Sex Work Research Hub Event. “Emerging Research Findings in Sex Work Studies: Unexplored Terrains: and the Queer Sex Work book launch

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I spent today at the fabulous Sex Work Research Hub event entitled “Emerging Research Findings in Sex Work Studies: Unexplored Terrains” at the University of Leeds. There was a mixture of academics, activists and sex workers in the audience, and the papers were of a range of topics (see the schedule here: The event also included the launch of Queer Sex Work – a book edited by Dr Mary Laing, Dr Katy Pilcher and Dr Nicola Smith: The Sex Work Research Hub brings together a range of academics, research, sex workers and sex worker organisations, and stakeholders to deliver tangible public benefit and impact, and they have a range of events throughout the year:

Here were some of my notes from the papers, for anybody who could not attend but is interested in the discussions.

Dr Teela Sanders (University of Leeds) – On our terms: working conditions amongst Internet-based escorts.

Policy documents have tended to focus on street sex work, avoiding seeing sex work as a diverse and multi-faceted market; this is particularly problematic when we consider that the Internet (which is rarely mentioned in such documents) is an incredibly important and pervasive market, facilitated by computer-mediated communication. Teela acknowledged that academic research is also potentially guilty of this; getting dragged into responding to policy discussions (albeit, which are also essential) and thus we are missing what has been happening to sex work.

The paper then began to discuss some of the findings from a small collaborative project, funded by the Wellcome Trust and conducted in partnership with National Ugly Mugs, with Teela, Laura Connelly and Laura Jarvis-King (both from University of Leeds) as co-researchers. Internet-based sex workers who were registered members (of which 240 responded to the survey) with the National Ugly Mugs (a project founded by the UK Network of Sex Work Projects which provides access to justice and protection for sex workers) were asked questions regarding their job satisfaction, experiences of stigma/isolation, access to support services and police and some other categories.

I have a summary document which I would be happy to share by email (including more information about the demographics and methods), but some of the main messages I took from today are included effectively on the final page of this document. Here is the image:

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Laura Connelly and Alex Feis-Bryce (National Ugly Mugs) – A case for decriminalisation: violence within a complex legal framework.

“Since 1990, there have been151 sex workers murdered in the UK. Social control manifests under the guise of “welfarism””.

Laura and Alex were reporting on a short research project – a collaboration between Leeds University and National Ugly Mugs. A quantitative analysis of 961 crime reports submitted to NUM between July 2012 and 2014 was conducted and the types and characteristics of crimes against sex workers in UK reported to Ugly Mugs were analysed.

A little on the procedures of NUM: an incident happens – a sex worker or an agency reports to NUM. If consent is given, NUM reports the incident anonymously to the police. An alert is then produced, and is sent to all registered sex workers, organisations and projects in that area.  There are about 60-70 incidents a month reported. The majority of reports come from support services, but 17% came from individuals and even fewer from police. The paper highlighted the need to engage independent sex workers in registering with NUM too, so that they can receive alerts even if violent clients have not yet been seen by sex workers.

I didn’t note down all of the figures (although I’m sure they will be happy to discuss/share) but here is what I managed to write: the majority of reports are from street sex workers, with approximately ¼ coming from independent escorts, and relatively few from parlours, unspecified, and agencies. Types of crime that were most prevalent included the various forms of physical violence, with robbery at 20%. Rape was less prevalent but still included significant numbers. 18% of reports to NUM included some form of hate crime – mostly sex-worker related (91%) but also a small % of homophobic, racist and transphobic. 5% reported multiple types of hate crime experienced (ie more than one category listed).

The paper finished by arguing that policies which seek to criminalise sex work in the UK are leaving sex workers vulnerable to violence. Evidence from New Zealand points to decriminalisation being the way forward.   More research needs to be done to engage migrant sex worker experiences, which are currently under-represented, as well as acknowledging the intersectionality of criminality.

Dr Katy Pilcher (Aston University) – Subverting heteronormativity in a lesbian erotic dance venue? Queer moments and heteronormative tensions

Katy’s paper was based on a study of 2 clubs – one, a lesbian erotic dance venue and the other a male strip show and was focused on female audience members. The conceptualisations centred on questioning what “women’s space” means, and explored the potential for customers/dancers to exercise a sexualised “gaze” using a queer/feminist approach. Quotes included that a “power-free sex is impossible” (Doezema 2011) and that heteronormativity doesn’t just exist – we can look for ways for it to be challenged.

Two images were initially put up – one of a dancer dressed in a stereotypical, traditional “housewife” outfit. Female watchers typically found this stereotypical feminine routine un-enjoyable or problematic. The dancer said that the point of the routine is to show how much work goes into constructions of heterofemininity and was almost a parody. The second image was the same dancer dressed as a male host.   She was trying to trouble/play with gender but did it work? The customers didn’t read it this way – they saw this routine as that of a drag king. Customers were unsure how to take this and the paper questioned if anything is transformed/subverted if the gaze does not read it like this?

Yet some women police the bodies of customers who are seen as non-normative or out of place. Transwomen and those perceived to be “fat” bodies were targeted too – the space’s inclusivity was limited to what people perceive to be a sexually desirable bodies. For some audience members, they felt more accepted in these spaces than they would ordinarily – this was particularly evident from heavily tattooed women, who were rejected from other spaces such as the employment market for example.

The paper also examined the politics of looking and touching. Some of the women talked about enjoying watching the dancing. Katy mentioned Murphy’s work, which discusses the male audience member at strip bars being in an impotent position – they can only look rather than touch. In the lesbian erotic dance club, dancers (on their terms) would go into the audience and hug audience members. The performance is therefore more reciprocal – watchers are not always passive.

