Alternate Ethics: Why it is okay to lie to researchers, as a sex worker, drug user or anybody else

Furry Girl recently ran a quote from a piece I wrote some years ago, suggesting that it can be perfectly ethical for sex workers, drug users or anyone else to avoid answering researchers’ questions or lie to them, if participating in the research seems necessary for some reason. Those worried about traffickers and pimps coercing women to sell sex might like to know that a lot of other coercion goes on, not least from organisations that make people feel they should cooperate when institutional or individual researchers come round asking questions. Research is not holy, there are interests involved, and, incidentally, it doesn’t make things automatically all right if the researcher says she or he is a sex worker.

Alternate Ethics, or: Telling Lies to Researchers (click here for the pdf or keep reading below)

Laura Maria Agustín, Research for Sex Work, June 2004, 6-7.

On the subject of ethics in sex work research, we usually think of the insensitivity and careerism of researchers whose interest is in obtaining information they will take credit for. I want to point to another problematic angle: the issue of whether those being researched are honest with researchers. Why, after all, should people who are being treated as objects of curiosity tell the truth?

We are all so surrounded by research projects that they seem to be a natural part of life, but what is research for? While often presented as pure advancement of knowledge, research is often integral to people’s jobs, whether they work in government, NGOs or universities, and the audience for whatever they find out is first and foremost whoever paid for the research.

Institutional research projects are required to explain the investigator’s ethical responsibility to the people researched. But the assumption is that once research begins, researchees will cooperate, freely telling researchers what they want to know. Since this side of the research relationship has not usually been given any choice about participating, it has also not been required to agree to an ethical standard of behaviour. Since no universal ethics exists, it is no criticism to say that research subjects simply may not tell (all) the truth to researchers.

Sad stories, omissions and outright lies

When a person working in an ‘irregular’ trade is approached by a professional-looking person from the straight world, and is not a paying customer, he or she is naturally viewed with suspicion. In the worst case, the visitor may be working for the police; in the best case, be someone giving out free condoms or needles. Of course, researchers have to find a way to ‘gain access’ to their subjects, making friends with the head of an NGO or a bar or convincing a doctor of their good intentions, and thus may be introduced as an ‘ally’. This goes for those conducting any kind of research using any kind of methodology. But even if the person comes with a good introduction, how does it feel to have him or her move toward you with the intention of asking personal questions? In most cultures, such a situation does not occur naturally. A Nigerian sex worker in a Spanish park once commented on outsiders asking questions:

I don’t understand what they’re doing, they don’t have anything to offer. The others that come are doctors, they give us medicine, exams. But these want to talk, and I don’t have any reason to talk to them.

It has long been recognised that people who are considered ‘victims’ or ‘deviants’ are likely to tell members of the mainstream what they believe they want to hear. Given that so much research with sex workers has focused on their personal motivations (wanting to know why they got into sex work, which is assumed to be bad), it’s not surprising that many make their present circumstances appear to be the fatal or desperate result of a past event. After all, if we were forced to be what we are now, we cannot be blamed for it. One Dominican woman told me:

All those social worker types feel sorry for me. They don’t want to hear that I prefer to do this work, so I tell them I have no choice. They want to hear that I was forced to do this, so that’s what I tell them. Anyway, I was, because my family was poor.

Ethics or self-protection? There are other reasons to tell sad stories. When behind the research project sex workers know that a certain health-care service may be at stake, or that only if they can present convincingly as victims will they get help, it is not surprising if they tell stories that serve their own interests. Or, in the case of research for health promotion, workers may not want to talk about their own failures to use condoms or their own getting drunk—who does, after all? Or, in the case of research on ‘trafficking’, sex workers may not want to admit they thought boyfriends really cared about them, when it turned out they were only using them, or admit they paid people to concoct false travel documents for them. It really doesn’t matter whether their answers will be treated ‘confidentially’, because they simply may not want to talk about such intimate matters. To put it another way, keeping secrets may help sex workers gain independence or control over projects to help them. Talking about sexual risks with people who think it’s wrong to ever take any risks may cause them to treat you as irresponsible. Admitting the desire to stay in sex work after getting out of the clutches of abusers can render you ineligible for victim-protection programmes. The best policy may be to omit certain information from responses or to put on the expected front. There are deeper reasons to keep personal secrets, too:

To be able to hold back some information about oneself or to channel it and thus influence how one is seen by others gives power. . . To have no capacity for secrecy is to be out of control over how others see one; it leaves one open to coercion. (Bok 1984: 20)

