Dirty Workers’ Management of Hidden Emotions: Selling Intimacy and Seeking Social Support through the Shroud of Secrecy

Dirty Workers’ Management of Hidden Emotions: Selling Intimacy and Seeking Social Support... Abstract Through a qualitative analysis of legal prostitutes’ emotional experiences, we examine how practices of secrecy inform emotion management and support-seeking behaviors. Our findings suggest that concealment practices serve protective functions, contributing to the construction of distinct occupational and social identity roles, avoidance of dirty work stigma, and protection of clients’ definition of the situation. However, we also find that dirty workers tend to occupy a tensional space between revelation and concealment, especially when managing difficult emotions related to hidden identity roles. Our analysis suggests that resources available for managing emotions are inextricably linked to interactional role performances, and dirty workers may violate secrecy norms to attain levels of intimacy and social support contingent upon shared knowledge of salient social roles. Introduction Disciplinary assumptions about the value of visibility are reflected in the sheer volume of communication research and teaching around topics like public relations, media presence, marketing, branding, public health, and political campaigning. As “transparency” rose to mythical status as a predominant social value in organizations and governmental entities (Christensen & Cornelissen, 2015), a countercurrent of scholarship emerged to problematize oversimplified idealizations of the concept (Christensen & Cheney, 2015; Hansen, Christensen, & Flyverbom, 2015). Recent attention to hidden and clandestine organizations (Scott, 2013; Stohl & Stohl, 2017) encouraged communication scholars to wrestle with these biases toward openness and transparency to see what more we can learn about human social interaction, meaning-making, and collective organizing when we move into shadowy spaces such as terrorist cells (Bean & Buikema, 2015), stigmatized organizations (Wolfe & Blithe, 2015), and anonymous support groups (Frois, 2009). Scholarly investigations into this so-called dark side of communication challenge positive value assumptions regarding visibility by considering the productive power of silence and secrecy in social life. This study joins those scholarly investigations by examining the role of secrecy in the specific context of emotion management, which refers to efforts made to align expressions of private feelings with social norms (Tracy, 2008). Communication scholars across many disciplinary sub-fields have deepened our understanding of emotion as a relational, communicative accomplishment (e.g., Fineman, 2000, 2008; Waldron, 2012). Recent scholarly examinations of emotion in more hidden contexts of stigmatized occupational roles, such as U.S. border patrol agents (Rivera, 2015; Rivera & Tracy, 2014), sex shop workers (Tyler, 2011), and exotic dancers (Grandy & Mavin, 2014), have highlighted how messy and ambiguous emotion management becomes when people report ambivalent feelings of shame/pride in their occupational identities. Despite the fact that this previous research has consistently shown that workers in commonly stigmatized occupations, like workers at men’s bathhouses (Hudson & Okhuysen, 2009) and legal brothels (Wolfe & Blithe, 2015), often adopt concealment practices to protect themselves, their clients, their colleagues, and their organization from critical scrutiny, a deep examination into the role of secrecy has been absent from investigations into emotion management in stigmatized organizations. Analyzing the dynamics of secrecy in emotion management offers insights for scholars studying a wide array of social contexts. Costas and Grey (2016) describe secrecy as the “hidden architecture” of social relations insofar as the concealment of information erects metaphorical “walls” between people and the sharing of secrets builds “corridors” connecting them. In this way, secrecy plays a central role in all social and organizational life, as group boundaries are drawn and negotiated in light of shared and concealed knowledge (Bok, 1989). This study finds that normative practices of secrecy deeply inform emotion management strategies, especially when an industry, occupation, or work responsibility is obscured from public view and secrecy is a key practice of being a “good” worker. This study focuses on how secrecy presents both challenges and opportunities for managing emotional experiences related to work. Specifically, we examine how secrecy enables and constrains emotion management and support-seeking behaviors among legal brothel prostitutes in the United States. Sex work involves a great deal of emotion management due to the intimate nature of much of the job performance, but also due to complicated relationships internally between co-workers and externally with friends, family, and community members. The pervasiveness of secrecy in sex work occupations makes legal brothels an ideal location for this study. We begin by situating our research context within existing literature on secrecy, hidden organizations, and dirty work. We then focus more deeply on reviewing emotion research, with an emphasis on what previous scholarship has suggested regarding management strategies and challenges for sex workers in particular. Secrecy, shadows, and stigma Despite differences in applications, common among scholarly definitions of secrecy is a description of information being purposefully, willfully, and/or consciously concealed (Bok, 1989; Costas & Grey, 2016; Simmel, 1906). Importantly, secrecy is conceptually distinct from deception, privacy, and anonymity—though overlaps certainly exist with all of these terms. The information concealed in deception “is that one is misrepresenting the facts” (Gibson, 2014, p. 285), while privacy refers to desires to control access to things considered to belong in a personal domain. Privacy overlaps with secrecy anytime that “the efforts at such control rely on hiding. But privacy need not hide; and secrecy hides far more than what is private” (Bok, 1989, p. 11). Anonymity refers to situations in which the information being concealed is identity knowledge, such as legal name, location, distinctive appearance, behavior patterns, and social categorization (Marx, 1999). As this study is centrally concerned with the broader category of secrecy, we extend our examination into contexts where deception, privacy, and anonymity may characterize some interaction, but where concealment practices are generally prevalent. How the very processes of concealment that define secrecy generate the possession of differential information, which in turn creates group boundaries between insiders and outsiders, has been well documented (Lurhmann, 1989, p. 137). However, these in-group/out-group boundaries are temporally-bound and vulnerable because “secrecy always creates the possibility of accidental or deliberate disclosures or revelations” (Costas & Grey, 2016, p. 12). Because of this risk, organizations employ various protective mechanisms—such as restrictive rules and sanctions, incentivizing compensation schemes, and isolating measures of geographical separation and secured perimeters (Liebeskind, 1997)—as well as knowledge barriers (Gibson, 2014) to deter secret-transmission that could pose a threat to firm goals and practices. Although all organizations and social groups engage in some forms of secrecy to create social order, establish boundaries, and protect valuable assets (Costas & Grey, 2016), these concerns about secrets’ vulnerability are especially palpable in the context of hidden organizations (Scott, 2013). As we discovered in our previous research on legal brothels, even hidden organizations tend to face tensions between simultaneous and competing needs for selective visibility and invisibility (Wolfe & Blithe, 2015). “Lying low in the sagebrush,” a common expression in Nevada for keeping a low profile, allows brothels to protect the identities of workers and clients, while also protecting the organization from critical scrutiny. However, “overemphasizing the ways in which (…) external legal limitations and internal desires for privacy and safety have hidden the brothels obscures the giant billboards and neon signs that point to these not-so-secret locations” (Wolfe & Blithe, 2015, p. 549). Certainly, brothels (and many similarly-situated hidden organizations) are economic organizations that seek visibility through marketing, social media activity, community engagement, and philanthropic service, among other means. Despite the organization’s visibility needs, though, most workers seek to keep their affiliation with the brothel hidden from all except select audiences. This secrecy regarding occupational affiliation is largely rooted in stigmas: discrediting differences that lead others to categorize an entity as undesirable, bad, dangerous, or weak (Goffman, 1963). When organizations experience stigma due to integral aspects of their identity, those people who are closely affiliated to the organization tend to experience stigma transfer (Hudson & Okhuysen, 2009), which refers to the ways in which others become stigmatized by mere association. Employees come to be seen as personifications of the organization’s stigma, as they actively engage in everyday practices of dirty work (Ashforth & Kreiner, 1999), which refers to those tasks and occupations perceived to be disgusting or degrading (Hughes, 1951). Ashforth and Kreiner (1999) categorized the stigmas characterizing dirty work along three major dimensions: physical taint (occupations associated with noxious or dangerous conditions), social taint (occupations involving servile relationships or regular contact with stigmatized people), and moral taint (occupations regarded as sinful or dubious). Recent studies have appended a fourth dimension: emotional taint, which is characterized by organizationally-mandated or occupationally-normalized “performances of emotion (or lack of emotion) (…) that are viewed as inappropriate (not fitting the situation), excessive (too much or too little emotion required for the situation), or vulnerable (causing the person to subject themselves to ‘difficult’ feelings)” (Rivera, 2015, p. 218; see also McMurray & Ward, 2014 for a discussion of emotional dirty work). This study focuses on an occupation tainted on all of these dimensions (Ashforth & Kreiner, 2014). Legal brothel prostitution involves the physical taint of coming into contact with other people’s bodies and fluids; the social taint of being at the service of clients who are often characterized as cheaters, misogynists, perverts, or virgins; the moral taint of engaging in fornication and the sale of bodily services; and the emotional taint of listening to clients talk about their fears, anxieties, despair, and taboo sexual desires. Because sex work is stigmatized on so many dimensions, legal brothel prostitutes are highly motivated to adopt a wide range of concealment practices in both their work and personal lives (Blithe & Wolfe, 2017). When people hold potentially stigmatizing information, “secrecy can be used to maintain not only reputations but also relationships” (Cowan, 2014, p. 470). For these reasons, hiding, concealment, invisibility, and secrecy may be viewed as effective privacy management strategies for stigmatized individuals—if others cannot see their stigma, they can pass as “normal” (Claire, Beatty, & Maclean, 2005). Although existing research generally fails to consider how the prevalence of secrecy influences emotion management, dirty work research does provide insights into how the pervasive presence of stigma interacts with emotion. More deeply reviewing that literature will help to clarify the focus of our subsequent analysis. Managing emotion and work Hochschild’s (1983) study of Delta flight attendants, which introduced “emotional labor” as a term to describe organizationally prescribed displays of feeling, is often credited as a genesis point for much contemporary emotion research. In an effort to synthesize this large field of research, Waldron (2012) proposed a typology of organizational emotion, which we adopt as an analytical framework for our study. In this initial review, we briefly describe each of Waldron’s (2012) emotional communication types (surface acting, deep acting, relational emotion, emotional boundary spanning, and emotional effects). For the first two categories, Waldron (2012) appropriates Hochschild’s (1979) distinction between projecting an outward demeanor that is not felt (surface acting) versus eliciting appropriate expressions by generating corresponding feelings (deep acting). In Waldron’s (2012) typology, therefore, surface acting describes “displays of inauthentic emotion” (p. 6) primarily directed toward clients or other beneficiaries of a job performance. Perceptions of inauthenticity are often attributed to the fact that these displays of emotion are “in some way defined and controlled by management” (Miller, Considine, & Garne, 2007, p. 232). Relatedly, deep acting refers to the second type of emotional communication, also directed primarily toward clients, in which “the work itself is emotional and the feelings are authentic” (Waldron, 2012, p. 6). The authenticity/inauthenticity binary distinguishing deep/surface acting cannot be supported by observable interaction data and has been heavily criticized by scholars (Fineman, 2000; Tracy, 2008). Certainly, brothel prostitutes can claim to not actually feel attracted to a client when performing intimacy, but motivations also exist for concealing felt emotions. Without a means of measuring felt emotion, researchers rely on observations of interaction and self-report data—neither of which is a reliable source for ascertaining the “authenticity” of emotion. Therefore, rather than artificially isolating these types of emotional communication in our analysis, we treat both surface acting and deep acting as service emotions, which we define as emotional expressions in service of a work task target. This definition describes emotional communication (whether “authentic” or not) between service providers and clients, teachers and students, doctors and patients, correctional officers and inmates, and so on. The remaining categories of emotional communication we borrow directly from Waldron’s (2012) typology of organizational emotion without revision. Relational emotion describes emotions arising from interactions with co-workers; emotional boundary spanning defines emotions crossing the boundaries between spaces of home/community/culture, and spaces of work; and emotional effects encompass the emotional consequences of work. Across these contexts, workers tend to experience burnout when they perceive dissonance between organizationally-mandated display norms and their own private feelings (Maslach, 1982), as the mounting pressure of performing eventually leads to emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and a decreased sense of accomplishment (Kruml & Geddes, 2000). The burden of occupational stigma weighs heavily on the shoulders of many dirty workers, highlighting the emotionality of performing work roles “professionally” when the constitutive tasks themselves are not widely viewed as respectable or dignified (Crawley, 2004). As such, workers in stigmatized occupations are often “encouraged to maintain a clear distinction between work and home life, and they oftentimes deny that work could construct their real identity” (Tracy & Trethewey, 2005, p. 180), opting instead to hold onto a real-self/fake-self dichotomy where the “real” self is deferred while at work. For workers in