The physical and material environment of sex workplaces, particularly sex workers’ needs and desires surrounding their places of work, remains elusive within scholarship. Research conjoining sex work and place has yet to be undertaken in any discipline, despite widespread scholarship demonstrating that outdoor sex work has much higher risks including violence, compared to sex workers employed in studios, brothels, and their own homes. Women who work in indoor locations are shown to experience enhanced quality of life, self-esteem, and workplace happiness. Sex workers have been calling for research that addresses sex work stigma and working conditions. While sex workers advocate for environments that foster dignity, equity, and safety, they continue to experience spatial apartheid and place-based marginality across North America. In the face of this research gap and on-going structural violence towards sex workers, discerning the place of sex work through community-based participatory research is a critical undertaking within social work research to advance socio-spatial justice.
Methods: Nine sex workers working in indoor environments in Calgary, Canada, participated in this sensory arts-based design ethnography. Design ethnography employs ethnographic methods to understand cultural practices and social issues, the ethnographic knowledge from which is then employed to problem-solve solutions through the design of environments or artifacts. In this study, the researcher worked collaboratively with the co-researchers to undertake sensory arts-based fieldwork and go-along interviews to explicate their embodied and multidimensional experiences in their everyday workplaces. Together, they analyzed their sensory fieldnotes by remixing these explorations into animation shorts that share their workplace experiences. These sensory ethnographies provided the foundational understanding of the place of sex work in the co-researcher’s lives, informing the collaborative design charrette that generated design guidelines for future supportive sex workplaces.
Results: Through this process co-researchers explicated the role of place in their work, identifying intersections between their relationship with clients, violence, stigma, empowerment, identity, and disability. Further, co-researchers identified key design elements required for supportive sex work environments, including spaces for collaboration, meal-sharing, sensory attunement and customization, individual areas for privacy, laundry facilities, and connection to nature. These future visions of supportive sex workplaces are inclusively designed to support dignity, joy, and comfort.
Conclusions and Implications: Using innovative sensory arts-based and participatory methodology, the findings highlight the potentials for new knowledge that community arts-based approaches bring. Further, the research generates guidelines for social work practice and policy advocacy rooted in the desires and stories of sex workers themselves, including design guidelines for supportive sex workplaces, which is the first of its kind globally. This inquiry advances a transdisciplinary path towards addressing the socio-spatial dialectic, responding to calls for interdisciplinary collaborations that understand and contextualize human experience in relationship with the material world.