Before I finished my BA, I encountered a social worker who was working on her MA. Her politics were generally pro-decriminalization, but she also liked to trade in horror stories about women whose vaginas fell out from having so much sex. She had secured the cooperation of a rescue organization that collaborated with police to be allowed to study their Very Marginalized Whores. She wanted my help nailing down her research question.
“Don’t do this study,” I said. “Find something else to research.”
“OMG why are you so mean?” was more or less her answer.
I’m finishing one MA and starting another right now. In my first MA, I have studied sex work for a few years. In my second MA, I will not study sex work. I am going to explain why, and I hope others in the same position will also choose not to study sex work.
Find Something Else to Study…
1. … because sex workers are human beings, with whole entire lives outside of their jobs.
Despite the fact that I submitted an application for my new program that has nothing at all to do with sex work — it mentioned my background only in passing — my program director keeps introducing me to faculty as someone who will study sex work. She’s a very nice woman, and I like her a lot, but this isn’t the first time this has happened. In my first grad courses, at the relentlessly bullying environment of the Fortress of Smartitude, one of my professors was determined that I would do a “sex positive” project related to sex work.
No matter how many times I said I wanted to study online communication and eroticism among queers with disabilities, he wouldn’t hear it. After I submitted a first draft of my project, which was not about sex work, he wanted nothing to do with me.
Once a whore, always a whore.
Not only do I have interests beyond sex work, I have needs as a human being beyond settling the victimization vs. empowerment debate (which is a stupid debate anyway). In my new program, I’ve proposed to study the job strain experienced by online instructors when their students, in the absence of sexual assault and counselling centres, disclose their experiences of gendered violence to their professors instead. It’s all about neoliberalization of higher education, online communication strategies, occupational health and safety legislation, and student services.
For most people, this is a fucking snoozefest, but I choose to study the barriers to education created by interpersonal violence, in part, because I want sex workers to have equitable access to education. And when one of the hazards attending your line of work is that some people feel entitled to do violence to you… well, someone has to do the research to prove that the services you need as a student are truly necessary.
2. … because research on sex work should directly benefit sex workers.
First things first: 9 times out of 10, when you approach a sex worker organization with the intent of studying them, you are not helping them. You are helping yourself. The completion of your research, alone, is not “helping” sex workers.
Come September, sex worker organizations are flooded with requests for interviews, observations, ride-alongs, quotations, and various other trips by academics and students to the Sex Worker Zoo. Sex worker organizations are universally understaffed and underfunded, and they have shit to do, guys. They exist to serve sex workers, not to serve you.
When I pick up a research question about sex work, I make sure that answering it will directly, materially benefit the people I am studying. I make introductions for sex workers who want to go or return to school, I plan paid lectures or performances or panels, I do free work for organizations, I find spaces for sex workers to disseminate their own political messages, I bring sex workers’ demands to people with the power to meet them and ask how they’re going to do it, I get classes to buy books or other materials from a sex worker organization, I sit on planning committees to stop arrests in my community.
None of these things is optional, or extra, or something I do to be nice. Most of them, in fact, hardly even count as the bare minimum — a product of the fact that as an MA student, I just don’t have much to offer. A much better example of this ethic in action is the Young Women’s Empowerment Project, who did some fine participatory action research and paid their participant-researchers, before deciding to drop out of the nonprofit industry. A direct benefit to sex workers is the necessary condition of doing research on sex work. Period.
And if I can’t provide a direct, material benefit to the subjects of my investigation — if the money or the time or the will just isn’t there (and it often isn’t) — if my research is going to be all take and no give — I don’t do it. Period.
I think “oh hey, it’d be nice to know <blah>” and then I find something else to study.
And it doesn’t stop there. I also don’t do any sex work research or teaching without consulting sex workers on what I’m doing (usually by chatting on Facebook and Twitter, sometimes on my blog) . I won’t publish my research in any journal that is so tightly paywalled that sex worker organizations can’t access my writing. I contribute to a blog that indexes existing research on sex work and promotes open access to it. (Speaking of projects promoting open access, there’s a guy on Twitter who live-Tweets his reading of an article about sex work each week. It’s cool.)
