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A sexual position? Researching lapdancing? NOTW need not apply

November 30th, 2009

Dr Petra

Dan's mypole calendar cover

Yesterday afternoon I dodged the ongoing downpours by popping into our local cafe for a quick latte and a catch up with the Sunday papers. Which were quite dull until I came across this snippet in the News of the World:

A sexual position
£31K-a-year University job to investigate lap-dancing

A TOP university is adverting for a new researcher – to investigate lap-dancing.

The successful candidate will be required to visit a string of strip clubs and interview 300 erotic dancers – and get paid £31,500 a year to do it.

Leeds University is creating the post to look into “the rise and regulation of lap dancing and sexual labour”. It has even won government funding.

And there should be no shortage of qualified candidates. The researcher has to have “prior experience of conducting research in the female sex industry”.

Predictably the NOTW approached this in a kind of “phwoar fellas, look at that sexy research you can do at a TOP university” format. (They weren’t the only ones, a fair few other papers also ran the same story). Yet the tone of the piece suggests that despite being at a prestigious institution it isn’t proper research because the successful candidate’s going to visit strip clubs and talk to dancers. The salary and mention of government funding are used to detract from, rather than enhance the seriousness of the job.

Because of course to NOTW, other newspapers (and probably many members of the public) this cannot really be serious. After all, sex isn’t a topic taken seriously by the press and people tend to have a mixed response to erotic dancing – a combination of excitement and disapproval.

I can completely see why many people reading this would either dismiss it as a joke or go for the ‘ooh is that what they’re wasting tax payers money on now’ reaction. It may not be particularly clear why this research is necessary (I’ll explain why in a bit). Some people may mistakenly think that funding studies like this means research on other issues around health/wellbeing may be neglected (it’s not true, but it’s very difficult to convince people otherwise).

The salary may also seem very high to many people. Particularly when NOTW suggest the only work involved is chatting to a few hundred dancers. Whereas the successful candidate is going to have to search the literature for other research on this topic; create a questionnaire (after reviewing existing measures); design the interview schedule they’ll be using to shape their conversations with dancers. They’ll need to obtain ethics approval (which can take several months to prepare) if it’s not already been granted; and they’ll need to conduct, oversee the transcription of, and analyse the interviews. [If you work on the basis that one hour of interview can take up to ten hours to accurately transcribe, and that many of these interviews will be longer than that, it'll give you some idea about how much work will be involved]. Transcripts will need checking with dancers and reports for the funding body will need writing. Outcomes from the survey will need analysing. And there’ll be the obligatory writing up academic papers based on the study.

The pay represents the grade of the researcher needed to do this work – someone who is experienced in social research. Who’ll not only need a PhD, but also extensive postdoctoral experience.

Even here I can imagine the sniggers of what ‘postdoctoral experience’ may mean in relation to lap dancing. Yet to research this area you need to be able to work sensitively with people, to understand the female sex industry, to be transparent in your interviewing and reflexive in how you approach your data. It’s not just about asking questions in a careful and balanced way. It’s also about being able to represent what’s said by dancers fairly, and analyse resulting data faithfully.

While this might explain what this job involves, it doesn’t sound quite so sexy (or dismissive) as NOTW’s interpretation.

Unfortunately many journalists are unaware there’s any such thing as ethical and professional research on the sex industry. The media’s forays into lapdancing is either smutty or prurient. This is partly why such research is needed – because the understanding of lap dancing is limited and what exists are either stereotypical or hysterical media reports, or highly biased and flawed studies commissioned to prove lap dancing is bad by researchers with fixed agendas against erotic entertainment (click here for an often cited example of research practitioners view as problematic). Of the balanced and ethical studies that do exist, these tend to focus more on the client, with the voices of dancers still largely absent.

The skill required for this current post will be to listen carefully to dancers, to record their experiences, but not to use the research to push any predetermined agendas. No doubt the women interviewed will reveal good, bad and mundane experiences with lap dancing and all those will need clearly explaining.

The NOTW’s approach suggests that anyone can study this area by dint of having an interest in erotic dance. While there’s no reason an erotic dancer couldn’t apply for the job, they’d only get the post if they additionally had the relevant academic experience. Strangely the NOTW’s take on sex research represents the way journalists often talk about sex studies – in a way that’s unique to sex research. You never hear them suggest that if you’ve had a suspected heart attack you’re suddenly a cardiologist, or you can only study cancer if you’ve got it yourself, or the only people who might apply for a project on diabetes must be diabetic. Yet when it comes to sex research the assumption is anyone who feels a bit frisky might suit the job, or the research is entirely based on personal experience – not social/science, awareness of critically appraised research evidence, or years academic training.

Sadly it’s coverage like this that means academics who research sex and relationships are suspicious of the media. Countless research jobs are advertised weekly, yet the press only seem to get in a fluster when there’s a sex-related job available. How sad that journalists fail to grasp that making such a fuss they draw attention to a forthcoming study which can very well compromise results and make participants unwilling to speak to researchers. It could also affect the safety of the researchers on the project or subject it to ongoing scruitiny which would make carrying out a balanced study. And it completely devalues the achievement of getting independent funding to look at erotic entertainment – no mean feat for any academic.

Of course, you can’t just blame journalists here. After all, some researchers have, in the past, gone to the media with their planned research on lap dancing before it even started. So you can appreciate the average journalist may assume this is common practice and feel it’s fine to out a study before it’s even got started.

Unfortunately each time something like this happens academics, therapists and healthcare providers working in the area of sex and relationships are reminded that the media (and often the public) don’t take what they do seriously. And that it’s very difficult to challenge this kind of reporting without seeming humourless.

Here’s hoping this study drops out of the public gaze and continues as it should. Without any further attention, and with the possibility of letting erotic dancers speak openly about their lives. The next time we hear about this study should be when results are presented. And until then I wish the research team and whoever gets the job all the best with a much-needed and timely piece of research.

* Illustration at the start of this blog is by illustrator Dan Avenell and was the front cover on the MyPole charity calendar 2005.

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