Wednesday, April 5, 2017

A "Fancy" call for research on rural prostitution

The country music industry is buzzing over the results of the 52nd Academy of Country Music Awards, which aired live Sunday, April 2nd. This blog has previously discussed the ties between country music and ruralism on many occasions (see here, here, here, here, here, and here for several examples), but I decided to continue the conversation.

I grew up a fan of country music, and I learned at a young age to appreciate a variety of country music. I remember shooting guns with my father on his 40 acre ranch listening to Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, and Patsy Cline. At the same time, I have fond memories of traveling to cities with my mother to attend (what I refer to as "pop country") concerts, including Tim McGraw, Carrie Underwood, and Luke Bryan

This Spring Break, I found myself on a solo road trip across California. On lengthy trips, I tend to put my entire music library on shuffle. While driving through the desert, Reba McEntire's country cover of "Fancy" (here is a link to the music video), a 1969 song originally written and performed by Bobbie Gentry, blasted through my stereo. I have loved and listened to this song since I was a little girl. Singing along with the lyrics, I began thinking about the implications of the song in the context of rurality.

The song is told from the perspective of a woman named Fancy, who reminisces about the summer she turned 18. Fancy's family (including her mother and a baby sibling) lived in "a one room, rundown shack on the outskirts of New Orleans" after her "Pa" abandoned them.

In a last, desperate attempt to save Fancy from the vicious cycle of poverty, her mother spends her last money to buy Fancy a red "dancin dress," and essentially sends her away to be a prostitute. Her mother encourages Fancy to "be nice to the gentlemen . . . and they'll be nice to you." The chorus sings:
She said, "Here's your one chance, Fancy, don't let me down.
Here's your one chance, Fancy, don't let me down."
Lord, forgive me for what I do
But if you want out well it's up to you
Now don't let me down
Now your Mama's gonna move you uptown. 
Fancy used sex to build a better life for herself, eventually owning a Georgia mansion and a New York City townhouse flat. Moreover, Fancy eventually makes peace with her late mother and acknowledges the complexity of the decision her mother was forced to make "for turning [her] out." In embracing her past, Fancy declares, "You know I might have been born just plain white trash But Fancy was my name."

Listening to this song after learning more about rurality, I began thinking about prostitution in the rural context. Upon an initial search, I struggled to find significant research regarding rural prostitution. In a 2015 article in the Journal of Sociology and Social Work titled "'We Get a Lot of Crack Whores': Official Perceptions of Rural Prostitution in Four Rural Counties," authors Christine Mattley, Thomas Vander Ven, and Kelly L. Faust address the lack of scholarship pertaining to rural prostitution.

Mattley et al. note that "while there is a long rich literature on urban prostitution in sociology, investigations into the forms, frequencies, and functions of rural prostitution are few and far between." Through their interview-based survey of law enforcement officers and social service providers in four rural counties, Mattley et al. present interesting findings about rural prostitution.

Law enforcement officers said that arrests and incidents of prostitution in rural areas were "rarities" or "oddities," consistent with Uniform Crime Report (UCR) data which reports that prostitution arrests make up less than 2 percent of the total annual arrests for prostitution nationwide. Contrastingly, social services agency workers saw prostitution as relatively common in rural communities. For example, one social worker reported that 'out of 100% of cases, 45% of them are engaging in prostitution." Another maintained that prostitution is "very common in the area" and out of her caseload of 23 clients, that "10 of them were involved in prostitution."

However, "Fancy" presents a idealized vision of using prostitution as a way to escape rural poverty and establish upward mobility in high-class urban society. Fancy may have escaped her "white trash" roots, but is this the common end result for most rural sex workers?

Perhaps surprisingly, Mattley et al. found that most instances of prostitution–while out of economic necessity–did not typically result in cash exchanging hands. Social workers commented that they believed sex is not just exchanged for money, but many other necessities or goods including housing, food, transportation, drugs, and cigarettes. One social service provider noted that "They (female clients) trade (sex) for pot, for diapers, for food, for rent, etc. You know that they don’t have any money but somehow the rent gets paid and they have stuff so you kind of know where it comes from."

