There has been so much work done to debunk the dodgy statistics in trafficking claims, but it’s not just abolitionists whose research is characterised by not actually talking to sex workers. With the claim that 27.1% of the sex workers on AW are men or the strange deduction that indoor sex workers earn a cool £250k a year, I’m left wondering: since researchers clearly aren’t talking to sex workers, then where are they getting their information from? In a criminalised climate like the UK, sex work is inherently secretive, while, like any industry, its sellers are often liberal with the truth when it comes to marketing. Perhaps because of this, well-meaning researchers frequently produce research which takes at face value information which needs decoding by a secretive and hard to reach community.
The voices of sex workers are absent from the methodology or at least ignored when drawing conclusions for research information garnered from adult service websites (ASWs). The data has been skimmed from the adverts that sex workers write, analysed (I use that word loosely) and published with claims that it represents the sex industry at large.
Research like this is easier to engage in than actually finding sex workers to talk to but quantitative data “risks producing narrow understandings that may miss some of the complexity of people’s experience.” That said, one reason why sex workers don’t want to talk to researchers is because they don’t like the bad research about them, so it’s a vicious cycle.
But as well as missing the complexity of the worker’s experience, this kind of quantitative data doesn’t consider that sex workers’ adverts are smoke, mirrors, and lies. Ethically, there is nothing wrong or bad about using information from sex worker advertisements, but since they’re not true, it constructs a very false, inaccurate vision of the sex industry.
Specific sexual services are most often negotiated away from the website, on phone calls, text messages, or even in the room with the client. It’s incredibly common on ASW for workers to just tick every box and advertise sex acts and services that they have no intention of ever doing, simply to show up in more searches and attract potential customers. I remember listing that I offered anal sex because lots of men would book me specifically for that. As soon as they arrived “Oops sorry, forgot to prep!” because the money was mine, they weren’t exactly going to pull their pants up and leave, and I don’t issue refunds. It was a lie to get men in the door! It’s the same reasons as to why prices listed on profiles are not to be taken at face value; often one price is listed and it doesn’t include extras which can be added on top. Wanna take photos? An outfit request? A script I’m going to need to know beforehand? That might not be included in the hourly rate listed, but you’re definitely going to be paying for it!
Because on the subject of money, another demographic that’s lied about is location. Kensington and Chelsea is one of the most expensive areas in the country, and according to this guy the most popular for sex workers. But is it? Sex workers will say they work there to make themselves appear more upmarket and cater to clients they perceive as being wealthy. They might hire a hotel or apartment in the area, or the client will, but I highly doubt they live or operate a business from there. Sex workers often sell the idea that they don’t need the money and they’re in this game because they love it. Better then to push the fantasy that they’re already rich by saying they live in an expensive area. When research makes out that sex workers are earning six figures a year, with five clients a day – every day – it adds to this myth that sex workers are rolling it. No wonder the SWERFs think we’re all middle class. Really, sex work is precarious, often badly paid, uncertain and very much a gig job. Even busy workers can go days, WEEKS, without the phone ringing. If sex workers are regularly earning between £16k and £264k a year, why then was a hardship fund set up to help destitute workers buy food? The mind boggles.
Some researchers also seem obsessed with the idea of proving that sex work isn’t gendered and that women pay for sexual services in increasing numbers, from women and from men. Superficial data from adult service websites perpetuates this line of thinking. I kicked off this blog mocking a dodgy statistic, and that paper further claimed that “research consistently underestimates the importance and number of men in sex work” – but actually it doesn’t. It often does the opposite and over estimates the number of men in sex work. I don’t deny that there are men in the industry who sell sex to women. I know women who have purchased sex (from men and women) and Sarah Kingston has written a book about it. But that doesn’t mean that sex work isn’t gendered. This constant claim that men sell sex to women based on the number of profiles on ASW is so disturbing because, after looking on these websites myself, most of these male-owned accounts have no feedback which suggests that they’re not escorts, but fantasists who set up a profile pretending to be an escort as part of their fantasy. They’re attracted to the idea of anonymous sex as well as the misguided belief that someone would be interested in pursuing them sexually and even paying for the privilege. Men who typically pay for sex are turned on by the idea that someone might want them enough to offer them money for it. The male-owned profiles which do have feedback often have it because they pay for sex, get feedback from sex workers, then switch their profile around so it looks like women have paid for their services. 27.1% of sex workers on Adultwork are not men. Instead, 27.1% of profiles are men, and a large majority of those are clients. Why are fantasist punters being counted among the sex working community? We don’t want them! And client posing is commonly known amongst sex workers; if sex workers had been consulted on the research, that claim would have been contested.
But what about women who sell sex to women?
I know that women pay for sex from other women. It’s rare, but it happens. What I want to stress here is that it isn’t as common as some research makes out. Many sex workers list their clientele as women, or talk at length at how much they enjoy being with other women, but this does not necessarily imply that women are the ones paying for sex. Service providers on Adultwork (ones that actually sell sex and don’t just have a profile to enjoy the fantasy of it) often list themselves as providing for women to sell the fantasy of bisexuality to straight men. This fantasy isn’t new; without wanting to regurgitate bisexual or lesbian stereotypes, women in the sex industry often pretend to be bisexual for the male fantasy: lying about your sexual desire is literally what sex work is. It might go the other way by lying to straight to male clients to obscure your own personal queer sexuality. There will be clients who want to pay for sex from two women at the same time, and since the performance of attraction is partly what men are paying for, they’ll want to pay for the services of women who are genuinely into other women (which is why women claim they are on their profile). That’s why female identifying sex workers list themselves as available for female clients: for men.
Is it such a big deal?
Most of what is written in a sex worker’s advertisement is no reflection of the truth. Years are shaved off real ages (I have friends comfortably in their 40s, still advertising as 28), ethnicity and nationality are hidden or lied about, as is education level. Photos are filtered, shopped and edited and whole personas are constructed. There are lots of reasons for lying: many don’t want to be discovered by a family member, or mums at the school-gate, or a nosy boss in a civilian job. It’s also likely that they don’t want an abusive ex or violent client to find out where they are or what they’re up to.
Mainly though, it’s about money.
We live in a racist and male dominated society and very often the men with the money want to have sex with slim, young, English, white women. Sex workers will say what they need to say to earn a decent living. It’s not that surprising, is it?
Publishing data taken from adverts distorts the truth of who is selling sex, to whom, and why. I agree that sex workers are not homogeneous, and should resist attempts to categorise them as an identifiable group to be ‘known’ and disciplined, but it is possible to reject attempts at universalising whilst acknowledging that sex work is a gendered occupation, often sold by women with no money to men with an excess of it.
Whilst I defend anyone’s right to research what they want, “nothing about us without us” is the rallying call for the sex worker community because when research is published without their input, it hurts them. Sex workers can laugh about bad research amongst ourselves, but it’s frightening how readily others take it as fact. Public policy and Home Office reports regularly rely on academic research to inform politician’s decision making. A friend of mine gave evidence in the Universal Credit inquiry. The policy makers and politicians she spoke to called on research to suggest that survival sex workers were all raking in money and therefore didn’t need help.
There is a positive to take from this, however. Sex workers themselves are researching more and creating, disseminating and sharing their own findings. Their skills, instinct and understanding cannot be replicating by those outside of the community, and they are advancing knowledge and helping to inform policy themselves. They are collaborating participating and, most importantly, calling out bad research when it happens.
Huge thanks to Lydia Caradonna for her suggestions and edits.