AAG2018 – Geographies of Sex, Sexuality and Sex Work: Myths, Imaginaries and Realities, 10-14 April 2018


I’m delighted to announce the two special sessions we (Paul Maginn and Erin Sanders-McDonagh) have coming up at the American Association of Geographers Annual Meeting, taking place in New Orleans between 10-14 April and sponsored by the Sexuality and Space Specialty Group (see other sessions sponsored by them here).

We have been running these #Geosex sessions for the last 4 years and have welcomed a range of early, mid and established career academics, sex workers and practitioners discussing research about sex work, sex and sexuality from several disciplines.  One of the excellent aspects of the AAG is its multidisciplinary focus and this year’s list of speakers is no different! Find details below:

Geographies of Sex, Sexuality and Sex Work: Myths, Imaginaries and Realities #1 – April 13th 1:20 PM – 3:00 PM in the Borgne Room, Sheraton, 3rd Floor

Geographies of Sex, Sexuality and Sex Work: Myths, Imaginaries and Realities #2 – April 13th 3:20 PM – 5:00 PM in the Borgne Room, Sheraton, 3rd Floor

I sadly will not be attending this year as I am on maternity leave, but we will all be tweeting from the sessions using the conference hashtags: #geosex18 and #aag2018. We hope to see you there, either in person or virtually!


CFP #AAG2018. ‘Geographies of Sex, Sexuality and Sex Work: Myths, Imaginaries and Realities’. New Orleans, April 10-14 2018



Paul Maginn, Erin Sanders-Mcdonagh and I are pleased to announce the call for papers for this year’s American Association of Geographers Conference in New Orleans in April next year (see more details here: http://www.aag.org/cs/events/event_detail?eventId=1258 ).  Although a geography conference, it is a very interdisciplinary event and we welcome submissions of abstracts from all perspectives on sex, sexuality and sex work.  We have run special sessions on these themes for the last few years at this conference and it is always a really engaging and enjoyable event.  We have also been fortunate in the past to secure some contributory funding for sex workers to attend and present from the conference enrichment fund, and would endeavour to do so again.

Do get in touch if you would like some clarification before submitting something.  The deadline is 16th October to submit an abstract.






Geographies of Sex, Sexuality and Sex Work:

Myths, Imaginaries and Realities

In the past decade questions about sex, sexuality and sex work have come to dominate media, political and social debates. These debates have seen the tectonic plates of ‘conservatism’ and ‘liberalism’ collide and sheer against one another. There is considerable variation in the dynamics of such relations across national and international boundaries. In the predominantly Catholic country of Ireland, for example, a referendum on marriage equality saw the LGBTQ community granted the same rights as heterosexual couples. In Northern Ireland (NI), however, the Protestant-dominated local Assembly has thus far steadfastly refused to pass legislation on marriage equality five times. The failure to pass this legislation has been due largely to opposition from the largest political party in NI –the Democratic Unionist Party – who has effectively vetoed the issue each time it has to a vote. And, in Australia the current Liberal Government has prevaricated on the issue of marriage equality by agreeing to hold a non-binding postal plebiscite on the issue rather than letting the Parliament decide on the issue.

On the matter of sex work, some nations – e.g. Canada, France, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland – have recently introduced legislation that criminalises the purchase of commercial sex services in the name of protecting (female) sex workers and victims of human trafficking. This legislation was introduced in these jurisdictions following major campaigning by conservative politicians, religious organisations, NGOs and radical feminist organisations often working together. Relatedly, other state actors have sought to prohibit access to pornography by framing the consumption of adult entertainment as an issue that affects social and mental well-being. For example, participants at the 2016 Republican National Convention in the USA suggested that viewing pornography constituted a ‘public health crisis’. In the UK the government has recently sought to introduce age verification mechanisms and regulations in order to prevent people from viewing particular sexual acts online.

All the while, the consumption of online (heteronormative) pornography continues to grow year-on-year as data from one of the world’s largest free porn websites reveals each year. There is relatively little publicly available data on the consumption of non-heteronormative types of porn, although anecdotal evidence points to significant growth in “feminist-porn and alt-porn”. Camming has also becoming an increasingly popular mode of adult entertainment, with an estimated 20,000 performers online in the US at any given time. Even professional adult performers now engage in cam-work (and other forms of adult entertainment such as stripping and feature dancing) as a means of generating supplementary income due to the de-industrialisation of the porn industry in the wake of free online porn hosting sites. New and improved technologies have therefore created alternative possibilities for sex work landscapes.

