Being a Sex Work Researcher


If you are new to my blog and perhaps a student interested in the sex industry, this post is for you. It addresses some of the many issues and questions frequently raised. It’s also for me as a space for gathering different ideas together, and connecting up what I have been writing here for the last 18 months.

I am also updating a list of accessible media articles on the sex industry here.

I’m glad this blog has created a space for more dialogue surrounding the politics of governing the sex industry, and of my broader interest in regulating the working class woman. Hopefully this site serves as a critical sociological exploration of contemporary ideas; that is the idea anyway.

This blog also serves as a place for me to vent, test out ideas, formulate arguments, receive feedback and connect with other. I find blogging, tweeting teaching and presenting at conferences and events absolutely integral to my research development.

The most frustrating thing about being a researcher of the sex industry is the constant perpetuation of myths by those who ought to know better. I wouldn’t dream of telling a researcher of say education and disability, that their perspective is wrong, but it seems almost anyone can speak over me. Such is having the word sex in the title of your research. Whilst I always welcome debate I think the frequency with which others, usually men, think it is acceptable to speak over me and dismiss my research or theoretical framework, says more about gender relations and misogyny than sex work ever will.

I always ask student to watch this UCL lecture by Professor Graham Scambler, Sex Work Today: Myths, Morals and Health.

Why is it so hard to understand that most sex workers choose, as much as any of us make choices under capitalism, their work. Some of us have more limited choices than others. That some of us find other low paid jobs more degrading than the sex industry? That some choose sex work over welfare?

And why is it that the feminization of poverty, and other gendered work goes ignored, in favour of the ‘sexy’ topics?

The campaigns against sex trafficking invoke a fervent emotive response, whereas the reality, that most trafficking is not for the sex industry, goes unreported and largely ignored.

I blogged about anti sex-trafficking campaigns here, and the experts on the topic are listed. I would also recommend ‘But What About Sex Trafficking?‘. As always, my list of online media resources is available here.

Weitzer asserts that “In no area of the social sciences has ideology contaminated knowledge more pervasively than in writings on the sex industry” (Weitzer, 2005, p. 934). Koken argues how ironic it is that anti-prostitution feminist groups have joined forced with right-wing religious organisations forming a ‘moral crusade’ against the sex industry (Koken in Ditmore et al, 2010, p. 36). Weitzer also argues that anti-prostitution feminist groups are willing to work with the religious right in order to fight the sex industry (Weitzer, 2007, p. 449). These collaborations illustrate why it is crucial that research declares its positioning, its rationale, and that researchers engage in transparency and self-reflexivity.

This isn’t about protecting women, it’s about regulating female sexuality and controlling our bodies. Let’s look at the End Demand campaign. Supporters listed include Ruhama, who are, despite their denials, connected to running the Magdalene Laundries.

Ruhama’s own statement states: “We fully acknowledge that our Trustees were involved in the Magdalene laundries in the past”!!! How can they get away with this?! To access this statement if the link isn’t working, simply google ‘Ruhama Magdalene Laundries’ and the statement from their own website comes up. As a feminist, I find this absolutely abhorrent, that people involved in the torture and abuse of young women are allowed to have any kind of power whatsoever. Interestingly enough, Ruhama don’t make this statement easily accessible from their website.

I think we owe it the brave survivors of this state endorsed torture of ‘fallen women’ (read young unmarried mothers) to speak out against these organisations. Those deemed ‘wayward women’ and ‘fallen women’ faced decades of abuse. Why aren’t we questioning the backgrounds and motives of those so heavily involved and funded in anti-prostitution campaigns?

Dr Laura Agustin writes on the Magdalene Laundries here.

As a feminist I am radical about the fact that I own my own body, if I choose to have an abortion, sell sex, lap dance, appear in porn, have group sex, engage in BDSM that’s my choice. The idea that women cannot possibly choose to do any of these things reiterates the default acceptable respectable norms of female sexual behaviour.

Interestingly, many of the ‘rescue industry’ organisations want women to leave sex work to sew or make bracelets instead. Often in forced rescue operation, treated violently by police, and coerced into working in terrible conditions making clothes. These coercive rescue operations are ignored by abolitionists, presumably it is for the sex workers’ own good? How can we as feminists ignore this? Why do we ignore the horrendous conditions and low pay that female workers endure to make our ASOS trainers yet to jump to ‘rescue’ them from sex work, which pays them more, and they are happier with? It is because the ASOS product affects us, and the ‘trafficking’ doesn’t?

A highly controversial example of how this operates comes from the U.S case study of Project ROSE (Reaching Out to Sexual Exploitation). Project ROSE is an ‘arrest alternative for victims of sex trafficking and prostitution’.

Project Rose in Arizona USA, there is a good 10 min film here Project Rose: AZ waging war on sex-traffickers, or just a War on Sex? . Al Jazeera refused to air this video. The mainstream media are ignoring the issue.