stigmatized organizations, the stark distinction between their work roles and other life roles makes it likely that they experience high levels of stress due to divergent performance pressures from each of these contexts (Wharton & Erickson, 1993). Sex work occupations are especially intriguing for exploring this topic because, not only are they situated within stigmatized organizations, but the primary work tasks in these sites require sophisticated acts of emotion management—the performance of intimacy (Boles & Garbin, 1974; Enck & Preston, 1988). The dirty work of selling intimacy Though some clients seek sex workers’ services in order to avoid emotional involvement with a partner (Monto, 2010), a large subset of people pay for erotic encounters in pursuit of emotional connection (Holt & Blevins, 2007; Plumridge, Chetwynd, Reed, & Gifford, 1997; Sanders, 2008). Regardless of whether feelings of intimacy in these contexts are “counterfeit” or “authentic” (Boles & Garbin, 1974), which cannot truly be ascertained, the experience of engaging in commodified performances of intimacy generates reports of ambivalence and confusion for sex workers and clients alike (Grandy & Mavin, 2014; Milrod & Weitzer, 2012). Across occupational differences, many dirty workers report similar feelings of ambivalence as they face contradictory messages from various contexts in their lives regarding what sorts of emotions are appropriate for them to feel toward their work. Whether the occupational tasks consist of patrolling the border (Rivera & Tracy, 2014) or selling sex toys (Tyler, 2011), dirty workers regularly describe feeling constant tension between beliefs that their work is empowering (Grandy, 2008) and shameful (Ashforth & Kreiner, 1999; Grandy & Mavin, 2014). In the context of sex work, women explain that to “do good work” sex workers should enjoy their hypersexualized performances, have fun, and find fulfillment; but to “be good girls” they should feel shame and embarrassment for engaging in “bad sex (sex outside marriage, public, promiscuous and not for reproductive purposes)” (Mavin & Grandy, 2013, p. 232). Sex workers reporting declines in experiences of pleasure and empowerment over time (Barton, 2002) makes sense when we consider how feelings of confusion, displeasure, and anxiety resulting from these contradictory demands are “exacerbated when (…) individuals feel as though they cannot ‘escape’ or make sense of the contradiction through talk” (Tracy, 2008, p. 37). For all of these reasons, brothels are an ideal location for examining the complexity of emotion management. The nature of the organization creates conditions that intensify emotions and expectations of emotion management, while the pervasive role of secrecy simultaneously denies workers many typical tools of social support. In the interest of concealing organizational secrets and protecting insiders’ privacy, brothels are located in remote areas with strict surveillance and tightly regimented procedures, and nearly all workers live on the premises for the duration of their contract period. Taken together, the geographical isolation of the brothels and the stigma associated with sex work occupations makes it relatively easy and desirable for legal brothel workers to keep their personal identities a secret from most people inside the brothels and their work identities a secret from most people outside. Because of the vulnerability and the concomitant level of trust required for someone to disclose secret information to another (Ponse, 1976), being on the “inside” of a secret network can generate a strong affective bond between in-group members (Dufresne & Offstein, 2008). In light of these conditions, legal brothel prostitutes would likely experience high levels of occupational identification and feel a strong sense of collective identity among those people on the inside of their networks—a perception of in-group-ness which Kreiner, Ashforth, and Sluss (2006) define as entitativity. Ashforth and Kreiner (2014) argue that pervasively (especially morally) stigmatized occupations, like sex work, tend to experience greater entitativity than other dirty work occupations because the stigmas they face constitute a graver identity threat. All of this research suggests that legal prostitutes are unlikely to find resources for emotion management outside of their occupational setting, but among other stigmatized workers they should find a sense of solidarity and a community for dealing with the pressures of highly emotional work. However, most scholarship about sex workers’ emotion management suggests that this community, if it exists, is not effectively moderating the negative effects of the emotional experiences of brothel work. Specifically, researchers have established links between selling sex and multiple negative outcomes: low self-esteem and post-traumatic stress disorder (Farley, Baral, Kiremire, & Sezgin, 1998), depression (Bagley, 1999), and feelings of self-blame, guilt, and disgust (Sanders, 2005). Previous research has demonstrated the value of workplace friendships for emotional support (Waldron, 2012); however, the competitive work environment of many sex work organizations tends to contribute to superficial workplace relations (Grandy, 2008) and pits workers against one another, “thus undermining their trust and cohesion” (Ashforth & Kreiner, 1999, p. 420). Therefore, although the common experience of stigma should (theoretically) unite legal brothel prostitutes, the women appear to underutilize available avenues for social support, keeping their challenges with emotion management hidden from nearly everyone. To summarize, legal brothel prostitutes work in an industry shrouded in secrecy. In the interest of protecting worker and client privacy and removing the organization from critical scrutiny, brothels tend to be isolated in remote locations. Stigmas associated with sex work lead most women working in the brothels to lie to friends and family members about how they make a living, and privacy concerns motivate them to conceal identity information from clients. Previous research suggests that sex workers are likely to experience ambivalence as they face contradictory expectations regarding “appropriate” emotional displays from various contexts in their lives. In her research on correctional officers, Tracy (2008) argued that effectively addressing stress and burnout requires treating them as structural problems rather than individual pathologies. We argue that moving beyond diagnosing individual sex workers’ emotion management problems requires that secrecy, which is so deeply interwoven into the fabric of brothels’ organizational structure, be put in central focus for analysis. Therefore, we pose the following research question: How do normative practices of secrecy enable and constrain emotion management and support-seeking behaviors among legal brothel prostitutes? Methods This study began as a relatively small project in which the first and second authors sought to explore organizational life in multiple brothels. We gained permission and approval from our Institutional Review Board, brothel owners, and individual sex workers to conduct initial observations and interviews. During the course of this research, a mutual student shared that she previously worked as a sex worker. After a second approval from the Institutional Review Board, our student (Breanna Mohr, Department of Communication Studies, University of Nevada, Reno, NV 89557-0229, USA) decided to join us as a research collaborator. We then expanded our study to include an oral history component, composed of a deep account of her lived experiences in the brothels. This portion of the project served as an important account of life as a sex worker, but also as a complement to the collected interview data. Additionally, when the third author joined the project, we gained access to a third group of interviewees: former brothel workers. Participants from each of these data contexts spoke about the relationship between secrecy and emotion management to some degree; therefore, we drew upon data from each of these sources in our analysis. We expand on each aspect of data collection below. Brothel observations and interviews The first and second authors began by visiting eight brothels in three Nevada counties. In these sites, we conducted 16 interviews with nine sex workers, three brothel owners, and four staff members (a floor manager, bartender, office manager, and risk manager). Participation was voluntary, and all interviewees consented to speak with us, knowing our intention to publish the research. All time was unpaid, and interviews were audio recorded and transcribed. An interview protocol loosely guided all interviews and included questions such as: How do you talk about your work with friends and family? What do you like and dislike about your job?, and What are the biggest challenges you face at work? The interview recordings generated 303 pages of single-spaced text which covered 14 hours and 22 minutes of interview time. Accessing these interviews necessitated extensive driving to reach the geographically remote brothels. During travel time, we engaged in long debriefing sessions, which we recorded in a process McDonald (2005) termed a “tape dump.” These tape dumps generated an additional 134 single-spaced pages of data and included four hours of audio recordings. Once the third author joined the project, she used her insider status and network connections to contact women who had previously worked in the brothels but left for various reasons. Following a similar protocol as described above, interviews with five former sex workers were conducted over the telephone, audio recorded, and transcribed, resulting in 67 single-spaced pages of data and approximately three and a half hours of audio recordings. Oral history In conducting the oral history to capture the experiences of the third author, we did not use an interview protocol, but rather allowed the third author to guide the recorded conversation. The ultimate goal of a well-planned oral history project is to understand a person’s life in depth as it is presented by the narrator (Janesick, 2007); therefore, we simply started with open ended, broad questions, such as “what do you want to tell us about your experiences?” We did not interrupt her, and conversation meandered across time and experiences, jumping back into prior stories, future plans, and across other occupations, relationships, and feelings. Conducting an oral history in this way allows for the narrator to structure how the data is presented and collected and gives her more control in how her voice is heard (Kennedy & Davis, 1993). Data analysis and verification We began data analysis during the tape dumps when we verbally articulated consistencies between interview stories and observations. These early patterns sometimes developed into themes which shaped our analysis. We also conducted a formal data analysis that was informed by our theoretical knowledge of emotion research, coding the interview and tape dump transcripts with attention to emotional communication. That is, we selected for focused analysis all excerpts in which interviewees talked about emotional experiences or expectations regarding appropriate emotional displays (as well as violations of those expectations), and/or directly expressed emotion. We analyzed early patterns through iterative waves (Lindlof & Taylor, 2002) and inductively achieved coherent themes through the process of reducing, expanding, collapsing and refining the early codes. The third author reviewed these major themes and produced additional vignettes supporting or challenging participant claims with her own experiences in the brothels. These vignettes added complexity to our data and demonstrated the value of iterative processes of collaborative analysis. The third author’s contributions are represented no differently than our other participants in the interest of confidentiality. Therefore, we refer to her as “a legal prostitute” or by pseudonym in the subsequent presentation of our findings. Findings To address the question of how secrecy enables and constrains emotion management and support-seeking behaviors among legal brothel prostitutes, we begin by describing their emotional communication across the contexts of sex provider–client relationships (service emotions), brothel worker to brothel worker relationships (relational emotion), interactions with and regarding people outside of the brothel (emotional boundary spanning), and emotional consequences of legal prostitution work (emotional effects). After exploring the role of secrecy in managing emotions in each of these contexts, the final section of our analysis draws out explicit claims regarding the enabling and constraining influences of secrecy on support-seeking behaviors. Service emotion: performing intimacy First, “appropriate” emotional expressions between workers and clients (service emotions) are defined by brothel owners and management, but also through organizational norms that develop as legal brothel prostitutes respond to challenges in determining how to perform expected emotions. The most frequent, stressful, and theoretically unique display work in this occupation has to do with the demand to perform attraction, affection, and interest, while simultaneously concealing personal identity knowledge including one’s real name, meaningful personal relationships, life history details, interests, and social roles. Therefore, in this section, we discuss organizational expectations regarding performances of intimacy, as well as the challenges brothel prostitutes face in balancing organizationally-mandated display rules with their needs to protect aspects of their personal (non-work) identities from clients. Appropriate emotional expressions toward clients The business of brothels is generally understood to be the sale of sex. However, the work tasks of legal prostitutes far exceed simple acts of stimulation and copulation. A recurrent theme among participants was surprise at how much of their job involves an emotional, rather than physical, connection. A brothel owner elaborated on his expectations regarding performances of intimacy by describing what he perceived to be the needs of typical clients: We have individuals that life has challenged (…) They’re dealing with Mother Nature’s unkindness. They have frailties, they’re overweight terribly, they have a hard time finding partners within the world that are accessible. They have diseases of different kinds. They’re paraplegic (…) And so having, with dignity, to be in the hands of a caregiver who will—and it’s not necessarily sex (…) It includes the acts of kindness, of loving, of a massage, of petting your head, of watching a movie, of telling you you’re all right. As indicated in this excerpt, legal brothel prostitutes are generally expected to express affection, interest, and compassion while concealing negatively-valenced emotions of disgust, pity, or anger that often accompany work tasks. As one legal brothel prostitute explained to us: Some of the guys that come in here you’re just like, oh my god, I have to lay under that? And you better believe we’re gonna make this man think he’s the most hottest, sexiest thing there is because we want that money and we want ‘em to come back. As indicated in this example, economic motivations, including a desire to establish a base of return clients, dictate concealment not only of negatively-valenced emotions but also of the performative aspects of their affection. Although not all clients struggle with the psychological, social, or physical traumas described by the brothel owner above, many of the people who become regular