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Working girls : prostitutes, their life and social control

Appendix II : Methodology

Two approaches to this study were made. The first was participant observation, whereby my involvement with prostitutes over the past decade as activist, welfare worker and co-founder of the Australian Prostitutes Collective has provided me with an insight into the commercial sex industry rare for those not directly involved in the daily production of sex work. Many of the comments made by me without reference to other sources are outcomes of an acquired knowledge about prostitutes and their working environment over more than ten years of closely observing the social and working aspects of the sex industry with the trained and curious eye of a behavioural scientist. The second approach was documented empiricism achieved through formal fieldwork methodology. Two methods were employed in acquiring the documentary evidence. One was the classic symbolic interactionary in-depth interviewing technique; the other, the more objective method of surveying a random distribution sample of human subjects.

The survey method employed here used the questionnaire seen at Appendix 1. My object was to compare a sample of prostitutes with other samples of women to determine to what extent they are different to non-prostitute women. Because of the difficulties associated with obtaining a large and broad sample of non-prostitute women generally, not to mention the cost involved in such a project when I had a very limited budget, I chose to compare the prostitutes sample with two similar size samples of specific non-prostitution women. For the reasons already given on page 172, 1 preferred women with high social status for the two control groups rather than low-status women. The reason for the two groups being health workers and university students, instead of say, accountants, lawyers, actresses, secretaries, was convenience. I was working with health employees at the time and doing this research at Macquarie University in Sydney.

The questionnaire was divided into social areas in human lifestyles often associated with prostitutes in past research: sexual experiences, childhood and family relations, drug history, legal history and health history. Had either the health-workers or the students been the focal subjects the questionnaire would have been structured differently. I chose the optional answer format because my insight into brothel (parlour) life informed me that this type of questionnaire was popular among prostitutes, who filled them in as a means of passing time between clients as they came across them in what I found to be the most popular magazine read in the workplace, Cleo. Thus, I designed a form whose structure was already familiar to most prostitutes.

In addition, two types of the same basic questionnaire were made: the 84 question form for prostitutes included questions on their sex work experiences and the nature of clients; the 58 question form for health workers and students included questions on their opinions about sex work. So, as well as data with which to compare responses from the three sample groups, I also acquired a body of statistical data on sex work from the prostitutes and non-prostitutes' impressions about the women who become prostitutes.

The prostitutes' questionnaire was distributed widely across the sex industry. These were left in nearly all parlours (brothels) across the Sydney metropolitan area, handed to those escorts and private (call girl) workers who expressed interest in the study, and left at venues frequented by street workers in mid 1986. Because of my long association with prostitutes, familiarity with parlour management and the relationship of trust I had developed over the years with workers, owners and receptionists, contact with the prostitution population presented no problems. Completed questionnaires were either collected from parlours or posted in between October and December of the same year. Most completed questionnaires were collected from the parlours. These came from 37 parlours-13 from the Kings Cross area, 13 from western suburbs, seven from southern suburbs, two from the North Shore and two from Surry Hills. Other questionnaires were sent by mail. In all, 128 women had taken part: 53 were suburban parlour workers, 34 were Kings Cross parlour workers, I I were escorts, 10 bondage mistresses, five came from the little East Sydney brothels, five were street workers, four were private workers, and six did not identify the kind of sex work they were engaged in. However, due to the mobility of prostitutes, the kind of sex work most of these women had done in the past indicated a much broader range of work experiences. Eighty-six (39 per cent) of the sample had previously worked in brothels or parlours, 46 (21 per cent) had previously done escort work, 27 (12 per cent) had worked as private prostitutes (call girls), 25 (II per cent) had worked on the streets, six (3 per cent) had been bondage mistresses, four (2 per cent) had previously worked in hotels or clubs, and 27 (12 per cent) had never worked in any place or type of prostitution before their present employment. Thus, the sample's work experiences both at the time of the study and in previous employment closely matched the proportions of "professional" prostitution mentioned on page 232: approximately, two-thirds work in parlours or brothels, a quarter in private prostitution, and one tenth on the street, at any one time.

