I have to say it! The admittedly clichéd, but sincere, desire to “change the world” drives my sociology. My work before tenure sought to understand the power dynamics that create laws, particularly the role of business and economic institutions, in creating social policy. I have always sought to be an activist, by putting these insights into practice, both inside and outside traditional political institutions, in the community, in teaching, and in research.
But, my sociology has been profoundly affected by living in Las Vegas, where the objectification of women seems so blatantly transparent, yet complex and contradictory inequalities, tied to sexuality and gender, beg for fresh examinations. My feminism, activism and scholarship have turned to research on sexual commerce. Sexuality has been relatively ignored by political and economic sociology, yet it has become an important part of our economy and a powerful force for social change. Both my teaching and my research examine how struggles surrounding sexuality reveal contemporary forms of race, class and gender inequalities. I, now, see my work as at the forefront of a small, but growing, number of scholars interrogating the political economy of sexuality.
For the last 15 years, I have been involved in research, exploring the politics, culture, organization and labor, in Nevada’s legal brothel industry. Despite their uniqueness, I was surprised at how little research had been done on the brothels. Kate Hausbeck and I began a large ethnographic project, collecting data and doing early analysis, which culminated in several publications. The article ‘Violence and Legalized Brothel Prostitution in Nevada’, in Journal of Interpersonal Violence, is much cited for our finding that there is little violence in legal brothels, lending credence to the conclusion that legal indoor sex work is relatively safe for sex workers, and that legalizing prostitution may be a way to challenge global sex trafficking. The article ‘Marketing Sex: American Legal Brothels and Late Capitalist Consumption,’ in Sexualities, analyzes sexual consumption and furthers the argument that adult-oriented businesses are using mainstream, traditional forms of business organization and marketing. This article was reprinted in the most recent edition of Sex Matters: The Sexuality and Society Reader, by Stombler, et. al.
The State of Sex: Tourism, Sex and Sin in the New American Heartland (Routledge Press), is the culmination of a decade-long research study of Nevada’s legal brothels. As far as I know, it is the largest and most comprehensive study of legal prostitution. Co-authors, Crystal Jackson, Kate Hausbeck and I, look at the context, history, organization and work in the brothels. The study of prostitution has been highly contentious, debating primarily whether prostitution is work or necessarily coercive. Our comprehensive approach shifts the focus from individual women’s choices, and puts it on the economic dynamics that drive gendered inequalities, gendered politics and gendered work, in this particular arena of consumption. We find that while prostitution may be unique in some ways, for good or for ill, the organization, consumption and work is much more similar to late capitalist interactive service businesses, touristic consumption and work than we typically believe.
I am now working to extend these insights and further use the sex industry as a site to understand the intersections of culture and economics. Recently, collaborative research, with British scholar Teela Sanders, resulted in the article ‘The Mainstreaming of the Sex industry: Economic Inclusion and Social Ambivalence’, in Journal of Law & Society, comparing Las Vegas, Nevada, and Leeds, UK, to show how neoliberalism effects the mainstreaming of sexual commerce. Other works in progress include studies of: the construction of ‘market morality’ in political debates around sexuality; the relation between tourism, consumption and sexuality; heterosexuality in the sex industry, the emotional and bodily labor of selling sex; and consuming sex. I am building on collaborations overseas and with other UNLV scholars, on a longer-term interdisciplinary project, for the study of globalization and sexuality.
My academic research on sex work, sexual markets and sexual politics extends past work on social policy, political violence, and social movements. An article with colleague Robert Futrell ‘Protest as Terrorism: The Potential for Violent Anti-Nuclear Activism’, in American Behavioral Scientist, analyzes the potential for violent activism among protesters, drawing on my own research and activism, in anti-nuclear movement. I also include, in this dossier, an article written with graduate student Deo Mshigeni, ‘Terrorism in Context: Race, Religion, Party and Violent Conflict in Zanzibar’, in The American Sociologist, drawing on his research with a potentially violent youth wing of the minority political party in Zanzibar, where globalization and Islamic fundamentalism have impacted racial identity.
I am also engaged in collaborative work on the political economy of contemporary culture, through a multi-year study of sustainability and community, in Las Vegas. The Las Vegas Metropolitan Area Social Survey is a collaborative project, with the LVMASS team (graduate students and two other Sociology faculty), the Southern Nevada Regional Planning Commission, and the City of Las Vegas. The project gathers neighborhood-level data on the attitudes, knowledge, and opinions of Las Vegas residents on neighborhood, environmental and social sustainability issues.
~Prof. Barb Brents