Jacqueline Lewis, PhD and Eleanor Maticka-Tyndale, PhD
Department of Sociology & Anthropology
University of Windsor

A report to the Division of STD Prevention and Control, Laboratory Centres for Disease Control
Health Canada
Grant # H1021-7-0241/001/SS

Executive Summary

  This report outlines some of the methodological issues and challenges of studying issues pertaining to the sex worker and the sex work industry. Research for the report was conducted as part of a project on the escort industry in Windsor, Ontario. Information for this report on methodological challenges was obtained from six sources:

  • Interviews were conducted with researchers from Halifax, Montreal, Toronto, South Peel, Calgary, Victoria, Saskatoon. Although these were predominately academic researchers, community workers doing small-scale research projects in connection with their agency's work were also interviewed.
  • Interviews with escorts, escort agency owners and agency personnel in Windsor.
  • Interviews with exotic dancers in southwestern Ontario, gathered as part of another study.
  • Interviews with licensing officers, police, and community agency representatives in Windsor and Calgary.
  • Reports, dissertations, and publications based on research in London, Calgary, Toronto and Vancouver.
  • Information from sex worker organization websites and participation in a listserv dealing with sex work issues.


  • The Classical Model: Research questions and methodologies are determined by researchers. Responsibility for and control of design and implementation of the research rests exclusively with the researcher. The research is driven by the needs and interests of the researcher, the larger research and academic community, and the organizations and agencies that fund research.
  • The Partnership or Collaborative Model: Sex workers and researchers form partnerships for the purpose of conducting research. The research serves the needs of both groups and each expects to learn from the other. At one extreme are partnerships where the researchers carry the bulk of the authority and responsbility for the research project and sex-worker partners participate in specific aspects of the project. At the other extreme sex workers and researchers jointly establish the research questions and methodology. A clear link between the interests and the needs of the researcher and sex workers is a necessity of this model, as establishing functional trust between sex workers and researcher.
  • The Sex Worker as Researcher Model: Sex workers are the researchers who hire academically trained researchers as consultants to their projects if they are needed. The agenda and priorities are those of the researcher/sex worker.
In practice the Classical Model is commonly used by researchers studying sex workers and the sex work industry. This tendency has, however, begun to change as some feminist researchers adopt partnership models and as sex workers increasingly question the legitmacy and appropriateness of the Classical Model and research conducted by non-sex workers. An absense of an organized sex worker community or sex worker organizations places limitations on the models researchers can use.


  A variety of factors impact on the conduct of research on sex work, including:

  • Historical relationships between sex workers and researchers
  • Local initiatives and activities that affect sex workers
  • International meetings and the internet
  • Funding agency priorities and timetables
  • Research agendas
  • Locating, recruiting and retaining participants
  • First projects
  • Working with sex worker organizations

  Ethical issues that exist for researchers studying sex workers and the sex work industry are discussed throughout the report. The two ethical issues that are paramount when doing research in this area are:

  • Protecting confidentiality
  • The researcher's role and obligationsHow each of these issues is dealt with enhance or inhibit the development of functional trust.

  Recognition needs to be paid to the needs of those being studied and their knowledge and expertise in the area. Researchers interested in studying sex work should consider modifying their research models in order to involve sex workers more in the research process. This can be achieved through moving to a partnership model and developing working relationships with sex workers and sex worker organizations. By bringing community members onto projects, researchers: facilitate access to study participants and the development of trust; increase the knowledge base of the research team and the learning opportunities for study participants, researchers and sex workers alike; and enhance the sensitivity of researchers, making them more cognizant of the unique ethical issues that may arise in the course of the study and providing advice on ways to deal with these issues in advance. However, such collaborations are difficult.
  Funding agencies can help facilitate the formulation of research partnerships and the successful completion of research projects by attending to the recommendations of researchers and community organizations in the area. Strict agency priorities, interests, timetables and rules only serve to bind the hands of researchers. They can limit the type of relationships that can be developed with community members. They can also limit the scope of information that can be gathered, including the ability to pursue important areas of inquiry, and jeopardize relationships/partnerships established with community members by having long grant review processes.
  The very nature of living and working on the margins of society requires a state of constant watchfulness, caution and scepticism in order to survive and maintain safety and well-being. The watchfulness and cautious scepticism must be applied not only to agents of the state, such as police, but also to researchers whose work may purposefully or inadvertently jeopardize the safety and well-being of those on the margins. Only when research works to decrease marginalization will it be of obvious benefit to those it studies. This necessitates attention to the needs of those being studied and the consequences of research for them.

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