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Why You Shouldn’t Study Sex Workers

adontstudyThis is an edited version of a post originally published on Lime Jello’s blog autocannibal

Before I finished my B.A., I encountered a social worker who was working on her M.A. Her politics were generally pro-decriminalization, but she also liked to trade in horror stories about women whose vaginas fell out from having too 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.

It does seem a bit mean, since in my first M.A., I studied sex work myself. But it’s for the good of everyone involved that I say this: don’t study sex work. Sure, there will be exceptions—someone out there will have something genuinely new to say on the topic that warrants the research. But academics…we all think we’re that Someone Special. The truth is that most of us aren’t. So let’s find something else to study.

Find Something Else to Study…

1. …because sex workers are human beings, with whole entire lives outside of their jobs.

Once upon a time, I took a couple of classes at a nearby Fortress of Smartitude. The environment was one of relentless bullying by an abolitionist professor, so it was an unhappy time for me, but matters were made worse by my other class. That professor, despite knowing that my interest was in communication and not sex work, pushed and pushed for me to do a “sex positive” project about sex work. After I submitted the first draft of the project I wanted to do, he wanted nothing to do with me. Relatedly, for months after I began my new grad program, my program director introduced me to people as a researcher of sex work—even though my research is on academics’ emotional labor. The point was received: once a whore, always a whore.

But not only are sex workers marked as always whores, they are also marked as only whores. People are truly surprised to learn that I do not plan to make a career out of researching sex work. What else could I possibly be interested in?

Sex work is often only researched in the context of the “empowerment v. exploitation” debate. Making sex work a “special” topic by taking it out of the context of the rest of the world is a way of dehumanizing sex workers. Only when we are seen as our jobs and nothing more can we be carved out of everyday life and marginalized as a field of study unto ourselves.

Research should certainly include sex workers, when appropriate, but it need not be about us. In fact, putting sex work back into a broader context can make research much more useful to us. Consider the following research questions:

  • What happens to formerly criminalized people when they move on to new jobs?
  • What paths do informal or undocumented workers take to transition to new careers?
  • How do people who have worked for cash their whole lives manage their retirement years?
  • What challenges are faced by parents who are stigmatized or criminalized for their jobs?
  • How do people get involved in social movements other than the one most aligned with their identity (that is, how do sex workers and others become allies in other social movements)?
  • How do the online and offline communities in various social movements relate to each other?
  • How does your national housing strategy (or lack thereof, Canada) include or exclude informal workers like sex workers?
  • How does “black market” money work its way back into the formal economy?

By researching sex work as something in and of the world around it, we can get past the useless for-or-against debate and produce knowledge about sex workers’ real lives.

(Image by Flickr user michaelgallagher)
(Image by Flickr user michaelgallagher)

2. …because research on sex work should directly benefit sex workers.

You are not helping us.

Most of the time, 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, helps your career, not 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. They exist to serve sex workers, not to serve you. Make this something you know beyond doubt, in the very fiber of your being: you are not helping us; we are helping you.

How do you repay this help that we are giving you? You make your research matter to us. Since just doing the research doesn’t help anyone but you, you need to do some extra work to make it useful to us. A direct benefit to sex workers is the necessary condition of doing research on sex work. Period.

When I pick up a research question about sex work, I try to make sure that answering it will directly, materially benefit the people I am studying. I make introductions for sex workers who want to get into or return to school, I plan paid lectures or performances or panels, I do free research 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 sex worker organizations, and I sit on planning committees to stop arrests in my community.

None of these things are 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 M.A. 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.

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.

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.

“Nothing about us without us” means that sex workers are so over research that uses our knowledge without paying us back, that investigates our lives without asking us what we need to find out, or that talks about us behind our backs, protected from critique by an academic journal’s paywall.

If you can’t meet this simple ethical requirements for doing sex work research—because you don’t have the time or money, because you’re not allowed to 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.

Look at all these cool research projects done by sex workers themselves. Not to mention all our other means of disseminating knowledge, like blogs, zines, sex work Twitter, videos…Why should we dedicate time and energy to your career, when we can do this shit ourselves?

Consider using your place of privilege in the academy (however limited it may be) to get funding, research tools, research skills and other resources to sex workers themselves. Support sex workers to become researchers inside and outside of academe. Hire sex workers as R.A.s and admit them as grad students.

Long story short: when you do research about sex work, don’t be the lead researcher. Let sex workers take the lead and offer them your support.

4. …because the academic job market is terrible.

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 only open-access publications, and even then only ones we like, and we still have a huge backlog.