“Nothing about us without us” means that sex workers are so over research that uses their knowledge without paying them back, that investigates their lives without asking them what needs to be found out, or that talks about them behind their backs, protected from critique by a publisher’s paywall.
If you can’t meet these ethical requirements for doing sex work research — because you don’t have the time or money, because you’re not allowed by your school, or because you’re just not willing to work that hard — you should study something else.
3. … because sex workers can and do research sex work.
Sex work is a trendy research topic right now.
One thing I have learned while indexing research articles about sex work is that there are a lot of them. The Sex Work Research blog mostly indexes open-access publications, and even then only ones we like, and we still have a huge backlog. With five contributors, it’s often a race to see who can publish one of their entries today.
And if you hang out with the “right” feminists at university, well, you can’t shake a stick without hitting some young, friendly feminist person who’s going to totally revolutionize the academy, feminism, the sex industry and human thought as we know it through their research on sex work. Right now, there are hundreds of theses and dissertations under production, all titled something like “Red Umbrella McBuzzword: Sex Work, Intersectionality, and Feminism,” and a hundred more all called “Sheila Jeffreys Is Right: Rescuing the Prostituted from the Clutches of Sex Positivity.” (Sheila Jeffreys, by the way, is the best essay-titler ever, having published what I can only assume is an absurdist satire piece titled “How Orgasm Politics Has Hijacked the Women’s Movement.” [Note: hilarious title aside, the essay is pure assholery.])
Research on sex work should be hard, emotionally and intellectually. I don’t mean emotionally hard the way reading some titillating poverty porn is “hard” and now you know there is true evil in the world blah blah (lookin’ at you, Feministe). Hard is research that tells you something you don’t know in a way that challenges the ideology you walked in with. I’ve spent the last three years learning about other sex workers’ experiences, their feelings about their work and their strategies for communicating them, in an effort to disrupt the sex positive ideology I held when I started, which couldn’t account for my experiences. Given the glut of writing produced about sex work, the field would benefit from a reduction in the number of people who just want to confirm their existing beliefs.
And while all of this trendy research by “allies” and “saviours” is going on, the lack of recognition of sex workers’ skills and expertise, the adherence to polarized stereotypes about abject victims and high class callgirls, the feeling of entitlement to treat sex workers badly — these problems that plague society are creating a really nasty environment for actual sex workers in many academic settings. My experiences of bullying and stigma at the Fortress of Smartitude are not unique. It is to Athabasca University’s credit, especially as a “poorly ranked” institution, that they provided such an incredibly supportive environment for me to study sex work. It wouldn’t have been remarkable, never mind changeable, if they hadn’t. Sex workers need support to be students and researchers — whatever resources your university has for supporting sex work research, sex workers should be using them.
Universities can be a bit like collectors. They want one of everything, but once they have one, they don’t always want more. Someone has already asked your research question (really, a lot of people are studying sex work right now) and there is a sex worker available who can do whatever you’re doing at least as well as you. And let’s not even talk about what we’re going to do with all of these doctors of sex work studies for folks who get PhDs — even if I wanted to keep studying sex work, I’d be very wary of getting a PhD in anything trendy, in an already flooded market.
Since there are many, many sex workers who are qualified to be MA and PhD students studying sex work, who have the desire to do so and who may not have the necessary resources, there is no reason for a non-sex worker to scoop them.
4. … because you really can find something else to do.
This doesn’t mean I’ll never read or write about sex work again. There will be several years’ delay editing my thesis for publication after I graduate, and I will continue to do activism and teach classes related to sex work. But it does mean that when I go looking for new projects, they will be inclusive of but not about sex workers. Hopefully they will still be useful to sex workers, among other marginalized populations.
It’s been more than four years since I decided I didn’t want to do sex work ever again, and I am just now reaching a point where that is a real possibility. It took me about a year to leave my spouse and go back to school, another year to finish my BA, another two to be near-complete in one MA program and beginning another. I don’t regret studying sex work in the least, but it’s getting to a tipping point — a point where it’s no longer appropriate for me to study sex work because there are sex workers who can do it just as well. Finding an employment option that isn’t sex work was incredibly hard. Finding other things to be curious about? Easy-peasy.
And somebody has to study all those things that aren’t sex work.