Monthly Archives: September 2014

quick thoughts on the nature of this beast

So last night I was telling someone I’d just met about the work I did over the summer (I hadn’t seen our mutual friend since I’d gotten back into town and he’d asked about it). I mentioned how I’m interested in looking more at the connection between rhetoric, economics, and how we create our values as communities. He said he didn’t understand the economics connection. I was kind of surprised by this. I said that, because sex work is an underground economy that is also stigmatized the prices are high enough so as to coerce women into the profession. Since I study rhetoric, I’m interested in that line between persuasion and coercion, in a theoretical sort of way.

“I mean, the price probably *should* be high, but the underground, stigmatized nature makes it so that the value is increased even more,” I said, “so the line between choice and economic coercion very fuzzy.”

As a result, within something like ten minutes of meeting me, this guy says,

“So what is your price?”

I said I didn’t know. Maybe I should have a better answer to this by now. It’s interesting to hear what people think.

(Sidenote–wonder how many women have been commodified by complete strangers, whether they are sex workers or not, doing research on it or not. It has an effect on you, even if you think it doesn’t. I was once offered four hundred dollar bills by a complete stranger on the street, while with another guy. [Remember, Dom, he even pulled them out and showed them to us?])

“You don’t have a price? Everyone’s got a price. What’s yours, to sleep with me? Two thousand dollars? We would have a good time.”

“Sure.” I say. Of course, I’d like to think I’m priceless. Later on that evening, he tries to get me to sleep with him for free. When I was younger, I thought that was what priceless meant.

This morning, as I was getting ready for work, I was thinking about that price–two thousand dollars–specifically. I have a PhD. The price he named is not as much as my monthly take-home pay, but it is more than what I make in two weeks.

I think about how much work I put into my job and how much of a difference two thousand dollars would make.

Then, as I was driving to work, I heard a story on the radio that reminded me of the class discussion we had in the Cyber Security class I guest taught the other day. At my institution, they censor the web content (yes, like they do in China), and in class we were discussing the balance between internet security, freedom, and privacy. The students told me that even though they are not allowed to access content the university deems unacceptable on the school network, they still access it from their smartphones if they want. So in this case censorship does not actually prevent the behavior, it just drives it underground, stigmatizes it, and limits access to those who can afford smartphones and a data plan. It also creates an alternative economy made up of those who are motivated enough to sidestep the restrictions. Essentially, whatever is censored or forbidden becomes more valuable. Duh, but so why do we persist in banning things when we know this is the effect? This economy self-selects those who either value the content so much they will disregard the risks involved (due to need or desire), or are attracted to profiting off of the underground nature of the beast (due to need or desire).

I don’t know why I care about that line between need and desire. It’s an illusion anyway.

But it’s an illusion that moves us from choice (the realm of freedom, the realm of persuasion) into coercion (the realm of pressured “choice,” the realm of brainwashing and abuse, the realm of con artistry and manipulation), and it’s an illusion that matters across professions, of course…

meditations on coercion, common law, and a perfect world

Two related thoughts, questions and meditation:

— I went to a party last night and ended up having a great conversation that had me thinking about my research from the angle of common law or accepted custom. Used to be, in Idaho, if you lived with someone for ten years you were considered married to that person via “common law.” They have since done away with this convention, but some states still have it in place, I think.

— I didn’t know this until last night, but there are other examples of common law or custom being accepted practice–the UDHR, apparently, is one [declaration without teeth] instance that the international community has basically agreed should be a goal for a perfect world.

— In said perfect world, would anyone choose to be a sex worker?

Seems to me that in cases like Wallace, where there has been a century of tradition built up to indicate community support for open secret yet extralegal economies like the sex trade and gambling, local custom should be the law, despite what is written into code and despite what the state or federal government dictate. That is, of course, why the sheriff was never convicted under the so-called RICO act during two trials: the defense successfully argued that he was being scapegoated and any other sheriff would have done the same or else been voted out of office (“that was just the way things worked in Wallace”). There was no need for corruption. The mafia was effectively shut out of the community through local agreement and regulation (although it’s probable some of the women who cycled through Wallace were recruited into the profession in other places through pimps who were involved in organized crime).

Shouldn’t accepted custom be the law of the land, in self-regulating communities? Why is it that outsiders think they know what’s best and come in to change things? Economics and morality, I think. Somebody always wants a piece of the action. And others think they are justified in enforcing their morals on other people.

Putting aside the question of the federal and/or state government wanting a piece of the economic action or else perhaps just being bored and wanting to flex their muscles and control or dominate, I want to address the morality part:

— I don’t think there is anything morally wrong with prostitution. Call me crazy, but I think we should be able to do what we want with our bodies, as long as it’s not infringing on other people’s rights. Public health and safety has always been the case against that, but let’s say the sex workers get regular health check ups, use condoms, and the patrons understand the risks they assume, it’s not really drastically different from eating out at a restaurant where you might get food poisoning or taking a whitewater rafting trip where you might drown, right?

government propaganda sent to corporations to post as part of the "war against prostitution" during wwi, archival document from the university of idaho library's special collections (potlatch papers)

government propaganda sent to corporations to post as part of the “war against prostitution” during wwi, archival document from the university of idaho library’s special collections (potlatch papers)

— That said, it’s probably the case that most people who are currently sex workers feel *economically coerced* (I use this phrase to differentiate between choice and “choice” that doesn’t feel like a choice) into the profession. In part because it’s underground/illegal and or stigmatized, the wages for sex are high and pull people in who perhaps wouldn’t otherwise choose to participate. So I would say that it’s possible some percentage of sex workers would choose other professions if they didn’t feel pressured in some way (by debt, or lack of education coupled with the need to support children, or addiction). And these other pressures indicate the presence of social problems we need to resolve.

