Ahearn's “Between the Sex Industry and Academia: Navigating Stigma and Disgust” (2015)
Dr Jude Roberts offers the perfect example of how a woman’s identity may be fragmented and spoiled by association with the sex industry (Ahearne, 2014). Roberts is a young female academic who reveals she consumes porn in a BBC News Night debate. Within seconds her title on screen had changed from ’Dr Jude Roberts’ to ‘Jude Roberts Porn User’. Roberts argues:
“Replacing my academic title with ‘porn user’ at just that moment feeds into the narrative that says that we can either be intellectual or we can be sexual, but we cannot be both”
There is still a great societal discomfort and unease with accepting that a woman can be both a serious professional and a sexual being. It is deemed that one must overshadow or erode the other. A woman can ‘better’ herself by moving away from stripping, but to admit that one still engages in stripping, or enjoyed it, troubles onlookers. The virgin/whore dichotomy dictates the distress at being presented with a woman who is both academic and porn user, or academic and lap-dancer, or academic and sex worker. Whilst the ‘former’ lap dancer means the deviance has desisted, and can help to alleviate fears, (because it is in the past, it is contained) it does little to halt the haunting presence of the deviant identity, that the pollutant could spill out and infect others.
Comments left underneath an article on Dr Rachela Colosi, a former dancer and academic who conducted ethnographic research in the lap-dancing club where she worked, are typical of what a woman risks facing once she ‘outs’ herself as a former dancer (Liverpool Echo, 2013). ‘Will she be dancing as part of the seminar’ and mocking of the topic of her Ph.D in order to reduce her credibility. Her identity here is spoiled; she is discredited due to this mark. I have experienced this personally whilst at a conference delivering a paper, where a male delegate openly mocked my research area. And could not see past my former stripper status; this tainted his view of my work and possible credibility. My identity was completely spoiled in his eyes (Goffman, 1963) and spilled into my paper, blocking my identity as authentic academic and discrediting me. This also has an internal affect, whereby the outsider is made to feel like an imposter. . One can be treated like a novelty, an object of curiosity, but rarely as an active intellectual subject. The insider status of former lap-dancer rarely translates to a widespread concept of expertise. And the fact I could be blamed for my own stigma (Allport, 1954) compounds the legitimacy of such treatment. To admit to being part of the sex industry is in some academic circles, paramount to tyranny. The influence of radical feminism looks large both in policy and the academy.
Hammond recalls a friend informing others at an event that she was ‘doing a Ph.D on prostitution’ and inferring she herself was involved in selling sex (Hammond and Kingston, 2014: 23). Diminishing a woman’s academic identity (Ibid) is a way of casting out, and a way of upholding boundaries and attempting to avoid stigma by association.
Along with the emotional strain and emotional labour of lap-dancing that Colosi mentions (2010) there is also the under-documented emotional toil of being a former lap-dancer; of deciding when to reveal, when to ‘pass’, and how to navigate different terrains such as work, home, friendships with the information. When a male professor from a different institution sent me inappropriate direct messages on twitter relating to lap-dancing, I blamed myself for revealing my former status.
“Don’t you think it negatively affects all women”. Involvement in the sex industry means you are viewed as a harmful pollutant that risks harming others by your very presence and fails to adhere to and uphold conventional value systems. These (often unwelcome) questions can be fired at any time, often relating to the ‘violence against all women’ discourse, claims of gendered exploitation and the implication that one must be damaged in some way. How can I possibly call myself a feminist? Colosi’s work is important here as she makes the valid point that dancers often feel they must cite money as the reason for their occupation, because to admit to enjoying a deviant occupation is too stigmatizing. To admit to enjoying one’s work as an exotic dancer, to not feel shame or to even feel pleasure is a reason to be cast out and marginalized.
I would argue that when the other cannot be cast out, in a work setting for example, the other is constantly made aware of the stigmatizing condition through mockery or questioning, and spatial exclusion is also reinforced.
Colleagues and friends can both simultaneously include you and exclude you from the perceived deviant group: ‘A lot of them are slags though aren’t they … I don’t mean you’, ‘You’re different’, ‘You don’t look like one’ ‘You don’t look the type’. They recognize you might fit into that category, but make attempts to distance both you, and by association themselves, from being too close. These are attempts to clean the association, to distance the proximity between them and ‘other’.
Nikos Papastergiadis talks of the Invasion Complex:
“The fantasy of the anxious self relies of strong boundaries and heightened vigilance against any sign of violation. This boundary becomes invested with the need for security against decline and contamination” (2006: 433).
[T]he highly-marketable pole fitness world also does not want association with ‘real’ lap-dancers (Lister, 2012: 53) angry of the secondary stigma to the sex industry.
It is the female researcher’s responsibility to contain her femininity and guard against excess. It is her responsibility to manage a good character. We know who we are by what we are not, therefore boundary marking and reinforcing is imperative for keeping the ‘other’ out, and for those who blur these boundaries such as sex work researchers, they become part of the danger. The dirt, deviance, stigma and disgust from the topic of sex work sticks and infiltrates the researchers who experience associated stigma (Goffman, 1963).
‘Normal’ women do not take their clothes off in a club for a living, and ‘normal’ women do not wish to research such subjects.
The constant (re) presenting of the self is tiring additional emotional labour, and is often categorized by leaving one’s own viewpoint to imagine what the other actor is thinking.
The embodiment means I feel the lap dancer, and the inscriptions upon the body which may be interpreted in negative ways. Walking with hunched shoulders so that my body does not spill out, so that my chest does not protrude, preferring back ache to being physically out of place.
Frank argues that traditional middle-class femininity is associated with sexual modesty, and that women who dance naked for strangers have transgressed a significant class boundary (Frank, 2002: 264)
[T]he woman who chooses to dance for cash has transgressed an accepted class boundary and by refusing to feel shame is transgressing another boundary.
[D]espite changing landscapes and an argued proliferation in both the expansion of the sex industry and the ‘sexualized culture’ which contextualizes it, I arguethat stigma and exclusion for those who have either undertaken work in the sex industry or research it, remain as strong as ever. The emotional labour involved in being a former lap-dancer and managing a professional image means much self-surveillance and critique. One might be labeled merely as stripper or sex worker, or receive mockery of one’s chosen Ph.D area in a way to diminish legitimacy as an academic. The idea that a woman can be either an intellectual or sexual, but not both, remains intact. Likewise stigma can spill out to spoil not only one’s identity, but the credibility of academic work.