“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.