clients do come time and again because they claim to have some void in their lives and feel they have developed a special, intimate relationship with one of the women. This desire for attraction, affection, and interest has made the Girlfriend Experience (often called a GFE) one of the most popular client requests. Although the details of a GFE vary slightly from brothel to brothel, these are generally highly intimate interactions which can include kissing, cuddling, hugging, lying together while talking, or sharing a meal together. A major challenge with performing intimacy, however, is figuring out appropriate display rules. After all, “be intimate” carries far more ambiguity than organizational dictates to “smile at customers” because intimacy can be performed in so many ways. Challenges of determining appropriate emotional displays Several participants talked with us about the challenges of determining exactly how to perform intimacy because, in the words of one sex worker, “Some men want you to be very independent and some men want you to be the dumb bimbo slut.” Another interviewee laughed as she told us about how her struggles to figure out how to perform intimacy led her to rapidly try out various characters until clients responded positively: People will joke with me, cause I’ve been known on occasion to not be what they want. And so I’ll be like, “I’m Mandy number two.” I’ll be like, “Hi, I’m Jessica. It’s nice to meet you.” And, like, I’ll just run through the line and eventually they’ll be like, “Oh, Laura, you’re awfully nice.” And I’ll be like, “I am awfully nice. I’m a lot nicer than Mandy.” In this example, the performative aspects of intimacy are demonstrated through rapid experimentation with characters; in this way, clients collude with sex workers to craft a mutually-agreeable definition of the situation (Goffman, 1959). When attempts to achieve intimacy are successful, one-time clients can turn into regulars. Returning clients provide a reliable stream of money for sex workers but, as we will discuss next, interactions with them tend to be emotionally draining due to their heightened expectations for self-disclosure. Challenges of determining appropriate levels of disclosure All legal prostitutes use stage names at the brothel, and they do not share their biological names with anyone. Many make up life stories, and all are selective about what they share with clients and co-workers. One interviewee explained that the exhaustion of concealment, however, leads her to let down her guard with long-term clients: It can be draining to switch back and forth from my stage persona to my real self (…) It’s also really hard with clients that I’ve been seeing a long time. I have grown so comfortable with them that it gets very difficult masking myself sometimes. I have a few clients that I can say I am completely 100% myself around. It feels good to not have to put on a show, but at the same time I wonder if it’s a bad decision on my end. Withholding personal information creates differential knowledge, which allows the secret holder to shape a particular construction of reality (Costas & Grey, 2016). However, harboring a secret also creates barriers between the concealer and the person from whom something is being concealed (Ponse, 1976; Simmel, 1906), and even contributes to feelings of mental fatigue and negative physiological symptoms (Cowan, 2014). As indicated in the excerpt above, disclosing secrets can relieve these burdens; however, when legal prostitutes are open about personal details, they experience anxiety regarding if that honesty will put them in a vulnerable situation. When clients fail to cooperate in the performance of “intimacy as professional service” by attempting to move the interaction beyond the context of economic exchange, brothel prostitutes seek to reestablish clear boundaries by asserting their own definition of the situation. The interviewee quoted above explained how regular clients’ increasing demands for personal disclosures could lead to boundary violations: With some clients, if I didn’t answer an email fast enough (…) they would question whether I still “liked” them. With more and more parties, they would want to become more intimate. They would want to know more about me as a person, and not as their sex provider. It began to be very overwhelming for me. I already shared so much of myself with them (my body, my time, sexual and intimate self), I didn’t understand why they wanted so much more than what they were already getting. In this segment of talk, service emotion demands intensified as clients began associating responsiveness and reciprocal self-disclosure with performances of intimacy. The brothels we visited encouraged sex workers to communicate with clients through message boards, social media, and personal email in order to maintain relationships that would keep clients coming back. Demands for service emotion outside of paid contract time created pressure for legal prostitutes to be responsive in the hopes that such efforts would eventually lead to remuneration. With new or occasional clients, these boundary violations tend to occur during negotiations for services. Legal prostitutes are not obligated to accept all clients; they negotiate prices and services prior to every engagement and they only “book a party” if a satisfactory deal is arranged. One interviewee explained how negotiations turned into emotional confrontations when clients failed to respect established boundaries: You tell him, “Well you have this much money. This is what I’ll do for that amount of money” and then I’ve had guys where they try to kiss me and I’ll be like “No, if you wanna do that it’s a different party. You gotta pay more.” And I’ve had guys actually try to hold my face and (…) I’ve stiff-armed a couple people (…) I may be a prostitute, but I’m very much a human being just like everybody else and you’re gonna respect me as one, otherwise I’m gonna kick your ass and then kick you out, and that’s just really how I feel. This same interviewee conceded that often, if a client is paying a substantial amount of money, this expression of anger or fear is suppressed and more accommodating displays are expressed. Taken together, we see that economic pressures to express affection and interest toward clients exist in tension with desires to conceal personal identity information and negatively-valenced emotions meant to protect brothel prostitutes’ safety, privacy, and/or professional distance. Relational emotion: solidarity and competition Understanding the ways in which secrecy enables and constrains emotion management requires discussion of a second area of organizational emotion, relational emotion, which refers to those emotions stemming from interactions with colleagues. Women working in the brothels experience so many of the same emotional stressors as they perform intimacy and manage client aggression or obsession. These shared experiences could foster the development of a sense of within-group camaraderie; however, feelings of jealousy, anger, and disgust toward co-workers tend to limit opportunities for reciprocal self-disclosure and often foreclose the possibility of group-level identification. Furthermore, competition for clients and fear of sabotage or disclosure of personal identity information motivate many legal brothel prostitutes to keep their interactions with other brothel workers to a minimum. That being said, some women did report feeling as though other “working girls” were the only people who could understand their problems, and many participants described the house as a “sorority” or “a big, twisted family.” In fact, three of the five women we interviewed who had left the brothels explained that what they missed most was the relationships they developed with co-workers, which achieved a depth unmatched by friendships on the outside. However, the sorority and family metaphors are not entirely positive. Both sorority sisters and biological sisters develop intimate knowledge of one another, which can be used to help or harm one another. Rivalries and desires for attention and affection from the rest of the “family” can lead to tensions and in-fighting. Additionally, sex workers tend to work at brothels for short contract periods (usually in increments of weeks or months), so making money is often more important than building lasting working relationships. Therefore, when women spoke about relational emotion (that is, feelings toward co-workers), they often expressed frustration, irritation, or anger regarding the level of competition driving interactions. This competitive environment was cited by many interviewees as their reason for concealing information about their personal lives or interactions with clients from their co-workers. Most often, problems emerged when someone perceived another legal prostitute was trying to “dirty hustle,” which refers to any effort to steal someone else’s client. Often, these tensions build over what might initially seem like minor issues, as discussed by this interviewee: There was a girl here and she was the only blonde, and I mean like a platinum blonde. Everybody else was darker-haired. So I had a blonde wig and it was a platinum blonde wig, right? So I put the wig on and I come out and she just looked at me and she was so mad. Although hair color may not seem like a significant issue, in the competitive environment of the brothel, these basic features of one’s appearance can become differential information that gives one woman an “edge” over the other workers on the floor on a given night. Competition between co-workers can become so fierce that legal prostitutes reported feeling uncomfortable talking openly about work or their personal lives for fear that any information could be used to sabotage them. One interviewee described her experience of competition threatening to sabotage her relationship with clients and ostracize her from the rest of the house: One month “Top Booker” was a close call between [a colleague] and I. Because there was so much tension between us, both of us were dying to make the most money to win. She ended up winning, and I found out later (…) she paid 30 dollars on her own books to beat me. She then, one by one, started taking all my friends in the house and turning them against me (…) My support system within the brothel walls crumbled, and I didn’t have any outside friends to turn to. “Top Booker” is the title awarded to the person with highest sales for the month. Like any internal organizational competition, the goal is to increase worker productivity through an external reward structure. While these internal competitions benefit the brothel as an organization, we heard multiple stories like this one, suggesting that they simultaneously discourage cooperation and incentivize secrecy between workers. Emotional boundary spanning: privacy and support The third area of organizational emotion is emotional boundary spanning, which refers to those emotions that cross boundaries between spaces of home/community/culture and spaces of work. Specifically, Waldron (2012) explains that emotional boundary spanning concerns how emotions “cross the fluid boundaries between work and home” and how “societal norms affect the expression of emotion at work” (p. 5). The first way to think about this emotional context is to ask how workers manage emotions experienced at work about nonwork issues. Most women we interviewed explained that they remain private about nonwork issues while at work. However, because most women live in the brothel for the duration of their contract, there are instances when a child’s illness, class stresses (some brothel workers are university students), or family problems demand attention. These nonwork issues are usually managed with the owners and managers, as described by this interviewee: [The brothel owner has] helped me through situations where I could have been potentially killed. My ex-husband was completely nuts. He helped me with that situation (…) When I came in at 1:00 on a Monday morning after leaving my shift (…) I’d gone home and whatever and found my house trashed. Someone had broken in and there was a guy with a knife, like that. When I came back here, he helped through all that. Although the women tend to keep quiet about their personal lives outside of the brothels, when nonwork issues find their way into the workplace, the managers and owners often respond. Former brothel prostitutes were more likely to identify managers and owners as a threat to the women’s privacy, as they would often create conditions that pressured women to disclose personal identity information in the interest of building or maintaining relationships with clients. After expressing regret about allowing so much of her personal information to be revealed during her time working in the brothels, one former prostitute said: [Brothel owners and managers] made you feel like you had to show your pictures online and have to be there communicating with people, and basically giving your whole life story away to clients, for free (…) They made you feel like if you didn’t do it, or you didn’t do it in a certain way, you’re going to be fired. Disclosing personal information to management can lead to vulnerability for brothel prostitutes, as management could then exert pressure on the women to reveal personal information to wider audiences in pursuit of economic goals. Many women reported complying with these requests for additional disclosures out of a desire to better do their job of performing intimacy. A second way to think about emotional boundary spanning is to ask how workers manage emotions experienced outside of the workplace that are related to their affiliation with the organization and/or their occupational role or work tasks. Fear of organizational outsiders’ negative judgments lead most legal prostitutes to work diligently to hide their affiliation with the brothels when outside the workplace, which allows them to avoid many opportunities for emotional boundary spanning. Despite these efforts, we heard numerous examples of women being compelled to claim their occupational identity outside of the brothel by credit card companies, banks, and car dealerships. Often, the women’s fear of social rejection was affirmed when these companies refused to do business with them due to their job title. One interviewee relayed an experience she had while frequenting a spa: As I was getting my massage, the female masseuse started making conversation and asked me how I found out about this particular spa. I said that a co-worker had recommended it. She asked where I worked and I said one of the legal brothels. She was silent for a little bit, and then went into a big winded lecture/morality talk about how I “am one of God’s children, and God doesn’t want his children to feel like they have to sell their bodies” etc. (…) All I wanted to do was tell her to shut up and tear into her, but I was getting a massage and was victim to her table. I never went back there again. In all of these cases, negative evaluations of sex work by members of the outside community led sex workers to feel embarrassed or anxious about being publicly affiliated with them. Emotional effects: anxiety and exhaustion The final area of organizational emotion, emotional effects, refers to emotions targeted toward work or the workplace itself. The emotional effects most unique to brothel prostitution (and other dirty work occupations) are feelings of apprehension generated by the very act of boundary spanning discussed above. Many sex workers experience anxiety about being “outed” because friends and family members do not know what they do for work. Most lie and say they work as cocktail