REVIEW OF (SUB)URBAN SEXSCAPES: GEOGRAPHIES AND REGULATION OF THE SEX INDUSTRY, EDS. PAUL J. MAGINN And christine steinmetz. new york: routledge, 2017 (paperpack).
REVIEW BY ÉRIC FALARDEAU, UNIVERSITÉ DU QUÉBEC À MoNTRÉAL
Sex has always had close ties with boundaries, limits, and transgression; especially within the public confines of towns, cities, and countries. Therefore, it isn’t surprising that its public display and consumption have been subject to diverse regulations around the world in order to contain its dangerous power within constricted and monitored territories. These spatial configurations and limitations create singular discourses on sex (Foucault: 1976) by the way these discourses are framed in public spaces, wherever sex is showcased (sex shops, strip clubs, prostitution, adult video stores or theatres, publicity, red-light districts, BDSM venues, etc.).
How does sex shape our cities? (Sub)Urban Sexscapes: Geographies and Regulation of the Sex Industry gathers scholars from various disciplines (urban geographers, sociologists, and planners) to provide insights on this complex question. The book is divided into two sections, namely geographies and regulations. Both include a wide array of case studies covering topics and issues pertaining to diverse strategies put in place by legal authorities to circumscribe sex, from housing to telecommunications and red-light districts. Since these laws and prescriptions are unique to every country, region, and city, the essays collected in this anthology offer a broader look at some legal and social implications resulting from those measures.
The concepts of community, domesticity, and social acceptance are useful in most of the essays to question the intricate relations between work and leisure in the urban space. It is striking to see in each analysis how much the institutions, according to their legal frameworks, produce or maintain a unique form of gaze, inseparable from the moral values of their defined community. The production and consumption of sex, either as a labour, like prostitution, or as a commodity, like sex shops, create specific sets of practices, particularly during nighttime, where everything belonging to ‘sexual pleasure’ is usually dispatched. Thus, cities manifest themselves to the eyes of their inhabitants and visitors not just from a legal point of view or by their practical organization, but on a symbolic level, such as when sex-related businesses are pushed back to the margins of municipality. They offer more than meets the eye and require to be read and deciphered. Their landscapes are a complex network where several layers of meaning overlap. Spaces take on meanings depending on how they are used, but the meanings take shape within social relationships of work and leisure in the urban space.
Moreover, the economic dimensions of sexual activities in the city, legal or not, bring forth particular concerns for sex workers and sex industries. Essays in this book demonstrate how financial imperatives require the implementation of specific rules. These tensions between law enforcement, economical activities, workers’ rights, and ‘community standards’ are clearly represented in Moriah McSharry McGrath’s study on strip clubs in Portland, Oregon, where she writes: “strip clubs are more likely to be located in less desirable neighborhoods and that residents of these area tended to raise little resistance to the clubs” (p. 70). The business of sexuality reveals once again how the struggles between economic and racial classes impact the way authorities think and configurate the cities we live in. Power dynamics push the sex industry to the margins, both figuratively and literally.
These concrete spaces in which most of us live are mirrored in virtual ones where the opposition and complementarity of public and private spheres require distinctive regulations. In a compelling essay, Alan McKee, Brian McNair and Anne-Frances Watson rightly point out that “Where the public sphere is about ‘politics’ – including sexual politics – and the information required to enable public participation in political debate, the pornosphere circulates in the form of explicit sexual representation information about sexual behavior and performance, enabling private participation in sexual experience and expression” (pp. 161-162). Thus, even if the concept of pornosphere refers to online spaces and a certain politic of privacy, it also connects to a broader shift of paradigms regarding sexuality and pornography within Western society. Simply put, we are no longer dealing with a marginal economy or media expression contained in a set of regulations and places but rather with a new symbolic axis and aesthetic paradigm that penetrates public and private spheres, one that Finnish scholar Susanna Paasonen previously described as a pornification of culture (2007).
(Sub)Urban Sexscapes: Geographies and Regulation of the Sex Industry provides thoughtful reflections and analytical frameworks for sociology, gender studies, cultural studies and porn studies scholars interested by the issues regarding sex in the public space. As Maginn and Steinmetz write in their conclusion, the “sexualized nature of the city is reflected symbolically, physically, culturally and commercially in our sociological and geographical imaginations; imaginations which are informed by our lived experiences” (p. 264).
Foucault, Michel. Histoire de la sexualité I. La volonté de savoir. Paris : Éditions Gallimard, 1976.
Paasonen, Susanna (ed.). Pornification: Sex and Sexuality in Media Culture. Oxford: Berg, 2007.
Éric Falardeau Éric Falardeau is a PhD candidate in Communication Studies at the Université du Québec à Montréal, Canada. He is the author of Une histoire des effets spéciaux au Québec (2017) and Le corps souillé : Gore, pornographie et fluides corporels (2019). His research examines the representations of the male body in online pornographic audiovisual production. Falardeau is also a filmmaker. He wrote and directed the cult horror feature Thanatomorphose (2012), which has won him several awards in international film festivals, and the Adult Time pornographic movie The Thing from the Lake (2019).