Imagine you are doing a jigsaw puzzle. You have no cover piece to start the direction; you only have a pile of strange shaped fragments, too many for you to count. Imagine that every time you put down a piece, another piece is added to the pile. Imagine that your friends and family add to the puzzle every now and then. Everyone goes about the puzzle their own way. Sometimes people start at the borders, or what they think are border. Sometimes people start at a specific section and then build outwards. Sometimes they spot and can complete many sections. Sometimes they randomly place pieces in different places, hoping it’ll work out. Sometimes they try to guess where the piece fits; they squint at it, trying to figure it out. Sometimes people dismiss a piece and leave it for later. The more time you spend on it the clearer the picture becomes. Remember, everyone has their own method of going about the puzzle and while you can comment on how you’ve come so far, and possibly instruct others, there’s a lot more puzzle to do then has been done. There is endless vacant space left to fill and filling it could change the overall picture. As infinity puzzles go, I imagine they become increasingly frustrating. You might give up and leave it as it is. Pieces that can’t be positioned together are placed aside and forgotten. You might even cut the pieces and force them to fit. You continue the puzzle because it’s always there waiting to become complete.
Now imagine that the jigsaw puzzle is the sex industry and that you are expanding your knowledge with every second you indulge yourself with it. As you place pieces down, what you think the industry is becomes more evident. If you’re focusing on one section – that’s the picture you’re seeing. If you’re a sex worker, your experiences are best understood. If you’re a counselor your exposure is to sex workers with psychological difficulties because that’s the section of the puzzle you work on. If you work in academia you see the numbers and you search out for pieces that fit into the section you’re building. For all you know the jigsaw is a collage and you have uncovered but one section of it. You might have fragments here and there but nothing fully comprehensible. Importantly, the people who helped you build the puzzle might not have done the best job. Maybe you’re so engrossed in that one section that you neglect the rest. The pieces never end because sex work never ends. There’s always another person with another experience. There is a thousand transactions being agreed upon, or actually happening, right now. Always. And they are concurrently changing the picture. A hue of endless colours and stories interconnected but not together yet. You cannot ever understand the sex industry in it’s totality there’s just too much to it.
This is the sex industry. The expansion of relevant knowledge linked with time, interest, experience, discourse, research, networking, configuration and constant updating. To really grasp what the sex industry is you need to spend a silly amount of time involved with it. Furthermore, you need to be clever enough to sift through information dumps to find the eligible material. You have to recognize what is history and what is present day. You need to not fall into the lazy thinking of prior knowledge or ‘common sense’ – there’s a new article with a new finding every day. You have to figure out what is applicable here and how far it extends to until effects lose proximity. Even I, the girl who spends strenuous hours learning about it, am sometimes confused when faced with new information. Is this plausible and reliable? Are they making it up? Is it relevant? I have to ask myself these questions every single time and be prepared to let go of what I once thought was true because sex work is an instrument for a number of initiatives – and it’s so easy to be convinced by reaffirming precedence. And I think to myself if I’m having trouble analysing this information now, I can only imagine how susceptible others are to believing incomplete or out-dated convictions.
Too often I see the misuse of evidence. Too often I read misrepresentative research. Too often I watch journalists craft moral panic based upon ’empirical’ evidence. Too often I see praise for sloppy and inflated academic work. Too often I see our truths used to exercise ideology. Too often I spot crucial information omitted or holes in supposed narratives. Too often I see Mrs. Stay-At-Home-Mum confidently explain who sex workers are and what they go through. Too often I see people more interested in creating the truth than discovering the truth. I see expired research used so certainly, I see research from another country used so unquestionably, I see people reassure themselves through the manipulated and unethical findings in articles, I see the misapplication and butchery of the social studies. Everyday. I’m not the only one. It is wildfire and the volume of it burns my eyes and ears. I find myself explaining to others, like they’re first year university students, the importance of criticisms in any piece of quantitative or qualitative research.
