A Washington, DC street at night
July 27, 2021

Street-based sex workers perform emotional labor to build customer loyalty

Study finds it is an ordinary service business and more like other types of sex work than previously documented

Author: Holly Ober
July 27, 2021

Sex workers who ply their trade on the street perform emotional labor to convert casual clients into safe, repeat customers, finds a UC Riverside-led study published in Work, Employment and Society. Though many studies have examined the role emotional labor plays in indoor sex work, researchers have often taken for granted that outdoor sex work is short-term and strictly transactional. The new study, based on interviews with 36 mostly Black transgender respondents who work several popular outdoor “strolls” in Washington, D.C., is the first to establish that street-based sex workers also invest considerable emotional effort into maintaining loyal customers. The authors suggest this emotional labor might help transgender sex workers avoid potentially violent or abusive clients in addition to providing steady income.

“Our findings suggest that the presumed experiential differences across sex work sectors may be overstated,” said corresponding author Sharon Oselin, a UC Riverside associate professor of public policy and sociology, and director of the Presley Center of Crime and Justice Studies.

Sharon Oselin

Businesses use many strategies to secure customer loyalty, which has been shown to increase profits 25-85%. Emotional labor, the way workers are expected to manage or display emotions while performing their job, contributes to customer loyalty and is especially important in service industries. The illicit and stigmatized nature of sex work presents challenges for workers who want to cultivate a loyal clientele. Many men report having hired a sex worker over the course of their lives but few report having visited one in the past year, indicating that most men who engage sex workers do so only occasionally. To convert casual clients into loyal customers willing to brave the legal and reputational risks, indoor sex workers, such as escorts, use various strategies to build a relationship that offers the client benefits beyond sexual pleasure. 

Oselin and co-author Katie Hail-Jares of Australia’s Griffith University wanted to test the common assumption that street-based sex workers, who solicit potential customers from sidewalks and often serve clients in semi-public places, are not interested in developing a regular clientele. They identified several popular locations for street-based sex work, known as strolls, and selected two that were not also associated with open-air drug markets. Most prior research on street-based sex work has focused on drug-associated strolls and found it to be based largely on survival and drug acquisition, which deterred formation of longstanding relationships with clients. Oselin and Hail-Jares therefore focused on strolls associated with transgender sex workers of color and high-end strolls in more affluent areas where workers charged higher rates.

The vast majority of people the researchers interviewed—83%— said they had repeat customers, or “regulars”, and about two-thirds of the sample estimated their regulars constituted between 26% and 100% of their total customers. Most sex workers defined a “regular” as a client who visited more than a set number of times, showed consistency in visits or loyalty to the provider, had the worker’s phone number, or another important quality. Most of them had clients who visited them one to four times a week. 

The sex workers retained these regulars through relational work activities – being friendly, providing good customer service, offering flexible payments or scheduling, or giving extra services. They compared the customer service they gave to other service industries, where customer satisfaction involves numerous elements coming together properly. 

“Like I said, it’s a business, so I just treat them respectfully. They’re out here looking for something, because they know I figure out what it is,” said one worker. “I take my time. I don’t rush them. I treat them more like we’re friends. We know we have a bond instead of a business transaction. I make them feel more comfortable, more wanted, that they’re not spending money on just sex,” said another.

Offering flexible payments, such as providing service before the full amount was paid, or accepting whatever the client could afford, also built customer loyalty and fended off competition from other sex workers. This also indicated the sex worker trusted the client to not take advantage of their generosity, which built client trust in the provider and built rapport between them.

Other workers put hard boundaries around payments. They pointed to striking a delicate balance between keeping their client involved enough to keep coming back and reminding him that the relationship was still fundamentally a business transaction, not romantic.

Flexible scheduling presented similar possibilities. Allowing clients a little extra time or to stop by whenever they wanted made customers feel valued and special, but could also blur the lines between romance and business or present scheduling difficulties that damaged the relationship. 

Some of the sex workers—14%— offered a “girlfriend experience,” service orchestrated to convey emotional closeness through intimate sexual and physical acts such as kissing and cuddling, and avoidance of conditions that overtly characterized the interaction as a business deal, such as strict time limits. Like their indoor counterparts who offered this type of service, outdoor sex workers felt the girlfriend experience was about companionship, where worker and client role-played a happy couple, and maintaining professional boundaries could be difficult when clients fell too hard for the fantasy. For this reason, many of the interviewees did not offer this service.

Clients also put in extra effort to create or maintain steady relationships with workers. They left tips, gave gifts, or treated the sex worker to dinner or covered monthly bills. If the client had the worker’s phone number, these relationships could become creepy if clients repeatedly ignored the worker’s boundaries. In these cases, the worker cut off all ties to the client.

“These scenarios suggest that rather than being extraordinary, street-based sex work is quite an ordinary service business venture – and much more like other types of sex work than previously documented,” the authors conclude. 

They also suggest that because Black, transgender street-based sex workers experience even higher levels of violence and abuse than other sex workers, they might be more likely to perform emotional labor required to acquire a safe, predictable client base, and recommend further research. 

“Additional comparative studies of cis- and transgender sex providers across racial groups are needed to investigate this practice and to determine the extent to which disparities exist even among similarly situated sex workers,” said Oselin.

The paper, “It’s Not Just Sex: Relational Dynamics between Street-Based Sex Workers and Their Regular Customers,” is available here.

Header photo: Jing Xi Lau on Unsplash

Media Contacts