Researching the Online Sex Work Community
This chapter reflects on an ethnography of the sex industry that utilized the Internet to help in understanding the social organization of prostitution in Britain. The aims of this chapter are threefold. First, using this study as a case example, I illustrate the opportunities that the Internet presents for researchers who seek to understand secretive, illicit social activities and access groups who are hard to locate and engage. Second, I outline some of the ethical and methodological challenges posed by recruiting from the Internet and the complexities of creating online and offline relationships with informants. Third, in the context of the sensitive topic of sex work, I demonstrate how research questions dictate the usefulness of the Internet as a site for understanding the deep meaning of social interactions. Therefore a combination of online and offline methods may be appropriate to achieve levels of acceptance and rapport with respondents and consequently the data necessary to write about other people’s behaviour.
I conducted a ten month ethnography of the social organization of the sex industry in Britain (Sanders, 2004b), in which I observed indoor sex markets (licensed saunas, brothels, escort agencies, working premises and women who worked from home) as well as street prostitution. Face-to-face interviews were conducted with fifty-five sex workers and I spoke with over two hundred women involved in the sex industry, some of whom were owners, managers and receptionists. In order to move away from the issues of child sexual exploitation, trafficking and pimping, the sample was selected on the following criteria: women had to be aged 18 years and over, hold British citizenship and describe their involvement in prostitution as ‘voluntary’.
The aim of the study was to understand the activity of selling sex for money as a form of work and prostitution as a type of occupation. The hypothesis was that sex workers would experience several other types of occupational hazards in addition to the violence and sexual health issues already documented in the literature. By