Especially when it comes to the sex industry. Did no one get the memo? Any information you receive about the sex industry has to be analysed to figure out if it’s representative and applicable because people ride it as a morale crusade. Evidence-based research is best to gain perspective that is not manufactured and undeniable, but do you know how to spot research when it is manufacture? If you have in front of you an article in the paper about increased prostitution, or a feminist piece, or a government funded research project, do you actually have the skills to figure out why they’re posting what they are? What is their initiative? Do you ever second guess? Do you think academia in relation to sex work is about the expansion of knowledge? Is it about the actual working conditions of workers or the morale conditions of a worker? Is it for a movement, or an idea, or for a gender or for the honest to god truth? Most importantly, how do you respond when you come across something that exposes a fault in your former passionate belief?
Everyone seems to think they have an answer and they will shout and fight for what they believe in, even if they must sink to a low depth. I’ve seen people make threats to safety in a turn to evoke emotion or make nonsensical assurances to seduce supporters. Synthetic information is an infection in the mind and it approaches us in attractive attires. But it poisons your thoughts and you become that infection. It’s hard to distinguish valid information from invalid – but there are tricks. These are trick that I try to use whenever I come across something new. And it’s worth investing in.
1. Ask for a source. When someone makes a claim about a population group you need to ask them to justify themselves. If they use poor excuses such as ‘everyone knows’, ‘a friend of a friend’, ‘I read it somewhere’, ‘this one girl I knew’ and so forth, you need to be skeptical. Often people recycle and reuse dirty laundry. As for the ‘I knew someone once…’ I wouldn’t suggest not believing the story but to rather question if these things happened because of the reasons suggested. You need to be always asking why.
2. When coming across quantitative research to do with the sex industry, you need to remember that it is one of the hardest things to empirically and ethically do. Sex work in some places is underground; the workers unapproachable; the workers afraid of the police and any person outside the scope of their social lives. There’s privacy issues, stigma, reluctance. Sometimes there’s misdirection. More than sometimes.
3. Most important thing to consider is motivation for research or initiative. Research studies are motivated by external factors such as the desire to get published, advancement of career, receiving funding or seeking certain results. Consequently, a number of findings are biased and unreliable. Same thing can be said about government funded projects. If you have just spent 100k on any government project (for example rescue industry) you’re going to have to justify they spending by making victims out of worker. So when you see a new piece of information, you need to ask yourself: who conducted this research? Why? What are they trying to achieve? When you discover their motivations, you discover the direction of their results. You have to figure out if their position is credible. Any researcher should abide to the values of honesty, objectivity, integrity, carefulness, openness, respect, responsible publication, confidentiality, non-discrimination and competence. There are too many researchers who have approached sex work with preconceived ideas and whose findings have been deemed unreliable. Whose results would you trust more: someone independently hired or someone who works for Feminists Against Prostitution. Even to the discredit of some leading researchers their work still is used like gold. Most people don’t even know that they’ve been discredited – most people don’t even know the characters of the researcher. It is very important to learn who these people are and why they’re doing what they’re doing because if morality is driving the research instead of integrity, the results are going to be predictable. Dr. Ioannidis, a meta-researcher who is one of the world’s experts on the credibility of medical research, found that the studies that tend to get published are those with eye-catching findings, which when studied rigorously collapse under the weight of contradictory data (Freedman, D, Lies, Damned Lies, and Medical Science, 2010).
4. Research method/design. To figure out whether a study is conclusive you need to look at how they did their research. You need to look out for selection biases, measurement biases and intervention biases. If you see randomisation of participants, large sample sizes – this is a good sign. If there is a study group of 250 and the population my research relates to is numbered at 5000, how representative is the findings? That’s 5% is the percentage of that group, how applicable are the results? If it was research on brothel workers, and of that 250, they all worked in less than $300 per hour brothels, how useful is my findings? You have to look at their methodology to figure out exactly how they went about finding the results. See if they treated their samples with respect. I’ve seen countless research attempts where the identity of a sex worker has been compromised because their anonymity was not respected.