Sexual and gender identity have also been the focus of much heated debate, especially in the last 5 years as debates about transgenderism have become more prominent. The increasing visibility/audibility of transgender people and issues related to trans rights have, in some cases, resulted in moral panics about trans people being in public spaces and using public facilities, especially toilets. Ultimately, trans folk have endured stigma and stereotypes because of their gendered/sexual identities and have been subject to discrimination and a denial of their human rights.

Advances in digital technology and the ‘app-ification’ of smart phones have had a profound impact on the socio-spatial dynamics of human sexuality and commericalised forms of sexual services. The emergence of dating websites, online escort agencies and personal ad sites, hook-up apps and web-camming for personal and commercial purposes have enhanced the opportunity for direct and indirect intimate and risqué experiences. Similarly, the rise of virtual reality, smart sex toys and sex robots have raised various questions about the future direction of human, gender and sexual relations.

In light of the highly complex and dynamic sexual landscapes that characterize the 21st century, this special session – #GeoSex18 – calls for papers that offer critical analyses on a range of myths, imaginaries and realities pertaining to sex, sexuality and sex work that speak to one or more of the following broad topics:

  • Community, diversity and mobility within the sex industry;
  • Community, diversity and mobility within the LGBT community;
  • Gender/sexual identities and fluidities;
  • Sexual dissidents, activism and advocacy;
  • Human trafficking/migrant sex workers;
  • Human and labour rights in sex work;
  • Gentrification and its impacts on queer spaces/red light districts;
  • Health and wellbeing amongst sexual minorities;
  • Stigma/stereotypes/social exclusion of sexual minorities and the sex industry;
  • Crime/violence towards sexual minorities and sex workers;
  • Production/distribution/consumption of pornography/adult entertainment;
  • Geographies of swinging/dogging/cruising;
  • Digital geographies of sex, sexuality and sex work;
  • Virtual reality, sexbots and human sexual relations;
  • Stigma and social exclusion of/in the sex industry;
  • Policing, criminal justice and sexed spaces;
  • Labour rights, health and safety issues within the sex industry;
  • Policy, politics and regulation of sexual landscapes;
  • Reproductive rights;
  • Liminal spaces/stigmatisation of sexuality, sex work and the sex industry;
  • BDSM/Kink/fetish spaces/communities; and
  • Censorship and sexualisation.

The #GeoSex18 special session series welcomes abstracts/papers from scholars, policy researchers within government agencies, consultancies, NGOs and sex work advocacy/support organisations and research-minded sex work activists from a range of disciplines and ideological/theoretical/methodological/empirical standpoints. If you are interested in taking part in this special session please send your abstract including: (i) paper title; (ii) author(s); (iii) institutional affiliation(s); (iv) email addresses; (v) a 250 word (maximum) abstract; and (vi) 5 key words to the co-convenors at GeoSex16@gmail.com by no later than 16th October 2017.


 Dr Paul J. Maginn, University of Western Australia (Australia)

Dr. Emily Cooper, University of Central Lancashire (UK)

Dr. Erin Sanders-McDonagh, University of Kent (UK)


Erin also has a new book out this year, entitled Women And Sex Tourism Landscapes, published by Routledge, which may be of interest to potential presenters!   You can view the details here: https://www.routledge.com/Women-and-Sex-Tourism-Landscapes/Sanders-McDonagh/p/book/9781138814547 .



‘De-sexing porn: An account of the non-porn porn at the Musee D’Orsay’. A guest post by Dr Erin Sanders-McDonagh (@erinsandersmcd) about her visit to the the Splendeurs & Miseres Exposition


Image from: http://www.hotels-paris-rive-gauche.com/blog/2015/08/27/exposition-splendeurs-et-miseres-au-musee-dorsay-du-22-septembre-2015-au-17-janvier-2016/

De-sexing porn: An account of the non-porn porn at the Musee D’Orsay

Opening at the Musee D’Orsay in Paris last Saturday the 22nd of September 2015, the Splendeurs & Miseres Exposition traces images of prostitution from 1850-1910. Having read Sciolino’s piece in the New York Times) the day before, I have some idea what to expect – paintings from artists such as Manet, Picasso, Van Gogh and Toulouse-Lautrec – and an exhibit that shows us images of prostitutes through the artist’s eye. There is another queue for the exhibit once inside, and the docent at the ticket desk tells me they are expecting higher than average numbers for this particular exhibition. Walking into first room, the mauve-painted walls and soft lighting invoke an almost hushed atmosphere. There are no written guides to the exhibit, only audio guides – and I am forbidden from taking pictures of the textual descriptions (written in both French and English) on the walls. The introduction to the exposition sets out not its purpose, but rather a rationale – making clear why the exposition includes the images we are about to see:

