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The Naked Anthropologist · Research is not activism: And whose interests are at stake, anyway? | The Naked Anthropologist

Research is not activism: And whose interests are at stake, anyway?

animeteamRecently Amnesty International voted to pursue a policy advocating the decriminalisation of sex work (sort of). If you were judging the issues by what Big Media told you, the debate was a clear pro-rights position versus an anti-prostitution position. The clash sometimes looked like Who gets to speak for women who sell sex? ignoring the men and transpeople and ignoring the considerable variation in experience amongst those who work in the sex industry. And, by the way, amongst those who used to work and now don’t.

Understanding the symbolic importance of the moment I kept quiet about aspects of Amnesty International’s proposal that are not good, and I know others who did the same. But behind the scenes, amongst rights activists, there was criticism of Amnesty’s draft. There were differences of opinion, some harsh words and some misunderstandings. As far as I know, there is never total agreement about what specific words should appear in any document attempting to define good law and policy that will support people who sell sex. If the outside world could see those differences of opinion perhaps fewer would believe anti-prostitutionist sloganeering about happy hookers and the pimp lobby.

But the differences always exist within a basic framework that understands selling sex can be experienced as work (nothing to do with personal happiness or what labels folks give themselves). The reductionist line about survivors versus a sexworker elite is daft. But on an occasion like the Amnesty vote, when 140-character tweets reign, most everyone unites in solidarity and sticks to a clear argument, in this case that decriminalisation makes sex workers safer.

One flurry of disagreement on an activist email list arose from an item published by a few academic researchers in Canada in support of Amnesty’s proposal. Some activists found the item to be victimising and disempowering for sex workers. Others did not. One statement got my attention, so I asked the author, Will Pritchard, if I could publish it here.

Research is not Activism

Will Pritchard August 2015

anime2Some researchers have gained the media spotlight claiming they have evidence showing that in places where sex work is a crime, sex workers are powerless victims, forced to work in isolation with no ability to negotiate safe sex, access medical services or organize collectively.

In response, some sex work activists are voicing dismay, arguing that sex workers organize themselves, promote safe sex and join the struggle for their freedom precisely in those places where they face criminal sanctions because sex work is illegal. 

The harm-reduction framework was built under the rubric of human rights. Having watched it develop in Canada in the late 1980s in response to criminalization of drug use and then spreading to other issues including sex work, I have decided that it actually erodes grassroots activists’ efficacy and role. This erosion is due in part to the fact that harm-reduction policies rely on ‘evidence’, and to get that we require research.

Some researchers conscript service agencies, advocates or individual workers to consult in the creation of research projects but often solely to provide legitimacy and address the ethical concerns in institutional review-board processes. Those consulted are rarely experts in research, and though I recognize the important part they play, if they are unaware of the history of the global struggle for sex worker freedoms, or lack a sex work analysis, their contributions become token. They may have limited or no capacity to provide strategic direction to the researcher.

Sadly, those sex workers who are subject to research often set their own personal interests aside and volunteer, under the mistaken belief that participation is for the greater good, or worse, that it is a form of activism. But research is not activism.

anime_heroes_promo_by_ryutokun-d4cmyy2Many grassroots activists and organizers are exasperated that they must now face the challenge of discovering the interests of those publishing research on sex workers. Who is funding the research and to what end? What is the researcher’s professional background and record for incorporating sex worker voices? This frustrating distraction hijacks activists’ bandwidth and is an example of the unintended consequences of research.

Researchers would do well to consider the reflexivity inherent in the harm-reduction framework, whereby evidence-based policy-making begets policy-based evidence-making – a meta-bias if you will. Based on the interests of the researcher, not the researched.

I believe that academics and other allies may have the best of intentions. But perhaps their interests do not actually align with the struggle for sex worker freedoms? They deserve to be questioned, challenged and criticized, since unintended consequences arising from the results of their research could well undermine sex worker freedoms in future, particularly in the domains of public health, justice and social science.

Sex worker activists speak from experience when it comes to unintended consequences. For example, the foundation sex worker activists built was never intended as a stepping-off point for academics to shift the focus of the struggle for freedoms to their own work in the form of ‘evidence’.

Research involving sex work is a job. Sex workers should supervise. And when sex workers say, Sit down, shut up and get back to work, researchers should listen.

Research is not activism.

In solidarity,

Will Pritchard

will-cowboyWilliam Pritchard has been an activist for sex worker rights for 25 years. As a young escort, he helped build a new kind of peer outreach program in Toronto and co-founded the Sex Workers Alliance of Vancouver. Will is a partner at Walnet Institute, an online arts and activism resource. He volunteers as a director for the Triple-X Workers’ Solidarity Association of British Columbia and is a member of the Canadian Union of Public Employees. He works as a city planner in Vancouver, Canada.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

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  1. I have always had this connection in the back of my mind. How many of us are lawyers? [link to equality now lawyer neuwirth]

    Reply

  2. “Research involving sex work is a job. Sex workers should supervise. And when sex workers say, Sit down, shut up and get back to work, researchers should listen.”

    This has become my new mantra.

