In this month’s newsletter, we would like to introduce PhD student, Roxana Diamond from the College of Education, Psychology and Social Work.
Roxana’s recently submitted thesis, “‘Come as you are’: Peer research exploring the everyday lives of sex workers in South Australia” received outstanding results from the examiners.
We asked Roxana to share what led to a PhD, why the research topic was important and what the hardest and most enjoyable parts of the journey was.
Tell us about yourself
I currently live on the stolen lands of the Wurundjeri people of the Woiwurrung language group, in the Kulin nation. I am a current sex worker and my PhD exploring the everyday lives of sex workers in South Australia exemplified a sex work feminist approach to research. I have been a sex worker for over a decade and have worked with SIN, the South Australian sex worker organisation for 8 years. Recently I worked with Vixen, the Victorian sex worker organisation in the Policy Officer role. I see myself as a sex worker first, an activist second and an academic last.
What led you to undertake a PhD? What inspired and motivated you?
What drew me into sex work research and a PhD? This is a question I often ask myself and think about. I started my social work degree in 2012, the same year I started sex work. I still work today over a decade later. My university education and my sex work are closely linked as they both were important places of learning for me. My education as a sex work researcher has come from both my sex work and community, and my formal research education. To this day they continue to weave into each other, however I learn most from other sex workers, past and present, and I build upon already existing knowledge.
I started out my degree with a saviour complex, as unfortunately many social work students do. However, over time and specifically due to my sex work experience, I started to understand the politics around identity and the importance of appropriate and meaningful consultation and representation. Towards the end of the degree, I became more aware that sex work and sex work activism was an important tool for me to challenge injustice. I wanted to learn as much as I could about sex work, but my social work degree failed to acknowledge criminalised populations, like sex work, in much depth. When I was offered a placement in an honours programme, I knew I had to conduct sex work research.
Sex work politics and ethics became important to me, and this fed into my passion for community work, sex work feminism and law reform. Encapsulating sex work feminism to me means also understanding that ‘sex work is work, and all work sucks’ (Origin unknown). Academia is merely a space for me to formalise what the community already knows to be true. My passion for the sex work community has continued to grow. My main aims for research, along with other sex workers, are for sex work to be recognised as real work and to achieve the full decriminalisation of sex work, with no sex worker left behind, including migrant sex workers.
What is the topic of your PhD and why is it important to you?
Peer research is important because sex workers are better placed to speak on insider issues. Sex workers can get to the core of ‘issues’ pertaining to sex work because of their lived experience rather than focusing on dominant constructions of and stigmatised assumptions about sex work. Furthermore, when sex workers have worked directly with sex worker organisations and within peer-based activist spaces they are better placed to understand the discussions that are being had at the community level.
Tell us about your research
‘Come as you are’: Peer research exploring the everyday lives of sex workers in South Australia, was underpinned by a ‘Nothing About Us Without Us’ approach. This research explores the everyday lives of South Australian sex workers. It rejects the binary that depicts either the ‘victimised’ sex worker or the fully empowered one to expose the nuances and shifts in power and agency that sex workers experience day to day. This approach avoids the inevitable creation of a simplified version of sex work that is often perpetuated by unintentionally reinforcing stigma and leaving out stories of resilience. This thesis found that everyday life discrimination does not exist without resistance. Everyday stories with sex workers delved into the mundane—but also complicated—facets of life, and these nuanced depictions better highlight the impacts of social and institutional structures that influence everyday life. The growing importance of sex worker (peer)-led research is highlighted, along with suggestions for ensuring that ethical and accountable research with sex workers is prioritised.
What has been one of the most enjoyable parts of the journey?
Honestly, being able to hyper focus on sex work through research and deepening my connection with the sex work community. When I did honours, again researching sex work, I fell in love with the research process but throughout my PhD I fell in love with organising. My activism and connection to community strengthened and meant that the ethical underpinnings for my research weren’t just a ‘tick box’ exercise, rather I exhibited my politics inside and outside of my research. I volunteered at SIN, was on the SIN board for several years, published articles on sex work in the mainstream media, such as the Advertiser (working alongside SIN), and even got to present my research at Parliament to a select committee exploring the decriminalisation of sex work.
What’s a highlight of your student life at Flinders?
The highlight has been making lifelong friends, some of whom I shared an office with, and others within the college. It’s challenging to do this alone, and in so many ways I did feel isolated a lot of the time, but making the effort to connect with peers was rewarding and I got to share my highs and lows with others who understand the PhD process.
What advice would you give?
Focus on something that matters, that you’re passionate about and means something personally or is connected to you in some way. This is what got me through my PhD.
Outsider research is a pervasive problem for the sex work community. People are fascinated by sex workers and want to ‘save prostitutes’, so it is unsurprising that more and more people are drawn to sex work research. I would advise people to not research sex work unless they are a sex worker themselves or are connected with a peer sex worker organisation.