waitresses, flight attendants, or dancers. Even those people who are open with others about their work worry that perceptions about their occupation might preclude them from future opportunities, as indicated by a legal prostitute who told us that she used to work with Big Brothers, Big Sisters to mentor children, but has not returned since she started working at the brothels for fear that her current occupation would show up on a background check. The extensive effort legal prostitutes put into avoiding boundary spanning situations contributes to high levels of anxiety toward brothel work and/or the brothel itself. However, most of the reported emotions experienced toward work are the same sort of mundane, ordinary emotions people across industries report feeling when working long hours. Living in the isolation of a hidden organization does not mean that the women are required to be “on the clock” whenever they are in the house; however, because the brothels are often noisy and short-staffed, many sex workers end up working long hours and sleeping poorly, which contributes to general exhaustion. These are not problems unique to brothel work; on the contrary, they are reminders that brothels are subject to many of the same organizational pressures other industries face regarding demands for ever greater accessibility and productivity. Managing emotion: seeking social support The levels of secrecy characteristic of the sex industry constrain brothel prostitutes’ efforts to manage organizational emotion by seriously circumscribing options for seeking social support. At first glance, sex work involves many of the factors Ashforth and Kreiner (1999) identified as promoting the formation of supportive subcultures: the inherent danger of having sexual relations with strangers creates a sense of threat and separateness from mainstream culture and the unconventional work hours and habits inhibit the development of relationships outside of work. However, as we have discussed in this article, brothels are in isolated locations, experience high turnover, and encourage competition between co-workers, which are all factors that tend to inhibit group formation (Ashforth & Kreiner, 1999). Inside the brothel, then, legal prostitutes have to worry about competition from other workers, and outside the brothel people do not understand the service emotion required by the job. As a result, legal prostitutes do not have many spaces for associating with similar others, and they experience few opportunities for resistance, social support, venting, and change (Tracy, 2005). Specifically, most legal prostitutes feel like they cannot talk about their occupational identities outside of the brothels without significant risk, as described in this interaction between two interviewees who spoke with us together: Angel: [to Mandy:] You have your husband (…) But like me, people are like, so how’d your day go? And I can’t be like, “I had a difficult client, you know.” Mandy: But that’s part of making friends with the girls. Angel: With the girls. Because you have someone to talk to, to vent to, to share ideas with. Because outside, if I were to go to a therapist, they would classify me as like nympho—they’d say I was a nympho (…) Mandy: And they’d wanna put you on so much medication. So much. They’re like, oh, you must be depressed. Here you go (…) This interaction between Angel and Mandy provides insights into their perceptions of available social support. Angel notes that Mandy is fortunate to have a husband who she can talk to about her work, which is more than most of the women have as support, but even that relationship has limitations because they have set implicit boundaries on what level of detail is acceptable in talk about work, as demonstrated in this later excerpt from Mandy: He’ll go like, “how was work” and I’ll say, “oh, it was good” or “oh, it was slow.” You know, or “the girls were high drama” or whatever. But actually like, we don’t say like, “oh, how many parties did you have” or “oh, what’d you do?” You know, that’s not something we discuss at all. And like, he’s a welder. And I don’t know anything about his job. I’ll be like, “how was work?” He’ll be like, “I burnt my finger.” You know, so we’re about on the same wavelength on work. Even in Mandy’s case, where she has a husband who she can talk with about work, she limits their discussions to talk about relational emotion and occasionally emotional effects. As indicated in the interaction between Mandy and Angel, discussion about clients has few outlets because people outside of the brothels will likely not understand (in the case of the psychologist) or not want to know (in the case of Mandy’s husband). Co-workers provide a potential outlet, but competition in the house makes those disclosures risky. Although it may be counterintuitive, the pervasiveness of secrecy does also enable some forms of emotion management, as explained by one of the participants in this study: The brothel life definitely has some negative aspects, but I was there because I wanted to be and did enjoy the work (…) People are confused and shocked when I say that I enjoy the sexual aspect of it. Not always, but the sexual exploration part of the job was very fascinating and yes, fun. I had always had to hide that part of myself. The isolation of brothels from the rest of society allows them to become an outlet for some taboo emotional performances. For some of the male clients, that taboo might be emotional release and expressions of vulnerability. For many of the women who work at the brothels, they are able to express pleasure in their sexuality in ways inconsistent with their image outside the brothel. Additionally, despite the competition and the turnover, some women do manage to build meaningful relationships with other people affiliated with the brothels. Insiders build a sense of entitativity around emotion toward work, framing judgmental people “on the outside” as ignorant or prudish. Managers and owners provide support for sex workers and each other when they experience emotion regarding nonwork issues while at work. And sometimes, despite the drama, the need to talk about emotional experiences with co-workers and clients leads sex workers to let down their guard and take a risk at being vulnerable and open. Discussion and conclusions Legal sex work in the United States is an occupation fraught with emotion due to the highly intimate nature of the work, competitive and isolated internal organizational structures, and prevalent external perceptions of the occupation as stigmatized. This project explored the ways in which organizational emotions are managed in such an emotionally-demanding occupation, especially given the role of secrecy in shaping the hidden architecture of social relations. Previous research on stigmatized and hidden organizations consistently showed that concealment practices are widely adopted to protect dirty workers, as well as their clients, colleagues, and organizations, from critical scrutiny (Hudson, 2008; Hudson & Okhuysen, 2009; Scott, 2013). In our own earlier work (Wolfe & Blithe, 2015), we largely assumed that legal sex workers benefit from the hidden nature of brothels, as organizational concealment practices protect the privacy and safety concerns of organizational insiders. In that study, we categorized Nevada’s legal brothels as “shadowed organizations” according to Scott’s (2013) typology. As such, we acknowledged that brothels are motivated to build strategic visibility to attract clients and to challenge stigma by constructing a socially-positive external organizational image; but, these visibility needs were tempered by the desire of organizational members to remain silent about their affiliation (Wolfe & Blithe, 2015). To a certain degree, the current study affirms the value of concealment for dirty workers. Our findings suggest three primary ways in which normative practices of secrecy guide brothel prostitutes’ emotion management and support-seeking behaviors. Specifically, prevalent secrecy norms dictate that brothel prostitutes should: (a) conceal personal identity knowledge from brothel insiders, (b) conceal occupational identity knowledge from organizational outsiders, and (c) conceal negatively-valenced emotions from clients. These concealment practices certainly serve protective functions. First, by concealing personal information (legal name, hometown, personal biographical information) from clients, co-workers, managers, and owners, brothel prostitutes maintain power over the construction of a distinct occupational identity role as they select aspects of their selves to perform while at work. Additionally, concealing their occupational role from friends, family, and other organizational outsiders allows the women to avoid the stigma of dirty work outside of the brothel, so they are free to construct other social identity roles without concern about hostile judgments regarding how they earn a paycheck. Finally, concealing negatively-valenced emotions (disgust, fear, anger) while providing sex services is a way to protect clients’ definition of the situation (as the performance of fantasy, as an imagined “real” relationship, or the like). However, this study also challenges assumptions from previous research about the benefits of secrecy for dirty workers. Specifically, our findings suggest that dirty workers in “shadowed” organizations (Scott, 2013)—those who prefer to be largely silent about their organizational identification—occupy a tensional space between revelation and concealment, especially when managing difficult emotional experiences related to their hidden identity role. After all, each of the concealment practices listed above also creates differential knowledge (Costas & Grey, 2016; Lurhmann, 1989), which interferes with mutual experiences of intimacy (Ponse, 1976; Simmel, 1906), contributes to mental fatigue and negative physiological symptoms of stress (Cowan, 2014), and, we argue, severely circumscribes options for seeking social support. Therefore, this study finds that dirty workers may violate secrecy norms in order to attain levels of intimacy and social support that are contingent upon shared knowledge of salient social roles. Goffman’s (1959) theory of impression management suggests that individuals cooperate in the co-production of any particular definition of the situation through interactional performances of social roles. When a person claims a certain role, “he automatically exerts a moral demand upon the others, obliging them to value and treat him in a manner that persons of his kind have a right to expect” (p. 13). Our findings suggest that resources available for managing emotional experiences are inextricably linked to interactional identity role performances. These conclusions have serious implications for all workers in hidden organizations or in the hidden parts of visible organizations. When secrecy norms demand the concealment of certain roles—that is, when a person cannot “claim” personal or occupational identity knowledge—they also forfeit reasonable expectation for others to treat them as that kind of individual. This study has demonstrated how legal brothel prostitutes tend to conceal so much of their occupational identities to brothel outsiders and so much of their personal identities to brothel insiders that resources for managing emotional experiences linked to either of these aspects of self become severely limited. As dirty workers consider revealing invisible social identities in the interest of accessing social support, they risk facing the judgment of stigmatization and loss of control over their own secret. Claire et al. (2005) suggested that people seek out and prefer to interact with those who “support and validate their identity (…) we expect a person to reveal more readily to a target who seems knowledgeable about, sympathetic toward, or similar to oneself because he or she also shares the invisible difference” (p. 86). However, discerning “safe” targets is ambiguous at best and, as Ponse (1976) wrote about closeted lesbians over four decades ago, “the veils of anonymity are often as effective with one’s own as with those from whom one wishes to hide. Thus, an unintended consequence of secrecy is that it isolates members from one another” (p. 319). The participants in our study suggest that accessing social support requires that they face the vulnerability of possible betrayal—the potential “outing” of their secret occupation by clients to external audiences, potential sabotage by co-workers within the competitive environment of the brothel, or potential stigmatization by friends and family members in the moralized environment of the outside world. These findings complicate Scott’s (2013) framework by elucidating the tensions between revelation and concealment experienced even by workers with the greatest motivations to maintain silence about their organizational membership. We extend our own previous findings, which suggested that legal prostitutes’ visibility pressures were motivated by financial interests and desires to challenge occupational stigma (Wolfe & Blithe, 2015); this study suggests that expressing membership in stigmatized, hidden organizations also serves the purpose of enabling a person to “claim” emotional experiences linked to particular identity categories, which then facilitates support-seeking behaviors. A limitation of this study was our focus on current legal brothel prostitutes in the state of Nevada. As Grandy (2008) noted, “Vast differences exist across the different types of sex work and even across organizations offering seemingly similar services” (p. 194). Certainly, pornographers, exotic dancers, commercial telephone sex providers, escorts, and legal and illegal prostitutes all engage in work practices that are emotionally demanding, characterized by the performance of intimacy, and deeply influenced by prevalent secrecy norms; however, the differences between occupational roles among sex workers (and other dirty workers more generally) leave significant room for future research to add nuance to the claims forwarded in this study. Furthermore, former sex workers likely experience the influence of secrecy norms differently than people currently working in the industry. Investigating how past involvement in hidden and/or stigmatized work influences emotion management and support-seeking behaviors could expand scholarly knowledge about the relationships between sense of self, impression management, and emotional labor. Our focus on emotional experiences of dirty workers may also neglect more mundane ways in which secrecy norms enable and constrain support-seeking behaviors in non-stigmatized aspects of our social lives. Jobs with secrecy requirements, such as police work or other government agency positions, may not need to obscure entire social identity roles but often must conceal knowledge in accordance with occupational secrecy norms. Indeed, many occupations are subject to privacy laws and secrecy norms that dictate appropriate disclosures and limit support-seeking regarding these areas of the job. For example, medical doctors, nurses, and psychiatrists must protect patient information, lawyers are obligated to hold clients’ secrets, and professors are limited in the circumstances under which they can communicate about their students’ academic performance. 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Dirty Workers’ Management of Hidden Emotions: Selling Intimacy and Seeking Social Support through the Shroud of Secrecy

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© 2018 International Communication Association
ISSN
0021-9916
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1460-2466
D.O.I.