‘Its [prostitution] ever changing nature, which defied easy definition, was an enduring obsession among novelists, poets, playwrights, composers, painters and sculptors. Most artists in the 19th and first half of the 20th century addressed the splendor and misery of prostitution’

This idea of splendor and misery is borrowed from Balzac’s Splendeurs et miseres des courtisanes (published in the 1830s), also known as Harlot of High and Low – which describes the rise and pitiful fall of the courtesan Esther Van Gobsecka, and frames prostitution as both a class issue and a moral question. The current exhibit at the Musee D’Orsay tries, to some extent, to engage with similar issues and questions, but the exhibit itself poses some moral questions of its own.

The first few rooms of the exhibit feature a variety of painted images, mostly rendered in oils, of women working as sex workers. A potted history of sex work in Paris is essentially recounted here – and the paintings feature well-dressed prostitutes promenading streets; shop girls, some who were known to sell sex to gentleman customers; and ballet dancers and actresses interacting with ‘patrons’ in the back stages of the Paris Opera. The descriptive text on the wall, and some of the specific text under key paintings, refers to class and position in relation to sexual exchanges, but there is little moralizing discourse written into the guiding text.

All of the prostitutes pictured are of course women – and the clients are gentlemen of rank and class. As the exhibit continues, there are dozens of rooms displaying the bodies of sex working women – from a range of different sex working hierarchies.

Mid-way through the exhibit, visitors over the age of 18 are invited to sweep through a red velvet curtain. What lies behind this curtain is clearly more provocative than what was being displayed in the main rooms. Entering into the dimly-lit space, spectators are invited to peer through binocular-like devices, ‘stereoscopes’, to see images of couples having sex, or engaging in sexual activity. Still photographs adorn the opposite wall, and around the corner a black and white pornographic film plays on a loop. These photographic and celluloid images signal an important shift – evidenced not only by the red curtain partitioning the obscene from the beautiful, but also by the accompanying text. The writing on the wall (literally), tells us that ‘by consuming the [photographic] image, viewers became virtual clients’. What then, of the museum spectators who have paid 12 euro each to consume the same images? Are we, the museum spectators, not also virtual clients?

While there are a great many questions that the exposition raises in relation to prostitution and sex work, I would like to focus here on how it is that we, viewers of pornography, have managed to avoid any aspersions cast on our character? How can a male spectator viewing this film in the early 1900s be seen as voyeuristic, described as a ‘virtual’ client, while we, the contemporary spectators in 2015, are freed from any moral dilemmas?

I stood for some time looking at the faces of people watching the film, and listening to the conversations. Reactions ranged from disinterest, to laughter – it was clear that we as the audience were not meant to be sexually aroused by this in any way – but rather, bemused and analytical, and we followed the rules.

The politics of looking, and the importance of visual consumption of sexual images are central to debates on pornography. The extent to which looking at bodies engaging in sexual activity renders them object/abject, and the impact that this type of viewing has on the visual consumer is key in framing pornography as morally dubious. However, as I have recently argued (Sanders-McDonagh, in press), understanding the impact and importance of pornography requires not just an analysis of content, but a contextual account. We do not watch pornography in a vacuum – we watch naked bodies in particular spaces and places, and the space and place where we are located fundamentally shapes our experiences.

For me this is the most problematic element of the show – not so much that women’s naked or splayed bodies are on display (yet again), or that the prostitute features as both hapless victim and conniving temptress (yet again), although these of course warrant further debate and discussion – but rather that the way the images are presented and described, and the assumptions that are in play about who is looking and how, are fundamentally relevant to any analysis of the exposition.

The Musee D’Orsay, as is true with most art galleries across the world, appeals to a middle-class demographic and welcomes over 2 million visitors every year. There is an expectation that these visitors here have not only the requisite economic capital, but also a great deal of cultural capital to make sense of what they are seeing, and to recognize and evaluate the artistic merit of some representations, and the debased nature of others. Indeed, a few metro stops away in Clichy or Pigalle, one could easily buy a pornographic film or magazine at one of the many sex shops in the area, but there is clear demarcation between the high and the low here, and their symbolic separation.