But there are also researchers who second-guess people’s responses. Negre i Rigol tells about an interview with Leonor, who presents her own entrance into sex work as a rational choice. When she starts to talk about other girls who were raped and coerced, the interviewers ‘realise perfectly that Leonor is telling them about her own life for the first time’ (Negre 1988: 39). Here interviewers are presented as omniscient, capable of seeing through lies. If Leonor saw this interpretation of her words, she might decide not to talk with interviewers any more. Ways around the problem? No formula exists for avoiding these problems. Some people believe that using ‘insiders’ to contact the target group is the solution—people who have shared the same life of those under research. It sounds better, having a sex worker do the interviewing of other sex workers, but other differences between ‘insiders’ can be more important than whether they have worked or not—class, colour, nationality. A Colombian woman once commented to me on a Colombian ‘peer’ interviewer:

I wouldn’t tell her anything, she’s from Cali. You know how those women are.

One researcher I know says she is perfectly aware that sometimes people are lying (or at least hiding something), and she tries to find out the truth by going back to the same point on different occasions to see if the cloudiness clears up. Or, she may check one person’s story against another’s to see if they coincide. To her, it’s a question of instinct:

It’s not so different from daily life, you ask yourself every day if people are telling you the truth and you acquire mechanisms for selecting information.

Researchers need to understand that if their access to those researched comes from a particular agency then informants may be less than candid about that agency, or if access comes from a friend of a friend, who is the madam of a club, then those that work for the madam will probably not share their complaints about her with you. The best way to avoid being lied to is to spend long amounts of time with the people under research. Participant observation for at least a year is a standard technique of anthropological ethnography:

. . . my practice of noting conversations greatly helped me to establish how clients and sex workers lied to me about factual matters. I found that initially people lied to me considerably concerning where they lived. For a considerable amount of time Rita, one of my main informants, lied to me about her role as a madam. . . It would seem that Rita did not want me to know that she was charging the other sex workers to use the flat because she did not want me to think that she exploited them. (Hart 1998: 67)

Beyond ‘truth’ Is a failure to tell the truth to researchers ‘unethical’? Only if you believe that some universal standard of ethics exists and that it is better to be ethical than not. The version of ethics that is usually referred to in research is, like so much else, a thoroughly western one. But we should remember that other ethics exist and refer to values that make sense within particular cultures and subcultures. And, in fact, keeping secrets can be seen as another system of ethics (Bok 1984). One of my favourite pieces of research was carried out in New York crack houses. The tape-recorded conversations of Puerto Rican crack dealers leave no doubt about their version of ethics: selling drugs, ripping people off and even rape come across as logical within their extremely disadvantaged world system (Bourgois 1995). At the same time, dealers’ own positive values, such as the search for ‘respect’, come across, too. Of course, do we know that they ‘told the truth’ to the researcher? We can only guess. Works cited Bok, Sissela. 1984. Secrets: On the Ethics of Concealment and Revelation. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Bourgois, Philip. 1995. In Search of Respect: Selling Crack in El Barrio. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Hart, Angie. 1999. Buying and Selling Power: Anthropological Reflections on Prostitution in Spain. Boulder [Colorado]: Westview Press. Negre i Rigol, Pere. 1988. La prostitución popular: Relatos de vida. Barcelona: Fundació Caixa.

9 thoughts on “Alternate Ethics: Why it is okay to lie to researchers, as a sex worker, drug user or anybody else

  1. crossroadsvirgil


    Interesting post. I have a couple of queries though. One was the assertion that it is usually the case that that research respondents have ‘not usually been given any choice about participating’. Is that really true? If so, then the institutional ethics review processes are not doing their job– which is to make sure that participants do have that choice.

    Secondly. Why do we have to reject any notion of a universal ethics in order to hold that respondents are morally justified in withholding sensitive information or lying to researchers? I mean, sure, Kant wouldn’t approve, but we can accept that ethical considerations apply to everybody without agreeing with him. I would think there would be a good case for holding that this sort of withholding was justified (and therefore ethical) within any reasonable view of ethics.

    A couple of points are often missed about moral relativism. One is that we can hold that ethical claims apply to everyone without thereby denying that other people and cultures have a different view on these issues then we do– ethical universalism need not entail cultural imperialism.

    The logic of moral relativism is such that it makes dialogue impossible. If we accept that some activity is ‘okay for them’ it means we are unable to engage with ‘them’ in a way which allows that they might have insights which should change how we act. It also means that there is no way to fix ethical disputes through dialogue (if what is right is only relative to a culture there is no way for there to be a dialectical connect between what they think is right or wrong and what we do).