10.1093/joc/jqx002
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Abstract

Abstract Through a qualitative analysis of legal prostitutes’ emotional experiences, we examine how practices of secrecy inform emotion management and support-seeking behaviors. Our findings suggest that concealment practices serve protective functions, contributing to the construction of distinct occupational and social identity roles, avoidance of dirty work stigma, and protection of clients’ definition of the situation. However, we also find that dirty workers tend to occupy a tensional space between revelation and concealment, especially when managing difficult emotions related to hidden identity roles. Our analysis suggests that resources available for managing emotions are inextricably linked to interactional role performances, and dirty workers may violate secrecy norms to attain levels of intimacy and social support contingent upon shared knowledge of salient social roles. Introduction Disciplinary assumptions about the value of visibility are reflected in the sheer volume of communication research and teaching around topics like public relations, media presence, marketing, branding, public health, and political campaigning. As “transparency” rose to mythical status as a predominant social value in organizations and governmental entities (Christensen & Cornelissen, 2015), a countercurrent of scholarship emerged to problematize oversimplified idealizations of the concept (Christensen & Cheney, 2015; Hansen, Christensen, & Flyverbom, 2015). Recent attention to hidden and clandestine organizations (Scott, 2013; Stohl & Stohl, 2017) encouraged communication scholars to wrestle with these biases toward openness and transparency to see what more we can learn about human social interaction, meaning-making, and collective organizing when we move into shadowy spaces such as terrorist cells (Bean & Buikema, 2015), stigmatized organizations (Wolfe & Blithe, 2015), and anonymous support groups (Frois, 2009). Scholarly investigations into this so-called dark side of communication challenge positive value assumptions regarding visibility by considering the productive power of silence and secrecy in social life. This study joins those scholarly investigations by examining the role of secrecy in the specific context of emotion management, which refers to efforts made to align expressions of private feelings with social norms (Tracy, 2008). Communication scholars across many disciplinary sub-fields have deepened our understanding of emotion as a relational, communicative accomplishment (e.g., Fineman, 2000, 2008; Waldron, 2012). Recent scholarly examinations of emotion in more hidden contexts of stigmatized occupational roles, such as U.S. border patrol agents (Rivera, 2015; Rivera & Tracy, 2014), sex shop workers (Tyler, 2011), and exotic dancers (Grandy & Mavin, 2014), have highlighted how messy and ambiguous emotion management becomes when people report ambivalent feelings of shame/pride in their occupational identities. Despite the fact that this previous research has consistently shown that workers in commonly stigmatized occupations, like workers at men’s bathhouses (Hudson & Okhuysen, 2009) and legal brothels (Wolfe & Blithe, 2015), often adopt concealment practices to protect themselves, their clients, their colleagues, and their organization from critical scrutiny, a deep examination into the role of secrecy has been absent from investigations into emotion management in stigmatized organizations. Analyzing the dynamics of secrecy in emotion management offers insights for scholars studying a wide array of social contexts. Costas and Grey (2016) describe secrecy as the “hidden architecture” of social relations insofar as the concealment of information erects metaphorical “walls” between people and the sharing of secrets builds “corridors” connecting them. In this way, secrecy plays a central role in all social and organizational life, as group boundaries are drawn and negotiated in light of shared and concealed knowledge (Bok, 1989). This study finds that normative practices of secrecy deeply inform emotion management strategies, especially when an industry, occupation, or work responsibility is obscured from public view and secrecy is a key practice of being a “good” worker. This study focuses on how secrecy presents both challenges and opportunities for managing emotional experiences related to work. Specifically, we examine how secrecy enables and constrains emotion management and support-seeking behaviors among legal brothel prostitutes in the United States. Sex work involves a great deal of emotion management due to the intimate nature of much of the job performance, but also due to complicated relationships internally between co-workers and externally with friends, family, and community members. The pervasiveness of secrecy in sex work occupations makes legal brothels an ideal location for this study. We begin by situating our research context within existing literature on secrecy, hidden organizations, and dirty work. We then focus more deeply on reviewing emotion research, with an emphasis on what previous scholarship has suggested regarding management strategies and challenges for sex workers in particular. Secrecy, shadows, and stigma Despite differences in applications, common among scholarly definitions of secrecy is a description of information being purposefully, willfully, and/or consciously concealed (Bok, 1989; Costas & Grey, 2016; Simmel, 1906). Importantly, secrecy is conceptually distinct from deception, privacy, and anonymity—though overlaps certainly exist with all of these terms. The information concealed in deception “is that one is misrepresenting the facts” (Gibson, 2014, p. 285), while privacy refers to desires to control access to things considered to belong in a personal domain. Privacy overlaps with secrecy anytime that “the efforts at such control rely on hiding. But privacy need not hide; and secrecy hides far more than what is private” (Bok, 1989, p. 11). Anonymity refers to situations in which the information being concealed is identity knowledge, such as legal name, location, distinctive appearance, behavior patterns, and social categorization (Marx, 1999). As this study is centrally concerned with the broader category of secrecy, we extend our examination into contexts where deception, privacy, and anonymity may characterize some interaction, but where concealment practices are generally prevalent. How the very processes of concealment that define secrecy generate the possession of differential information, which in turn creates group boundaries between insiders and outsiders, has been well documented (Lurhmann, 1989, p. 137). However, these in-group/out-group boundaries are temporally-bound and vulnerable because “secrecy always creates the possibility of accidental or deliberate disclosures or revelations” (Costas & Grey, 2016, p. 12). Because of this risk, organizations employ various protective mechanisms—such as restrictive rules and sanctions, incentivizing compensation schemes, and isolating measures of geographical separation and secured perimeters (Liebeskind, 1997)—as well as knowledge barriers (Gibson, 2014) to deter secret-transmission that could pose a threat to firm goals and practices. Although all organizations and social groups engage in some forms of secrecy to create social order, establish boundaries, and protect valuable assets (Costas & Grey, 2016), these concerns about secrets’ vulnerability are especially palpable in the context of hidden organizations (Scott, 2013). As we discovered in our previous research on legal brothels, even hidden organizations tend to face tensions between simultaneous and competing needs for selective visibility and invisibility (Wolfe & Blithe, 2015). “Lying low in the sagebrush,” a common expression in Nevada for keeping a low profile, allows brothels to protect the identities of workers and clients, while also protecting the organization from critical scrutiny. However, “overemphasizing the ways in which (…) external legal limitations and internal desires for privacy and safety have hidden the brothels obscures the giant billboards and neon signs that point to these not-so-secret locations” (Wolfe & Blithe, 2015, p. 549). Certainly, brothels (and many similarly-situated hidden organizations) are economic organizations that seek visibility through marketing, social media activity, community engagement, and philanthropic service, among other means. Despite the organization’s visibility needs, though, most workers seek to keep their affiliation with the brothel hidden from all except select audiences. This secrecy regarding occupational affiliation is largely rooted in stigmas: discrediting differences that lead others to categorize an entity as undesirable, bad, dangerous, or weak (Goffman, 1963). When organizations experience stigma due to integral aspects of their identity, those people who are closely affiliated to the organization tend to experience stigma transfer (Hudson & Okhuysen, 2009), which refers to the ways in which others become stigmatized by mere association. Employees come to be seen as personifications of the organization’s stigma, as they actively engage in everyday practices of dirty work (Ashforth & Kreiner, 1999), which refers to those tasks and occupations perceived to be disgusting or degrading (Hughes, 1951). Ashforth and Kreiner (1999) categorized the stigmas characterizing dirty work along three major dimensions: physical taint (occupations associated with noxious or dangerous conditions), social taint (occupations involving servile relationships or regular contact with stigmatized people), and moral taint (occupations regarded as sinful or dubious). Recent studies have appended a fourth dimension: emotional taint, which is characterized by organizationally-mandated or occupationally-normalized “performances of emotion (or lack of emotion) (…) that are viewed as inappropriate (not fitting the situation), excessive (too much or too little emotion required for the situation), or vulnerable (causing the person to subject themselves to ‘difficult’ feelings)” (Rivera, 2015, p. 218; see also McMurray & Ward, 2014 for a discussion of emotional dirty work). This study focuses on an occupation tainted on all of these dimensions (Ashforth & Kreiner, 2014). Legal brothel prostitution involves the physical taint of coming into contact with other people’s bodies and fluids; the social taint of being at the service of clients who are often characterized as cheaters, misogynists, perverts, or virgins; the moral taint of engaging in fornication and the sale of bodily services; and the emotional taint of listening to clients talk about their fears, anxieties, despair, and taboo sexual desires. Because sex work is stigmatized on so many dimensions, legal brothel prostitutes are highly motivated to adopt a wide range of concealment practices in both their work and personal lives (Blithe & Wolfe, 2017). When people hold potentially stigmatizing information, “secrecy can be used to maintain not only reputations but also relationships” (Cowan, 2014, p. 470). For these reasons, hiding, concealment, invisibility, and secrecy may be viewed as effective privacy management strategies for stigmatized individuals—if others cannot see their stigma, they can pass as “normal” (Claire, Beatty, & Maclean, 2005). Although existing research generally fails to consider how the prevalence of secrecy influences emotion management, dirty work research does provide insights into how the pervasive presence of stigma interacts with emotion. More deeply reviewing that literature will help to clarify the focus of our subsequent analysis. Managing emotion and work Hochschild’s (1983) study of Delta flight attendants, which introduced “emotional labor” as a term to describe organizationally prescribed displays of feeling, is often credited as a genesis point for much contemporary emotion research. In an effort to synthesize this large field of research, Waldron (2012) proposed a typology of organizational emotion, which we adopt as an analytical framework for our study. In this initial review, we briefly describe each of Waldron’s (2012) emotional communication types (surface acting, deep acting, relational emotion, emotional boundary spanning, and emotional effects). For the first two categories, Waldron (2012) appropriates Hochschild’s (1979) distinction between projecting an outward demeanor that is not felt (surface acting) versus eliciting appropriate expressions by generating corresponding feelings (deep acting). In Waldron’s (2012) typology, therefore, surface acting describes “displays of inauthentic emotion” (p. 6) primarily directed toward clients or other beneficiaries of a job performance. Perceptions of inauthenticity are often attributed to the fact that these displays of emotion are “in some way defined and controlled by management” (Miller, Considine, & Garne, 2007, p. 232). Relatedly, deep acting refers to the second type of emotional communication, also directed primarily toward clients, in which “the work itself is emotional and the feelings are authentic” (Waldron, 2012, p. 6). The authenticity/inauthenticity binary distinguishing deep/surface acting cannot be supported by observable interaction data and has been heavily criticized by scholars (Fineman, 2000; Tracy, 2008). Certainly, brothel prostitutes can claim to not actually feel attracted to a client when performing intimacy, but motivations also exist for concealing felt emotions. Without a means of measuring felt emotion, researchers rely on observations of interaction and self-report data—neither of which is a reliable source for ascertaining the “authenticity” of emotion. Therefore, rather than artificially isolating these types of emotional communication in our analysis, we treat both surface acting and deep acting as service emotions, which we define as emotional expressions in service of a work task target. This definition describes emotional communication (whether “authentic” or not) between service providers and clients, teachers and students, doctors and patients, correctional officers and inmates, and so on. The remaining categories of emotional communication we borrow directly from Waldron’s (2012) typology of organizational emotion without revision. Relational emotion describes emotions arising from interactions with co-workers; emotional boundary spanning defines emotions crossing the boundaries between spaces of home/community/culture, and spaces of work; and emotional effects encompass the emotional consequences of work. Across these contexts, workers tend to experience burnout when they perceive dissonance between organizationally-mandated display norms and their own private feelings (Maslach, 1982), as the mounting pressure of performing eventually leads to emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and a decreased sense of accomplishment (Kruml & Geddes, 2000). The burden of occupational stigma weighs heavily on the shoulders of many dirty workers, highlighting the emotionality of performing work roles “professionally” when the constitutive tasks themselves are not widely viewed as respectable or dignified (Crawley, 2004). As such, workers in stigmatized occupations are often “encouraged to maintain a clear distinction between work and home life, and they oftentimes deny that work could construct their real identity” (Tracy & Trethewey, 2005, p. 180), opting instead to hold onto a real-self/fake-self dichotomy where the “real” self is deferred while at work. For workers in stigmatized organizations, the stark distinction between