TEDxLancasterU 2017 Conference, 13th May 2017

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I’m really excited to be giving a Tedx talk about my brothels in the community research at the TedxLancasterU Conference on 13th May – particularly as I have just found out that popcorn and pancakes are to be served!

You can find information about the speakers here.

My little speaker bio is below:

Emily studied for a BSc (Hons) in Geography at Lancaster University, and remained there to complete her PhD in Human Geography (awarded 2014). The PhD focused on the impacts of living in close proximity to brothels on residential communities in Blackpool.  She joined UCLan in 2016 as a Lecturer in Human Geography and a researcher for UCLan Policing.

Emily’s research centres on how sex, space and society interact, with a particular focus on sex work in recent studies.  She is also engaged in projects relating to female ex-offenders and young people at risk of involvement with serious and organised crime.

Sex work is considered to be a problematic feature of urban areas, largely generating fears around crime and disorder. However, robust and inclusive consultations with residential communities about the effects of sex work remain limited.

This talk will draw from conversations with local residents, authorities, and sex workers of Blackpool (UK) and will provide an insight into this under-researched area. Contrary to the assumption that crime and disorder are the only aspects that brothels bring to residential areas, brothels have several roles in Blackpool’s community. These include: economic contributions, heightening feelings of safety, and, quite simply, just being ‘ordinary neighbours’.

I believe these are live streamed (gulp!) and will also be available on YouTube after the event.  Hope to see some of you there!

COST Action ProsPol Conference, Displacing Sex For Sale – Copenhagen, 2017

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I am currently at the fantastic COST Action ProsPol Conference, Displacing Sex for Sale, in Copenhagen and have enjoyed an inspiring first day.  I’ll update this post later with my notes from the sessions I attended, but I just wanted to do a little plug for our (@Planographer) paper tomorrow, entitled “On-Street, Off-street and Online: The Dynamic Liminalities of Sex Work“. Here is the abstract:

Sex work has long been the subject of labelling and stigma with sex workers, predominantly women, being the subjects of moral authority. Relatedly, the physical and virtual spaces in which sex work is produced and consumed have been subject to ‘territorial stigmatization’ (Wacquant, Updated:23 March 2017 16 2007). That is, commercial sex spaces have been marginalised – physically, socially and economically – by framing them, and those that occupy them, as immoral, deviant, dirty, disorderly, and dangerous. Sex work spaces are thus constructed as major ‘blemishes’ (Wacquant, 2007), not only on the urban landscape but the very fabric of society. Simultaneously, however, sex work spaces constitute ‘counter-spaces’ (Lefebvre, 1991) where ‘sexual boundary crossers’ (Hausbeck Korgan et al, 2016)[1] can engage in transgressive behaviours and express and celebrate their minority sexual identity status. Sex work spaces are also liminal in character in that they are often caught between the grey space of legality and illegality; ‘a space between sex and work whilst also being neither/both’ (Smith, 2015)[2]; a space that can be simultaneously physical and virtual; a space where different personas and/or alter egos can be portrayed and performed; and, a space where fantasy meets reality. This exploratory, conceptual paper will consider the key liminal characteristics across three distinct spaces where sex work is produced and consumed: (i) the street; (ii) indoor spaces (e.g. the home, hotels and brothels); and, (iii) the virtual (e.g. online escorting; social media and camming). It will be argued that the moral posturing, stigma and regulations imposed upon sex workers gives rise to the exercise of ‘liminal stigmatisation’. Simultaneously, however, the very liminality of sex work spaces, especially virtual ones, allows sex workers to mobilise and challenge this liminal stigma from above.

The presentation is part of the panel session Sex Work in the Digital Age, chaired by Prof. Teela Sanders, in Building D, Room 3.114 (3rd floor) between 9.15 and 11am.  Hope to see some of you there!

Bothered by a brothel? How sex work can improve your neighbourhood

Paul Maginn (@planographer) and I recently wrote this article in The Conversation – read the full version here – based on my doctoral research.  You can find more information about the project in this article: http://sex.sagepub.com/content/early/2016/05/27/1363460715616949.abstract

Bothered by a brothel? How sex work can improve your neighbourhood

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Dr Emily Cooper (University of Central Lancashire)
Assoc. Prof. Paul Maginn (University of Western Australia)

The sex industry, specifically sex work and prostitution, has long been perceived and regulated as a “dirty and disorderly” feature of residential communities. The stereotypical, and unfair, view of sex workers is that they are vectors of disease and social contagions; it’s a moral hangover from the Victorians.

Regardless of their legal status, wider society still tends to stigmatise those who provide commercial sexual services, with street-based sex workers often most the subject of public, political and police scrutiny. This is reflected in the regulation and marginalisation of sex work by local and national government policies to dark and secluded areas of cities.