  2. Laura Agustin

    Ethical review processes don’t exist everywhere and where they do are highly problematic. In poorer countries, people often end up as objects of research without understanding how or why, going along with gatekeepers or attracted by treats or promises of a free test, etc.

    Cultural relativism is certainly a guiding principle of my work and much anthropology. My understanding does not come from reading philosophy but from seeing how attempts to arrive at moral bottom lines stop conversations about prostitution and sex work. My interest is in facilitating dialogue, not requiring that everyone involved agree but instead accept each other’s differences in order to find common ground.

  3. crossroadsvirgil

    Thanks. If what you say about the understanding of research participants in poorer countries and their ability to opt-out of research is true then it seems that there is a good deal of research going on which is ethically dubious. As you say in the post– given that circumstance it would be neither surprising nor particularly blameworthy if participants were to lie to researchers.

    As you say: ‘My interest is in facilitating dialogue, not requiring that everyone involved agree but instead accept each other’s differences in order to find common ground.’

    My point was just that I don’t see that you need to commit yourself to a problematic relativism to pursue that interest. For that matter, I don’t really see why you need to accept relativism in order to avoid attempts at arriving at moral bottom lines. I can see that such attempts would be most unhelpful and not very interesting!

  4. Laura Agustin

    I don’t see relativism as bad or problematic or to be avoided. I wrote this particular piece some years ago and since have developed my belief that efforts to arrive at universal ethics directly cause much of the worst conflict about sex laws in general. Complexity is reduced and laws don’t work. I was just at a conference talking about this (see cherries). I don’t know how much of my work you know but I don’t give much satisfaction to those who want moral questions solved!

  5. Bec

    Hi Laura,

    I’m a sex work researcher myself (in the later stages of a PhD, looking at street sex work), and a big fan of your work. This is a really interesting piece, covering a few issues I’ve been grappling with quite a bit lately.

    I agree with Hart’s idea of multiple interviews; I myself found that, on the second or third conversation, most sex workers I interviewed seemed a lot more relaxed, and a number of points/issues were clarified. It felt like they stopped trying to tell me what they thought I wanted to hear, and instead just started talking; they’d sussed me out, thought I was ok and worked out I wasn’t trying to ‘save’ them, but was just interested in what they had to say. The conversations in follow-up interviews where always more engaging, enlightening, and challenging, than in the first interview. This has now made me question every piece of research I’ve read that interviews sex workers; in particular, I now notice that those pieces of research that paint sex workers in two-dimension terms, as either sex victims to be saved or completely empowered individuals, are often based on one-off interviews with a mass of subjects. I’m starting to believe that the lack of follow-up or ethnographic research is perhaps helping to reinforce these two-dimensional caricatures. The contours and complexity of the lives of sex workers seems to be completely missed by this type of approach.

    I think it’s worthwhile remembering that, ultimately, as the researcher, we are the ones in the position of power, and not only because many sex workers are operating illegally and are therefore vulnerable to coercion. We have the power to judge their words, and to use their stories for our own purposes. I think we therefore have a responsibility to not misrepresent or cherry-pick their stories; to, where possible, let their own words speak for themselves; to respect what they say, even when we personally don’t agree; and to assume that what they speak is the ‘truth’ (or, at the very least, ‘their truth’) unless we have a darn good reason to believe otherwise (I guess this is where instinct comes in). To do otherwise is, I think, unethical.

    Of late, I’m becoming increasingly concerned with the ethics (or lack thereof) of ‘researchers’ (and I’m using the term very loosely here) of the anti-prostitution variety – particularly those of the radical feminist persuasion. Whilst I’ve long disagreed with the work of this band of researchers (I won’t name them here, but their names often feature on this blog!), in the past my disagreement has been primarily philosophical or methodological; I found their logic to be nonsensical, and their ‘research’ to be simplistic or sloppy, or betraying their obvious personal biases. However, I’m now beginning to view their research as unethical, as I don’t believe they accurately reflect the views and opinions of their research subjects, and involve significant cherry-picking and distortion. It is unethical to treat an interview subject in such a way.

    Reflecting on my interview subjects, I could easily construct a radical feminist narrative of victimisation, if I were to base my work completely around certain aspects of my interviews; but to do so would mean I focus on the 5% of the interview that addresses or emphasizes victimhood, and ignores everything else about their life, and the wider context of the world we/they live in. To frame my analysis in such a way, to emphasise victimhood over everything else, would be, I think, unethical, as it ignores ‘their truth’ in favour of a ‘radical feminist truth’.

    Anyway, a great piece Laura. It’s given me a few ideas to chew on over the Christmas break!

