University of Leeds Sex Work Conference 2014

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I am on a high from the Postgraduate Bi-annual Sex Work Conference held yesterday, 16th January 2014, at the University of Leeds. Organised by Dr Teela Sanders Reader in Sociology at the University of Leeds and PhD students Laura ConnellyUniversity of Leeds and Lucy Binch University of Sheffield.

If only this were a yearly event (hint hint). I knew a lot of the delegates already some from ‘real life’ and many from twitter. I am giving a joint paper with one of the organisers Lucy Binch at the British Sociological Association in April. Twitter is a fabulous place to network with people studying similar topics to yourself, it’s a holistic and easy way to get to know others before attending events. Social media is such an important tool for research and academia; twitter, blogs, and informal networks can be underestimated. Having a strong friendly online presence is a skill not only used by students/ researchers but increasingly for teaching and projects.

Dr Sanders launched the Yorkshire Academic Sex Work Consortium at the event which has its own website here. Dr Sanders has also set up a Facebook page for sex work researchers. You can also follow the tweeting of the event at #pgsexworkconf

The conference line up changed on the day due to illness, final programme was:

A Tale of Two Cities: A Comparison of the Experiences of Stigma between Sex Workers in Nottingham and Cape Town Lucy Binch, Sheffield University and Daniela Scotece, POW

Sex Worker Union Organising in the UK and France
Jenny Webber, Ruskin College, Oxford

(Re)Imagining the Researcher (Re)Discovering the ‘Other’
Gemma Ahearne, Leeds Metropolitan University

The Cash Nexus: Experiences of Money, Worth, and Price for Men who Sell Sex to Men
Allan Tyler, London South Bank University

Unionisation and Activism of Lap Dancers: A comparative study between lap dancers and sex workers
Sarah Harper, York University

Multiple Faces and Liminal Spaces: Exploring the Tension between Real and Perceived Impacts of Massage Parlours on Everyday Life
Emily Cooper, Lancaster University

Precarious Intimacies – Migrant Sex Workers in Helsinki
Niina Vuolajärvi, Rutgers State University New Jersey, University of Eastern Finland

Sarah Harper‘s paper was particularly impressive given she stepped in at the last minute. I had spoken with Sarah for a while online so was great to meet her in the flesh. I found her paper refreshingly honest and respected the struggle of combining health problems and disability with research.

I spoke about reflexivity: (Re)Imagining the Researcher (Re)Discovering the ‘Other’, and how through my method of ‘reading aloud’ with my participants I hope to create a new space that accommodates a fluid self and a break in the traditional self/other binary. I am interested in power relations in research, and making decisions, thoughts and reactions transparent through the use of a fieldwork diary quoted in my thesis.

It was therefore incredibly useful to hear Allan Tyler discussing his research and the role of reflexivity, and going beyond an insider/outsider self/other binary for those who cannot be categorised. Is someone who sells sex once a sex worker? What is the man himself doesn’t identify as a sex worker? For that reason Tyler uses the term ‘men who sell sex to men’. Alan talked about difficulties with approach of trying to identify who is, and isn’t a sex worker. This fitted in very much with the later panel discussion of similarity rather than difference. The wonderful Rosie Campbell OBE spoke about the need for more comparative studies; that policy focuses on difference not similarity.

My paper made a similar point, where I quoted the following:
“…the recognition of that which binds me to other women as well as that which separates me”. For Mies, ‘partial identification’ brings the necessary closeness as well as necessary distance from oneself (1991, p.80 cited in O’Neill, 2004, p.48).

The shared space of shared reading/reading aloud takes us away from stereotypes of the ‘other’ it brings us closer and immerses us in the same experience and space.

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The paper I was most looking forward to was by my twitter friend (cyber geek alert for me) Emily Cooper, a geographer at Lancaster University who has been friendly and helpful not to mention inspiring over the last few months. Emily’s paper was brilliantly delivered and sparked lots of ideas for my own research. I am very interested in dirt, disgust, contamination, the abject etc, so to hear Emily’s paper on massage parlours in Blackpool using the framework of liminal spaces and dirt, was just fantastic.

I had explored briefly some of the concepts in a previous conference paper of mine Lap-dancing in Liverpool: Translating Moral Panics in Sex Work so hearing Emily taking this ideas a lot further (she is due to submit her PhD thesis in 2 weeks) was inspiring and energising. I found the concept of dirt particularly relevant to my work, that these spaces and people are deemed “morally dirty” (Sibley, 1995) and the desire to create boundaries. Emily also spoke of the spaces of sex work becoming loaded with certain emotional values, which I have also been considering.

Emily spoke about reality versus perception, with a heightening ambivalence and ‘threat’ to shared public space. Speaking on deconstructing impact, Emily spoke about a spectrum rather than binaries, “ambivalence and fluidity of perceptions and impact” I found the idea of perception a fascinating and apt one. How many times do we hear of ‘common-sense discourse versus common-sense’? How many times are ‘facts’ and ‘stat’s stated regarding sex work which are then reflected in policy, policing and public perception? And how does this perception then affect the lives and identities of those engaging in the sex industries?

My conference abstract began with the following:

”The twelve jurors were all writing very busily on slates.
“What are they doing?” Alice whispered to the Gryphon. “They can’t have anything to put down yet, before the trial’s begun”(Carroll, 2009: 95)

which is a nudge toward evidence-based policy and more research in the area.

Lovely also to meet Kim Balmer who runs the National Ugly Mugs twitter feed, as well as being chair of SWWOP.

A big thank you to the organisers, all speakers and delegates for such a welcoming and beneficial day. The questions I was asked were incredibly useful, as was all the feedback I received. Laura Connelly and Laura Jarvis-King at the University of Leeds were supportive and helpful as ever. Also thank you to my friends and fellow researchers from Leeds Met for attending, Glen, Liz and Jocelyn. Also great to see Max Morris, and Pat, who both have excellent blogs.

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