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 with her thesis, titled “Red Umbrella McBuzzword: Sex Work, Intersectionality, and Feminism,” or “Sheila Jeffreys Is Right: Rescuing the Prostituted from the Clutches of Sex Positivity.”

And while all of this trendy research by “allies” and “saviors” is going on, the lack of recognition of sex workers’ skills and expertise, the adherence to polarized stereotypes about abject victims and high class call girls, the feeling of entitlement to treat sex workers badly—these problems 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. 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 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 Ph.D.s—even if I wanted to keep studying sex work, I’d be very wary of getting a Ph.D. in sex work when hundreds of other people are doing the same and no one is needed to teach about it.

Since there are many, many sex workers who are qualified to be M.A. and Ph.D. 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. And especially not when you won’t even get a job out of it anyway.

(Image by Flickr user mnotta)
(Image by Flickr user mnotta)

5. …because sex work research is hard.

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. 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. That means that good sex work research gets past the for-or-against debate and says the things that debaters don’t want to hear. If you want to live in a filter bubble, making the same stale arguments over and over, then sex work research is not for you.

6. …because you really can find something else to do.

Forgive me if I seem like I am being hard on you, fellow academics. But it’s been more than five years since I decided I never wanted to sell sex again. It took me about a year to leave my spouse and go back to school, another to finish my B.A. with next to no income, two more to finish my M.A., and now nearly another two on an M.A. in a different field (the job prospects in literature are about as good as those in sex work studies, so I switched to geography). It wasn’t easy, but I found something else to do.

When things reached a tipping point—the point at which it was no longer appropriate for me to study sex work because of the reasons above—I found something else to do again. Finding an employment option that wasn’t sex work was beyond hard, but finding something new to be curious about? Easy-peasy.

Somebody has to study all those things that aren’t sex work. So stop obsessing about our oh-so-titillating lives and get curious!


  1. Ack! And here I was thinking about research proposals I might include in my application for doctoral programs 🙂

    Excellent points, you’ve given me lots to think about, thanks 🙂


    • I have something to say, Yes some of us are still here that lived in the t960’s, We were sex workers and stole and clip money from Tricks, We had to survive. While the Lesbian and Gay Men stayed in the closet made their money got their education, where we were fighting for our lives to be who we meant to be. and the riches go to the people that look down on us just because we are poor and low income, it because of us that you are in the position that you are now. The fight began in the 60’s and we are still fighting for our LGB Community to give us the respect, consideration and compassion that we deserve..

  2. I’ve been in the sex industry for ten years and I’m also a graduate student in geography. Weird. Anyway, I think you’re absolutely right. Unless you’re both an academic and a sex worker and are willing to put time and energy into meaningful reciprocal relationships with the sex work community and NGOs that support them you have no business doing sex industry research.

    I just want to add that if you are both a sex worker and an academic and are committed to doing that challenging work, you can (and should) involve sex workers and sex-worker led NGOs in the development of your research projects, not just invite them to participate during the actual field work.

  3. I love this and have struggled with many of these same issues. As a sex worker, I am endlessly frustrated when, towards the end of every school year, my mailbox fills with requests for interviews– “what’s it *like* to be a sex worker?!” “Why, oh why, do you do it?!” The questions always stem from a foundation of condescendence.

    On the other hand, as an academic, I see great value in *good*, ethical research on the sex industry. Particularly as anti trafficking legislation sweeps our national, backed by all sorts of fabricated statistics and completely unethical research methods, I think the research component is essential.

    Which is why I study the sex industry. I am a sex working academic studying other sex working academics. I’m curious how our position as so called sexual deviants impacts our experiences in academia. So if you’d like to participate in a good, ethical study on sex workers, I’d love to hear from you.


  4. Many of the problems you mention are common across other fields of study, such as when I worked at an infant mortality reduction program we were constantly deluged by requests to “collaborate” on research projects from graduate students and professors at the local university. What they wanted was access to research subjects, i.e., our clients (poor black women). And the model was and still largely is, they swoop in for a quick minute (not bothering to really learn anything that might challenge rather than confirm their biases), and disappear to work on a journal article to further their career that, chances are, reflects badly on our program and our clients and is inaccurate. So, yeah, true partnerships between academics and community-based organizations whose mission is to serve marginalized populations take YEARS to develop and nurture. I was fortunate enough to be involved in one of those relationships but they are extremely rare.

  5. For someone who is about to embark on their Masters research project on ‘sex work and feminism’ (a follow-up from my Honours thesis on ‘What does mean to be an African sex worker feminist’) this is one sobering post. Thank you for sharing and keeping us grounded.

