Combating Systemic Stigma: The Displacement and Dis-empowerment of Sex Workers in Academic Research

We presented this paper at the Cost Action PROSPOL Conference called “Displacing Sex For Sale”in March 2017 at Aalborg University in Copenhagen, Denmark. Through a combination of piecemeal institutional funding, airline points tickets, PROSPOL sponsorship (thank-you PROSPOL organizers!), and personal funds, we both made it to Copenhagen for this three-day conference!

We decided for this blog post, to give you a revised version of our speaking notes, including who “says” what parts. As in our previous post, the two voices and perspectives are key to the work we do together. 


Research shapes policy and contributes to public understandings of sex work. Feminist and other anti-oppression researchers know that one of the most effective ways to ensure our research serves the best interests of people who sell sex, is to partner with sex working persons and communities to do the research. While many non-academic sex workers have been able to work within existing academic research systems and institutions, there are still many barriers to engaging in what some of us would term participatory action research.


The conference organizers ask, “How can we make sense of the nexus between historical and contemporary (dis)placements in the understanding of sex for sale?”  We respond by examining the historical and contemporary systemic displacement of sex workers from speaking and teaching as experts on our lives and work in academic research. We examine this contention through two case studies, both of which are ongoing, and both of which involve both of us.

We have argued in other work that fair pay for sex workers who participate in research is critical. The lessons we have learned through these case studies demonstrate that equity is about more than paying for time; it is about working against systemic stigma that displaces sex workers from empowered positions in research.

*Then we showed this slide, because this was mostly an academic conference, and academics like an outline 😉


Those of you who’ve read our previous post will know we have a special interest in equity between community members and researchers when it comes to doing academic research together.

Current policies on hiring and paying of non-academics for our time are one of the primary ways that sex workers end up being excluded from contributing meaningfully to academic research. Shawna and I have been discussing this particular problem for years, but it continues to be a challenge, especially in the early stages of projects, when we are struggling to attach funding.

We discussed pay and position-related challenges at the PROSPOL-2015 conference in Vienna and at a public policy conference in Italy later that year. We were then invited to speak on the subject at the HandsOff! sex worker conference in Capetown, South Africa. As noted previously, you can read that presentation here.

We emphasize, again, that “We need good research because policy developers and lawyers look for research, as well as consulting with stakeholders, when undertaking work to develop or reconfigure prostitution-related laws and policies” (those are our words from November 25th, 2015).

In that same post, we write, “Those of you familiar with academic research will know already that traditional research structures and methodologies do not necessarily facilitate appropriate power sharing. It is still all too common for a university-based researcher to be understood as a study’s “Principal Investigator,” and all others associated with the project to line up—on paper—under her in an established methodological hierarchy.”


At the conference, we emphasized, again, that “[e]quitable roles and pay guidelines need to be built into our original budgets in our grant applications. Otherwise, the partnerships required for ethical research are inequitable from the get go, and they are not sustainable over the long term.”

We know, however, that we’re not the only or the first researchers to talk about these issues. Others who have done so include:

(If you want to read any of these and can’t find or access them, please email us. We can help.)

As the references here demonstrate, many more experienced researchers than Amy and I have found ways to work around institutionalized inequalities in granting and research.

Despite this evidence of good research, many have not adequately addressed sex worker displacement in policy, funding, or practice. We think this poses a danger in the contemporary context because of the pressing need for evidence that cannot be ignored, and the fact that many sex work activists are accustomed to volunteering their time as activists. We have anecdotal evidence and experiential knowledge that suggests these kinds of realities result in many dedicated sex work activists offering to volunteer and/or or actually volunteering their time to do research alongside salaried academic researchers.

The Sex Work Database (SWD): Context and Vision


*When we originally presented this paper, we were speaking to an international audience. So we decided that I would briefly outline the political, legislative, and cultural contexts for the Sex Work Database—ongoing extreme violence against sex workers; sex worker activists’ successful challenge to prostitution-related laws in Bedford v. Canada; and the shameful response to violence by the Canadian federal (then-Conservative) government (C36 and PCEPA), dominant news media, and police. I won’t talk more about this here, because we assume readers of this blog are already familiar with Canada’s legislative and activist histories and present, when it comes to sex work.

The vision of SWD, as it was originally imagined, was to

  • Record and preserve activist messages and histories that might otherwise disappear given the ways whore stigma operates to erase/forget groups such as sex work activists;
  • Work to end violence resulting from whore stigma and support decriminalization of sex work;
  • Respond to and represent community mourning, outrage, activism, and calls to action, and to cultivate public concern and action;
  • Hold governments, journalists, police, and public to account for ongoing violence.

You can see, then, why and how relationships with individual and groups of sex work activists are critical to SWD. The vision, then, is partnership and collaboration; the vision is harnessing academic institutional power (including funding) to help achieve these ends.

The Sex Work Database: Our roles on paper and in life


On paper, Shawna is the Principal Investigator, and I am a paid Community Consultant who was hired long after the grant was received and the associated research ethics certificate was secured. On paper, the study doesn’t proceed without Shawna, but my position is not central.

