Just Say No: Why You Shouldn’t Study Sex Work in School

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.

pull-quote-sec-1No 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.

pull-quote-sec-2When 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.])

pull-quote-sec-3Research 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.

pull-quote-sec-4This 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.


  1. robin

    I’m queer and disabled and I’d be down to talk about some things if you’re still doing things about disabled queers

    • sarah m

      I wish I was, but that was a one-off project for a class. No interviews or original research, just a new take on how an old system of community-building works and why virtual spaces are so important for so many people’s sense of self. I doubt I’ll have time to follow-up, at least within the next couple of years, but I would read with interest if anyone else took up the topic.

      I’m still doing things about online communications, but focusing on post-secondary education at the moment.

  2. CB

    What about if you’re a former sex worker thinking about applying to PhD programs? I’m thinking about doing some research on sex workers, but I wonder if even I could avoid some of the pitfalls.
    To be honest, I was sort of hoping this would be addressed to other sex workers or former sex workers (rather than gawkers), and be more along the lines of a discussion about job prospects. I feel like the research out there is pretty bad, which is my motivation to do it, but I’m a little worried that it wouldn’t make me employable in academia…

    • sarah m

      I’m not really at a point in my own career where I can tell you how to avoid the pitfalls of sex work research, but I do know a couple of people with PhDs in English who researched sex work and managed to get jobs (in Canada – the job market is very slightly better here than in the US, at least for now) within a few years of getting their PhDs. That in itself is pretty impressive. Notably, neither of them has ever done sex work themselves. One of them has also told me a few horror stories about trying to get government funding for her PhD research, though she was able to get some really good grants once she was done.

      But there are also bigshot researchers with a ton of publications under their belts, like Melissa Ditmore and Laura Agustin, who do not have academic jobs. I don’t know whether that is by choice or because academic jobs have not been forthcoming.

      My own worries about employability were a part of my decision to not research sex work any more. There are just so many people asking almost exactly the same questions, from the same ideological viewpoint, and many of them who are not sex workers and don’t have the barriers to education and employment that I do. It doesn’t look like a field where I would be indispensible, at least from a university’s point of view. (Employability is also why I’m switching from literary studies to a sociology discipline before applying for a PhD. Even in Canada’s slightly better job market, the scholarly association for English instructors is reporting a 7% hire rate.)

      So that’s what I know and what my own worries about employability look like. It’s easy enough to tell gawkers not to take up what little space there is for sex work research, but I don’t know whether it is worth it for sex workers to research sex work or not.

  3. CB

    Thanks for your thoughts about this! Through weird networking, I managed to become an unpaid research assistant and get my name as second author on a paper about this stuff that’s coming out in a social science journal — my very first published paper, and I only have a Bachelors degree in an unrelated humanities field, so I’m pretty happy about it. At the same time, I’m a little concerned about whether it’s a good long-term strategy, but like you I’m just trying to read the tea leaves. On Facebook, Laura Agustin and others seem like they are doing their thing but not too happy with academia. But like you wrote, it’s hard to say whether that’s a personal choice or what…
    Anyhow, good luck with your sociology Masters!

    • sarah m

      Thanks, and good luck to you too, whether you do a PhD in sex work or something else.

      But a big, giant BOOOOO to unpaid RA work. No shade on you of course, and it’s pretty impressive to have a publication while still an undergrad, but there’s no excuse for professors to have unpaid RAs (or TAs, I saw that too at the Fortress of Smartitude). Unions for precarious academic workers (like me as a TA and RA, and you in your RA position) have to fight SO HARD for the very simple condition of being paid for every hour we work. When people who have the privilege of a permanent job and a salary act like it’s something students should do just for the line on our CV, or because we’re so committed to our studies, they devalue us all (even though they wouldn’t do THEIR jobs for free).

    • sarah m

      Laura was kind enough to give an answer about the job market on Facebook. Here is her comment:

      “odds of getting a job after doing a phd are so bad i do not recommend anyone do it, whatever their topic is. if you choose a controversial topic you make the odds worse, unless you see yourself as an adjunct/teaching classes here and there. from my point of view the only reason to do a phd is passion to figure something out – personal reward – nothing else.”

      • CB

        Thanks. Her reply is a little discouraging, but I have been doing other, unsatisfying types of work long enough that I think I’m pretty committed to doing meaningful academic/intellectual work even if I don’t get paid well from it (and maybe I’m just cocky enough to think I’ll figure out a way to get paid elsewhere). But it does sober me up a bit.

