Strip Club Lecture

Life goes full circle and that is something that constantly astounds me.

Gemma Ahearne giving a guided walk of sexual entertainment venues on Wednesday 17th November 2021, image taken by Jenny Graham

20 years since first entering the sex industry I lead an award-winning module Crime, Justice and the Sex Industry here at the University of Liverpool.

Image shows a visual navigation grid of Gemma’s third year undergraduate module Crime, Justice and the Sex Industry

First thing’s first after a weekend where harm reduction has been attacked in the media. This blog represents my personal views and does not in any way reflect the views of my employer.

Second thing, this is my personal blog so I can discuss faith here.

Third, I do not promote sex work either on my module nor on my blog or in my personal life. Any part of the sex industry involves deeply personal, highly stigmatized work that is not for the majority of people. Sex work is not the same as any other work, although it is equal in that people are doing it for money and they need rights, respect and for you to stand with them as allies.

Last thing to note is that I have Dyslexia so any appalling grammar or typos are a reflection of that.

Non-linear pedagogy

I teach two weeks of my module on Sexual Entertainment Venues, although as you can see from my visual navigation grid above, all of the weeks are linked. My non-linear pedagogy means that students can move around the course content at a direction and pace of their choosing.

This pedagogy is also important for trauma-informed teaching as students can navigate around material that is uncomfortable or triggering for them.


Stigma is one of the most harmful things for sex workers. Stigma means that sex workers are often not seen as credible witnesses/ ‘deserving’ victims: sex workers can give or withdraw consent like anybody else and must be fully supported if they are raped, assaulted or the victim of any other violence.

Stigma means that sex workers are spoken over and spoken for, by people who think they know better. This paternalistic agenda reproduces abusive co-dependent relationships and removes sex workers’ autonomy and agency. This can often mean replacing one site of exploitation with another, with little opposition from well-meaning-onlookers.

This is particularly notable in the colonial projects of many anti-trafficking projects of the ‘rescue industry’. Here, largely white middle-class charities (often funded by religious right and led by fundamentalist Christian orgs) seem to forcibly ‘rescue’ sex workers in the global south to act as their white saviours. With no acknowledgement of power/race dynamics, and no recognition of the funneling of poor women of colour into garment-making industry for the benefit of the west. Often the former sex workers are not paid, the monies go the charity and their subcontactors for their ‘re-education programmes’.

Rather than challenging the feminization of poverty, wider gendered labour exploitation, hostile anti-immigration policies and our own complicity with exploitative supply chains globally, the ‘rescue industry’ props up the status quo. As Nandita Sharma writes here, “anti-trafficking is an inside job… states ‘combat trafficking’ to put a humanitarian face on their punitive anti-immigration policies”.

Stigma means that victims of violence are less likely to reach out and get help. Stigma means sex workers fear judgement.

Stigma means that few people challenge police, state and structural violence against sex workers.

Lived experience

As someone with lived experience of most things I teach and write about, I can confidently say that stigma is damaging to mental health and makes you more vulnerable to other forms of exploitation.

I write about navigating stigma and disgust in a journal article here.

Until we can learn to engage with people where they are, without trying to project our beliefs and false sense of morality onto them, then we push people further away.

For twenty years I have lived with this stigma (and others) and it makes me more passionate about fighting against it.

Violence against women and girls

My module situates sex work within the broader landscape of violence against women and girls. This is for two reasons. Firstly, the sex industry is not a unique site of exploitation and risk. To believe this is to ignore that most of us who are the victim-survivor of sexual violence will be attacked by someone known to us. If we are killed it is likely to be at the hands of a partner or ex partner.

To position the sex industry as inherently violent reinforces the essentialist idea that men cannot control themselves and that women should not place themselves in ‘risky’ situations. Let me be very clear: our bodies cannot incite men to rape and kill us. To believe so means that you are a misogynist. As women our worth is inherent and God-given and no man can take that away because they judge us as unworthy. Listening to sex work prohibitionists talk so violently about men “penetrating prostitutes in every hole” makes me very concerned what they think sex looks like. There seems to be a glee in dehumanizing sex workers online, rather than asking why many men, through paid and unpaid sex, care little for both consent and for women’s sexual pleasure.

Secondly, to place so much focus on the sex industry as a unique risk creates a false binary between the ‘bad’ man who buys sexual services and the ‘good’ man who does not. This does not account for respectful clients who do understand consent, and the men who are sexually abusing children, beating their wives and sexually harassing and assaulting colleagues. We need to address harm where and when it occurs, in every facet of our society.

Nor of course does it account for the fact them the men who are abusing and raping sex workers are the husbands and boyfriends to other women. This is a societal problem. But I don’t want to hear the morality-bleatings of men online until you let us look at your internet history and until we see you condemn the sexual offending of those in your organisations.

The sex industry is the scapegoat of many people who do not bat an eyelid at the insidious abuse in their own circles.

Guided walks

I have been facilitating guided walks for the last 9 years and believe it is a strong pedagogical approach to use socio-spatial regulation and the transgression of that for teaching purposes. As a visual learner who is hyperactive, I am bored easily and when presented with an opportunity to ‘do’, to see, explore, feel, then I can understand complex policy and theory much more easily.

Gemma delivers a guided walk in 2019
Gemma delivers a walk for FACT Liverpool in August 2019
Gemma delivers a walk for FACT Liverpool in August 2019
Gemma delivers a walk for LJMU Sociology in 2018
Gemma performs for Bloc Projects Sheffield in Summer 2019

There is much literature on walking as method and I keen to engage in more of this going forward.

Through engaging with a space we get to interrogate so many of these complexities.

Image taken of Gemma’s guided walk Wednesday 17th November

I would like to thank my students for making the module what it is. It is a humbling experience to be able to be so honest and share this in my teaching.

Image taken by Jenny Graham on Gemma’s guided walk on Wednesday 17th November 2021

In solidarity always,

Gemma x