In conducting research among prostitutes, certain guidelines should be observed for maximising results. I think trust between the prostitutes being studied and the researcher is the quintessential nexus to obtaining substantial empirical data. Researchers with previous association with the prostitute population as advocates, welfare workers, legal advisers, or especially as prostitutes themselves are more likely to be accepted among prostitutes than strangers. In other words, the researcher should have proved him or herself as someone who can be trusted to reveal truths rather than misconceived notions. Even a trustworthy researcher needs to observe strict anonymity for the prostitutes being studied. The questionnaire should not reveal even the remotest possible chance of identifying the subject (for instance, year of birth is preferred to actual day of birth, since the former provides the least chance of exposure). I have found that distributing questionnaires with stamped addressed envelopes more fruitful than, say having respondents leave their completed forms in a common envelope at the parlour. In the latter case fear exists that managers, receptionists or other workers with access to the forms in an open envelope might identify the authors. Besides, the stamped addressed envelope method with its higher degree of anonymity encourages greater honesty with the answers.

Where interviews are being conducted the risk of disclosure is higher. The interviewer may change the interviewee's name (even working name) and alter certain demographic facts in an effort to maximise the subject's anonymity, but events and situations which are essential to the person's life history in the interview can disclose her identity to others. Fortunately, however, these are most likely to be events known only to her colleagues, who are least likely to publicly expose her.

It is also important for the researcher to explain carefully the objectives of the study to the prostitute subjects, so that they may make up their minds whether to participate or not, which is often influenced by their understanding of the study and whether it will be of value to the sex industry and to prostitutes generally. I find a written note helpful, enabling the women to absorb the information at their leisure. It is equally important to send participating parlours (or individual women if possible, although this is often impossible due to their mobility) copies of publications pertaining to the study, or, at least, advise them of the progress and result of the study. Any researcher whose results contrast with the objectives initially outlined to the women has committed an unpardonable sin in their eyes, and such behaviour is largely the reason for prostitutes' suspicions of research.

In entering a parlour the researcher must remember that this is a workplace and unwritten rules about visitors' behaviour in others' working environments should be adhered to. Firstly, the researcher should make him/herself known to whoever is in charge. The boss deserves the deference of owner of the business, since his/ her permission should be gained before speaking to those employed on his/her premises. If the owner is not present then the manager or receptionist should be approached first for permission. The same general rule applies to the workers themselves. They are there to make money and the researcher should work around this. For example, if in the middle of an interview a client walks in, the researcher should cease the interview immediately, make him/ herself scarce, and wait until the woman has seen her client. This can take up to two hours in some cases so the researcher is advised to return at a convenient time. The one golden rule for a researcher in any parlour is to be as inconspicuous as possible, and under no circumstance interfere with the working arrangements of the place.

Finally, it is essential for the researcher to treat his/her prostitute subjects with the respect they deserve as ordinary women. The fact that they are working as prostitutes in a brothel should in no way colour the way they are to be treated as women doing the researcher a favour. This applies most especially to male researchers who might allow the sexual atmosphere of the place to influence his conversation with the women. He should never allow himself to forget that he is in someone's else's workplace and that this is a place of work, not play, for his subjects.

The questionnaire modified for the health-workers and students was distributed in different ways. For the first group forms were left for female staff through supervisors or medical personnel in charge at two major Sydney hospitals and seven community health centres. While the ratio of returning completed forms was generally much lower than among the prostitutes, there was a 100 per cent return of forms from Bondi Junction and Marrickville Community Health Centres, and from Rozelle Hospital, where teaching staff kindly allowed me to distribute forms among trainee nurses during class recess. In a similar way to parlours, where there was a mixed response from managers, the rate of returned questionnaires depended much on the attitude of medical supervisors and persons in charge. The distribution and collection of questionnaires for health workers took place between March and June 1987. A total of 123 completed forms were returned by health-workers, but because Question 5.18 revealed that eight of them had worked as prostitutes in the past their forms had to be discarded lest they biased the sample. Thus, the final number of this sample was 115.

