Let's talk about sex, drugs & homelessness

Written by Lisa McDonald

Should a legal sex worker be able to secure a bank loan? Should a person in treatment for a substance abuse disorder be allowed to rent an apartment? Where should people who are homeless sleep? The answer to these questions and so many like them is often complicated by stigma. Negative opinions about marginalized groups usually bubble to the surface and inhibit one’s ability to think about marginalized people as human. Stigmas affect the way people communicate, and that can reinforce and deepen prejudices in a vicious cycle. All humans, regardless of background, deserve kindness.

College of Liberal Arts Associate Professor Sarah Blithe and her Graduate Teaching Assistant, Breanna Mohr, taught a class on stigma in the fall of 2018. The class looked at many stigmas that exist around marginalized groups and identified how these stigmas affect communication. They studied several marginalized groups, such as sex workers, undocumented immigrants, LGBTQ+ individuals, people who are homeless and people with disabilities. Over the course of the semester, students spoke to individuals from these stigmatized groups to get to know them as people. The class hosted over 10 guest speakers from marginalized groups, and took a field trip to a legal brothel. In addition, the students engaged in 10 hours of service-learning in local organizations that serve stigmatized populations.

Blithe studies gender and organizational communication and how social identities can lead to significant inequality at work. She said studying the hidden organization of legalized brothels was a good fit with her research to help understand how inequality, stigma and gender all come together.

Before the class, before this research started, Blithe attended the International Camel and Ostrich Races – an annual event in Virginia City, Nevada sponsored in part by local brothels. While watching the event, she couldn’t help but notice the inappropriate and overtly lewd remarks the event commentators were making about some of the women riding camels in the race. As the commentators went down the list of stereotypes of sex workers, Blithe said she realized the women participating in the event were legal sex workers, and the idea hit her to research and write a book on the lives of women working in legal brothels.

What is stigma?

For her definition, Blithe uses Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Image by Erving Goffman, which states: “Stigma occurs when individuals are discredited or discounted because of a personal attribute deemed undesirable, bad, ‘dirty,’ dangerous or weak.” Sometimes these factors are physical differences, character “flaws” or identification with groups that are stigmatized. Stigma can occur from the core – the unshakable stigma some organizations experience simply by operating in stigmatized markets, like brothels, tobacco companies or gun stores. Or groups can suffer from event stigma, the stigma attached to an organization as the result of a specific occurrence, such as the 2010 BP oil spills impacting gas stations half a world away.

Sex and Stigma

Blithe and Mohr, along with their colleague Anna Wiederhold Wolfe, recently came out with a book on the topic: Sex and Stigma: Work and Life in Nevada’s Legal Brothels. The authors primarily look at the brothel industry in Nevada and the stigma around legal sex workers. What they uncover in the book is more than just stigma. After speaking with several workers, brothel madams and owners, they found some of the women suffer from unfair working conditions. Unfortunately, because this negative stigma around sex workers exists, the employees can’t successfully defend themselves or even fight for the same working rights as other workers because people in power choose to ignore them.

“There are significant labor discrimination policies such as lock-down, where women aren’t allowed to leave,” Blithe said.

Mohr cited the lock-down policy at some brothels as an unfair restriction. Women arrive for work, and they are unable to leave for two-to-three weeks at a time. She also mentioned some brothels still operate with curfews for women. For example, after 5:00 p.m. the women aren’t permitted in town any longer. “There are certain counties who are a little stuck in the past and haven’t updated their ordinance for the brothel in a long time,” Mohr said. She said this further stigmatizes the women who work in this industry.

How can a legal entity skate around treating their workers fairly? Assumptions that brothels are dirty, filled with bad people doing immoral things, or that the women are damaged, unclean and therefore not worthy of the same rights as other workers – this is stigma. The media has helped to create this image – the perception that most people have about sex workers and brothels. “There are stereotypes that exist about women who work in the legal brothels, and many women we met defy those stereotypes. There are women of all different ages and backgrounds,” Blithe said.

“A lot of people assume that sex workers are dirty and have diseases, and that it’s not safe,” Mohr said. In fact, sex workers have to go through a full FBI background check to get a state license for sex work. “It doesn’t always come from a place of desperation – it’s often by choice,” Mohr said about the sex workers choosing to work in legal brothels.

Read Blithe, Wolfe, and Mohr’s book, and you’ll be surprised how far this stigma is from the truth. Talk to the students in their class, and you’ll almost experience their transition in opinions over the course of the semester. Perhaps, even take a fieldtrip to one of Nevada’s brothels and reduce your own bias.

“The first feeling was kind of timid; I didn’t know what to think,” Francheska Alves, a student in Blithe and Mohr’s class, said.

“I was kind of scared. I’ve never been to a place that had erotic art on the wall. I never expected it to be so clean,” Daniel Lang, another student, said.