  6. Laura Agustín

    Bec, thank you for your thoughts. The next problem is that the word ‘ethics’ and the ideas behind it will not be viewed the same way by everyone. Can there be a perfectly ethical research? It seems impossible. One can do one’s best to talk to different sorts of people and give them space and time to talk, but one can never know when anyone is telling the full story or leaving out or emphasising particular bits. How do I interpret an interview with someone who for 55 minutes sounds okay with their life and then in the last 5 minutes breaks down and cries, remembering a past trauma? Is it meaningful for me to then use a quantitative measure that says the victimhood was only a 12th of the whole?

  7. asturiano

    Laura, estoy de acuerdo con esto que te responde la persona que firma como ‘Crossroadvirgil’:

    “My point was just that I don’t see that you need to commit yourself to a problematic relativism to pursue that interest (*). For that matter, I don’t really see why you need to accept relativism in order to avoid attempts at arriving at moral bottom lines. I can see that such attempts would be most unhelpful and not very interesting!”

    (*) Laura: [As you say: ‘My interest is in facilitating dialogue, not requiring that everyone involved agree but instead accept each other’s differences in order to find common ground.’].

    – Lo mismo que esta persona parece estar diciéndote, creo que para posibilitar esa comunicación que tú -en tanto que investigadora- buscas entre l@s diferentes participantes en tus investigaciones no es necesario que tengas que adoptar ningún relativismo ético que esté basado un un cierto ‘relativismo metodológico’ de investigación que a tí como investigadora sí parece servirte.
    A mi juicio, no es posible hace ciencia, ni antropológica ni sociológica, de una manera neutral. La ciencia siempre está orientada por valores morales del científico, querámoslo o no. Esto en sí mismo no considero que sea nada negativo.

    Cierto es que con una ética universalista como puede ser la de I. Kant (1724-1808) no se llega demasiado lejos a la hora de plantear una investigación antropológica o sociológica, pero una ver reconocido esto, se puede perfectamente pensar y realizar una investigación sobre la prostitución partiendo de la idea de que pueden haber una serie de valores o principios “morales” más o menos compartidos por prácticamente cualquier otro ser humano nuestra época, y es a esto a lo que podemos llamar ética.

    Trabajos que aborden y problematicen la ética kantiana, pero sin renegar del universalismo sí que existen y se pueden encontrar en forma de libros o de artículos científicos (“clásicos” y recientes). Te pongo uno de ellos como mero ejemplo:

    Kant y Marx: un diálogo entre épocas/ Oskar Negt

  8. Stella Marr

    I think it’s never good to deny evidence of trauma without proof. I often minimize the violence and trauma of my ten years in NYC prostitutionwhen discussing it with others, to protect them from the knowledge of the brutality I experienced. Or just because it’s too hard to talk about it without my eyes overflowing with tears. The beatings, the rapes, the threats to my life began to seem as normal as morning coffee — routine and to be expected. And I was very privileged among prostitutes. After escaping prostitution I was able to graduate from Columbia University where I won an award for my writing. I’ve been married to someone I adore for fourteen years, which makes it much easier to discuss these things now. Because I know i’m loved.

    I think your post does raise interesting questions: Why is there such a strong desire to deny the violence in prostitution? No one is saying that a million out of a million women in prostitution experienced rape and beatings but we know the majority have. So why deny it? What’s the motive? Who benefits from denial?

    Certainly not the women in prostitution.

    But those making money off those women definitely benefit from this denial don’t they? And the Johns benefit, because it lets them lie to themselves about what they’re doing.

    “In truth we are each responsible to all for all, it’s only that men don’t know this. If they knew it, the world would be a paradise at once.”
    (from the Brothers Karamazov)

  9. Stella Marr

    Re: How do I interpret an interview with someone who for 55 minutes sounds okay with their life and then in the last 5 minutes breaks down and cries, remembering a past trauma? Is it meaningful for me to then use a quantitative measure that says the victimhood was only a 12th of the whole?

    Of course that’s not meaningful. You already know that. That’s denying their experience. The fact that they can hold themselves together for 55 minutes doesn’t negate what they describe at the end.

    All would be known and shown if time were but gone wrote Yeats. Until then we need to work with knowledge we have. Which means not denying prostituted women’s experiences, which have been quantified by peer-reviewed research.

    If a hospital decided to treat infectious meningitis with placebo rather than antibiotics, we’d think they were insane. And yet one could make all kinds of intellectual arguments about mind and body and the placebo effect, etc. What is healing anyway? What is death? Why not embrace it, yada yada. The bottom line is that in a life and death situation we must work with the knowledge we have to help others. Even when the centuries gather at the horizon like strange storms.


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