By Raven Bowen
"It's a Match! Sex work and feminism have liked each other"
Q: So, what do you do?
A: I’m a sociologist of sexualities and most of my research is about gay, bisexual and queer youth, but at the moment I’m writing up my PhD at Durham University based on 50 interviews with young men who have accepted money for sex online, which is something I call ‘incidental sex work.’ Basically, these guys did not advertise themselves as selling sex and most of them didn’t identify as sex workers. So selling sex is a form of sexual exploration or economic opportunism, and most often it was a one-time thing. So it challenges some of the assumptions about who sells sex and their motivations and the diversity of experiences people have about selling sex. What I want to do is to challenge some of our conventions around identity politics and sex work. I also managed to get a survey of 1,500 Grindr users and through that I found that 14.6% admitted to engaging in some form of commercial sex, with 8.2% of those doing incidental sex work or webcamming. So, it’s a lot more common among gay and bisexual men than we might realize.
Q: And your favourite colour?
A: Floral pink, because I’m a gay stereotype!!
Q: What are you most proud of?
A: So, last year I was diagnosed with HIV and it came as a total shock to me, but I was quite proud that I was able to turn this unexpected event into an opportunity to learn from other people and educate other people. Within a couple of months of my diagnosis I had begun giving public lectures at universities and to HIV charities and I did some radio and television interviews. And they were all about the revolutionary changes in medication over the years, like PrEP as a form of prevention. I’ve been very vocal about that. I became HIV positive in a very good context with the new drugs and the normal life expectancy, and now it’s impossible to transmit the virus when you’re on effective mediation. So I want to see us move away from that stigmatized view we have of the virus from the 1980’s. Q: The death sentence idea. A: Yes, and that needs to be gone now. And this impacts my sex industry research because HIV is an intersectional issue that affects not just gay men, but trans women, migrants, sex workers. It also angers me…recently seeing prohibitionist feminists going after Amnesty International, UNAIDS and other charities because they endorse decrim as an effective way to reduce HIV infection. So that affects my life and my research in lots of different ways. Q: Amazing how your life experience now expands your scholarship and activism! A: Yes and it’s given me a feeling of solidarity for a lot of different groups with the intersections of HIV, sexual identity and feminism it definitely expanded my horizons intellectually and as an activist.
Q: What drew you to sex industry related work? What was the call for you?
A: Looking back, on the street that I was raised on, just after I left home for university, there was a ‘gay brothel’ that was raided from the Vice Squad in my home city of Bristol and my mom sent me a news clipping of the story. So, these were basically my neighbours who’d been arrested in a crackdown on drugs and prostitution in my city. Often times the laws cracking down on brothels are often policing people who are working together for safety. So it’s an excuse, so that the police can be seen as being tough on immorality. Also, when I was 16 I was on the BBC program, the Big Questions. So that was 9 years ago now and they were talking about if brothels should be legalized and I spoke up and I said that I supported decriminalization in solidarity with the two women speakers, and one of them was from the International Union of Sex Workers. The responses were moralist, right-wing. I ended up bumping into one of the speakers at the end of my street and I stopped her and said ‘hey you were on the Big Questions’ and I really remember the look of terror on her face. She thought I was going to stigmatize her or attack her for being an open sex worker. And I said, no I was one of the people how supported you. So basically, the poor diverse neighborhood where I grew up in the Southwest of England, sex workers were my friends and neighbors, they weren’t this ‘other’ identity. So, for me I took that forward when I went into university and I began my academic career looking at why we have this binary between them and us. People who sell sex are exactly the same as us. We are all sex workers in a sense. We are all selling services. My peers are engaging in incidental sex work, and that blurs the boundaries between ‘them’ and ‘us.’
Q: The last thing you laughed about?
A: I have a game that’s called Top2Bottom, which is the gay version of 'Cards Against Humanity.' It’s really fun. There is this one card I always laugh at. The answer card is ‘AIDS Face’ and I’m in stitches about it. When I was diagnosed, my doctor made that face at me and he said ‘don’t worry, people don’t get this face [makes face] any more because the medications have improved things so much.’ So, that card always makes me laugh.