The students in the class were pleasantly surprised by their brothel visit. They found the conditions ultra-safe, from the check-in process to the security guards and even learning that the workers have panic buttons in the rooms and can be rescued immediately if anything doesn’t go according to the previously arranged plan. Brothel industry law requires condoms to be used for any and all sexual acts. Workers are tested for STDs on a weekly and monthly basis. The brothel had a doctor on-site and promotes health and wellness. The conditions were clean and surprisingly comfortable – “resort-like,” as one student put it. Another commented on how good the venue smelled. Some said they could spend multiple days there. With a gym, a café and the companionship of people – what more do you need?

“I remember going in, and I was so scared … then we saw the girls, and they waved at us. We actually talked to a couple of them, and that was really interesting because they were really friendly,” Andrée Alcalá, another student said.

The women spoke about the strong communications aspect of their job, many describing it as relationship management, saying a third of their job isn’t about sex at all, but about being a friend to those in need.

“There’s a societal need for it,” Lang said. “Sometimes the clients are people with disabilities, and I realized people with disabilities are stigmatized in society and don’t have ways to get sexual experiences, so meeting people who work in the sex industry – they help those people who otherwise wouldn’t have an opportunity to have that kind of service.”

Service-learning projects bring new perspective

Student Cody Freeman did his service-learning project for the course at We Care Volunteers, an organization that feeds the homeless population in Reno, Nevada. Before the class he said he thought of homeless people as dirty, violent and that they chose to live on the streets. His experience serving the homeless with the organization helped him to see a clearer picture of the humans they are.

“Being out there and interacting with the homeless population in town, I realized that I couldn’t be more wrong. These people are so thankful to have a warm meal. They’re so friendly; they’re kind,” Freeman said.

Alves did her service-learning project at Step 2, an organization for women suffering from substance abuse disorders to get help with recovery. Like Freeman’s experience, hers was also night-and-day. Before volunteering at the organization, she thought negatively about people addicted to drugs. After she spent time with the women, she saw the compassionate mothers they were to their children. She witnessed their willingness to improve their lives and the lives of their families. “There is even stigma on these women trying to be in recovery and get treatment…it shouldn’t even be a thing,” Alves said.

Emmanuel Barthe, associate professor of criminal justice, said the first step in curbing stigma around addiction is “realizing that most people who are addicts are not doing it by free will.” Barthe said people can become addicted to opioids or drugs from a genetic component or a social component.

“We need to demystify addiction and take it away from the addict and find out why they are addicted,” Barthe said. “Nobody wakes up and says, ‘Today, I want to be a drug addict.’ Once people are addicted to smoking even, they don’t just suddenly like it. They become victims.”

How can we change stigma?

“Reducing stigmas has benefits for both individuals and as a society,” said Blithe – and one way to do this is by talking about it.

Blithe and Mohr created an entire college course on the topic. They used research on stigma, their curiosity on the topic of sex work and their passion for creating change to develop curriculum to teach students about stigma and hopefully instill a change in mindset. The University of Nevada, Reno campus, one striving to become more diverse in faculty and students and encourage inclusion across campus, was the perfect setting to offer such a course.

“It’s really important for our university and universities in general to explore this and offer classes like this. It expands the minds of students,” Mohr said. She went on to say that reducing stigma starts with education, but it doesn’t have to just be in a classroom. “It starts with having some uncomfortable or enlightening conversations with your close circle,” said Mohr. “People don’t understand how they contribute to stigma, so classes like this are really important.”

The students taking the class, who may have been more open-minded than most in the beginning, certainly found how to identify inherent biases. They learned to enter situations by being non-judgmental and how to respect people, to change their vocabulary. They use the more direct term of “sex worker” rather than demoralizing a woman by calling her a “prostitute.” The students now refer to a “homeless person” as “someone who is homeless or staying in a homeless shelter.” This shift to people-first language helps them understand stigma and humanize these nominalized groups.

The brothels are also doing work to reduce the negative aspects about the legal sex industry. Blithe mentioned a study the brothels are working on to make sure sex trafficking is not occurring in the legal brothel system. “I think things like that will actually help change the industry for the better,” Blithe said.

Barthe said local law enforcement agencies in Reno are working to curb opioid addiction by educating the doctors prescribing the medications as well as the users. Educating and training the users to not make a habit of asking for pills and to be aware of the consequences when they do. They are also educating the medical community on how not to over prescribe.

“Maybe all of us as a society do stigmatize these people based off of what we’ve heard and what we’ve always known, rather than going out and seeing it for ourselves,” Alves said. “This class gave us the opportunity to meet people, to talk to people, to [take a] fieldtrip, to have hands-on experience.”

The students in Blithe and Mohr’s class may not have transformed their viewpoints on stigma overnight, but there’s no doubt that each student experienced something of a revelation while taking the course. Students’ minds were opened to what stigma means and how perceptions affect their communication. “My biggest takeaway from Sarah Blithe’s class is to always lead with compassion,” Lang said. The students learned to respect individuals for the humans they are – and all humans deserve kindness.

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