“What you doing that for?” Troubling research topics

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On Friday 24th May I attended a conference at the University of Sheffield, ‘Troubling Gender: The Questions of Multiple Identities’. I particularly wanted to hear a paper by ERSC funded PhD student Lucy Binch. Lucy’s paper was her first, entitled ‘Prostitution and Identity: How Social Constructs, Stereotypes and Stigmas Impact on Women Who Choose to Work within the UK Sex Industry’.

Conferences are obviously invaluable for hearing new critical ideas and networking, but even more than this, I value one-on-ones with like-minded researchers, informal chats with interested parties, social networking with those working on a similar project, attending small talks and seminars. At each conference/ event/talk I have been to so far, (I started my PhD on a p/t basis in Jan 2013) I have met one person who has become an ally, a key component of sharing information and developing my thoughts and confidence. At this conference, Lucy was that one person who particularly stood out as we are working in such similar areas.

Confidence is a massive part of studying at postgraduate level. Often people don’t realise the effect they can have an others’ potential. One thing that has been raised in several conversations recently, is how certain research topics are trivialised or mocked. When people ask me what my PhD is about, and I tell them, there is quite often laughter, confusion, pity or bewilderment. My research is looking at lap-dancing, and it a topic that many academics I meet are not comfortable with, especially if they are from outside the humanities.

This is why it so crucial that I meet with researchers in the same boat. All of those who I have met, researching sex work, lap dancing, pornography, have been friendly, supportive and invaluable. I don’t think the quantity of your research ‘friends’ is important, but the quality, and I have found the ‘sex-radical’ feminists, the ‘in support of’ sex work researchers, (or merely ‘sex is work’ folk) to be a wonderful bunch so far. I really believe in the ‘pay it forward’ idea, help others, and they help you. So send a conference link you think someone might not have seen, put others in touch via twitter or email. It all adds to a vibrant research community, even if a lot of it is a cyber-community. The ‘sex work as work’ bunch are down-to-earth and approachable (which given I detest pretension, is a huge advantage).

I would never have imagined it was Lucy’s first paper, and it was well delivered and packed a lot of solid and well-developed ideas in.

Lucy has the same standpoint as myself, that sex work is genuine labour. Lucy is looking at how labels and stigma affect sex workers. The paper helpfully (and crucially) emphasised that she was looking at consensual sex work, and that the conflating of consensual sex work with trafficking is unhelpful.

Lucy spoke of the stereotypes of sex workers, that they are dirty, drug addicts, victims, trafficked. I think stating these as stereotypes or stigmatypes is extremely significant as they are largely ingrained as fact.

The paper stated that these negative images of sex works, reinforced by the media, produce shame, and prevent healthcare access. These labels also put a strain on the sex worker’s other roles, such as friend, wife, mother, as they are having to maintain their separate selves.

Binch is interested in law and policy surrounding sex work, and shares interests with me such as marginalisation, exclusion, ‘othering’. I found the paper inspiring and it has given me confidence for my first paper on the 5th June at the University of Sheffield, at the PGR Translations and Transformations conference. My paper is called Lap dancing in Liverpool: Translating moral panics on sex work. I am very excited but also nervous, and hearing such a well formulated first paper has given me hope.

I think researching in the sex industry is different to most other areas, as it is so controversial and polarised. If I were ‘anti’, researching on harm or how to end demand, I imagine there would be more mainstream support. Because as intersectional as many claim to be in regards to race, gender, class, age, disability, it doesn’t cover employment status or involvement in the sex industry. Throw ‘lap dancer’ into the mix, and it is not deemed worthy of the same support, or even dialogue. I don’t blame any individual for this, being anti-sex work is set up as the logical choice, the rational choice, and many researchers see it as an obvious and inherent harm.

I am very lucky in terms of my institution, and my supervisory team, and the fellow researchers I have met so far. But I have picked my conferences relatively carefully, and am aware at some point I will have to step into the lion’s den… especially given as I am presenting at four conferences this year.

As always, comments or feedback most welcome. I am always interested to chat to those researching in the sex industries or related topics. My twitter is @princessjack.

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