  6. Your article rang so true in so many ways. I work in a sex worker support organization and have so many requests for people to “visit” with the participants, teach them yoga, get information for their term paper, take photographs, ask personal questions, study “them” so they can play a “prostitute” in a play. We participate in community based research with one group of academics who include participants in the design of questions, in the asking of the questions and working on the outcomes of the questions. The papers that come out of this research are aimed at changing policy and fighting against federal laws surrounding sex work and refuting harmful policy and law with evidence based research.
    One of the things you mentioned that is so familiar is what happens every September with people calling to do one day of volunteering so they can observe the life of the Drop-In or do a ride along or interview participants. It is the voyeuristic part that is disturbing and the fact that people don’t find it at all weird and can’t really understand why the answer is no. The other thing that happens is that students who register for gender studies flood our inboxes with requests!
    And then there are the people who think there is social capital in working in a sex worker support organization………….
    Thank you for such a great article.

  7. I was worried that this article would be taken as my saying “NEVER TALK ABOUT SEX WORK EVER!!!” so the comments here are really heartening to me. The comments reiterating the hard work that goes into building meaningful relationships, with all research participants and with marginalized populations like sex workers in particular, are exactly on point. It takes time, effort, knowledge (pre-research research!), and, often, money. And I’m really not lying about the job market waiting for us grad students on the other side of this research.

    Thanks for the fantastic commentary!

  8. Well written.

    The most I could possibly add is…

    If you aint worked at KFC, you can’t talk about what it’s like working at KFC without just bullshitting about the lived experience of other people you have no right to take ownership of.

  9. Bracing, refreshing argument. I’ve never officially researched sex workers, but I used a lot of ethnographic research about them in Developing countries to create HIV prevention services for them. That was useful research but it was about the dangers they faced living and working on the street, not a discussion of their pre-feminist consciousnesses. I think the best argument made on this article is the last… Get interested in something else. I worked in HIV prevention for years, and I can’t describe the relief I felt when I stopped trying to find the next job in a field crowded with “peers” – be they gay, a sex worker, an injecting drug user or whatever – when I was merely a (mostly) heterosexual Anglo-Celtic woman. Globally, most people who are HIV positive are heterosexual (people usually forget to count everyone affected in the developing world) but the workplace is crowded with minority peers with a sense that their personal life experience makes them especially entitled. Sometimes it does (although perhaps not as often as they claim). In the end I realised that I was just as happy doing other things… Things these “peers” might not have the flexibility or experience to do. Now I’m retrained in Occupational Therapy. The needs are just as complex and the workplace hiring is much more interested in my skills than my life history. Doing other things is a great plan. Can’t recommend it enough:-)

    • Finding something other than sex work to study was a relief for me, too. As a “peer” I’ve always felt this incredible pressure to be knowledgeable about all things sex work. Especially before I went back to school and had just started activism, it was a terrible feeling to be asked for answers I didn’t have and didn’t know how to get. It’s nice to be able to just learn about something without having to try and muster and special wisdom about it beyond what I can demonstrate through my research. That’s not to say lived experience doesn’t produce its own kind of knowledge that can’t be gotten elsewhere, just that it can relieve a lot of pressure to just be a “normal” researcher and not have to speak for a whole population like that.

  10. This is a excellent article that has given me much insight and a change in my scope of thought in a number of ways. I am not a sex worker, though fully support the profession and rights of sex workers, without victimising the profession. I do advocate though, for sex workers to be able to carry out their work without fear of violence or social stigma, as I do with all professions. I think its important to remember, there are many non sex workers out there who genuinely support the profession but (non-intentionally) go about doing so in a disrespectful manner. I am 100% on board the movement of sex workers to educate the masses that sex work is not a forced profession for drug addicted victims of childhood abuse, a senseless perception that no one would choose to do the profession because they could possibly enjoy it or find it empowering or that there are any other perks of the job besides money (to feed supposed drug habit). I do however urge the education to be delivered in a senstitive manner, us non-sex workers supporting sex workers, are not deliberately trying to cause offence, disempower or disenfranchise anybody working in the biz, the more people who show their unwavering support, the more chance there is of changing attitudes of the wider society, however people will cut that support out if they feel like they are being persecuted or that they can’t comment on what they would like sex-workers to be entitled to (such as access to safe and fair working conditions, superannuation/workers compensation, destigmatisation so that saying you are a sex worker in public is not a dirty word) because they haven’t worked the job themselves. To sum it up, sex workers, don’t be afraid or put off by non-sex worker support! We want you to continue to do the fabulous work you have done for many years, we are there for you and have your back!

