Dr. Katrien Symons of the Student Sex Work Project talks about researching sex work:
Labelling the sex work researcher
A few weeks ago I started working on The Student Sex Work Project, replacing Jacky Tyrie. Starting a new job is one of those happenings in life which trigger questions of interest from the people around you. Like when you just bought a new car people will ask you what brand. And this might become even more so when you’re moving abroad for that new job (I’m from Belgium). When telling people that this new job consists of researching sex work, the reactions that I get usually cover elements of frowned eyebrows, giggling, and awkwardness. I have also never been asked so intensely about my personal feelings, “as a woman”, regarding the topic that I study and I have been studying quite some topics over the past few years. I am familiar with this type of situations since I studied Sexology in university. That’s an actual master’s course covering biological, psychological and sociological aspects of human sexuality. The reason that I ended up studying Sexology had to do with wanting to better understand the ways in which society deals with and organizes sexuality, how this affects our health and wellbeing and eventually affects society as a whole. Most people, however, assigned me with more “sexy” motivations including my boyfriend at the time who seemed to have high hopes that undertaking the course would awaken the sex goddess in me.
Not that any of that ever bothered me. People’s reactions to what I study have never been hostile or negative. In that we are a long way ahead of what sex research pioneers such as Kinsey or the masters of sex Masters and Johnson had to deal with. Today we, sex researchers, are a community with our own journals, networks and conferences. In that environment no frowned eyebrows, giggling and awkwardness. We just share our knowledge in much the same way as it were the latest discoveries in nuclear science. I believe that the reason why people respond so funny when I tell them I’m researching sex work is that they – consciously or unconsciously – assume that this is related to my own sex life. Guilt by association. Based on the reactions that I get I can only start to imagine what it must be like if you’re telling people that you’re actually selling sex rather than just studying it!
I think it is safe to say that society has a pretty disturbed relationship with anything that has to do with sex. Sure sex is more present than ever in this 21st century but sex also still carries that veil of discomfort at best and taboo at worst. Each society organizes sexual behaviour in some way by distinguishing what is acceptable from what is unacceptable and therefore in need of restriction or sanction. These categories of good versus bad sexual behaviour are not rigid but they are in constant change. Thanks to the advocacy of so many, we are now entitled more than ever to choose for ourselves what sexual behaviour suits us best, with whom, when, in what conditions, and whether or not it serves a reproductive goal. Sex does not necessarily have to be romantic to be “good”, and interference by the state in our sexual behaviour is virtually only accepted when the integrity of other people is at stake.
So what is the problem with sex work, as it is engaged in by adult and consenting individuals? And why are other forms of transactional sex – may those who never had sex in order to achieve something else throw the first stone – not an issue? The monetary transaction taking place in sex work makes the transactional aspect of the sexual encounter so present and undeniable that it shocks. From a moral order perspective, sex workers are seen as disturbing “the social fabric”; from that perspective sex work should be eradicated or at least made invisible as much as possible. These days it is more popular to blame the clients of sex workers rather than sex workers themselves. But there always must be a culprit as the behaviour itself is just wrong. Therefore the view of the sex worker as a criminal and of the sex worker as a victim of male violence are ultimately not that different from each other; they are just two sides of the same coin saying “sex work is wrong”.
Even in the 21st century we still need to become more aware of who or what defines when and under what circumstances sex should or should not be allowed. These views are not mere personal opinions but they are real in their consequences, especially for sex workers. They affect what type of sex work policies are put in place, whether or not a sex worker can be arrested and in what conditions they have to work; they affect whether a sex worker will be discriminated and stigmatized; they affect whether a sex worker will have access to health services; and they affect whether or not a sex worker will feel able to report a violent client to the police.
I wonder how sex workers themselves feel about being the subjects of research. Do they feel like monkeys in a zoo? That their business is none of our business? Or do they think actually some good may come out of it, such as less stigmatization, less criminalisation, safer work environments, improved access to sexual health and social services? Together with other sex work researchers in the UK and abroad I am working now for the latter. In the upcoming year the results of The Student Sex Work Project will be analysed, written down and disseminated. I am sure this will feed many giggly but interesting discussions. More broadly and in the longer run I hope that all that talk about sex will improve our abilities for dealing with sex in a less cramped way. I’m sure it would do us good.