Recently 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
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, 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.
Many 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.
William 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