In The entwinement of the CJS, sex work and a radical feminist ‘rescue industry’ ideology can be evidenced in the Edinburgh Raids and Soho Raids. Edinburgh had an unofficial tolerance zone until 2001 while in Glasgow the Glasgow Community and Safety Services [GCSS] runs a targeted exit scheme. “We don’t wait until [prostitutes] say they want to exit and we share all our info with police,” says senior operations manager Louise Belton. “We try everything to engage with them. That could be a charge, which puts them in a system where they have support.” (Topping, 2013).

And the idea that those purchasing a sexual service or erotic dance are enforcing top-down power, are ‘buying a body’ or ‘obectifying’ a woman, ignore the complex relationships between worker and consumer. I particularly recommend the work of Professor Danielle Egan here.

This isn’t to reiterate happy hooker versus victim paradigms, or radical feminist versus liberal or sex radical feminist positions, but to argue that we must engage with sexual politics when discussing the sex industry. Too often sex workers are considered to be either victims, liars or suffering from false consciousness, mentally unwell or the 1 percent exception.

Sex workers globally are fighting for the right to work safely. There is a good article here with a short film ‘The Power of the Collective’: Indian sex workers are a shining example of women’s empowerment.

“If I’d been married, I would have been HIV positive by now,” says one of Vamp’s stalwarts, Shabana, reflecting that married women are far more vulnerable than she is as a sex worker, unable to insist on condoms with their husbands as she does with her clients. And her face breaks into a smile as she describes the life she leads: the freedoms she enjoys, her choice of clients, and the autonomy and empowerment she has. “I’m as free as a bird,” she says”. This quote jumped out at me. It’s far too easy to take a patronising racist view of these ‘poor women’ instead of listening to their voices.

And whilst I think constant questions about ’empowerment’ are misplaced in the sex industry, it is interesting that we don’t question the sexual freedoms or autonomy of married women, who may face far more sexual coercion than a sex worker.

This blog also takes influence from the paper by Dr Sarah Kingston (University of Lancaster) and Dr Natalie Hammond (University of Manchester) Experiencing Stigma as a Sex Work Researcher.

My own paper Between the Sex Industry and Academia: Navigating Stigma and Disgust will be included in our sex work edition of the Graduate Journal of Social Science, and is forthcoming March 2015. In this article, I argue that: “Many sex work researchers report feeling unwelcome and openly excluded in various academic departments or spaces within departments, due to the nature of their research” (Ahearne, 2015).

I also argue that: “Dirt and disgust stick to bodies, and the deviant body is read as spoiled, seeping and dangerous. Therefore the academic who reveals she has worked in the sex industry faces continued stigmatization”.

There is a reason why people are so quick to denounce sex work, especially female sex workers. They are disgusted by the very idea, it seems unnatural to them, it disrupts the natural order of things.

It also speaks loudly about our unwillingness to engage with the idea that most people (women, men and transgender workers too) choose to work in the sex industry for economic reasons. The fact some feel the need to insist that sex work is only accountable by pimps, sex trafficking, drug addiction, mental health problems, speaks volumes about our lack of engagement with sexual politics. I am sure those working with pornography or BDSM research feel the same frustrations. That common sense discourse thwarts common sense. That “I think it’s disgusting” translates into viable policy options and indeed, as Professor Graham Scambler asserts, policy based evidence takes the place of evidence based policy.

I argue that criminalising sex work because sex trafficking and abuse happens, is like banning sexual intercourse because rape happens. There is abuse that can happen in paid and unpaid sex, and we need to recognise this abuse where and when it occurs. We need to listen to workers, and offer them help if and when they need it. Sex work is of course a very intimate form of body work, and Kate Hardy says that sex work is: “equal to any other, but not the same as any other” (2013, p.43).

If we believe that all sex work is violence against women and intrinsically harmful, then it is easy to speak over women whose experience does not match what we want to hear. To this end, abolitionists continue to insist that sex trafficking is epidemic. And it is easy to look the other way at the vile fashion in which sex workers are treated by the police.

I have written about sex trafficking and the conflation of trafficking with consensual sex work here. This is an area of great interest to me, and the scholars listed are undertaking invaluable work. I have also re-blogged a sex worker and activist’s take on the diabolic Stop The Traffik video that went viral.

Professor Nick Mai has argued that only a minority of UK sex workers have been trafficked. And Dr Synnøve Økland Jahnsen has argued that anti-trafficking policies are often anti-immigration.

I continue to be thankful for the wonderful peers and scholars researching sex work. The Bi-Annual Postgraduate Sex Work Conference organised by Dr Teela Sanders at the University of Leeds is a must for those of you who are considering studying the area.

I recently handed in the first draft of my literature review, and have begun to examine the relationship between radical feminist/ abolitionist ideology on sex work, with punitive and harmful measures taken against sex workers.

But what continues to surprise me, is that those academics or researchers who pride themselves on being radical, critical, and revolutionary in their areas of work, continue to cut down debate regarding the sex industry.

As a feminist I reiterate that we must support sex workers in whatever they choose, making their work as safe as possible, protecting them from stigma and state violence. And we must ensure funding goes to legitimate agencies that will help workers at whatever stage they are at.