their work roles and other life roles makes it likely that they experience high levels of stress due to divergent performance pressures from each of these contexts (Wharton & Erickson, 1993). Sex work occupations are especially intriguing for exploring this topic because, not only are they situated within stigmatized organizations, but the primary work tasks in these sites require sophisticated acts of emotion management—the performance of intimacy (Boles & Garbin, 1974; Enck & Preston, 1988). The dirty work of selling intimacy Though some clients seek sex workers’ services in order to avoid emotional involvement with a partner (Monto, 2010), a large subset of people pay for erotic encounters in pursuit of emotional connection (Holt & Blevins, 2007; Plumridge, Chetwynd, Reed, & Gifford, 1997; Sanders, 2008). Regardless of whether feelings of intimacy in these contexts are “counterfeit” or “authentic” (Boles & Garbin, 1974), which cannot truly be ascertained, the experience of engaging in commodified performances of intimacy generates reports of ambivalence and confusion for sex workers and clients alike (Grandy & Mavin, 2014; Milrod & Weitzer, 2012). Across occupational differences, many dirty workers report similar feelings of ambivalence as they face contradictory messages from various contexts in their lives regarding what sorts of emotions are appropriate for them to feel toward their work. Whether the occupational tasks consist of patrolling the border (Rivera & Tracy, 2014) or selling sex toys (Tyler, 2011), dirty workers regularly describe feeling constant tension between beliefs that their work is empowering (Grandy, 2008) and shameful (Ashforth & Kreiner, 1999; Grandy & Mavin, 2014). In the context of sex work, women explain that to “do good work” sex workers should enjoy their hypersexualized performances, have fun, and find fulfillment; but to “be good girls” they should feel shame and embarrassment for engaging in “bad sex (sex outside marriage, public, promiscuous and not for reproductive purposes)” (Mavin & Grandy, 2013, p. 232). Sex workers reporting declines in experiences of pleasure and empowerment over time (Barton, 2002) makes sense when we consider how feelings of confusion, displeasure, and anxiety resulting from these contradictory demands are “exacerbated when (…) individuals feel as though they cannot ‘escape’ or make sense of the contradiction through talk” (Tracy, 2008, p. 37). For all of these reasons, brothels are an ideal location for examining the complexity of emotion management. The nature of the organization creates conditions that intensify emotions and expectations of emotion management, while the pervasive role of secrecy simultaneously denies workers many typical tools of social support. In the interest of concealing organizational secrets and protecting insiders’ privacy, brothels are located in remote areas with strict surveillance and tightly regimented procedures, and nearly all workers live on the premises for the duration of their contract period. Taken together, the geographical isolation of the brothels and the stigma associated with sex work occupations makes it relatively easy and desirable for legal brothel workers to keep their personal identities a secret from most people inside the brothels and their work identities a secret from most people outside. Because of the vulnerability and the concomitant level of trust required for someone to disclose secret information to another (Ponse, 1976), being on the “inside” of a secret network can generate a strong affective bond between in-group members (Dufresne & Offstein, 2008). In light of these conditions, legal brothel prostitutes would likely experience high levels of occupational identification and feel a strong sense of collective identity among those people on the inside of their networks—a perception of in-group-ness which Kreiner, Ashforth, and Sluss (2006) define as entitativity. Ashforth and Kreiner (2014) argue that pervasively (especially morally) stigmatized occupations, like sex work, tend to experience greater entitativity than other dirty work occupations because the stigmas they face constitute a graver identity threat. All of this research suggests that legal prostitutes are unlikely to find resources for emotion management outside of their occupational setting, but among other stigmatized workers they should find a sense of solidarity and a community for dealing with the pressures of highly emotional work. However, most scholarship about sex workers’ emotion management suggests that this community, if it exists, is not effectively moderating the negative effects of the emotional experiences of brothel work. Specifically, researchers have established links between selling sex and multiple negative outcomes: low self-esteem and post-traumatic stress disorder (Farley, Baral, Kiremire, & Sezgin, 1998), depression (Bagley, 1999), and feelings of self-blame, guilt, and disgust (Sanders, 2005). Previous research has demonstrated the value of workplace friendships for emotional support (Waldron, 2012); however, the competitive work environment of many sex work organizations tends to contribute to superficial workplace relations (Grandy, 2008) and pits workers against one another, “thus undermining their trust and cohesion” (Ashforth & Kreiner, 1999, p. 420). Therefore, although the common experience of stigma should (theoretically) unite legal brothel prostitutes, the women appear to underutilize available avenues for social support, keeping their challenges with emotion management hidden from nearly everyone. To summarize, legal brothel prostitutes work in an industry shrouded in secrecy. In the interest of protecting worker and client privacy and removing the organization from critical scrutiny, brothels tend to be isolated in remote locations. Stigmas associated with sex work lead most women working in the brothels to lie to friends and family members about how they make a living, and privacy concerns motivate them to conceal identity information from clients. Previous research suggests that sex workers are likely to experience ambivalence as they face contradictory expectations regarding “appropriate” emotional displays from various contexts in their lives. In her research on correctional officers, Tracy (2008) argued that effectively addressing stress and burnout requires treating them as structural problems rather than individual pathologies. We argue that moving beyond diagnosing individual sex workers’ emotion management problems requires that secrecy, which is so deeply interwoven into the fabric of brothels’ organizational structure, be put in central focus for analysis. Therefore, we pose the following research question: How do normative practices of secrecy enable and constrain emotion management and support-seeking behaviors among legal brothel prostitutes? Methods This study began as a relatively small project in which the first and second authors sought to explore organizational life in multiple brothels. We gained permission and approval from our Institutional Review Board, brothel owners, and individual sex workers to conduct initial observations and interviews. During the course of this research, a mutual student shared that she previously worked as a sex worker. After a second approval from the Institutional Review Board, our student (Breanna Mohr, Department of Communication Studies, University of Nevada, Reno, NV 89557-0229, USA) decided to join us as a research collaborator. We then expanded our study to include an oral history component, composed of a deep account of her lived experiences in the brothels. This portion of the project served as an important account of life as a sex worker, but also as a complement to the collected interview data. Additionally, when the third author joined the project, we gained access to a third group of interviewees: former brothel workers. Participants from each of these data contexts spoke about the relationship between secrecy and emotion management to some degree; therefore, we drew upon data from each of these sources in our analysis. We expand on each aspect of data collection below. Brothel observations and interviews The first and second authors began by visiting eight brothels in three Nevada counties. In these sites, we conducted 16 interviews with nine sex workers, three brothel owners, and four staff members (a floor manager, bartender, office manager, and risk manager). Participation was voluntary, and all interviewees consented to speak with us, knowing our intention to publish the research. All time was unpaid, and interviews were audio recorded and transcribed. An interview protocol loosely guided all interviews and included questions such as: How do you talk about your work with friends and family? What do you like and dislike about your job?, and What are the biggest challenges you face at work? The interview recordings generated 303 pages of single-spaced text which covered 14 hours and 22 minutes of interview time. Accessing these interviews necessitated extensive driving to reach the geographically remote brothels. During travel time, we engaged in long debriefing sessions, which we recorded in a process McDonald (2005) termed a “tape dump.” These tape dumps generated an additional 134 single-spaced pages of data and included four hours of audio recordings. Once the third author joined the project, she used her insider status and network connections to contact women who had previously worked in the brothels but left for various reasons. Following a similar protocol as described above, interviews with five former sex workers were conducted over the telephone, audio recorded, and transcribed, resulting in 67 single-spaced pages of data and approximately three and a half hours of audio recordings. Oral history In conducting the oral history to capture the experiences of the third author, we did not use an interview protocol, but rather allowed the third author to guide the recorded conversation. The ultimate goal of a well-planned oral history project is to understand a person’s life in depth as it is presented by the narrator (Janesick, 2007); therefore, we simply started with open ended, broad questions, such as “what do you want to tell us about your experiences?” We did not interrupt her, and conversation meandered across time and experiences, jumping back into prior stories, future plans, and across other occupations, relationships, and feelings. Conducting an oral history in this way allows for the narrator to structure how the data is presented and collected and gives her more control in how her voice is heard (Kennedy & Davis, 1993). Data analysis and verification We began data analysis during the tape dumps when we verbally articulated consistencies between interview stories and observations. These early patterns sometimes developed into themes which shaped our analysis. We also conducted a formal data analysis that was informed by our theoretical knowledge of emotion research, coding the interview and tape dump transcripts with attention to emotional communication. That is, we selected for focused analysis all excerpts in which interviewees talked about emotional experiences or expectations regarding appropriate emotional displays (as well as violations of those expectations), and/or directly expressed emotion. We analyzed early patterns through iterative waves (Lindlof & Taylor, 2002) and inductively achieved coherent themes through the process of reducing, expanding, collapsing and refining the early codes. The third author reviewed these major themes and produced additional vignettes supporting or challenging participant claims with her own experiences in the brothels. These vignettes added complexity to our data and demonstrated the value of iterative processes of collaborative analysis. The third author’s contributions are represented no differently than our other participants in the interest of confidentiality. Therefore, we refer to her as “a legal prostitute” or by pseudonym in the subsequent presentation of our findings. Findings To address the question of how secrecy enables and constrains emotion management and support-seeking behaviors among legal brothel prostitutes, we begin by describing their emotional communication across the contexts of sex provider–client relationships (service emotions), brothel worker to brothel worker relationships (relational emotion), interactions with and regarding people outside of the brothel (emotional boundary spanning), and emotional consequences of legal prostitution work (emotional effects). After exploring the role of secrecy in managing emotions in each of these contexts, the final section of our analysis draws out explicit claims regarding the enabling and constraining influences of secrecy on support-seeking behaviors. Service emotion: performing intimacy First, “appropriate” emotional expressions between workers and clients (service emotions) are defined by brothel owners and management, but also through organizational norms that develop as legal brothel prostitutes respond to challenges in determining how to perform expected emotions. The most frequent, stressful, and theoretically unique display work in this occupation has to do with the demand to perform attraction, affection, and interest, while simultaneously concealing personal identity knowledge including one’s real name, meaningful personal relationships, life history details, interests, and social roles. Therefore, in this section, we discuss organizational expectations regarding performances of intimacy, as well as the challenges brothel prostitutes face in balancing organizationally-mandated display rules with their needs to protect aspects of their personal (non-work) identities from clients. Appropriate emotional expressions toward clients The business of brothels is generally understood to be the sale of sex. However, the work tasks of legal prostitutes far exceed simple acts of stimulation and copulation. A recurrent theme among participants was surprise at how much of their job involves an emotional, rather than physical, connection. A brothel owner elaborated on his expectations regarding performances of intimacy by describing what he perceived to be the needs of typical clients: We have individuals that life has challenged (…) They’re dealing with Mother Nature’s unkindness. They have frailties, they’re overweight terribly, they have a hard time finding partners within the world that are accessible. They have diseases of different kinds. They’re paraplegic (…) And so having, with dignity, to be in the hands of a caregiver who will—and it’s not necessarily sex (…) It includes the acts of kindness, of loving, of a massage, of petting your head, of watching a movie, of telling you you’re all right. As indicated in this excerpt, legal brothel prostitutes are generally expected to express affection, interest, and compassion while concealing negatively-valenced emotions of disgust, pity, or anger that often accompany work tasks. As one legal brothel prostitute explained to us: Some of the guys that come in here you’re just like, oh my god, I have to lay under that? And you better believe we’re gonna make this man think he’s the most hottest, sexiest thing there is because we want that money and we want ‘em to come back. As indicated in this example, economic motivations, including a desire to establish a base of return clients, dictate concealment not only of negatively-valenced emotions but also of the performative aspects of their affection. Although not all clients struggle with the psychological, social, or physical traumas described by the brothel owner above, many of the