An interesting point to finish on, and one which complements Sarah Kingston and the project, is that the deputy manager of the club highlighted a key issue through their dialogues about female customers being more sexually passive than men: women are not being taken seriously as customers.

Sarah Kingston (Lancaster University) – The unusual suspects: women who pay for sexual services”.

Sarah’s paper (based on the project) began by complementing Katy’s statement regarding women as consumers of sexual services: they are not taken seriously. There is a general assumption that women do not want to or can’t pay for sex. Funded by the British Academy, the project explores the characteristics of women consumers and motivations for doing so, and how they negotiate safety. The paper was focused on the methods rather than the findings, but an end-of-project event reporting on the findings will occur in January 2016.

The project adopted a pluralistic methodological approach for participant recruitment, including social media analysis (eg Twitter, Tinder, blogs and reddit, websites); direct recruiting (Adultwork and Gayswap, escort directories, Jodie Marsh and TLC channel); opportunity (word of mouth and contacts); press releases in the media, email and postal campaigns, and visitations to swinging sites and clubs. There isn’t an online space for women, such as Punternet, to come together and talk about the experiences of buying sexual services. Sarah acknowledged some of the pitfalls of conducting online analysis/recruitment, as some adverts may be scams or multiple profiles (eg statistics should be read with caution).

The paper reported a multiplicity of reactions to the research – from enthusiasm (eg one participant said it enabled her to feel like she wasn’t doing anything wrong) to hostile (swearing and “I don’t want to participate to further your career”), to propositions (eg :I will see you for free/try it”), to other more random comments.

To date, 30 providers of sexual services have been interviewed and 5 female consumers of sex (target of the project is 10 when completed).   The paper explored some of the challenges faced in recruitment, particularly with the press releases, which included misrepresentation, sometimes a lack of citing the project at all, and invented figures. A common failure was also that the project was not discussed as ongoing, despite very precise press release drafts being geared towards this. However, the success of these releases is that there is a huge appetite for the project, and there have been many follow-up media calls for reports and more Facebook/Twittter hits, and another participant came forward.

If you would like to participate in the project, please contact the researchers. They are still actively recruiting – details can be found here:

Queer Sex Work book launch – edited by Dr Mary Laing )Northumbria University), Dr Nicola Smith (University of Birmingham) and Dr Katy Pilcher (Aston University).

I am very excited to read this book! The launch was an opportunity to meet the editors and to hear a brief summary of its main aims and overall themes. The editors stated that the book brought together contributions from academics, sex workers, practitioners and activists and includes a range of empirical and theoretical work. The authors do not necessarily agree on the term queer and the chapters acknowledge this fluidity within different theorisations and practices associated with sex work. The activism and policy section was particularly highly-praised by audience members. Details can be found here:

The next 3 papers were delivered from chapter contributors:

Allan Tyler (London South Bank University) – “M$M@Gaydar: Queering the Social Network”

Unfortunately, this was when my notes changed to hand-written due to my laptop battery running out of charge. But the paper’s background can be found on Allan’s profile:

The final summary slide included these points:

  • self-produced and self-posted profiles queer the subject/object binary
  • commercial profiles (M$M) co-exist alongside personal profiles (MSM)
  • M$M ads queer the social network landscape
  • Which in turn queer the construct of what it means to sell sex
  • MSM ads have disrupted dominant discourses of spaces used for “sex work” and “massage” (Hubbard & Prior 2013)
  • M$M ads queer modern “gay” spaces by challenging prescribed authenticity in commercially sited sex

I recommend you check out Allan’s work!

Dr Mary Laing (Northumbria University) and Alex Feis-Bryce (National Ugly Mugs) – “Male escorting, safety and National Ugly Mugs: Queering policy and practice on the reporting of crimes against sex workers” (based on the chapter in Queer Sex Work by Bryce, Laing et al)

Again, my notes were limited, but this paper began by outlining the absence of men (and several other voices) in debates around sex work. When men are present in discussions, they are often characterised using problematic constructions such as the deviant client or pimp. Funding for projects also suffers as well as ineffective policies being created based on problematic simplifications and omission of voices.

What was particularly clear from this paper, and from the whole day, was the importance of services like NUM in helping to protect the safety and rights of sex workers. Alex went to outline that there are, however, multiple barriers to reporting incidents and engaging sex workers to sign up. One of the issues, for example, is that often sign-ups occur in response to an incident rather than to receive alerts and stay aware of potentially problematic clients. The paper finished by reaffirming the argument of the speakers for inclusive policy contexts, to try and break down some of the barriers to service provision and support.

Prof. Clarissa Smith (Sunderland University) – “Researching queer audiences of pornography” (based on chapter 18, Smith et al)

The paper began by outlining how porn is conceptualised by some academics, media sources and political voices as a particular type of problem – a destroyer of marriages, as a corruptor of morals, and so on. She labels this a sex panic rather than a moral panic alone. The paper argued more positive or at least less pejorative ways of thinking about porn and was based on research involving an initial survey study (with 5500 responses). As an example of some of the findings, participants highlighted the role of porn as a method of recognition (of different kinds of desires, of particular identities, of a range of body types) and self-reflexivity – the ability to explain what they like and how they can do it , and being confident about their bodies. Participants also outlined experimentation and curiosity as other reasons for watching. The paper therefore went beyond traditional conceptualisations of the spectatorship of pornography; going beyond the often-constructed physiological need to “get off” and providing more layers to this construction of motivation.

Overall, I had a fantastic day. Looking forward to hearing more about all of the wonderful research being done in this area.


One thought on “Sex Work Research Hub Event. “Emerging Research Findings in Sex Work Studies: Unexplored Terrains: and the Queer Sex Work book launch

  1. Oh wow – thanks so much, Emma; what a lovely post to find! It was totally fantastic to meet you too, and really looking forward to talking more! N x

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