Distribution of questionnaires among female students was much easier. First year psychology students at Macquarie University were offered credit points (a standard requirement for students participating in university research) as an incentive to take part in my MAHons. research, which involved completing the same modified forms given to health-workers. This was achieved in two sittings, in October 1986 and March 1987, resulting in 125 completed forms. But, once again Question 5.18 revealed five of the students had worked in prostitution, and their forms had to be removed, leaving a final number of 120 for the sample.

Data from the three groups was stored in a Magnum spreadsheet system, or MAGCALC, and recovered for transcriptions as per the tables found throughout this book. Instead of including both quantity and percentages on the tables, for convenience and simplicity I entered the percentage figure only and indicated numbers so that the reader may do his/her own calculations. Where bar graphs are preferred over a table format the data is simpler and only one group's responses are considered (except for Fig. 4.4).

The interview method used two techniques. One required jotting down comments by individual prostitutes in the course of my years as a participant observer. These were mainly vocal responses to a situation or were part of a conversation about various aspects of the sex business. Most of these have been used in the historical and earlier sections of the book. The second technique was the in-depth interview, requiring a lengthy time with the subject, acquiring detailed information on her personal history, her methods of working and her thoughts about herself and the type of business she is in. The in-depth interviews were done with twelve women. Extracts from these interviews provide the personal commentaries found throughout the bulk of the text and used as evidence in the chapters on the social and working lives of prostitutes.

In selecting subjects for the in-depth interviews, I sought qualities about these women which were essential for providing the reader with a good cross-section of workers in the sex industry, as well as personal views about working as prostitutes that are simply impossible to obtain through a questionnaire. The subject needed to be articulate, prepared to open up about herself and her work, ready to speak the truth, and feel at ease with me asking questions of a personal nature. I not only sought women who could best represent various kinds of prostitution, but who were also different in personality and had different experiences of life and work. The task of finding a diverse group of women willing to be confronted in interviews among a small population of prostitutes was far from easy, in spite of my long association with the industry. After noting women in the industry likely to be good subjects for interviews, I asked them if they were prepared to undergo a long interview session in their own time. The twelve presented in this book all agreed at my initial request, thus indicating an eagerness to talk and being at ease with me. Four of them agreed to be interviewed at their workplaces, taking time off to do so. Five preferred to do the interviews in their homes, and three met me at a venue of my choosing. The time taken with each woman varied from an hour to two and a half hours, with those at work being the shortest interviews and those in their homes being the longest.

The interviewing method followed an order not unlike the questionnaire, beginning with demographic information, then talking about their families, their earliest sexual experiences, and finally into lengthy discussions on their experiences in sex work. Where necessary I probed with questions into related areas of experience and expanded on certain aspects of business that might have been mundane for them but would be of great interest to readers. In all cases, whatever slight reservations these women might have had in the early stages of the interviews, within a short time they spoke freely about themselves and their lives as prostitutes, showing little inclination to conceal parts of their lives I am sure very few other people, if any, know about. I began to worry about their anonymity. Their working names were not used in the interviews, being replaced by freshly invented names by either themselves or me, and certain facts, such as birthplace, parent's names, or their present workplace, were disguised. But I wondered if there were certain aspects or events in their lives, or even their expression, that might reveal their identities.

The stigma of prostitute, fear of losing friends and family, anxiety over their safety if they revealed certain incriminating evidence, are all real concerns for sex workers when asked to do interviews, and a reason why most decline and why the truth about prostitution remains distorted in the public consciousness. The researcher has an obligation to maintain the interviewees anonymity even if she reveals herself in the intensity of the interview. If scholars want to uncover the truth they must be prepared to protect those with the courage to speak it.

So, through a blend of quantitative and qualitative research methods I put together this study in the hope of providing the reader with both a broad spectrum of sex industry work and workers and an insight into the intimate spectrum of sex industry work and workers, and an insight into the intimate feelings of many of the women. Together I hope that this study has brought a human side to prostitution too rarely overlooked in the bid for the more sensational appeal to public voyeurism.