New Books in Philosophy

Discussion with philosopher about their new books

What is UtopiaGuide? New book explains the world of escort sites.

The escort industry has been around for a long time, but it’s not very well understood by people outside of it. A new book aims to change that: “Escort: The User Guide.” Author and escorting expert Susan Bordo takes us through the ins and outs of this growing business in her new book, published by MIT Press. We spoke with Ms. Bordo about the industry, what she learned during research, and why this book is so important right now.

How did you come up with the idea for Escort? Was there something specific or some incident that led you to write this book?

I had read about escort sites (and similar services) such as UptopiaGuide before, and I’d always thought they sounded like great ideas. They seemed like an innovative way of connecting clients with independent sex workers. But my knowledge was limited—I didn’t know much about these sites beyond their basic functions. So when I decided to write a book on the history of prostitution, I started researching things like this more closely. As I got deeper into the subject, I realized that, like everything else related to sex work, there are lots of competing theories about what escort sites do and how they work. Some people who’ve studied them think they’re bad, others say they’re good, still others claim they don’t really matter at all. And of course the sites themselves have never provided many details about how they operate.

So I decided to try to shed some light on the topic. Escort is meant to be a user’s guide to escort sites—a primer for those who want to understand what sites like this are and why they exist. It also provides a historical overview of prostitution, which will hopefully help readers better appreciate the evolution of these sites and what they mean today.

You mention in your introduction that the women who use UtopiaGuide and similar sites are rarely discussed in the mainstream media. How does this lack of coverage impact the public perception of sex workers, and how has this changed over time?

There’s no question that the proliferation of escort sites and other online resources has created some problems for sex workers and the communities they live in. But for the most part, the effects of these sites have been positive for many. The fact that these resources were made available gave sex workers more control over their own lives than ever before. They are able to work from home, manage their schedules, and reach out to clients without relying solely on street-based pimps. And they can even advertise and find clients anonymously.

But there’s another side to this story too. Many sex workers feel that sites like UptopiaGuide undermine their independence. If you’re advertising online, then you’re depending on someone else to provide a platform for your work. Your livelihood depends on whether that site is around tomorrow or not. You might get lucky and not need to worry about it, but there’s always the possibility that, like so many other sites, the one you use could disappear overnight.

Some critics also argue that escort sites contribute to the problem of sex trafficking. That’s because sites like UptopiaGuide make it easier for traffickers to find their victims. When you put all the ads in one place, it becomes less likely that potential victims will be able to identify a potential trafficker by the way he looks. By contrast, if you went to different websites, you’d probably see lots of different kinds of people trying to sell sex. Allowing that kind of diversity makes it more difficult for traffickers to find their targets.

Another concern is that escort sites themselves often exploit the women they represent. There have been reports of workers being forced to have sex with clients before getting paid, and of having to pay the company a fee just to have access to the site. Is this true? Are these sites really run by a handful of men who are exploiting sex workers? Or do the women working for the companies actually benefit from the arrangement?

In my book, I try to answer these questions by providing detailed accounts of how each of the major escort sites operates. I also talk to some of the workers who participate in these sites, as well as the owners and managers of the businesses. I wanted to find out for myself what’s going on behind the scenes, and what sorts of things people are thinking about when they operate these sites. My goal was to create a resource that would allow the public to engage with these issues in a more informed manner.

Could you give us an overview of the different escort sites you cover in your book? How do they differ, and why does this matter?

I write about four different sites: ErosGuide, UptopiaGuide, AdultFriendFinder, and Rentboy. Each of these sites has its own unique characteristics, but they’re also very similar in important ways. For instance, they all offer a platform for users to post information about themselves and the services they provide. They also have forums where people can discuss things like safety tips and travel arrangements, and they all have sections for classified ads.

All of them have large databases of advertisements that include photos of the people offering the services. They also provide tools that help clients find the kind of service they’re looking for. This includes search options that let you specify criteria such as age, gender, ethnicity, body type, and so forth. Most of these sites also have features that allow customers to rate and review the services they’ve received.

Final Thoughts

This interview is part of our ongoing series on sex work and trafficking. What do you think of escort sites? Do you think they help or hurt sex workers? Does the fact that they exist in a legal grey area add to their power? Let us know in the comments.