— But let’s say we’ve resolved those social problems that cause some to feel coerced into sex work. Let’s say we’ve done away with the stigma and made it legal. Would people still “freely choose” (insofar as we humans are compelled to act as though we have choice, and given the privilege of living in a circumstance under conditions we call freedom) to become sex workers? Would prostitution, the oldest profession, as they say, continue to exist?

— I say yes, people would still choose sex work as a profession, even in a perfect-ish world, for the same reasons anyone chooses any profession, because they have a talent and a passion for it and/or it brings meaning to their life.

For possible future meditations:

Think about this question specifically in the case of Wallace.

Think about this question in global terms: Is there research on gender distribution generally (are women more often offering and men more often patronizing)? Comparisons across countries? Does legal sex work affect demand for the non-consensual sex trade and trafficking market (making a possible moral case for intervention)?

work plan summer 2015

I’m looking forward to returning to Idaho this summer. Here’s my vision for continuing this work full time, May-August 2015.

My project explores the historic impact and continued influence of madams and working girls in Wallace, Idaho. I examine this rural silver mining community to explain how social values circulated through small talk, enabling the open secret presence of brothel-based sex work from the 1880s-1990s.

Wallace didn’t just tolerate prostitution. In fact, community members embraced it, making it a part of the town’s identity. The larger question motivating this study is: how do communities negotiate values in order to create and change culture? By focusing on Wallace and the stories in circulation about its past, this study also illuminates narratives influential in creating and maintaining cultural identity mythologies of the American West. My goal is to complete a book that is scholarly in terms of methods and research, but accessible for a broader public audience beyond the boundaries of the academy.

Because my research asks how we work together to create culture, identity, and negotiate our values within communities, it has been of interest to audiences across a range of discourse communities. The topic has also been of significance both in scholarly and popular spheres: a fascination with stories and desires prohibited in “polite company” enabled the spread of gossip about the brothels and their role in Wallace, and those who could not otherwise satisfy subversive desires lived through the stories of others. As University of Idaho historian Katherine Aiken suggested to me in 2010, the presence of tolerated prostitution gives the “upright” members of the community an excuse to discuss taboo topics. Through the years, the community could point to the brothels and know the town hadn’t abandoned mining camp roots—and accompanying libertarian values—forming the residents’ sense of collective identity.

Wallace, a rural, working-class town where the currency of community news and norms flies by word of mouth, has been an instructive case for examining how gossip orients cultural values and group identity as they circulate in a persuasive and creative way within the community. My approach to this research enhances our ability to understand the resonance of rumor within the interconnected dynamics of time and space: communal acts of creating and passing along stories reverberate at a frequency that harmonizes the traditions of the past with the unpredictable developments of the future. In other words, gossip is a stabilizing force. Small talk offers a productive point of entry into the social values grounding a community’s sense of shared identity; it offers my research an entry point as well.

Scholars of rhetoric are particularly interested in developing new ways of thinking about methods as flexible, adaptable to contingent situations and responsive to an ancient Greek understanding of “kairos,” the qualitative aspect of time (as opposed to “chronos,” time’s quantitative counterpart). Thus, my orientation to this research has been innovative and experimental. During the course of this study, I’ve been working on an approach specific to studying social processes at the intersection of collective invention (the study of argument creation, values negotiation, and creativity within social groups) and historiography (the rhetorical and socio-political process of constructing histories). I will demonstrate that community-based research and writing can serve public and non-academic audiences while also upholding rigorous scholarly standards and influencing cutting-edge scholarship.

I enrich and extend a body of scholarship in the field of rhetoric (influenced in large part by the work of Michel Foucault) that seeks to understand the social aspects of persuasion as communication travels across networks, and I examine these questions while taking into account temporal and spatial considerations. My research also contributes to work by scholars such as Carole Blair and Jessica Enoch that examines the role of public memory, asking how we work together to understand and build our past. As Jackie Jones Royster has urged us to do, I am continuing important recovery and interpretation work by telling the stories that are often neglected, “distorted,” or obscured in some way. This research contributes to our understanding of civic discourse as I document working-class persuasive narratives involved in creating community identity. And finally, the eventual book project will have cross-disciplinary relevance, reaching beyond the boundaries of academic interests, especially insofar as I am able to discuss the role of government and moral negotiations in spaces where public-private distinctions blur.