This marginalisation and stigmatisation is because many people’s knowledge and understanding of sex work is generally limited and informed by moral panics and stereotypes – particularly surrounding issues such as STI rates and trafficking. While it is important to recognise that such problems may occur in sex work, it is also important to stress that these are not experienced by the majority of those engaged in consensual sex work and should certainly not be portrayed as being the most important factor in all sex worker narratives.

Nevertheless, local councils and police forces periodically engage in “clean-up” campaigns that seek to purge local areas of sex work. The police raids in Soho during December 2013, when around 200 police targeted dozens of premises, have been one of the most high-profile examples of this strategy.

Such raids are generally justified by the media and local authorities on the basis that locals, especially women and children, need to be protected from the harmful effects of “sleaze”.

Interestingly, however, there has been little detailed or systematic research on the impacts of sex work on residential communities. Generally speaking, local authority “clean-up” strategies tend to be based not on science, but on a small number of complaints from a vocal minority who assert particular moral agendas.

The evidence that sex work is a problematic issue is rather limited, but it is clear that sex workers themselves are not considered community members and are rarely consulted about their own concerns and needs. Sex workers are just ordinary people – someone’s mother, aunt, brother, friend – trying to make a living.

Research by Phil Hubbard and colleagues, Penny Crofts, Sarah Kingston, and Emily Cooper’s own work suggests that sex work contributes to residential communities in much more complex ways than is commonly portrayed in the media.

Sarah Kingston’s research on the impact of sex work on residential communities in Leeds highlights that the presence of sex workers can actually generate positive outcomes. For example, they (and associated clients, etc) provide passive surveillance against criminal activities and will report crimes. In addition, sex workers and their clients also contribute to local economies via the renting of premises, booking hotel rooms and spending money in local shops, bars and restaurants.

The Blackpool community

Cooper’s research on massage parlours and surrounding residential communities in Blackpool, reinforces these findings. 53 in-depth interviews were conducted (often more than once) with local residents, as well as a number of sex workers, police officers and council officers. Observations were also made over an 18-month period.

Those parlours surrounded by other non-sex work businesses and residences were often referred to by nearby non-sex work business workers as a means of breaking the ice and building rapport with customers, because of questions asked about the parlours being there. Reputedly, for some residents, the parlours also brightened up the mundane routine of peoples’ daily social and work lives. This was also reinforced in Kingston’s findings.

More crucially, some residents highlighted that the parlours – and their 24-hour vibrantly neon-lit presence – engendered a feeling of security in an area that is commonly frequented by “either nobody or large groups of stag parties, which can be a bit intimidating” (quote from resident).

Such views dismantle the common narrative, which suggests that the sex industry is something that attracts criminality rather than a feeling of security.

The Blackpool Gazette often uses “dirt and disgust” rhetoric to characterise the impact of massage parlours and the subsequent “clean-up” campaigns by regulatory bodies. Despite this, plus the ongoing effects of the recent recession, the massage parlours have shown resilience and remain an integral part of the social and economic fabric of Blackpool.

The stigma and stereotyping that tends to surround sex workers (and their clients) has the effect of alienating them and diminishing their sense of safety when working.

Very few residents in the study explicitly stated that they would like to see the sex industry removed. Those that did so were coming from either a stereotypical view of sex work as being inherently harmful or criminal, or from a desire to protect sex workers, who they considered friends and neighbours, from “dodgy clients”. Many residents discussed spending time with sex workers, as they would with any other neighbour.

Despite the fact that several sex workers in my study area lived locally, the long-established presence of massage parlours in Blackpool, and the friendly relationships between sex workers and wider community members, sex workers were still excluded from certain community spaces.

One sex worker, for example, noted that although she had a good relationship with residents adjacent to her place of work, she and another worker were asked to leave a Police and Community Together meeting by other residents because the meeting was “partly about them”.

Moving forward

Such exclusionary actions merely serve to reinforce the stigma imposed on sex workers and deny them their basic democratic rights. Community-based policy and consultation processes need to be more inclusive and appreciative of the fact that sex workers are as much a part of the local community as the next person. Their presence in and near residential communities needs to be viewed through a wider lens based on evidence, rather than a narrow moral one under the control of a vocal minority.

Emerging research suggests that the role and impact of sex work on local areas is more multi-faceted and less extraordinary than is commonly portrayed in the media or television dramas. The urban mythology and regulatory fetish surrounding sex work needs to be dispelled.

A more productive policy approach to regulating commercial sex premises would be to treat them like any other business. Ultimately, sex work should be decriminalised as this regulatory approach offers what other approaches don’t – it guarantees the greater safety, health and well-being of sex workers.