NANCY BAUER How to Do Things With Pornography

Nancy Bauer

We live in a world awash with pornography, in the face of which anti-porn feminist philosophizing has not had much impact. In How to Do Things With Pornography (Harvard University Press, 2015), Nancy Bauer takes academic philosophy to task for being irrelevant and argues that philosophers should emulate Socrates in giving people reasons to reflect on their settled views. Bauer, who is a professor of philosophy and dean of academic affairs for arts and sciences at Tufts University, considers the sexual objectification of women in contemporary society from several overlapping angles. She discusses the sense of empowerment that young women feel in today’s ‘hookup culture’ and defends a radical new reading of J.L. Austin’s work on language that is at odds with the standard interpretation behind prominent feminist critiques of pornography. She also considers how white male dominance in academic philosophy has contributed to its lack of effectiveness, while applauding recent efforts by some to increase its diversity and its engagement with the public.

CASS SUNSTEIN Choosing Not to Choose: Understanding the Value of Choice

Cass Sunstein

The political tradition of liberalism tends to associate political liberty with the individual’s freedom of choice. The thought is that political freedom is intrinsically tied to the individual’s ability to select one’s own path in life – to choose one’s occupation, one’s values, one’s hobbies, one’s possessions, and so on – without the intrusion or supervision of others. John Stuart Mill, who held a version of this view, argued that it is in choosing for ourselves that we develop not only self-knowledge but autonomy and personality. Yet we now know that the image of the individual chooser that Mill’s view seems to presuppose is not quite accurate. It is not only the case that environmental factors of various kinds exert a great but often invisible influence over our choices; we must also contend with the limits of our cognitive resources. Sometimes, having to choose can be a burden, a hazard, and even an obstacle to liberty.

In Choosing Not to Choose: Understanding the Value of Choice (Oxford University Press, 2015), Cass Sunstein examines the varied phenomena of choice-making. Bringing a range of finding from behavioral sciences, Sunstein makes the case that sometimes avoiding or delegating choice is an exercise of individual freedom.

COLIN KLEIN What the Body Commands: The Imperative Theory of Pain

Colin Klein

Nothing seems so obviously true as the claim that pains feel bad, that pain and suffering go together. Almost as obviously, it seems that the function of pain is to inform us of tissue damage. In What the Body Commands: The Imperative Theory of Pain (The MIT Press, 2015), Colin Klein denies both apparently obvious claims. On his view, pain is a “protective imperative” whose content is to protect the body or body part: for example, “Don’t put weight on that left ankle!”. Klein, Lecturer in the Department of Philosophy at Macquarie University, discusses the problem of pain asymbolia, in which people report feeling pain but are not the least bit motivated to do anything about it; considers how to explain masochistic pleasure, where we deliberately act in ways that do not protect the body; and addresses the question: why do pains (typically, but contingently) hurt?

JASON STANLEY How Propaganda Works

Jason Stanley

Propaganda” names a familiar collection of phenomena, and examples of propaganda are easy to identify, especially when one examines the output of totalitarian states. In those cases, language and imagery are employed for the purpose of shaping mass opinion, forming group allegiances, constructing worldviews, and securing compliance. It is undeniable that propaganda is employed by liberal democratic states. But it is also undeniable that the use of propaganda is especially problematic in liberal democracies, as it looks incompatible with the democratic ideals of equality and autonomous self-government. It’s surprising, then, that the topic of propaganda has gone relatively unexplored in contemporary political philosophy.

In How Propaganda Works (Princeton University Press, 2015), Jason Stanley develops an original theory of propaganda according to which propaganda is the deployment of an ideal against itself. Along the way, Stanley distinguishes various kinds of propaganda and explores the connections between propaganda, ideology, stereotypes, and group identities. Stanley’s central thesis is that propaganda poses an epistemological problem for democracy, as propaganda is the vehicle by which false beliefs are disseminated and opportunities for knowledge are closed.

BETH PRESTON A Philosophy of Material Culture: Action, Function, and Mind

Beth Preston

Many philosophers have written on the ways in which human beings produce artifacts and on the nature of artifacts themselves, often distinguishing the act of producing or making from growing, and distinguishing artifacts from natural objects. However, such discussions have tended to be theoretically restrictive – for example, in the philosophy of technology, the focus is primarily on non-religious and non-artistic artifacts. In A Philosophy of Material Culture: Action, Function, and Mind (Routledge 2012), Professor Beth Preston of the University of Georgia provides a foundation for understanding material culture in general – indeed, she uses the phrase “item of material culture” to avoid the restrictive connotations of “artifact”. Preston approaches her subject from two basic vantage points: the philosophy of action, to consider the nature of production and use of material culture, and the philosophy of function, to consider the nature of the items that are produced and used. In doing so she breaks new ground in understanding collaboration and improvisation and draws on work on biological and system functions to develop a concept of ‘function’ appropriate to understanding the functions of the items we make and use.

