“The Oldest Profession”: Sex Work through the Lenses of History, Feminism, and Sociology

history, Sociology

By Kayla Pritchard

Prostitution (i.e., the sale/purchase of sexual services) existed in Deadwood, South Dakota, from 1876 until 1980, when the last brothel was raided by the FBI. Many of the citizens fought (unsuccessfully) to keep the brothels, seeing them as an important part of their history and the women as a valuable part of the community. Thus, 124 years of technically illegal prostitution ended in Deadwood, a town that today highly values its “wild west” past. In the fall of 2020, the Deadwood Historical Society opened The Brothel – Deadwood, a museum offering tours and interpretation, in one of the original brothels. Given my academic background, I was consulted to comment on prostitution when the museum was being constructed. Parts of my interview play on loop, along with the interviews of others, in an alcove in the museum.

The sign advertising The Brothel – Deadwood.

Just down the road in Rapid City, I gave a talk on prostitution on August 17th for STEAM Café (that’s science, technology, engineering, arts, and math), a series that represents a partnership between South Dakota Mines and Hay Camp Brewing, offering a talk on the third Thursday of each month. Prostitution and, more broadly, sex work are often viewed as unsavory, immoral, and only something that women do out of desperation. These stereotypes are culturally pervasive, offering an overly simplified view of sex work and sex workers. Furthermore, narratives painting sex work as either empowering or exploitative also miss the point about larger systemic forces at work in the “choice” whether or not to engage in sex work. Ultimately what is missing is a sociological lens that challenges us to look beyond individuals and focus on the structures and systems around them.

Bluegrass band plays in the background, camera focuses on pipe, wallet, and a small in on a weathered wooden table.

Technology and Bluegrass: More Than Just the Electric Banjo

history, music, Technology

By Christy Tidwell and Matthew Bumbach

After Matthew Bumbach’s recent Brown Bag presentation on the history of bluegrass, I found myself thinking about the role of technology in the genre. I’ve long listened to bluegrass myself but have largely taken the technologies involved for granted. I wondered what we can learn about technology by thinking about its role in the arts and also what we can learn about bluegrass specifically by paying attention to its relationship to technology. To find out more, I invited him to discuss the topic.

Christy Tidwell: For any readers who may not be familiar with bluegrass, let’s quickly provide some basic information. How would you define bluegrass in just a couple of sentences? And what is the basic history of the genre?

Matthew Bumbach: Bluegrass music emerged from old time music and hillbilly string bands from the historically isolated region of Appalachia. The primary instruments in the genre are fiddle, mandolin, banjo, guitar, upright bass, and singers. Bluegrass emerged, as a genre, during the 1940s and 1950s and owes a lot of its character to the unique playing and singing of Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt, and Earl Scruggs.

One of Bill Monroe’s first appearances on the Opry.

CT: With that established, I’d like to focus more specifically on the relationship between bluegrass and technology. People often tend to think about technology as high-tech or futuristic, and bluegrass is not seen as either of those things. Historically speaking, what technologies were important for the creation and dissemination of bluegrass music?

MB: That is an excellent question and one that we don’t often discuss when we talk about this genre. Bluegrass could not have developed the way it did without the microphone. In the early days of bluegrass, the entire band would gather around a single microphone in both recording and live performance applications. They would create blend and balance through the use of proximity to the microphone.

The microphone was first invented and introduced to the public in 1877 by Emile Berliner, but it would be decades before we had a microphone that was effective enough to do what the pioneers of bluegrass needed. E.C. Wente invented the condenser microphone (or capacitor microphone) in 1916, a much more sensitive microphone than the earliest moving coil mics from the previous century. It took several more decades for condenser microphones to be study and cheap enough for use by the general public.

I mention the microphone as an indispensable technological advancement in the development of bluegrass music because bluegrass was professional music played by professional musicians. Unlike old time and hillbilly music that was played in churches, porches, and barns, bluegrass music developed in part because it could be played live for large audiences. Virtuosic professional musicians toured the country spreading these new sounds. Furthermore, bluegrass spread through recordings and radio. None of this could have happened without the microphone.

Who Is Earth Day For?

Environment, history

By Frank Van Nuys

In 1976 my eighth-grade science teacher gave us an assignment that seems as if it possibly aligned with that year’s Earth Day activities. I recall this primarily because of its embarrassing results. We were told to dig up some soil from our family’s yard and bring it to school to develop our own little in-door plot for growing some plant or other. Being part of the only family in southwestern Ohio not possessed of an old coffee can or some other suitable container, I dutifully filled a black plastic lawn bag with what seemed like a lot of dirt and stuffed that in a gym bag. Managing to lug my Earth Day “earth” on to the school bus, I stuffed the gym bag in my locker. When the time came for science class, I opened the locker and discovered that the plastic bag had ruptured. I suppose I somehow wrestled my embarrassingly overflowing bag of dirt into class and eventually grew something, but that sickening demoralization of middle-school level humiliation was all that really stuck with me.

Poster for the ENACT (Environmental Action for Survival) Earth Day Teach-In on the University of Michigan – Ann Arbor campus in March 1970.

My hapless effort at dirt transplantation offers a metaphor of sorts for the Earth Day phenomenon. Well-intentioned individual efforts on behalf of noble aspirations to better the planet, even if more successful than mine, amount to relatively small achievements. The first Earth Day on April 22, 1970, was certainly a masterstroke in terms of generating citizen engagement and marketing an increasingly popular sentiment into a mass movement spectacle. It can even be argued that bipartisan passage of significant federal environmental legislation, such as the Clean Air Act of 1970, the Clean Water Act of 1972, and the Endangered Species Act of 1973, fed on momentum provided by Earth Day. Additional impacts included a surge in environmental organization memberships during the 1970s and growing influence of such organizations in legal actions against corporations and government agencies.