Research Work Plan

Thus far, I have been gathering and interpreting both qualitative and quantitative data on the construction and negotiation of the history of prostitution in Wallace. I have conducted two summers of research so far, in 2010 and 2014, focusing on the women who ran and worked in the brothels, the community’s understanding of their role, and the culture of the town as it facilitated their continued presence. The outlines of a rhetorical narrative have been fleshed out as I’ve been processing published sources both scholarly and popular, unpublished sources, and oral histories, some of which I found at North Idaho College, but most of which I initiated, conducted, and transcribed, totaling several hundred pages single-spaced. I created two 10-15 minute educational videos, two 15-20 minute podcasts, presented my work to the local community, and I have laid the foundation for a book-length project.

I will continue to work on location in order to turn my current draft into an actual book manuscript. I have several more oral histories to document, but other than those, the research has been gathered together and much of it has been processed. It is time to publish and publicize the work in a substantial way, making it available and accessible for stakeholder audiences, including tourists, museums, and others who have funded and contributed to this research. Primarily, I need time and support to finish the book in Wallace because serendipity happens there. It is crucial that I am in town during the all-class reunion in late July/early August 2015 so I can solicit feedback, ideas, and final contributions during that time, in addition to spreading the word on the project for the people who are most likely to be interested in it.

I have been adapting and building upon research methods developed by scholars such as Gesa E. Kirsch and John Howard, who understand the “lived and local process of archival work” as they also attend to the creation and interpretation of archives and public memory beyond traditional institutional boundaries. My work extends Julie Lindquist’s methodology for documenting working-class rhetorics, as it addresses questions of collective invention, gossip, and public memory. Specifically, my approach has been involving community members in the creation of our shared history, documenting and tracing individuals’ stories to identify the available means of persuasion as it circulates and transforms, guided by the ever-present resonant past. The circulation of gossip—influential small talk often overlooked as insignificant—turns out to be the central component in an invisible yet immanent private yet palpable social network that invented and continues to invent the rhetorical needs of the community. By conducting oral histories and comparing them to physical documents and historic events, I have been demonstrating how stories travel across time and space as they ossify resonant interpretations into repeated patterns, pulling the past into the present.

During oral history analysis, I have been privileging:

– stories that agree with the written records and social/historical context as documented by the written records and multiple oral histories;

– novelty and creativity, paying special attention to perspectives offering alternative or unexpected explanations as possibilities, balancing their likelihood with Occam’s Razor;

– multiple accounts that independently repeat the same story, details, or lines of reasoning, especially if those accounts are offered reluctantly or not necessarily in the storytellers’ or community’s own best interest.

I have had to be creative about locating written records, some of which are hiding in basements, closets, and storage rooms, but I have also been able to rely on court documents, city council minute books, scholarship by other locals in unpublished manuscript form, newspaper accounts and archival/primary source documents found in libraries or museums, such as Sanborn fire insurance maps and WWI anti-prostitution propaganda, Shoshone County Sheriff’s Office records, and FBI records. For the process of documenting oral histories, I have been relying on personal referral (snowball sampling) for connection to research participants. During the conversations, which are recorded and transcribed unless circumstances complicate the process or the participant declines, we let the talk meander and I ask follow up or elaboration questions. Primarily, though, I provide a forum for storytelling.

The Virginia Military Institute’s IRB approved the research protocol for this project. My informed consent for research participants is here:

Informed Consent Document--Final

Public Presentations

I have presented my preliminary analyses in the context of an invited talk for Wake Forest University’s women’s and gender studies program as well as at the national Feminisms and Rhetorics conference in 2013. In the spring of 2014, I discussed my research at the Southeastern Women’s Studies Association conference and in June of 2014, I focused on the public engagement, digital archiving, and virtual exhibition aspects of this work when I presented at the national Computers and Writing conference. I also gave a talk for a crowd of about 50 local people in June of 2014 at the City Limits Pub in Wallace. It was basically standing room only, and yet many people told me later that they’d missed it for one reason or another and would like to know when I present again in the future. So I think there will be continued interest.

I am also adding to the digital education productions I’ve already created, sharing my work in a meaningful public forum online as well as in person, and thus increase the reach and impact of my work: I have an idea for another podcast focusing on the WWI era propaganda, and I will be enhancing the video products I’ve already made by adding more pictures and a soundtrack.


My ultimate goal is to publish this work in book form. The academic community has encouraged this research with funding and I have already presented some of my findings in that context. I have a skeletal outline drafted, and most of my 2010 research is in the order I want, in a fragmented sort of way. I need to add information from my 2014 research. There is enough polished material to fill out an introduction and conclusion, but the in-between is much sketchier. I have divided the work into four parts, organized chronologically, in order to develop the story as a narrative: 1. the early mining camp days section is dense and thorough but not very engaging at this point; 2. my developed and nuanced WWI-WWII era needs to shift its academic language toward layperson accessibility; 3. the post-WWII part is currently oral histories cobbled together and framed by my notes but lacking in-depth interpretation; and 4. the final part examines the closure of the houses and ongoing negotiation of how we interpret Wallace’s past, while meandering into the FBI raid and subsequent trial drama a bit. I am confident that I can transform this drafty document into a pretty solid manuscript by the end of August, after spending the summer of 2015 in Idaho.