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  3. And you a researcher, too

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  4. Why the anime illustrations on this post?
    (I recognize everyone in the first, not the other two. I can make guesses about the type of the second…)

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  5. I’m sorry, but I found this article (articles?) kind of incoherent. As in, I couldn’t tell what kind of points you were trying to make, or the second person’s. That evidence (As gathered in research) and gathering it can’t be used in activism? That decriminalizing sex work is bad?? Or opposite, that ‘sort of’ decriminalizing is bad and ‘actual’ decriminalizing is good?

    The very first line, ‘Recently[...] advocating the decriminalisation of sex work (sort of)’, I never grasped what you meant by the ‘sort of’. Are they for decriminalizing some acts but not others?? Or Ciswomen but not transfolk? What? If the explanation was there in the article, I missed it. If there was some previous article required to understand fully, a link or notice about that would have been appreciated.

    Second article:
    “Research involving sex work is a job. Sex workers should supervise. And when sex workers say, Sit down, shut up and get back to work, researchers should listen”

    Okay, going back to work for a researcher would be researching. But at the same moment you are telling them to shut up? Researching involves ‘talking’ aka publishing your results. The line just doesn’t make a lot of sense. If it was ‘shut up and listen’, that would make sense, but ‘shut up and go back to work’ when that work is talking is just contradictory?

    I hope you meant ‘shut up and listen to sex workers while doing the work’, but at the same time, it sounds like that article didn’t approve of sex workers going to researchers to talk to them while doing their work. ‘Sadly, those sex workers who are subject to research often set their own personal interests aside and volunteer, under the mistaken belief that participation is for the greater good, or worse, that it is a form of activism’. It doesn’t say how exactly the sex workers are setting aside their own personal interests, unless you assume that having data about how much your life sucks compared to those in other regions out there is inherently bad.

    Sooo, researchers are supposed to go do their work, and listen to sex workers, but sex workers aren’t supposed to go volunteer so one can do said listening or researching? How exactly does that work? Or is that not what is being said?

    Is this against research or for it? It says here: ” For example, the foundation sex worker activists built was never intended as a stepping-off point for academics to shift the focus of the struggle for freedoms to their own work in the form of ‘evidence’.” which sounds like evidence and activism are opposed.

    but here “In response (to the research) sex work activists are voicing dismay, arguing that sex workers organize themselves, promote safe sex and join the struggle for their freedom precisely in those places where they face criminal sanctions because sex work is illegal. ” and here “Some researchers have gained the media spotlight claiming they have evidence showing that in places where sex work is a crime, sex workers are powerless victims[...]” it sounds like they work together, and that activists benefited from the research and are joining together to promote that message. That some activists do in fact want that research and don’t find the ‘evidence’ to be opposed to them, and many of them only mobilized because of said research.

    If this was supposed to be anti- bad-research and pro-activism-aware research and a message to be wary of blindly swallowing studies that may have hidden corporate interests, it could have been written much better. If it is completely anti-research, it also could have been written better. As it is, I actually genuinely can’t tell what the two articles are saying or not, and the fundamental clearest message, that research and evidence cannot be part of activism, just isn’t something that sings to me. :P

    But I do agree with this: ” They deserve to be questioned, challenged and criticized,”. That’s review. Basic science, part of research. And critique isn’t the same thing as throwing out the whole thing altogether, so again I can’t tell if the article is -truly- fully against having research in activism or not.

    I hope my comment helps anyone else confused and frustrated trying to decipher things.

    Reply

    1. I introduced the guest post, asked the author some questions but left his ideas as he wanted them. Everyone doesn’t think the same way. A number of insider-activists understood quite well. There are hundreds of posts on this site, no need to focus on a single one.

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    2. Pritchard’s is an odd sort of post – and I don’t get the final sentence either.

      In any case I think what he is saying is that sex-workers often give up their time to participate in research and they ASSUME that that research is going to benefit others like them – in this sense it may be they consider their participation a ‘good’ (like most volunteering work). However, perhaps the researcher has their own agenda: they are seeking and biased toward a particular type of evidence as support of a particular type of policy. It seems that harm-reduction is a policy that Pritchard thinks hurts sex-workers at least to the extent that it does not legitimate sexwork as a form of work in its own right and not a ‘hard to avoid ill’.

      So basically ‘research’ is to be considered sceptically; it is DATA that can be twisted one way or another. Activism on the other hand has its basis in its VALUES.

      Those are not my views. I’m just summarising what I think he means.
      Researchers can of course be activists too.

      Reply

    3. This is a longtime issue, taken up in other posts on my blog. Will’s piece comes out of an insider perspective but note in the first issue of Research for Sex Work (1998) Sue
      Metzenrath from Australia wrote: “For far too long researchers
      have been using sex workers as guinea pigs without any benefit accruing to sex workers as the result of research. Essentially academic careers are made on our backs. Further, some research has provided ammunition to those who want to suppress the sex industry and research findings have been used to support some of those arguments. In many countries sex workers already refuse to be involved in research because they can’t see anything in it for them. After all, why would sex workers give freely of their information and knowledge and then it is used to suppress their livelihood?” Anyone wanting to know more just on this website – it’s easy, there is a research tag.

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    4. I believe my research can help some sex workers. I fact it has. Thwere are vastly different ways and attitudes that private escorts apprch their work. Bt good results require a strong sense of empowerment, which can be boosted. Most often it doesn’t work. ALSO befvore the internet it was almost impossible to raise self-esteem by the best approaches. See TugendMedia,com anbd read book Assisted by Psychologist & about 100sex workers.

      Reply

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