Unlike Fancy, it seems as though most rural female sex workers do not escape poverty or leave their homes for the city; rather, they turn to prostitution to support their families or their drug habits. While prostitution is virtually illegal in America, the state of Nevada is the only jurisdiction in the United States where prostitution is permitted. Strictly regulated brothels operate legally in isolated rural areas, away from the majority of Nevada's population.

There is a clear lack of research addressing prostitution in rural America. The statistics indicate that prostitution is almost exclusively an urban issue, but new literature indicates such a generalization may be inappropriate. Thus, new studies are required to fill the existing gaps in the literature. 

3 comments:

Kyle said...

This post does a nice job of using a pop-culture hook to force readers to confront an important issue. Cultural artifacts like "Fancy," alongside commonplace phrases like "sleeping her way to the top" or "the oldest profession," normalize the phenomenon of women accumulating resources using sex. From research I have done in another context, I can say without hesitation that the very meaning of women's sexual labor is hotly contested, with prostitutes' rights organizations like COYOTE urging decriminalization of "sex work" and self-described radical feminists like Sheila Jeffreys arguing powerfully that men's use of "women in prostitution" is always inherently exploitative, violent, and debasing. Others, like Kamala Kempadoo through her work on the global sex trade, prefer an "it depends" approach that emphasizes the importance of circumstances in assessing sites of sexual labor.

I find it unsurprising that rural prostitution appears more readily in social workers' anecdotes than in crime statistics. Part of this is the "space tames law tames space" phenomenon (https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2243757) unpacked on this blog and elsewhere -- it would take great resources to adequately police prostitution in sparsely populated places. Further, sex-for-stuff transactions blur the line between prostitution and the power of men in a patriarchal society to allocate resources to women according to their whims. (I would describe the USA as such a "patriarchal society," a descriptor that I suspect, without evidence, may be even more fitting in rural places.) Although most state laws criminalizing prostitution refer to exchanges for "anything of value," we cannot take for granted that non-monetary transactions would be prosecuted.

As pointed out in this post, Nevada provides an interesting counterpoint to the notion of urban prostitution. The authorizing law empowers counties to decide whether or not to license brothels, but the two largest counties (containing Las Vegas and Reno) are barred from doing so. Thus, urban prostitution remains criminalized while certain instances of rural prostitution are permissible. Yet we cannot really say that Nevada has chosen to "ruralize prostitution," because its locus becomes one of thirty-odd brothels that are easily patrolled by police and regulators notwithstanding their rural locations. The call for further research is apt.

Jenna said...

The quote you provided from a social service provider that "You know that they don’t have any money but somehow the rent gets paid and they have stuff so you kind of know where it comes from" made me think (again) about the lack of anonymity in rural towns. It seems that this lack of anonymity often comes into play in regards to rural women and their sex lives. Whether women are engaging in prostitution, sleeping with a married man, having sex while they are not married, or not having sex at all, it seems these subjects are likely a subject of talk and gossip in many small towns (as we saw this week in North Country and as you illustrated in your post). I do wonder in particular how this lack of anonymity comes into play for women (or men) who are sex workers of some sort in rural communities. I really wish more research had been done on this topic as it would be interesting to know how many rural people are engaging in sex work, why they have either chosen or been forced into such work, the place that these individuals hold in these often conservative rural communities, and how a lack of reproductive health care in these areas may make their lives even more difficult.

Mollie M said...

I really like your post, very interesting and I second what Kyle said about the interesting hook. I think it might be important when talking about prostitution to talk about sex trafficking as well.. Though "Fancy" began when she turned 18, I imagine that it can start much earlier, which creates another level of exploitation (not to say that prostitution it is always explolitative, but when we are talking about such poverty and desperation, I imagine it often is.) While we (well, I did, until nowish) think of sex trafficking as an urban issue, it occurs in rural areas too, apparently often operations are run out of truck stops or rest stops. (https://love146.org/trafficking-in-rural-america/). Victims may be more difficult to identify because there are fewer social services and task forces trying to identify them.
This is always such a complex issue, and I am interesting in learning more about it. Thanks for this blog!