Understanding the Portability of Privilege

“I screen clients—look at what kinda shoes they got on before I go with them,” said Curtis, a 34-year old Black sex worker. Street prostitution makes up the bulk of his income, and he explained the importance of evaluating potential clients for signs of wealth.

The idea is that men with nice shoes will pay more for sex, but as other men in the street sex trade also explained, this is a way to access greater social status for themselves. We refer to this as “borrowing privilege.”

Women have long borrowed privilege in relationships with men—a consequence of patriarchal societies in which women have less status and resources. But there are also inequalities among men, which raises questions about how men might use interpersonal relationships to enhance their status.

In our article on men in sex work, we show how men low on the social hierarchy, in terms of race, class, and sexuality, capitalize on exchanges with other men. And these findings have implications for scholars studying other marginalized groups and people at the fringes of mainstream society.

We find that borrowing privilege is a tactic to undermine inequality and claim agency in otherwise constraining circumstances. The men in our study used tactics including evaluating clients and choosing the “rich” clients who look “nice” and appear formally educated.

Scott, a 49-year-old straight Black man, shared his own client selection process:

“[T]he person [client] I am talking to has to meet a criteria. They have to be able to interest me in some kind of way, either nice looking or very articulate. . . . I wish I could find somebody to give me a trust fund. I wish I could find somebody to send me through college.”

The sex workers in this study use looking “nice” and being “articulate” as vague descriptors for white, well-to-do clients. They are not simply interested in clients who “found a few dollars” for a blowjob; they want clients who pay for sex in full and from whom they can potentially extract other resources and privileges, especially if those clients become regulars or boyfriends. The ability to borrow class privileges is connected to the men’s understandings of race, which Daryl, a 47-year old Black gay man, made explicit. “Those I avoid would be younger, Black, Puerto Rican [men],” he said, keeping an eye out for clients “who are older European [white] men” because they “pay you straight up front.”

Another tactic to borrow status was changing their own self-presentation to access places where their ideal clients spend time. For Omar, who had been in the sex trade for 19-years, finding more “high-class guys” meant appearing on their same “level” and learning from them “what bars to go to, what neighborhoods to go to, how to dress, act, and [to] read certain books … Some of them might have a sophisticated way that they talk … Sometime[s] you portray this part.” In this way, the men mirrored how upper-middle class men behaved, hoping to become more desirable to advantaged clients.

Cultivating a classy masculinity not only helped to increase the men’s chances of attracting “ideal” clients, but often bolstered their sense of self-worth. For Scott this meant feeling “other prostitutes were jealous because [he] was handsome and got lots of clients.” And for Daryl, this culminated in men wanting “[to] be my boyfriend, who say, ‘I love you,’ and all that.”

Many of the men in our study attempted to “borrow privilege” by accessing clients’ status symbols, showcasing them for others to see. High-status clients sometimes gave or lent them luxury goods, including alcohol, drugs, and expensive clothes and cars. For instance, Omar explained how he cultivated ongoing relationships with wealthy “regulars” to get drugs and clothes: “I would say I need some weed or drinks. I ain’t gonna lie—I’m a clothes freak. I like smellin’ good and lookin’ good. If I didn’t have the money, I would have a lot of guys [clients] that would buy me gifts.”

The Takeaway

We found that the marginalized male sex workers in our study were able to “borrow privilege,” even if only temporarily. Some of the men wanted to secure a steady relationship with a privileged-client-turned-boyfriend who might connect them to legal work or pay for their rent or education. But most settled for more fleeting associations with privilege. Borrowing privileges from clients gave these men a sense of power and status in a life with where they faced chances of risk, violence, criminalization, and stigmatization.

Our research shows how some people claim whatever advantages are available to them as they cope with the harsh conditions under which they live and work. In this case, these men try to undermine class and race inequality thru attracting and mimicking higher-status men. Without power of their own, these marginalized men try to borrow the privilege of their male partners in ways women without independent sources of privilege have always done.

Sharon S. Oselin is an Associate Professor of Sociology and Academic Director of the Presley Center of Crime and Justice Studies at the University of California, Riverside. Much of her research focuses on crime, deviance, sexuality and gender, and appears in a variety of journal outlets. Her book, Leaving Prostitution: Getting Out and Staying Out of Sex Work (NYU Press 2014), is an ethnographic examination of how organizational conditions facilitate or constrain women’s exits from the sex trade.

Kristen Barber is an Associate Professor of Sociology and Director of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale. She is also co-Editor of the journal, Men and Masculinities. Her research focuses on inequality in work and organizations, cultural production, and everyday interactions and identity construction. Her book, Styling Masculinity: Gender, Class, and Inequality in the Men’s Grooming Industry (Rutgers University Press 2016), examines high-end men’s salons as a case study in privilege and how women’s beauty work supports the image of the progressive “new man.”

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