5. What they attribute the findings to. This is a very difficult thing to do. Every time you read something they will conclude with ‘the reason this happened is because of this’. Usually it reflects the purpose or hypothesis of the research. It’s up to you to figure out if the reason correlates fully with the results or if there’s something else to be considered. Sometimes things get purposefully overlooked. You have to think to yourself, for example, if the disparity of rapes in sex work that occur between Sydney and Melbourne have to do with the legal framework. Is it disparity in numbers or in percentage? Why? Often there is never one reason that something happens but a collection of reasons. For example, I remember reading a feminist piece that tried to debunk the decriminalisation ‘myths’. One of the points mentioned how in New Zealand the sex workers found that decriminalisation didn’t change much at all. Now, on first glance, you’d think ‘well I guess decriminalisation is not really that effective’. In truth, the legal position of New Zealand before decriminalisation was not that different. So, of course things didn’t change much, because things weren’t that different. Attribution of findings can be manipulated so remember to never lay over and agree with it. Now if decriminalisation was introduced in the State, in its current condition, that would be a whole new story.
6. Date/validity. This is one of my pet hates. If you’re going to use any sort of research to support your argument, you have to make sure it’s still valid. Research has an expiry date. If you quote research from 20 years ago like it’s the realities of today – your argument is nullified and inapplicable. Of course things were different 20 years ago, we are progressing every single year and the situation is changing. If I wrote about street workers in Melbourne (illegal) today and next year it was made legal, do you think the results will be applicable for next year? No. It’s out-dated. Things change. You need to update and refresh your perspective every day. Sex workers are all on the street? Yeah, maybe more so about 40 years ago. Not so much today. Sex workers are diseased and venereal creatures? Yeah. maybe in Victorian days. Have you heard of a condom?
7. Location. This is my other pet hate. What I hate most is when I’m talking to someone about sex work and they say something along the lines of ‘yeah but pimps run the whole industry, so says this study from America’. I think to myself ‘is this person actually serious, do I really need to explain why America is different from Australia?’ The legalities are different, the people are different, the culture is different, the socioeconomic of the population is different, the demography is different, everything is different including sex work. Do you apply the findings of the number of woman who are raped on the street in America, to match Australia’s? No. It’s not applicable. The research happening in Cambodia, UK, Sweden or Switzerland cannot be used to describe the situation here – it can only be used to illustrate what they’re doing and if it’s something we want to adopt or reprise.
8. The use of numbers. This is an easy one – when someone says ‘most people in prostitution would leave if they could’ they are actually making up a claim or generalisation. Rather, if someone says ‘in the streets of London, 70% of a study of 100 of the street workers in 2001 says they would leave prostitution if they had the means to’ is more believable. I’ve seen the avoidance of numbers because numbers say one thing, but words can be interpreted and say a larger spectrum of things. Watch out for words such as ‘increasing’, ‘astrological’, ‘most’, ‘countless’, ‘nearly every’, ‘more than half’ and so forth. They’re often used intentionally to be misleading.
9. Leading. This happens so much it’s not even a joke. It’s like saying ‘if you could not possibly work ever again, would you leave the sex industry?’ and then making the findings ‘95% of workers said they would leave the industry’. Do you see how the leading works? It’s basically a set up answer.
10. Let’s move to qualitative sort of research. Qualitative is case analysis usually the analysis of one subject. What I find happens in a lot of work is the omission of appropriate information, the slicing of information found to be not ‘fitting’, hyperbole/exaggeration and misquoting or misrepresenting information. For example, in Germany there was a documentary released called Der Spiegel (has been criticized here http://feministire.wordpress.com/2013/06/06/does-legal-prostitution-really-increase-human-trafficking-in-germany/?blogsub=confirming#subscribe-blog) which was about the failure of the legalisation model in Germany. An escort from Berlin who is a sex work activist agreed to contribute to the documentary with conditions that the documenters ignored (you can read her response to it http://courtisane.de/blog/?p=659). Be wary of the slicers, they’ll chop the information you receive to their liking. These crafters can be very tricky to spot, sometimes they’re very convincing.