people who become regular clients do come time and again because they claim to have some void in their lives and feel they have developed a special, intimate relationship with one of the women. This desire for attraction, affection, and interest has made the Girlfriend Experience (often called a GFE) one of the most popular client requests. Although the details of a GFE vary slightly from brothel to brothel, these are generally highly intimate interactions which can include kissing, cuddling, hugging, lying together while talking, or sharing a meal together. A major challenge with performing intimacy, however, is figuring out appropriate display rules. After all, “be intimate” carries far more ambiguity than organizational dictates to “smile at customers” because intimacy can be performed in so many ways. Challenges of determining appropriate emotional displays Several participants talked with us about the challenges of determining exactly how to perform intimacy because, in the words of one sex worker, “Some men want you to be very independent and some men want you to be the dumb bimbo slut.” Another interviewee laughed as she told us about how her struggles to figure out how to perform intimacy led her to rapidly try out various characters until clients responded positively: People will joke with me, cause I’ve been known on occasion to not be what they want. And so I’ll be like, “I’m Mandy number two.” I’ll be like, “Hi, I’m Jessica. It’s nice to meet you.” And, like, I’ll just run through the line and eventually they’ll be like, “Oh, Laura, you’re awfully nice.” And I’ll be like, “I am awfully nice. I’m a lot nicer than Mandy.” In this example, the performative aspects of intimacy are demonstrated through rapid experimentation with characters; in this way, clients collude with sex workers to craft a mutually-agreeable definition of the situation (Goffman, 1959). When attempts to achieve intimacy are successful, one-time clients can turn into regulars. Returning clients provide a reliable stream of money for sex workers but, as we will discuss next, interactions with them tend to be emotionally draining due to their heightened expectations for self-disclosure. Challenges of determining appropriate levels of disclosure All legal prostitutes use stage names at the brothel, and they do not share their biological names with anyone. Many make up life stories, and all are selective about what they share with clients and co-workers. One interviewee explained that the exhaustion of concealment, however, leads her to let down her guard with long-term clients: It can be draining to switch back and forth from my stage persona to my real self (…) It’s also really hard with clients that I’ve been seeing a long time. I have grown so comfortable with them that it gets very difficult masking myself sometimes. I have a few clients that I can say I am completely 100% myself around. It feels good to not have to put on a show, but at the same time I wonder if it’s a bad decision on my end. Withholding personal information creates differential knowledge, which allows the secret holder to shape a particular construction of reality (Costas & Grey, 2016). However, harboring a secret also creates barriers between the concealer and the person from whom something is being concealed (Ponse, 1976; Simmel, 1906), and even contributes to feelings of mental fatigue and negative physiological symptoms (Cowan, 2014). As indicated in the excerpt above, disclosing secrets can relieve these burdens; however, when legal prostitutes are open about personal details, they experience anxiety regarding if that honesty will put them in a vulnerable situation. When clients fail to cooperate in the performance of “intimacy as professional service” by attempting to move the interaction beyond the context of economic exchange, brothel prostitutes seek to reestablish clear boundaries by asserting their own definition of the situation. The interviewee quoted above explained how regular clients’ increasing demands for personal disclosures could lead to boundary violations: With some clients, if I didn’t answer an email fast enough (…) they would question whether I still “liked” them. With more and more parties, they would want to become more intimate. They would want to know more about me as a person, and not as their sex provider. It began to be very overwhelming for me. I already shared so much of myself with them (my body, my time, sexual and intimate self), I didn’t understand why they wanted so much more than what they were already getting. In this segment of talk, service emotion demands intensified as clients began associating responsiveness and reciprocal self-disclosure with performances of intimacy. The brothels we visited encouraged sex workers to communicate with clients through message boards, social media, and personal email in order to maintain relationships that would keep clients coming back. Demands for service emotion outside of paid contract time created pressure for legal prostitutes to be responsive in the hopes that such efforts would eventually lead to remuneration. With new or occasional clients, these boundary violations tend to occur during negotiations for services. Legal prostitutes are not obligated to accept all clients; they negotiate prices and services prior to every engagement and they only “book a party” if a satisfactory deal is arranged. One interviewee explained how negotiations turned into emotional confrontations when clients failed to respect established boundaries: You tell him, “Well you have this much money. This is what I’ll do for that amount of money” and then I’ve had guys where they try to kiss me and I’ll be like “No, if you wanna do that it’s a different party. You gotta pay more.” And I’ve had guys actually try to hold my face and (…) I’ve stiff-armed a couple people (…) I may be a prostitute, but I’m very much a human being just like everybody else and you’re gonna respect me as one, otherwise I’m gonna kick your ass and then kick you out, and that’s just really how I feel. This same interviewee conceded that often, if a client is paying a substantial amount of money, this expression of anger or fear is suppressed and more accommodating displays are expressed. Taken together, we see that economic pressures to express affection and interest toward clients exist in tension with desires to conceal personal identity information and negatively-valenced emotions meant to protect brothel prostitutes’ safety, privacy, and/or professional distance. Relational emotion: solidarity and competition Understanding the ways in which secrecy enables and constrains emotion management requires discussion of a second area of organizational emotion, relational emotion, which refers to those emotions stemming from interactions with colleagues. Women working in the brothels experience so many of the same emotional stressors as they perform intimacy and manage client aggression or obsession. These shared experiences could foster the development of a sense of within-group camaraderie; however, feelings of jealousy, anger, and disgust toward co-workers tend to limit opportunities for reciprocal self-disclosure and often foreclose the possibility of group-level identification. Furthermore, competition for clients and fear of sabotage or disclosure of personal identity information motivate many legal brothel prostitutes to keep their interactions with other brothel workers to a minimum. That being said, some women did report feeling as though other “working girls” were the only people who could understand their problems, and many participants described the house as a “sorority” or “a big, twisted family.” In fact, three of the five women we interviewed who had left the brothels explained that what they missed most was the relationships they developed with co-workers, which achieved a depth unmatched by friendships on the outside. However, the sorority and family metaphors are not entirely positive. Both sorority sisters and biological sisters develop intimate knowledge of one another, which can be used to help or harm one another. Rivalries and desires for attention and affection from the rest of the “family” can lead to tensions and in-fighting. Additionally, sex workers tend to work at brothels for short contract periods (usually in increments of weeks or months), so making money is often more important than building lasting working relationships. Therefore, when women spoke about relational emotion (that is, feelings toward co-workers), they often expressed frustration, irritation, or anger regarding the level of competition driving interactions. This competitive environment was cited by many interviewees as their reason for concealing information about their personal lives or interactions with clients from their co-workers. Most often, problems emerged when someone perceived another legal prostitute was trying to “dirty hustle,” which refers to any effort to steal someone else’s client. Often, these tensions build over what might initially seem like minor issues, as discussed by this interviewee: There was a girl here and she was the only blonde, and I mean like a platinum blonde. Everybody else was darker-haired. So I had a blonde wig and it was a platinum blonde wig, right? So I put the wig on and I come out and she just looked at me and she was so mad. Although hair color may not seem like a significant issue, in the competitive environment of the brothel, these basic features of one’s appearance can become differential information that gives one woman an “edge” over the other workers on the floor on a given night. Competition between co-workers can become so fierce that legal prostitutes reported feeling uncomfortable talking openly about work or their personal lives for fear that any information could be used to sabotage them. One interviewee described her experience of competition threatening to sabotage her relationship with clients and ostracize her from the rest of the house: One month “Top Booker” was a close call between [a colleague] and I. Because there was so much tension between us, both of us were dying to make the most money to win. She ended up winning, and I found out later (…) she paid 30 dollars on her own books to beat me. She then, one by one, started taking all my friends in the house and turning them against me (…) My support system within the brothel walls crumbled, and I didn’t have any outside friends to turn to. “Top Booker” is the title awarded to the person with highest sales for the month. Like any internal organizational competition, the goal is to increase worker productivity through an external reward structure. While these internal competitions benefit the brothel as an organization, we heard multiple stories like this one, suggesting that they simultaneously discourage cooperation and incentivize secrecy between workers. Emotional boundary spanning: privacy and support The third area of organizational emotion is emotional boundary spanning, which refers to those emotions that cross boundaries between spaces of home/community/culture and spaces of work. Specifically, Waldron (2012) explains that emotional boundary spanning concerns how emotions “cross the fluid boundaries between work and home” and how “societal norms affect the expression of emotion at work” (p. 5). The first way to think about this emotional context is to ask how workers manage emotions experienced at work about nonwork issues. Most women we interviewed explained that they remain private about nonwork issues while at work. However, because most women live in the brothel for the duration of their contract, there are instances when a child’s illness, class stresses (some brothel workers are university students), or family problems demand attention. These nonwork issues are usually managed with the owners and managers, as described by this interviewee: [The brothel owner has] helped me through situations where I could have been potentially killed. My ex-husband was completely nuts. He helped me with that situation (…) When I came in at 1:00 on a Monday morning after leaving my shift (…) I’d gone home and whatever and found my house trashed. Someone had broken in and there was a guy with a knife, like that. When I came back here, he helped through all that. Although the women tend to keep quiet about their personal lives outside of the brothels, when nonwork issues find their way into the workplace, the managers and owners often respond. Former brothel prostitutes were more likely to identify managers and owners as a threat to the women’s privacy, as they would often create conditions that pressured women to disclose personal identity information in the interest of building or maintaining relationships with clients. After expressing regret about allowing so much of her personal information to be revealed during her time working in the brothels, one former prostitute said: [Brothel owners and managers] made you feel like you had to show your pictures online and have to be there communicating with people, and basically giving your whole life story away to clients, for free (…) They made you feel like if you didn’t do it, or you didn’t do it in a certain way, you’re going to be fired. Disclosing personal information to management can lead to vulnerability for brothel prostitutes, as management could then exert pressure on the women to reveal personal information to wider audiences in pursuit of economic goals. Many women reported complying with these requests for additional disclosures out of a desire to better do their job of performing intimacy. A second way to think about emotional boundary spanning is to ask how workers manage emotions experienced outside of the workplace that are related to their affiliation with the organization and/or their occupational role or work tasks. Fear of organizational outsiders’ negative judgments lead most legal prostitutes to work diligently to hide their affiliation with the brothels when outside the workplace, which allows them to avoid many opportunities for emotional boundary spanning. Despite these efforts, we heard numerous examples of women being compelled to claim their occupational identity outside of the brothel by credit card companies, banks, and car dealerships. Often, the women’s fear of social rejection was affirmed when these companies refused to do business with them due to their job title. One interviewee relayed an experience she had while frequenting a spa: As I was getting my massage, the female masseuse started making conversation and asked me how I found out about this particular spa. I said that a co-worker had recommended it. She asked where I worked and I said one of the legal brothels. She was silent for a little bit, and then went into a big winded lecture/morality talk about how I “am one of God’s children, and God doesn’t want his children to feel like they have to sell their bodies” etc. (…) All I wanted to do was tell her to shut up and tear into her, but I was getting a massage and was victim to her table. I never went back there again. In all of these cases, negative evaluations of sex work by members of the outside community led sex workers to feel embarrassed or anxious about being publicly affiliated with them. Emotional effects: anxiety and exhaustion The final area of organizational emotion, emotional effects, refers to emotions targeted toward work or the workplace itself. The emotional effects most unique to brothel prostitution (and other dirty work occupations) are feelings of apprehension generated by the very act of boundary spanning discussed above. Many sex workers experience anxiety about being “outed” because