Tellingly, the gift shop that you enter after leaving the final room of the exhibit has a range of book and DVDs for sale. If you have 45 euro, you can buy the official book for the exposition. A hefty price (and a weighty tome), but a material reminder of your visit, and full of the images of naked women you have just consumed in the exposition. If you have less money but would still like a book, you could buy a copy of Emile Zola’s Nana, or perhaps a biography of a Parisian courtesan. You could also buy a DVD – maybe an art house movie that won a prize at Cannes and almost coincidentally features a prostitute (obviously displayed naked on the cover, but tastefully arranged), or else a glossy art/fashion publication that features a range of intelligent analyses of prostitution, as well as stylish images of red-lit women. Purchasing any of these items – which would be placed gently into the well-designed Musee D’Orsay bag – would be far different from purchasing a similar item from a shop in Pigalle. Here, you could not be so sure that this is a tasteful purchase; it would be placed in a black plastic bag, to hide the grubby item lurking inside, and, even more problematically, you would have to venture into and out of such a shop, in such an area, to purchase such an item. The naked women in display in your expensive Musee D’Orsay book are guaranteed to meet certain standards of taste – whereas the women in display on anything in such a shop in such an area come with no guarantees.

While the exhibit works hard to make clear where the acceptable boundaries of high and low are situated, and implicitly assumes that the visual consumers, the museum-goers, will be able to position the sex on display behind their red curtain (as not sexual, as artefact) vis-à-vis Other pornographic images or movies (that are intrinsically sexual, because they are not displayed in the appropriate context), there is the possibility of confusion. For that reason, the velvet curtain is introduced, because even within an exhibit that features almost exclusively depictures of prostitutes and images of naked women, there is an internal hierarchy between the higher oil-based naked women, and the lower silver-gelatin naked women. Everything has a place and an order – there is highest-high-low-lowest – and this order must be made clear.

And indeed, I would imagine that many visitors, the ones I watch as they watch the black-and-white movie on the wall, walk away bemused. Perhaps their conversations over that evening’s apero, or tomorrow night’s dinner party, will include witty analyses of the images, and perhaps their friends will decide to go because it sounds so intriguing. I would doubt that many of these dinner party conversations would include suggestions about which production company features the most realistic lesbian porn, or if anyone has accidentally stumbled onto an excellent chem-porn site while browsing through Tumblr…. and as I imagine these dinner parties conversations, I remember what Stallybrass and White have to say about the high and the low:

The ‘top’ includes the ‘low’ symbolically as a primary eroticized constituent of its own fantasy life. The result is a mobile, conflictual fusion of power, fear, and desire in the construction of subjectivity’ (Stallybrass and White in Walkowitz, 1992: 20).

Watching the pornographic movie on display in the Musee D’Orsay is no different to watching the same pornographic movie at home – the images and the representations are the same and the content of what is being consumed is identitical. However, watching this in the hallowed chamber of a well-known museum is vastly different to watching the same movie on your smartphone on your sofa. The fundamental question is not what you watch, but where. The top includes the low – it requires the low for the sustenance of fantasy, but our views on what kinds of naked images are tasteful, and which are obscene require constant attention to the context, and to place, to ensure that the images can be read appropriately, and that it is clear when nakedness and sexual representations should offend us, or enthrall us.

Feona Attwood (2005) reminds us that the cultural practices of looking and seeing are critical to a meaningful analysis of pornography. While debates rage in the UK on the harms of pornography, middle-class visitors can quietly consume images of naked woman rendered on canvas, or watch a naked man and woman fucking on-screen – shocking perhaps, or maybe funny, but not sexually stimulating, and nothing to be offended by – but only deep in the heart of the Musee D’Orsay.

By Dr Erin Sanders-McDonagh (@erinsandersmcd)


Attwood, F. 2005. “What to do with porn? Qualitative research into the consumption, use and experience of pornography and other sexually explicit media.” Sexuality and Culture 9(2): 65-86.

Sanders-McDonagh, E. (in press) ‘Porn by any other name: Women’s consumption of public sex performances in Amsterdam’ In Porn Studies. DOI: 10.1080/23268743.2015.1100092.

Walkowitz, J. 1992. City of Dreadful Delight: Narratives of Sexual Danger in Late-Victorian London. London: Virago.