Revelations and the Researcher

stripper-pic (Picture of performer Delilah Jones).

I first went to university in 2002 to study Philosophy at a Redbrick. I hated it. I danced at the same time and dropped out 18 months in. There is no way in hell I could have completed that degree. My father died a week before I started uni, and everything just fell apart.

But when everything falls apart, it often falls back together.

In 2009 I returned to university aged 25. I studied Sociology at Liverpool John Moores University. It is the best thing I have ever done. It was the right fit for me, and I thrived. I enjoyed every lecture and seminar and was so excited to learn. The lecturers and fellow students were all wonderful co-producers of knowledge. I learned not only about the subject areas, about theory and policy and critical thinking, I learned about learning. Without knowing it then, I had picked up great examples of how to teach. I cannot thank the team at LJMU enough for making me excited about the world and making me develop the (awful!) habit of applying my Sociological imagination to anything and everything.

My husband was very ill in 2012, he was in an induced coma in intensive care. I cared for him, and delayed further study. I won a Ph.D studentship in 2013 at Leeds Beckett University, and again, the fit has been incredible. I have met friends for life and been inspired by critical feminist psychologists. But what I have learned the most is how to be a researcher. And it has made me so excited and passionate; there are endless possibilities for what I want to explore and engage with. This is why I am lucky.

After the Philosophy degree debacle, I tried to shed my old self. I did not want to reveal my stripper past whilst studied for my Sociology degree. I am now ashamed that I was trying to bury my ‘old self’ and become more ‘respectable’, someone more fitting of academia. This was in large part due to some fairly harsh treatment by lecturers at the Redbrick, who let it be known that an out-of-the-closet stripper was not welcome on their campus. If any of them ever happen to read this: I hope you realise how archaic and misogynistic your whorephobic views are.

It was during a guest lecture from the wonderful Rosie Campbell OBE that my old stripper self slipped. It was when we were discussing the intricacies of lap-dancing that I realised my life experience had value, and that it was embedded in my ability to apply critical-thinking. I was a secret stripper no longer.

The stigma of working in any facet of the sex industry, or being a former worker, is still stigmatized, and I would not ‘come out’ lightly. My husband, family and friends all know, and I feel I have little to lose. In fact, to the contrary, I feel I have everything to gain by being honest and authentic. I write about the stigma of being both a former stripper and academic in my journal article and blog post here.

Going back to pole dancing as a hobby, has been empowering, liberating and inspiring. Not only am I having feminist discussions nearly daily with a great group of women outside of academia, but I feel alive again, that I can be performer, activist, academic, writer and so many more things. I don’t have to shrink to one-dimensional ‘respectable woman’. I feel happy to embrace my different sides. And or those thinking “How can pole dancing be empowering”, I can only compare our lessons to the vagina monologues. We own our own bodies. We discuss our vaginas, our bodies, our needs, our wants. We critique, we fight back. We can have an academic discussion and also allow each other to perform and enjoy our sensuality and sexuality. I can’t think of many spaces where women can do that with any women.

And all of these sides bleed into my professional work. The more free I am, the better my research. The more I allow myself to feel, to challenge, to critique, to sink within my data and the field of ideas.

Research is traumatic,  and as I wrote in my blog post on trauma: ” Research can be traumatic. It can reach inside of us and expose our own fears, insecurities, experiences and weaknesses. It can bruise and scratch and leak down to our deepest layers. It can expose what we are frightened of, the real life monster under the bed, and it can expose ourselves. We face an authentic self in the mirror when it stares back following a particularly harrowing visit. The self in research is not narcissistic. It is not a fad or a trendy pastime for the qualitative researcher. It is necessity.

We bleed in words. It is where we are most vulnerable. My participants write, and I write. I have found a way of processing the prison fieldwork experience has been to write poetry and prose myself. It’s a way of scraping everything out, of revealing vulnerability and anger that is part of the human condition. The objective researcher is a myth. Transparency and self-reflection are essential for credible research, but often we don’t know ourselves until we take up pen and write.

I am still digesting my research experiences thus far. Each time I listen to my recordings to transcribe, I re-live my emotions. I might re-inhabit trauma. This is important to admit and account for. Research is messy and chaotic. Too much criminology has pretended to be stony faced and clinical. But why would we celebrate sanitized research? Why would we pretend that the researcher and participant don’t leak out and affect the other?”.

It is only be realising and owning ourselves that we might dare to own our research. I was told “your research chooses you” and I believe this. We are led here by our histories, and our experiences are a rich part of our tapestry of research. This isn’t a weakness, it’s art. Women’s voices need to be heard. We need to question, protest, fight back, reject, reclaim.

My only hope is that by being honest and owning my past, I might inspire others to do the same. Certainly I have been inspired by brave women, and we need to keep that circle radiating outwards. We need more ‘non academics’ in the academy. We need more feeling, more substance and more humanity. Reaching others and sharing knowledge is what this is all about for me.

If anybody wants to discuss anything I have written here or elsewhere, then please do contact me. Twitter is your best bet, I am @princessjack.