        The above is also my thinking re: volunteering to RA/co-author that article, though your comment about undermining labor organizing in academia did sting a bit heh. I guess I was desperate enough to get my foot in the door that I was willing to do this project for free. I’m enough of an entrepreneur that I won’t give it away for free for long, though…:)

    • sarah m

      Oh, yeah. It really wasn’t anything I thought you had done wrong. You do what you gotta do to get experience, get paid, get qualified, etc. It’s a competitive field. It’s the professor should know better and who should treat your labour as the valuable work it is — by paying you. Most universities have small grants available to faculty on a regular basis, so there’s no reason to make students work for free. (E.g., the institution I’m at now gives $2000 grants to social science faculty several times a year, based on a 1-2 page application letter; the one I was at previously has slightly more competitive $6000 grants for faculty 3 times a year.)

  4. cherylovers@gmail.com

    For what its worth I am the founder of the NSWP and now a senior researcher in the medical faculty of Monash University. I have published 4 academic papers in the least year on sex work and biomecial HIV prevention, human rights and law, one of them based on my plenary presentation at AIDS2012. I survive by raising funds from sources OTHER than those connected to the sex workers rights movement. None of my papers have been distributed or even cited by the organisations paid by UN and US institutions to represent sex workers. ( but apparently I should be flattered that they plagiarised bits from them) Efforts to start an network of independent academic sex workers in 2010 were hijacked by appointed ‘sex workers and allies’ who now recieve hundreds of thousands of dollars to endorse institutional agendas. Its incorrect to say sex workers are not getting money fo research, ‘we’ are but its going to the wrong people. Which raises the question, who are ‘we’. The sex workers rights movement needs to be more than a marketplace from which institutions can choose compliant, token resprentatives to conduct or endorse ‘research.’

    • sarah m

      Thanks for adding this Cheryl. I don’t know anything about your situation, but I have definitely felt similarly about tokenism and pressure to espouse a particular “side” of the debate at various points in my work. (Not at the institution where I actually did sex work research, though – they were awesome about it.) Academic freedom for sex worker students and researchers is another important consideration for those considering graduate school. I’d love to hear more from other sex workers about how they’ve dealt with it.

  5. venushakti

    Is there someone you know who writes about people who have left street sex work? I’m interested in talking to those enlightening the public about the conditions keeping women disempowered and the connections between addiction and sex work for women living on the street. I’m a well-educated recovering addict with extensive experience as a former street prostitute.

    • sarah m

      There is actually a really frustrating gap in research literature on “exited” sex workers. Tuulia Law, now a PhD student in criminology, did a qualitative study about sex workers’ experiences transitioning to other jobs, but the sample size is small and consists largely of workers active in sex work organizations — they do talk about the challenge posed by stigma, but largely their experiences are all very positive. It seems more aimed at reducing the stigma associated with sex work (which is a fine enough purpose, but for me it didn’t give me what I needed to know, which was whether everyone struggled as I did and how they dealt with it). http://www.powerottawa.ca/Law_Tuulia_2011_thesis.pdf

      Other than Law’s, most research focuses on the experiences of the most vulnerable sex workers. There is a lot of work on the rate of PTSD and other sort of pathologizing stuff trying to measure how “damaged” former sex workers are, but this measure really doesn’t tell us much about strategies for exiting, what it feels like to exit, or what conditions sex workers exit *into* that might be, as you say, disempowering. Like poverty, lack of access to health care, and employment discrimination, which I know to be big issues. This is frustrating to me becuase it doesn’t actually give me any useful information to compare my own experience to; it just makes people like me the objects of study for others’ curiosity.

      But PACE has done a study on leaving survival sex: http://www3.telus.net/public/pace9/media_files/Pathways_Final.pdf

      And Peers Victoria has some (limited) discussion of it in this research report: http://www.peers.bc.ca/images/DispMythsshort.pdf

      I could be missing something, but I did search, for my own information, fairly recently and came up frustratingly empty-handed. I will do a more thorough search and a post on it when I have some time…

      Is there something in particular you look for or have found in this research? Or are you also just frustrated to find so little?

      • venushakti

        I’m most interested in offering my insights as someone who basically went on a three-year descent/adventure into prostitution to anyone studying the situation who has any questions on what happens behind the scenes or wants information on motivations. I plan to eventually write about it (maybe) if I can find a viewpoint of value to any significant portion of the general public… but right now I’m just focused on not relapsing into drug addiction and pulling myself away from my prostitution addiction triggers (difficult, as I live only 3 blocks from the track).

    • sarah m

      (I should add — Law’s is not a bad study. She’s breaking into a topic that almost no one has approached from any angle other than attempting to measure pathology, and her thesis does as much as an MA thesis can to cover completely new ground like that. If I’m frustrated with the literature in general, it’s not because she’s not doing a good job.)

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