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When Sex Workers Join Academe

Current and former sex workers are taking a stand against their portrayal as victims and conducting studies of their own.
(Photo: socialcriteria/Flickr)

(Photo: socialcriteria/Flickr)

It is widely acknowledged that there is a demand for sex work. There is perhaps even greater demand for sex work stories. From Fanny Hill to Pretty Woman to the new A&E reality show 8 Minutes, there has long been a public desire to hear about the "real" stories of sex workers—as long as those stories are couched in sufficiently confessional and prurient terms. "I think of the men who come to my public talks, who corner me with personal questions about my 'real work' after I've given a reading or delivered a lecture on my reporting or research," Melissa Gira Grant writes in Playing the Whore. "Our political work is still understood as sex, as if we cannot speak without producing pornography."

Grant deliberately refuses to produce pornography in Playing the Whore; the book, like her lectures, is focused on research and analysis, not on confessional revelation. Grant is not alone; there are many sex workers and former sex workers who research and analyze sex work from an analytical perspective. Author, media consultant, and former sex worker Maggie McNeill, for example, discusses common myths about human trafficking at her blog. The Red Umbrella Project, a peer-led sex worker advocacy organization, conducted a study of New York City trafficking courts that found police were disproportionately targeting black sex workers and using racial profiling to make arrests.

Sex workers are objects of study. Analysts interpret them, but they do not speak for themselves.

Many sex workers or former sex workers also perform research in the academy itself. Tara Burns, a former sex worker, researched Alaska's trafficking laws while working toward her Master's in social justice at the University of Alaska. She interviewed sex workers about their experiences and analyzed publicly available data (a project that is ongoing now that her degree is completed). She concluded that Alaska's trafficking laws have done virtually nothing to help trafficking victims and have exposed sex workers to police abuse and harassment. They've also been enormously wasteful. "Even though there has been a unit with four officers dedicated to finding children in the sex trade for over a year now, costing Alaskan tax payers just under $600k they haven't found a single sexually exploited minor," Burns says in an email.

Often researchers, like Burns, are former sex workers; Christina Parreira, however, has continued to work as a sex worker while also pursuing a Ph.D. in sociology at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas. For her research, she has worked as a legal prostitute in a brothel in Las Vegas, and interviewed other workers about how they understand their work. "For example," she says in an email, "I ask the women what sex in the brothel means to them; most of them reply by discussing work sex versus 'real life sex,' experiences of orgasm in the brothel, and the relation between the two." Parreira's conclusions emphasize that different workers think about their work in different ways—which contrasts with the way that sex workers are often written about as a monolithic (and victimized) group. She is now working on publishing and presenting her findings at conferences.

Obviously, since she worked in the brothel alongside those she interviewed, Parreira's research was predicated on being a sex worker herself. As she told me, "I felt comfortable asking other workers questions of an intimate and personal nature because of my status as a fellow worker." Burns' study, too, though, benefited from the fact that she knew many sex workers, and so had access to many potential interviewees. "I didn't interview people I knew very well ... but they referred interview participants to me and those people were more willing to speak with me than they might have been with someone who was a total outsider," she says. "So you could say that I had special access to what's traditionally considered a hidden population."

Access is important, but so is the perspective that sex workers or former sex workers bring to the research. Marginalized groups are stigmatized, and that stigma can often bias academic research—as the history of eugenics and the Tuskegee experiments make painfully clear. "There is so much false information and mistaken stereotypes floating around about sex work, and that can lead to researchers understanding what participants say through a very limited filter that only affirms their previous beliefs," Burns says. Early in her research, she was struck by a statement from the Young Women's Empowerment Project: "[W]e would share the same stories over and over and we would still be shocked when we read their reports. No matter what we said to the researchers, their reports always said the same thing: we were victims who needed police and social workers to save us." Parreira also notes that academic researchers often present sex workers as victims without agency. "There’s the saying, nothing about us without us," she says. "I firmly believe this. If the research is about us, we should be involved in the process in some way; our voices need to be included."

Researchers who have done sex work understand that their past is not a mark of deviance and incapacity, but a source of contacts, expertise, and perspective.

Parreira adds that including sex worker voices doesn't mean that the researchers have to be sex workers themselves. And, for that matter, both Parreira and Burns do not just focus on their own voices. "In my research I didn't just ask sex workers for their experiences—I asked them what conclusions those experiences had led them to,” Burns says. "Then I checked in with multiple sex workers and sex worker groups about the conclusions I found from the data. It seems important that multiple sex workers with a variety of experiences be involved in interpreting data into findings."

But when the researchers are sex workers, or former sex workers, it does make an important statement in itself. Reducing sex workers to their sexuality and their performance of sexuality is the way sex work stigma functions. Sex workers are seen as bodies. These bodies can exhibit pleasure or pain, excitement, or degradation. But these truths are always revealed to some other observer, dispassionate or otherwise. Sex workers are objects of study. Analysts interpret them, but they do not speak for themselves.

Grant, the author, argues that part of the point of the term "sex worker" is to figure sex workers as laborers, rather than as sexual fantasies. The term "de-eroticizes the public perception of the sex worker ... to force recognition of sex workers outside of a sexual transaction," she argues in Playing the Whore. The same dynamic applies when sex workers become researchers. Grant, Burns, Parreira, and others who analyze sex work demonstrate, and insist, that they are not just a sexual transaction. Researchers who have done sex work understand that their past is not a mark of deviance and incapacity, but a source of contacts, expertise, and perspective.

"The variety of experiences I've had and theories that I've learned to explain these kinds of experiences gave me about a hundred different ways to understand the stories of research participants," Burns says. Parreira adds, "Working as a sex worker was essential to my research; it afforded me access that an ‘outsider’ could not get." Through this prism, sex work is not an occasion for prurient or moral titillation; it's a personal and professional resource. When sex workers or former sex workers write as academics, their voices can't be reduced solely to sex—which is a worthwhile academic lesson in itself.