London district of Soho, details three months spent interviewing fourteen shop workers, together with field observations of customers and the local atmosphere.

The evidence suggested a real significance for place in how individuals framed their experiences. Appending 'Soho' to 'sex shop' charges its significance, making many of the interviewees more reluctant to share their occupation with loved ones, as they would be concerned 'not because of what I'm selling; more worried about me being in Soho'. Simultaneously, the interviews found evidence that the collection of Soho sex shops was considered a community of coping, where 'everyone looks after each other's back'. Soho is both the source of the tainted associations of the work that goes on and a resource to protect those in that work.

Tyler was particularly interested in how people might relate to this kind of work in a way best described by the concept of abjection. Abjection is that which 'beseeches, worries and fascinates' (Kristeva, 1982) at the same time, due to features that simultaneously attract and repel. One interviewee described the odder customers they encounter as a source of discomfort, yet also as a rare experience of people who they would never meet otherwise, noting that 'it's living isn't it?'. Another savoured the abnormality of the job, rather than avoiding or normalising it, explaining that 'I need to be doing something different... and I think I've captured that working here'. Another comment epitomised abjection: 'there are things about it that I absolutely hate and sometimes these are the same things that I love about it'.

Tyler suggests that future researchers may want to investigate the category of 'abject labour', where individuals are drawn to work that society considers dirty not in spite of its darker features, and not in unqualified embrace of it, but because they are taken in by its simultaneous attraction and repulsion.

ResearchBlogging.orgTyler, M. (2011). Tainted love: From dirty work to abject labour in Soho's sex shops Human Relations, 64 (11), 1477-1500 DOI: 10.1177/0018726711418849

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