A Sociological Autobiography: 32 – Researching Sex Work

I gave a talk about sex work in New Orleans in 1991, flying to the ASA’s Southern Sociological Association meeting to propound my theories in eight minutes, the remaining two being reserved for questions; drop your notes and you were stuffed. The meals with the contingent from Emory, not just old friend Dick Levinson, but Linda Molm, Karen Hegtvedt and others, were predictably sublime. But it was 1990 that had witnessed my first journal publication on the sex industry, in Sociology of Health and Illness. It was co-authored with Rita Peswani, a medical student whose dissertation for the Intercalated B.Sc in Sociology Applied to Medicine provided its empirical base, and Adrian Renton, himself a former B.Sc student. It had been Adrian, by then a public health physician and researcher, who had invited me to join him in a project assessing sex workers’ perceived risk of HIV/AIDS. My acquiescence was ironic: I had solemnly promised myself that I would NOT jump on what was then an AIDS bandwagon. So why did I assent? I guess it was chiefly out of respect for Adrian, one of the smartest and most unorthodox of my former students; and perhaps a need also to find a viable project for one of his successors, namely Rita. Rita had proved an inspired interviewer. She possessed an innocence I might fairly describe as ‘wide-eyed’. But she was sharp too, and not at all naïve. Her/our small sample was obtained courtesy of two of Adrian’s contacts, Helen Ward (an STI clinician and epidemiologist) and Sophie Day (an anthropologist), who researched sex workers’ health via their innovative and inspiring Praed Street Project at St Mary’s Hospital, Paddington. Ethically – and I use this term advisedly and not in accordance with its current bureaucratic or ‘tick-box’ reinvention – I decided that Rita should conduct her interviews in my office in Riding House Street while I hovered around outside. Rita was successful not just because she had a charming innocence but because both male and female interviewees trusted her. And they trusted her – a lesson for all aspiring interviewers this – because she respected them. Nobody could ask ‘so just what exactly is rimming?’ like Rita.

Like Rita, I was on a learning curve. And I am embarrassed to admit to my first lesson. As a sociologist I had long appreciated that sex workers were much like non-sex workers. But it is one thing to grasp this from reading matter and another to really take it on board. Back to Gadamer’s fusion of horizons: by meeting and talking to a few women before and after Rita’s formal interviews, and listening to the recordings, I affirmed their normality afresh and anew. I have never forgotten this lesson. Women and men who work in the sex industry are making their way in the world. They do so in circumstances not of their choosing, out of what Maggie Archer calls their ‘involuntary placement’ in society; in this they are entirely unexceptional.

Becky Graham-Smith was another Intercalated B.Sc student who came my way and whose project on sex work I supervised and wrote up for a joint publication (this time a chapter in a book in 1992 focused on behavioural and social risks associated with AIDS). Becky was another clever and delightful co-researcher. This time the interviews were conducted in the community, which I judged meant that – ethically – I was obliged to accompany her. One encounter I remember well, as I suspect does Becky. It was in a flat adjacent to Waterloo Station. We had rung ahead, explained our mission, and made an appointment. We tramped up to a first floor flat and were met by a friendly host, her body only partially concealed by skimpy underwear and a take-it-or-leave-it dressing gown; she winked at me. No sooner was the interview underway than she excused herself to attend to a client. She was back within five minutes (I timed it). This was followed by another visit, this time by her pimp, or so we assumed. A large, muscular black guy, he smilingly interrogated me, conveying that he had my number. Becky later said that had I not been present she would have leapt out of the window at this point! It proved a good interview thereafter, even if we learned as much from its context.

The gist of these two publications was a case for the decriminalization of prostitution/sex work. My excursions into print with Rita and Becky were consonant with the research literature, at least as I interpreted it. We maintained that sex workers’ health and wellbeing were threatened by legal constraint and that ‘voluntary, adult’ sex work should be decriminalized. Extant laws, we contended, enhanced sex workers’ risk of STIs, including HIV/AIDS; their legally sanctioned social exclusion rendered them vulnerable to abuse, exploitation and lacking full access to support and healthcare.

In 1997 Annette and I edited a collection under the title Rethinking Prostitution. Our daughter Rebecca designed the cover. I am pleased with this book for a number of reasons. First, it was discernibly pro-sex worker. I do not mean by this that no problems were either detected or addressed. The job indubitably carries risks, some of them down to social stigmatization. But I have yet to talk to a sex worker who failed to condemn any of child prostitution, involuntary prostitution, sex trafficking, and so on. Second, we included an unedited statement from the English Collective of Prostitutes. This was a group whose trust we had to earn, which was tricky and time-consuming; but I have an abiding respect for Niki Adams and Nina Lopez-Jones. And third, we exercised what I would term a fair-minded comprehensiveness. When I was told many years later that our book was commended to a team of television researchers, by a female sex worker, I took this as a significant complement.

With the benefit of hindsight two seeds were planted at this time. First, I began to rethink the Weberian position on value-neutrality. Weber, it will be recalled, distinguished between the values that necessarily inform one’s definition of a problem to research (value-reference), and allowing one’s stance or prejudices to seep into and contaminate the actual conduct of the research (value-judgement). But is this workable? In The Killing Fields of Inequality Therborn has recently insisted that talk of equality and inequality is unavoidably normative; ceteris paribus, the former is good, the latter bad. Respect for sex workers and for their rights and entitlements bring a value commitment in their wake. I was for decriminalization.

The second seed concerned the nature of the gap between blueprints and their implementation. One can credibly and consistently be for or against the sex work industry. Indeed, many ‘liberal’ feminists tend to be pro, and many ‘radical’ feminists anti. But the translation of either blueprint directly into law is a risky business. This is due to what sociologists have long called ‘unintended consequences’. In short, I came through these early encounters with sex workers as heterogeneous as their work situations to appreciate the importance of being pragmatic. On one issue the evidence is irrefutable: abolitionist regimes, such as those found in the USA, Russia and China, cause widespread harm even as they fall far short of fulfilling the blueprints of their sponsors.

I was to think a lot more about these issues in the noughties.



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