Of course no one can do all these things every time they come across new information. It’s impossible. Sometimes you’ll be clicking away forever trying to figure out the source of a claim. Sometimes people can’t even give you a source – ‘they just know’. But it’s important to at least consider the information you’re receiving as fabricated or inadmissible because it can taint your mind. Sometimes if you just look up critiques for a particular study, you’ll find someone has done most of the work for you. If you read about sex work a lot, with an open mind, you start to recognise ‘markers’ or ‘signals’ that are attached with faux information.
Firstly, there’s a certain accent in the language used by the people who don’t have much respect for workers. If someone is spitting out words like prostitute or hooker, you can immediately recognise them as someone who doesn’t respect sex workers enough to talk about them with a level of decency. It’s the sort of language that demonstrates a rigid reluctance to at least communicate respectfully about a topic. This sort of inconsideration says something about the person.
Second is distinction. If someone does not know how to distinguish sex work from the different levels within itself and also things like rape, slavery, kidnapping, trafficking and so forth – this is someone that has an undeveloped knowledge of sex work. They usually make claims about sex work with the idea that they’re talking about sex work, when really, they’re talking about immigration and trafficking. They’re the people who have not taken the time to research the critiques of the research they are quoting. They often use research from another place and another time with no cross checking. These people irritate me highly, especially when they are so sure of themselves. They lump everyone to one category irresponsibly. They are the ones who help create an influx of victims for very serious crimes – many of which are not actually victims. In turn, this is very disrespectful and hurtful to real victims. The inability or refusal to distinguish between crimes, stereotypes and serious victims shows that they’re unchanging.
Identification of their feminist position is important too. Feminist who have undergone traditional studies don’t have many positive things to say about sex work. Obviously, the research they support is often biased. I’ve come across so many works from feminists with so many holes it might as well be cheese. I’m developing a distrusting attitude towards them due to their approach to my field. They come in like it is all fair-game because ‘they’re feminists, the knight in shining armour, they know what’s best for women as a whole and it’s not what you want’. These are people who are more interested in furthering their own beliefs then succumbing to the possibility that a woman may own and use her sexuality to her liking.
Scaling the value of information is important to. The size of the research is important, is it at a national scope or just one city? If something is coming from an actual sex worker, it’s very valuable. If they say something, you listen to them because they live it. Text book warriors don’t. It’s important to also use the same level of analysis in assessing why they have the view that they do. Where do they work, how do they work, how often, how long? What are their circumstances, what were their circumstances before, what are their motivations? Why are they expressing their opinions? It’s not to question their character, it’s to assess whether they are qualified and reliable for their opinions.
Journalism I’d rate the last rung for ‘valuable’ information. Often they’re just trying to get a response with hardly any respect to the workers they report about. If you trace their sources, you’ll see what I mean. They jeopardise sex worker identities, families and children without breaking a sweat. They owe nothing to anyone except their employer. Every now and then I’ll come across an informative piece but usually not; journalists are more interested in decreasing perspective rather than increasing.
Funding is another thing. If you’re faced with a study that’s funded by an anti-sex work organisation, can you guess what that study might focus on? If you can trace the funding, you can trace the motivation which I’m sure will correlate with the findings.
When you read up on sex work you’ll find two very passionate and opposing sides. They furiously engage with each other (often I’ve found myself caught up) and it is unfortunate that things are so polarised and increasingly difficult for progression. Sometimes activists are hesitant to reveal something negative about their job because they know it’ll be used against them rather than dealt with normally and rationally. Sometimes the anti’s are uncompromising in their position because it breaches their propaganda/campaign. It’s no good, either side. If sex workers can’t be honest without being ridiculed, we can’t address the problems we face. If people believe sex work is sex trafficking, then the problem doubles in size and the people in need of help are lost in the crowd. If people relate the situation from there with here – they are chasing their own tail.
Let’s try to be better informed about what this industry is all about, one step at a time.