Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

"The Personal Is Political Science": Epistemological and Methodological Issues in Feminist Social Science Research on Prostitution

Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

"The Personal Is Political Science": Epistemological and Methodological Issues in Feminist Social Science Research on Prostitution

Article excerpt

Introduction

Few social phenomena continue to oppose policymakers and researchers in their normative stances and empirical findings as much as commercial sex. Indeed, research on pornography, striptease, and prostitution, is fraught with antagonistic claims to legitimate representation of the issue, the people involved, and the solutions required. This essay argues that the antagonisms within social science research on prostitution are due to more than the subject matter's inherent complexity and incommensurability. Rather, we may owe much of the issue's intractability to a lack of explicit engagement with feminist knowledge politics, and to the epistemological and methodological variety that exists among feminist researchers. There is, as yet, little in the way of explicit discussion of what we hold science, and our role as scientists, to be in this domain. As a result, we are confronted to a paradox, which has yet to be adequately addressed in the literature, whereby we concurrently strive to actualize the emancipatory potential of our knowledge without, in so doing, speaking on the behalf of a voiceless and invisible other.

Thirty years after Patti Lather set out to explore "what it means to do research in an unjust world" (1986, 257), the world is still unjust and people are still undertaking research. By unpicking the politics of research on prostitution, this essay is a tentative and preliminary incursion into whether, and how, we can use research to align action and meaning in a nonoppressive manner. In light of the persistence of existing power and resource imbalances, the emergence of new relational dynamics, and the complexification of our understanding of both, this essay is therefore an invitation to reedit Lather's reflection, and consider what research in an unjust world means today, at the dawn of a new millennium. In a first instance, the puzzlingly fraught nature of research on prostitution is evinced and presented as evidence of a scientific project at the juncture between politics and meaning. In a second instance, the implications and challenges raised by the epistemological and methodological choices made in the domain are discussed. In particular, in light of the desire to align progressive and emancipatory action with the knowledge created by research on prostitution, the place of reflexivity and activism in research is problematised as praxis rather than intellectual license for deploying an oppressive subjectivity. Finally, presenting examples from the literature, the particular risk of emancipatory intentions being co-opted by an oppressive and reductionist appeal to the oppressed's 'false consciousness' is examined. The essay concludes firstly that the rigor and relevance of feminist social science research on commercial sex should be more authoritatively predicated on sustained, coherent and explicit engagement with our epistemological choices. Secondly, the essay suggests that feminist researchers should fight to establish these objectives as the incontrovertible yardstick of emancipatory research and the precondition for continued dialogue and development in feminist social science.

A Puzzle

What drives both political and research debates on the issue of prostitution is the concern that it is a problematic 'real world' phenomenon that endures and eludes control, leading to grave injustices and criminal excesses. However, unlike debates over other enduring and pervasive injustices like poverty or ill health, which primarily concern how they should be tackled, debates over prostitution are fraught and fractured over exactly how, and to what extent, it even is a problem. This disagreement over the meaning and consequences of prostitution is reflected in the variety and divergence of policies addressing it. There is broad consensus on three main types of national prostitution policy regimes: prohibitionism, which criminalises all parties involved in prostitution; regulationism, which criminalises the coercive exploitation of sex workers but regulates the consensual provision of sexual services and the employment of sex workers; and, abolitionism, where the provision of sexual services is not criminalised, for the sake of not punishing individuals in prostitution--conceptualised as victims of gender violence and inequality--but the profiting from the prostitution of others, however, is. …

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