friends and family members do not know what they do for work. Most lie and say they work as cocktail waitresses, flight attendants, or dancers. Even those people who are open with others about their work worry that perceptions about their occupation might preclude them from future opportunities, as indicated by a legal prostitute who told us that she used to work with Big Brothers, Big Sisters to mentor children, but has not returned since she started working at the brothels for fear that her current occupation would show up on a background check. The extensive effort legal prostitutes put into avoiding boundary spanning situations contributes to high levels of anxiety toward brothel work and/or the brothel itself. However, most of the reported emotions experienced toward work are the same sort of mundane, ordinary emotions people across industries report feeling when working long hours. Living in the isolation of a hidden organization does not mean that the women are required to be “on the clock” whenever they are in the house; however, because the brothels are often noisy and short-staffed, many sex workers end up working long hours and sleeping poorly, which contributes to general exhaustion. These are not problems unique to brothel work; on the contrary, they are reminders that brothels are subject to many of the same organizational pressures other industries face regarding demands for ever greater accessibility and productivity. Managing emotion: seeking social support The levels of secrecy characteristic of the sex industry constrain brothel prostitutes’ efforts to manage organizational emotion by seriously circumscribing options for seeking social support. At first glance, sex work involves many of the factors Ashforth and Kreiner (1999) identified as promoting the formation of supportive subcultures: the inherent danger of having sexual relations with strangers creates a sense of threat and separateness from mainstream culture and the unconventional work hours and habits inhibit the development of relationships outside of work. However, as we have discussed in this article, brothels are in isolated locations, experience high turnover, and encourage competition between co-workers, which are all factors that tend to inhibit group formation (Ashforth & Kreiner, 1999). Inside the brothel, then, legal prostitutes have to worry about competition from other workers, and outside the brothel people do not understand the service emotion required by the job. As a result, legal prostitutes do not have many spaces for associating with similar others, and they experience few opportunities for resistance, social support, venting, and change (Tracy, 2005). Specifically, most legal prostitutes feel like they cannot talk about their occupational identities outside of the brothels without significant risk, as described in this interaction between two interviewees who spoke with us together: Angel: [to Mandy:] You have your husband (…) But like me, people are like, so how’d your day go? And I can’t be like, “I had a difficult client, you know.” Mandy: But that’s part of making friends with the girls. Angel: With the girls. Because you have someone to talk to, to vent to, to share ideas with. Because outside, if I were to go to a therapist, they would classify me as like nympho—they’d say I was a nympho (…) Mandy: And they’d wanna put you on so much medication. So much. They’re like, oh, you must be depressed. Here you go (…) This interaction between Angel and Mandy provides insights into their perceptions of available social support. Angel notes that Mandy is fortunate to have a husband who she can talk to about her work, which is more than most of the women have as support, but even that relationship has limitations because they have set implicit boundaries on what level of detail is acceptable in talk about work, as demonstrated in this later excerpt from Mandy: He’ll go like, “how was work” and I’ll say, “oh, it was good” or “oh, it was slow.” You know, or “the girls were high drama” or whatever. But actually like, we don’t say like, “oh, how many parties did you have” or “oh, what’d you do?” You know, that’s not something we discuss at all. And like, he’s a welder. And I don’t know anything about his job. I’ll be like, “how was work?” He’ll be like, “I burnt my finger.” You know, so we’re about on the same wavelength on work. Even in Mandy’s case, where she has a husband who she can talk with about work, she limits their discussions to talk about relational emotion and occasionally emotional effects. As indicated in the interaction between Mandy and Angel, discussion about clients has few outlets because people outside of the brothels will likely not understand (in the case of the psychologist) or not want to know (in the case of Mandy’s husband). Co-workers provide a potential outlet, but competition in the house makes those disclosures risky. Although it may be counterintuitive, the pervasiveness of secrecy does also enable some forms of emotion management, as explained by one of the participants in this study: The brothel life definitely has some negative aspects, but I was there because I wanted to be and did enjoy the work (…) People are confused and shocked when I say that I enjoy the sexual aspect of it. Not always, but the sexual exploration part of the job was very fascinating and yes, fun. I had always had to hide that part of myself. The isolation of brothels from the rest of society allows them to become an outlet for some taboo emotional performances. For some of the male clients, that taboo might be emotional release and expressions of vulnerability. For many of the women who work at the brothels, they are able to express pleasure in their sexuality in ways inconsistent with their image outside the brothel. Additionally, despite the competition and the turnover, some women do manage to build meaningful relationships with other people affiliated with the brothels. Insiders build a sense of entitativity around emotion toward work, framing judgmental people “on the outside” as ignorant or prudish. Managers and owners provide support for sex workers and each other when they experience emotion regarding nonwork issues while at work. And sometimes, despite the drama, the need to talk about emotional experiences with co-workers and clients leads sex workers to let down their guard and take a risk at being vulnerable and open. Discussion and conclusions Legal sex work in the United States is an occupation fraught with emotion due to the highly intimate nature of the work, competitive and isolated internal organizational structures, and prevalent external perceptions of the occupation as stigmatized. This project explored the ways in which organizational emotions are managed in such an emotionally-demanding occupation, especially given the role of secrecy in shaping the hidden architecture of social relations. Previous research on stigmatized and hidden organizations consistently showed that concealment practices are widely adopted to protect dirty workers, as well as their clients, colleagues, and organizations, from critical scrutiny (Hudson, 2008; Hudson & Okhuysen, 2009; Scott, 2013). In our own earlier work (Wolfe & Blithe, 2015), we largely assumed that legal sex workers benefit from the hidden nature of brothels, as organizational concealment practices protect the privacy and safety concerns of organizational insiders. In that study, we categorized Nevada’s legal brothels as “shadowed organizations” according to Scott’s (2013) typology. As such, we acknowledged that brothels are motivated to build strategic visibility to attract clients and to challenge stigma by constructing a socially-positive external organizational image; but, these visibility needs were tempered by the desire of organizational members to remain silent about their affiliation (Wolfe & Blithe, 2015). To a certain degree, the current study affirms the value of concealment for dirty workers. Our findings suggest three primary ways in which normative practices of secrecy guide brothel prostitutes’ emotion management and support-seeking behaviors. Specifically, prevalent secrecy norms dictate that brothel prostitutes should: (a) conceal personal identity knowledge from brothel insiders, (b) conceal occupational identity knowledge from organizational outsiders, and (c) conceal negatively-valenced emotions from clients. These concealment practices certainly serve protective functions. First, by concealing personal information (legal name, hometown, personal biographical information) from clients, co-workers, managers, and owners, brothel prostitutes maintain power over the construction of a distinct occupational identity role as they select aspects of their selves to perform while at work. Additionally, concealing their occupational role from friends, family, and other organizational outsiders allows the women to avoid the stigma of dirty work outside of the brothel, so they are free to construct other social identity roles without concern about hostile judgments regarding how they earn a paycheck. Finally, concealing negatively-valenced emotions (disgust, fear, anger) while providing sex services is a way to protect clients’ definition of the situation (as the performance of fantasy, as an imagined “real” relationship, or the like). However, this study also challenges assumptions from previous research about the benefits of secrecy for dirty workers. Specifically, our findings suggest that dirty workers in “shadowed” organizations (Scott, 2013)—those who prefer to be largely silent about their organizational identification—occupy a tensional space between revelation and concealment, especially when managing difficult emotional experiences related to their hidden identity role. After all, each of the concealment practices listed above also creates differential knowledge (Costas & Grey, 2016; Lurhmann, 1989), which interferes with mutual experiences of intimacy (Ponse, 1976; Simmel, 1906), contributes to mental fatigue and negative physiological symptoms of stress (Cowan, 2014), and, we argue, severely circumscribes options for seeking social support. Therefore, this study finds that dirty workers may violate secrecy norms in order to attain levels of intimacy and social support that are contingent upon shared knowledge of salient social roles. Goffman’s (1959) theory of impression management suggests that individuals cooperate in the co-production of any particular definition of the situation through interactional performances of social roles. When a person claims a certain role, “he automatically exerts a moral demand upon the others, obliging them to value and treat him in a manner that persons of his kind have a right to expect” (p. 13). Our findings suggest that resources available for managing emotional experiences are inextricably linked to interactional identity role performances. These conclusions have serious implications for all workers in hidden organizations or in the hidden parts of visible organizations. When secrecy norms demand the concealment of certain roles—that is, when a person cannot “claim” personal or occupational identity knowledge—they also forfeit reasonable expectation for others to treat them as that kind of individual. This study has demonstrated how legal brothel prostitutes tend to conceal so much of their occupational identities to brothel outsiders and so much of their personal identities to brothel insiders that resources for managing emotional experiences linked to either of these aspects of self become severely limited. As dirty workers consider revealing invisible social identities in the interest of accessing social support, they risk facing the judgment of stigmatization and loss of control over their own secret. Claire et al. (2005) suggested that people seek out and prefer to interact with those who “support and validate their identity (…) we expect a person to reveal more readily to a target who seems knowledgeable about, sympathetic toward, or similar to oneself because he or she also shares the invisible difference” (p. 86). However, discerning “safe” targets is ambiguous at best and, as Ponse (1976) wrote about closeted lesbians over four decades ago, “the veils of anonymity are often as effective with one’s own as with those from whom one wishes to hide. Thus, an unintended consequence of secrecy is that it isolates members from one another” (p. 319). The participants in our study suggest that accessing social support requires that they face the vulnerability of possible betrayal—the potential “outing” of their secret occupation by clients to external audiences, potential sabotage by co-workers within the competitive environment of the brothel, or potential stigmatization by friends and family members in the moralized environment of the outside world. These findings complicate Scott’s (2013) framework by elucidating the tensions between revelation and concealment experienced even by workers with the greatest motivations to maintain silence about their organizational membership. We extend our own previous findings, which suggested that legal prostitutes’ visibility pressures were motivated by financial interests and desires to challenge occupational stigma (Wolfe & Blithe, 2015); this study suggests that expressing membership in stigmatized, hidden organizations also serves the purpose of enabling a person to “claim” emotional experiences linked to particular identity categories, which then facilitates support-seeking behaviors. A limitation of this study was our focus on current legal brothel prostitutes in the state of Nevada. As Grandy (2008) noted, “Vast differences exist across the different types of sex work and even across organizations offering seemingly similar services” (p. 194). Certainly, pornographers, exotic dancers, commercial telephone sex providers, escorts, and legal and illegal prostitutes all engage in work practices that are emotionally demanding, characterized by the performance of intimacy, and deeply influenced by prevalent secrecy norms; however, the differences between occupational roles among sex workers (and other dirty workers more generally) leave significant room for future research to add nuance to the claims forwarded in this study. Furthermore, former sex workers likely experience the influence of secrecy norms differently than people currently working in the industry. Investigating how past involvement in hidden and/or stigmatized work influences emotion management and support-seeking behaviors could expand scholarly knowledge about the relationships between sense of self, impression management, and emotional labor. Our focus on emotional experiences of dirty workers may also neglect more mundane ways in which secrecy norms enable and constrain support-seeking behaviors in non-stigmatized aspects of our social lives. Jobs with secrecy requirements, such as police work or other government agency positions, may not need to obscure entire social identity roles but often must conceal knowledge in accordance with occupational secrecy norms. Indeed, many occupations are subject to privacy laws and secrecy norms that dictate appropriate disclosures and limit support-seeking regarding these areas of the job. For example, medical doctors, nurses, and psychiatrists must protect patient information, lawyers are obligated to hold clients’ secrets, and professors are limited in the circumstances under which they can communicate about their students’ academic performance. 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Journal of CommunicationOxford University Press

Published: Feb 1, 2018

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