    • I am, in fact, a drug-addicted victim of childhood abuse. I love that you support sex workers, but you need to keep complicating your ideas. As I wrote above, your goal should be to learn something new in a way that challenges the ideology you walked in with. Things aren’t as black-and-white as many would like them to be.

  11. I have a question re: outing yourself as a sex worker to professors/your thesis committee within academia for my “friend” who does sex work. My friend is a queer, white, non-binary androgyne finishing grad school and is writing their MA thesis on LGBTQ youth homelessness in response to the disproportionate rate of LGBTQ youth (especially QTPOC youth) who experience homelessness, as well as after having their own issues with housing. Sex work, perceived “sex trafficking” and “survival sex” came up frequently, and the discussions surrounding these topics confirmed for my friend just how ignorant academia, non-LGBTQ-aligned shelters and people in general are regarding sex work. My friend wants to discuss how this gap in provider perception of the population and the population’s needs, is one factor alienating LGBTQ youth from shelters; since statistics suggest that more of us queers are involved in sex work as compared to our heterosexual counterparts, harsh judgment of sex work and requirements like traditional job reform are significant reasons that queer kids…especially underage sex workers…won’t go to most formal shelters when they are experiencing homelessness. A professor has already told my friend that they will have increased credibility defending their thesis because they’re a member of the LGBTQ community, and they’re wondering about outing themselves as also being a sex worker, or just saying that they used to do sex work. They hope that in doing so, they can write in their thesis that their perspective further contributes to their findings that shelters harshly judge, and in turn, alienate underage queer sex workers who need help with housing.

    I was wondering if you could tell me about your experience being out as a sex worker within academia, and whether you think it would be worth it for…my friend…in order to reinforce their data and contribute to their conclusion. The way academia perceives sex work among LGBTQ homeless people/youth is really yuck. Maybe you’d prefer to message me privately somehow if you do respond? In any rate, I hope you do. Just curious. #askingforafriend #independentcontractor #helpmeacademiasucks

    • I’ll try to write an article about this in the coming weeks, but, briefly, I think it’s a bad idea to be out in academe. And I say that as someone who IS out. Academics are still largely from a very privileged class. Whatever credibility you gain will never extend beyond what you say in your thesis and even that will dissolve quickly. And then you’ll just be a whore, someone who lacks integrity and will do anything for money and can maybe be a token speaker at events once or twice a year but is definitely not a colleague. It will affect your networking capacity, your relationships with other students and your reputation — all things that matter greatly for your job prospects. So sorry to be a buzzkill, but having been there and done that, I really do think it’s a bad idea.

  12. Sex work is such a strange subject; it’s so overstudied and so understudied at the same time. I’ve read dozens of articles about the “psychology” of sex work, the harms it does or doesn’t do, how feminist or empowering it is or isn’t… but when I tried to find qualitative studies about safety and risk factors in the industry there was next to nothing within my (admittedly amateur) reach.

    Most people don’t seem to want to study “sex work” as much as “SEX (work).”

  13. So it wouldn’t be a good idea for me to write a paper for my high school english class on laws against sex work/sex workers and the movement for decriminalization?

    • Speaking in your best interests, I suggest you write your English essay about English literature.

      However, if you must write a high school essay on sex work, which I don’t think is really going to hurt anyone: (1) do not bother any sex workers – read existing published articles, and (2) why not try one of the research topics suggested in the article above?

  14. Thank you. I am a prostitute and blogger who has been interviewed for academic research, and I too pondered the problematic notion of an outsider telling my experiences. Indeed there is sometimes interesting insight about sex work from outsiders, but the issue of silence on the voices of prostitutes themselves is still dominant. I am grateful to the academics who understand this issue and thus let the voices of sex workers navigate their papers. Still, however, there are too many “know it alls” who want to speak on behalf of women like me (ie: radical feminists)

    I suppose that is why I started my own blog years back. While I was studying at Uni, I was very frustrated when I encountered outsider academics or students who had a keen interest in prostitutes or the industry. I was just reminded of the arrogance within academia where “intellectuals” feel the need to ‘research’ other people and speak on their behalf (of course, most wise academics understand this arrogance and avoid it). Quite honestly, an outsider can never truly understand us by mere interviews, ethnographic observation and combining trendy theoretical frameworks. Bare in mind that many of us, like anyone, have memories so painful that we do not share or want them to be objectified for others.



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