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Researcher Spotlight: Dr Teela Sanders

8 Jun, 2015

TeelaPhoto2015This week we speak to Small Grant holder Dr Teela Sanders. A sociologist based at the University of Leeds, Teela is especially interested in the sex industry and the people who work in it, buy into it and what drives this controversial industry. Here she talks to us about how she works to give a voice to people who are often misunderstood…

What are you working on?

I am a sociologist who works across the borders of social policy and criminology on the dynamics relationship between gender, regulation and informal economies. I am particularly interested in the sex industry and have completed several research projects exploring the indoor sex markets, men who buy sex, and the stripping industry. As a sociologist I want to know how these organisations are shaped, what influences them, how they operate outside and under mainstream institutions, what the lived experiences are for individuals, and how policy and practice can assist to make their lives safer and less stigmatized. For instance, in a project on the stripping industry we used visual methods to bring the dancers voices about working conditions inside licensed premises to the policy table.

I am currently starting a large three year project looking at how the Internet has shaped the sex industry in the 21st Century. The project, ‘Beyond the Gaze’ is a follow on project from the Wellcome Trust grant, in an effort to learn more about the how sex workers use the Internet, and how we can focus on safety in policy and practice.

How has Wellcome funding helped you/your research/your career?Peel-Blue-Bar26

In October 2014 I received a small grant from the Wellcome Trust to carry out a pilot project exploring the working conditions and job satisfaction of Internet based sex workers. Working with our partners, the National Ugly Mugs, the aims of the project was to build on the little knowledge that exists about who internet-based sex workers are, how they work and their daily working lives, as well as their intersections with crime, the police and stigma. Alongside research assistants Laura Connelly and Laura Jarvis-King, data was collected from a survey with 240 respondents, which is a significantly large number in comparison to previous surveys of this kind on sex work. From this we have a whole range of data that we did not have a year ago, from which we can start to make sense of this hidden and stigmatized population.

What does your average day involve?

My job is very varied which is the beauty and complexity of it – whilst research is at the forefront of my mind and hopefully my diary, the days are also filled with teaching related activities, responding to students, supervising Masters and PhD students, carrying out student related administration and management. At the same time there is networking with partners, meeting with practitioners and professionals, attending and hosting workshops and conferences, and working with the media. I receive many requests from the national and international media to comment on sex industry stories so advising and working with journalists has become an occupational hazard. I am also asked to comment on policy and regularly asked to respond to government consultations and activities. So keeping research activities moving is a constant juggling act, but when there are silent days to be filled with writing and thinking, those are often the most productive.


Why is your work important?

Research in this field is important in order to encourage more pragmatic, feasible sex work policies in the UK and beyond, which moves away from a criminalized model. Research is needed to investigate what we don’t really know about the sex industry, how it operates, who works in it, how and why. This research is important because ultimately it creates evidence to inform policy and practice. The aim of this evidence is to reduce violence against sex workers, alongside a human rights approach to sex work.

What do you hope the impact of your work will be?

A more open and honest discussion about sexual commerce in the UK, Europe and beyond, which will aid in the construction of policies which do not put women (and men and transgendered people) at harm. The research I am involved with is about ‘giving voice’ to  a group of people who are misunderstood, are not given platforms to express their diverse lived experiences and therefore often ignored in policy debates. If some of the research and collaborations I am involved with helps to further this cause then I feel my endeavors have been worthwhile.

How did you come to be working on this topic/in this field?

I worked for a HIV/AIDS charity in New York City the summer after my undergraduate degree in Sociology. Here I met many sex workers who dispelled the age old image of the down-trodden drug using ‘prostitute’. These women and men were entrepreneurs, empowered, and treated their sex work as work. This opened up my eyes to a new perspective on prostitution and ultimately a commitment to new knowledge. I applied for a Masters in Social Sciences at the University of Oxford where I pursued these ideas, which lead to an ESRC scholarship to complete a D.Phil in Sociology.

What’s the most frequently asked question about your work?

Questions vary depending on the audience – the media can often be very personal – but often questions centre around whether individuals are always exploited or trafficked, or alarmist queries questioning claims that sex workers can enjoy their work.

Which question about your work do you most dread – and why?2061702663_ad9b16374a_o (1)

I don’t dread any questions about sex work – there is much to discuss, a lot of research evidence to argue with and even with those opinions that fall into the trap of repeating media stereotypes there is always detail to unpick and challenge. What I dread is a closed mind, or a dogmatic attitude that assumes sex and commerce as always bad, irrespective of the many different experiences in this regard.


Tell us something about you that might surprise us…

I used to do field athletics competitively, mainly javelin and shot putt.

What keeps you awake at night?

Working out when I can next go to the gym and whether I have locked the chicken coop!

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?

Don’t sweat the small stuff

The chain-reaction question, posted by previous spotlightee Dr Caswell Barry is this: Whatt advice would you give your younger self?

It is important to say no sometimes

To find out more about Teela and her research visit her profile on the University of Leeds website.

Image credits: (from top to bottom) Provided by author; Liz Lock; Liz Lock; Stripper 7b by Capn Monky via Flickr CC-BY-NC

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