Different stage, different performance: the protective strategy of role play on emotional health in sex work

An article in Social Science & Medicine Volume 72, Issue 7, April 2011, Pages 1177-1184.

This paper uses Arlie Hochschild's (1983) concept of emotion management and “surface” and “deep acting” to explore how sex workers separate and distance themselves from their public role. Experiences of stigmatisation prevail among sex workers and how stigma is resisted or managed has an impact on their health. In-depth interviews were carried out between August 2006 and April 2007 with 58 sex workers in five cities in New Zealand following decriminalisation of the sex industry. Most participants drew on ideas of professionalism in sustaining a psychological distance between their private and public lives. They utilised “deep acting”, transmuting private experiences for use in the work environment, to accredit themselves as professional in their business practices.

They also constructed different meanings for sex between public and private relationships with the condom providing an important symbol in separating the two. A few (mostly female street-based) participants were less adept at “deep acting” and relied on drugs to maintain a separation of roles. This paper argues that in an occupation which is highly stigmatised and in which depersonalisation as an aspect of burn-out has been reported as a common occurrence, the ability to draw on strategies which require “deep acting” provides a healthy estrangement between self and role and can be seen as protective. The separation of self from work identity is not damaging as many radical feminists would claim, but an effective strategy to manage emotions.

Hochschild, A. (1983). The managed heart: Commercialization of human feeling. Berkeley: University of California Press.

(abstract authors' own)

Year of publication: 
Gillian M. Abel