KIMBERLEY BROWNLEE Conscience and Conviction: The Case for Civil Disobedience

Kimberley Brownlee

When confronted with a law that they find morally unconscionable, citizens sometimes engage in civil disobedience – they publicly break the law with a view to communicating their judgment that it is unjust.  Citizens in similar situations sometimes take a different stance – they engage in conscientious objection, they quietly disobey, seeking only to keep their own conscience clear.

A common view of these matters has it that the conscientious objector is deserving of special respect, and even accommodation, whereas the civil disobedient engages in a politically risky and morally questionable practice.  In her new book, Conscience and Conviction: The Case for Civil Disobedience (Oxford University Press, 2012) Kimberley Brownlee reverse this picture.  She contends that properly-conducted civil disobedience is more deserving of accommodation and respect than conscientious objection.  Her case turns on a detailed and subtle analysis of the very concepts of conviction and conscience.

PHILIP PETTIT On The People’s Terms: A Republican Theory and Model of Democracy

Philip Pettit

In political philosophy, republicanism is the name of a distinctive framework for thinking about politics. At its core is a unique conception of freedom according to which freedom consists in non-domination, that is, in not having a master or lord, in not being subject to the arbitrary will of another.  This republican conception of the free person contrasts with a competing and familiar view according to which freedom is primarily a property, not of persons, but of choices. In this view, one is free insofar as one enjoys the absence of interference.

For the past few decades, Philip Pettit has been engaged in a sustained effort to revive republicanism as an approach to political philosophy. In a series of articles and books, he has developed and defended the republican conception of freedom.  In his latest book, On The People’s Terms: A Republican Theory and Model of Democracy(Cambridge University Press, 2012), Pettit articulates a conception of democracy to accompany the fundamental republican commitment to freedom as non-domination. The book examines the full range of topics, from justice to legitimacy and institutional design.  This is a highly detailed and meticulously argued book.

HERMAN CAPPELEN Philosophy Without Intuitions

Herman Cappelen

It’s taken for granted among analytic philosophers that some of their primary areas of inquiry – ethics, epistemology, philosophy of mind, and philosophy of language, in particular – involve a special and characteristic methodology that depends essentially on the use of intuitions as evidence for philosophical positions. A thought experiment is developed in order to elicit intuitive judgments, and these judgments have a special epistemic status. Paradigm cases of this methodology include Gettier cases, in which we judge whether the subject in the scenario has or does not have the knowledge, and Putnam’s Twin-Earth cases, in which we judge whether the contents of thought depend on the physical nature of a thinker’s environment. The new experimental philosophy movement also accepts this assumption, as it is premised on rejecting it by conducting real experiments (with non-philosophers as subjects) rather than thought experiments.

In Philosophy Without Intuitions (Oxford University Press, 2012), Herman Cappelen, professor of philosophy at the Arche Philosophical Research Centre at the University of St. Andrews, argues that this assumption is simply false as a descriptive claim about the practice of contemporary analytic philosophy. Instead, a detailed look at the thought experiments shows that uses of the term “intuition” or “intuitively” are better interpreted as an unfortunate verbal tic or as a conversational hedge indicating that a claim is just a snap judgment or a bit of pre-theoretic background. What is not true, he claims, is that the judgments have bedrock epistemological status, are considered justified without appeals to experience and without inference, that inclinations to believe these judgments tend to be recalcitrant to further evidence, or that these judgments are based on conceptual competence or have a special phenomenology.

MICHAEL HUEMER The Problem of Political Authority: An Examination of the Right to Coerce and the Duty to Obey

Michael Huemer

The philosopher Robert Nozick once claimed that the most basic question of Political Philosophy is “Why not Anarchy?”  Political philosophers pose this question often with the intent of demonstrating that there is indeed a good philosophical reason why governments should exist.  Indeed, we often simply take for granted that the state and its vast coercive apparatus are morally justified.  Similarly, we tend to think that anarchy is both a practically untenable and morally undesirable mode of social association. 

But governments claim not only power but authority over their citizens.  And a few moments of reflection on the idea of authority suffices to see how curious an idea it is.  To have authority is to have a right to create moral obligations in others simply by issuing commands, and a corresponding right to coerce compliance when others fail to obey one’s commands.  It seems a puzzling phenomenon: The government claim to be able to make it the case that you’re morally required to do something simply in virtue of the fact that it has told you to do it. And they claim the moral right to imprison you for failing to do what they say.

In The Problem of Political Authority: An Examination of the Right to Coerce and the Duty to Obey (Palgrave Macmillan 2013), Michael Huemer explores this puzzling phenomenon and defends the conclusion that in fact there is no such thing as political authority.