We also work with Danielle Allard, a former postdoctoral research fellow (who is now a professor at the University of Alberta in digital archives and library and information sciences). On paper, Danielle’s role on the SWD project was secure for more than five years. But my position is not central.

To be clear, the project was designed this way because of Shawna’s inexperience (at that time) in community-based research, AND because policies in place considered this study design to be ethical. In fact, grant application assessors’ comments suggested it was a model study.


For SWD community consults, we set out to tell groups about SWD; to ask them how to better envision, then design, organize, and develop it; and to see if they wanted their records to be in it.

The success of these consults is due to Amy’s involvement. She

  • managed communications to set up the consultations
  • attended each consult, and participated where she saw fit
  • helped with the administration of the consultations. (For example, participants answered ultimately to her regarding their consent to participate at all. They also received their pay for participating directly from her. And Amy arranged for all additional travel expenses to be paid to all participants up front so that nobody needed to give a credit card when they checked into a hotel.)
  • transcribed the consults, so no information has gone outside of the consult “circle”


Responses to the SWD project from multiple activist organizations across Canada have been overwhelmingly positive. We measure our success by the following realities:

  • Activists have expressed trust even in the non-sex working research team members; they trust us to collaborate with and report to them now and in the future.
  • By the conclusion of each meeting, activists had taken ownership of SWD. Discussions routinely featured language that reflected this ownership: “How should WE do this? How shall we hold YOU (Shawna and non-sex worker research team members) accountable and/or direct you to steward our histories and our records?”

In addition, we have received requests from many groups and individuals to digitize, store, and protect in SWD entire storage rooms or closets full of activist materials (pamphlets, workbooks, publications, photos, news clippings, posters, etc). So, we know we’ll need more money, and the lessons learned with this grant have informed how we have written the next one: i.e. collaboratively, with a paid sex worker community consultant/liaison on board from the get go whose position is guaranteed and paid for the duration of the grant.


Despite these successes, the administrative end of the community consults has been rife with challenges. For example:

  • We have had to explain the necessity of Amy’s inclusion as Community Liaison/Coordinator for each of our 5 research trips. But there were never any questions about the inclusion of research assistants or other academic team members.
  • We have also faced growing objection from my home institution to paying either Amy or consultation participants in cash—the institution wants us to give gift cards instead. We have explained (successfully, so far) to the ‘powers that be’ that failing to pay sex working groups and individuals for their time can create mistrust.
  • Equally troubling is the push we have faced from institutional bookkeepers to break ethics and confidentiality for study participants by providing identifying information. We have found some work-arounds (email us for more information), but who knows how long these will be accepted? This speaks to what is ethical ‘on paper’ and what is truly ethical and beneficial to community.

Resisting Sex Worker Displacement


So, we are trying to work the best way we can to do ethical research by our own standards and in accordance with the Tri-Council Policy Statement on ethical research.

The consults are invaluable.

In real life, we operate as equal partners on the project

It literally cannot go ahead without either one of us

Danielle Allard, the senior project archivist, is also invaluable to the team, and brings the information management and tech systems knowledge that we need.


Currently, it is necessary to find work-arounds for the existing granting system in order to develop better projects.

What we really need are changes to granting policies so that we avoid displacing sex workers from empowered positions in research!

“Sex Work Activism in Canada”: Context and Vision


Canada has seen some pretty powerful sex work activism of late. To record histories of these kinds of success stories, we are working on an edited book called “Sex Work Activism in Canada”. Before we began, we met with a sex worker rights group, who are mainly current and former sex workers who have worked on the street.

Based on their advice, we constructed a plan for the book, then we reached out to other sex worker rights groups and individual activists across Canada, to see if they were interested in writing a chapter. People responded with great excitement to the project!


  • Provide a platform that brings together and foregrounds sex worker experts to educate about their activism, as well as their group histories;
  • Collect and preserve these histories so future activists can see what has been done before them, and can learn from other groups how this work can or has been done;
  • Get these histories into the hands of sex workers, students, professors, people working with/for sex workers in the health and social service fields, and maybe even politicians, policy makers, and police;
  • Contribute to the already amazing collection of books out there from sex workers directly.
Photo by @BringMeTheAx

“Sex Work Activism in Canada”: Our roles on paper and in life


Outside the contexts of research interviews and the ethics applications required to conduct them, our roles on paper look the same to academic and sex work activist communities: we are co-editors.

This means that in most of the places where it ‘counts’ and where it matters to us, we have formal acknowledgement and expression of our equity on this project. It’s amazing how much this enables us to be honest about and capitalize on each of our strengths, in terms of what we bring to the project.


When figuring in our efforts to attach research ethics certificates to our projects, ‘on paper’, our roles get more complicated and less equitable.

Most recently, we have been able to transition away from applying for funds and ethics approvals to do interviews – in other words, we are done doing interviews (for now).

But for interviews, our funding and ethics applications say that Shawna is the project’s Principal Investigator, and that Amy is the Community Consultant/Liaison. This is partly because Shawna is subject to research ethics protocols as a researcher at her home university. But the effect of this institutionally-assumed-and-imposed hierarchy is one that we consciously work against whenever and wherever we can.

Also important to note is the fact that until very recently, we have struggled to attach money to project to pay Amy. The academic community is most comfortable, it seems, with Amy volunteering her time even as I am paid for the full-time professor job of which this project is a part.

Us, in cat form


We have conceded to the limitations of the current system in the interests of getting as much work done as we can; but we want and need to see changes, and that’s part of why we are here at this conference.

We have established an equitable relationship. We’ve worked really hard to separate out the systems that try to shape our working relationship.  We’ve worked hard to make the ‘on paper’ stuff not matter to us.

As we’ll discuss in the next section on whore stigma and ethics, we have nonetheless struggled with these realities, and these struggles resonate even more now that what funding we had for this project, such as it was, has run out.

Research ethics + whore stigma = sex worker displacement


The following examples are drawn from exchanges with some Canadian academic research ethics boards over the past few years. While we argue that these exchanges are demonstrate systemic, not individual expressions of whore stigma, we recognize that individual stigma certainly played a role in these exchanges.

One research ethics board (often referred to as an REB) came back to us to ask what we planned to do if we learned of “child prostitution or other forms of abuse” in the context of our research with sex workers. This response came from an REB evaluating the second stage of a pilot project we were undertaking at the request of a group of adult sex work activists. We had already interviewed/consulted with them once, to develop the framework and early stages of the project in question. They then invited us to interview them again about their sex work activism. We stated explicitly in the information and consent form that we would be meeting with adult experiential sex work activists in a private room at a facility accessed by adults.

In our response to the REB, we were very clear that we were not going to add any statements about reporting “child prostitution or other forms of abuse” into our interview information form. We said that Shawna, myself, and those we were interviewing are all well aware of the ways that stigma and the moral panic associated with prostitution inform how non-allies and non-sex workers view sex working individuals: as formerly-molested children, for example, who are neglectful or abusive parents themselves. So to put that kind of stigmatizing messaging into our interview materials would suggest we believe these harmful and mistaken stereotypes, and would destroy the trust necessary to do this kind of work.

In response, the ethics board told us our points were “well taken,” but they also quoted policies on reporting child abuse and required that we put in writing to the board, if not to our participants, what we’d do if child abuse was uncovered in the course of our research.

So, despite their claims, our points about avoiding whore stigma were not actually “well taken”. We experienced this interaction as horribly stigmatizing and symbolically violent.


This second example is drawn from a related research interview, again to be conducted at the invitation of the activist group in question, in order specifically to record – for a mutually-agreed-upon project – the history and goals of this sex work activist group. The REB recommended that I, as the “Principal Investigator,” analyze and publish more in academic journals using information from the interview in question. The REB suggested that this wider sharing of research findings would serve me and the academic community more appropriately.

In response, I declined to do so, noting that Amy and I had an agreement with the people we were interviewing that only one form of publication would be done. We emphasized to the REB that our agreement with the group allowed them to do what they wanted to share the interview information in more or other ways, but all Amy and I had permission to produce ourselves was this one type of publication.

The pressure to violate the trust of the interview group and publish more than the agreed-upon materials to further my career and serve the academic community – a piece of advice that was framed as ‘helpful professional mentoring’ for me – seems particularly ironic coming from an ethics board.

This advice and the requirement that we (I) respond to it felt dangerous to us. It felt like we were being pushed to double-cross and endanger our allies and friends.

Where do we go from here?


Institutional views on principal investigators and community members, and the separation, on paper, that is perpetuated contribute in very real ways sex workers’ displacement from research.

We need to consider very seriously how these systems and policies feed into the very exclusive social frameworks that influence who gets to speak, and how they get to speak about others’ lives.

We need to examine and discuss more publicly and directly how some of us are working within this kind of system.

We also need to ensure that the work we are doing can start to chip away at the exclusionary systems currently in place.

We need to find ways that we all can build a better system.

We need to interrogate research ethics frameworks in general. Who is actually protected by ethics regulations and research systems? In our experience, the enforcement of ethics policies seems to protect universities and researchers. Are non-academics and study participants ever actually protected by these procedures?

We need to consider who and what sorts of relationships ethics boards and academic systems validate and prop up.

We need also to acknowledge the great work of some researchers, who are working toward more equitable ways of doing research with sex work communities.


If, as Indigenous writer and critic Tom King argues, stories are “all that we are,” we in the academy need to attend to the kinds of stories we tell ourselves about what we do, what we are, and what we tell ourselves and each other we aim to do here.

For academic researchers trying to do anti-oppressive research – including the recording of histories and knowledges – with and for sex workers and other marginalized groups, trusting relationships with these groups are key.

Current academic structures and anti-oppressive researchers tell very different stories about what research can or should do.

One is a story of dangerous order: of intrusion, insider/outsider roles, broken trust, and the pursuit, publication, and perpetuation of a particular kind of knowing/knowledge, no matter the cost.

One is a story of hope, respect, interest, curiosity, partnership, and investment in good, ongoing relationships.

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