Q: What’s your favourite food?
A: Olives, especially in a dirty martini. Q: That’s a bloody condiment!
Q: Your current project or pursuit?
A: At the moment I’m working on an article looking at the legal implications of new HIV meds for a special edition on consent in the journal of criminal law. So, looking into whether someone can consent to having bareback sex with someone who is positive, in light of the research that says that if you’re on medication you can’t transmit it, so why do we keep the legislation around transmission. My partner and I are participants in the PARTNER study, and they found zero cases of HIV transmission across 58,000 acts of condomless sex between serodiscordant couples. There is a debate within NHS about funding PrEP as well. It has big implications for sex workers as well. So much advocacy has been around gay and bisexual men but these issues are really important for sex workers.
Q: What’s your biggest regret?
A: I wish that I had been more of an ally to sex workers, trans people, migrants, people of color, people living with HIV, when I was younger. I wish I had been more active in challenging stigma before it hit me personally. The message I’d like to send is that if you have privilege and you’re not in these groups that are stigmatized, it can so easily be you or someone you know and actually these are people who you should care about. They are your friends and neighbours.
Q: Facebook or Twitter?
A: Well I went to a lecture last month by sociologist Bev Skeggs and she was talking about how Facebook collects user information, and basically sells high-end consumer goods to ‘high value’ users but sells debt to ‘low value’ users. It reinforces class inequality. And they are even tracking you when you’re not on the App. So I uninstalled the Facebook App and now I only use Twitter. Q: You don’t use Whatsapp? Facebook bought Whatsapp
A: Really!? Q: Yeah, it’s now part of their ‘family of companies’…data harvesters! A: And every website that has the Facebook logo is tracking you. Q: So, Twitter then [laughter]?
Q: What challenges you the most about your sex work or related work?
A: Being raised by a single mom on benefits, I’ve always been a feminist and class conscious, but at the same time as a man I’ve benefited from male privilege and patriarchy, so the difficulty comes in balancing my critique of sex worker and trans exclusionary feminisms with my belief in giving women a greater platform. So, that’s often an intellectual challenge I come up against. For me the best solution for that has been to use queer theory and understanding as a vocal queer person I experience some of the same patriarchy and heterosexism, so goals are intersecting and unified. Homophobia and misogyny are two sides of the same coin, especially when it comes to toxic masculinity and issues of suppressing marginalized people. That’s how I square the circle as a feminist man. Q: Yes, and no need to square the circle, we need circles, but your level of introspection outstrips most humans!
Q: Favourite Movie?
A: Alien, I absolutely love Sigourney Weaver. She was amazing in it.
Q: And the last time you cried?
A: The last time I had an argument with my boyfriend. Relationships can be hard at times.
Q: Cat or dog person?
A: I love all animals but I’m allergic to cats. I’m definitely a dog person. Me and my boyfriend dog sat for Alex Feis-Bryce who you interviewed a few weeks ago!
Q: Who understands you?
A: My boyfriend.
Q: What’s the last book or article you read?
A: I actually borrowed this from Alex: ‘Sex workers unite: a history of the movement from Stonewall to Slutwalk.’ Q: Does he know you have it, or is he going to find out here on the blog? A: Yeah he knows. Q: Oh, too bad [Laughter].
Q: Childhood Fear?
A: I used to be a surfer kid and would go down to Cornwall every summer and even though there’s nothing that can kill you in the oceans around Britain, I used to be afraid of sharks while I was on my surfboard. Which is funny because I love sharks now and I use it as a symbol for irrational fears, like those around HIV transmission. You’re more likely to get hit by a car on the way to the beach than get bitten by a shark! Q: Interesting. Let me guess, you watched Jaws as a kid, right? A: Yeah! Another great movie.
Q: What did your last text message say?
A: It was to my mom ‘Thank you for the lovely text a few days ago [mom’s name]. Happy Birthday! We are dog-sitting. Can’t wait to see more of your art exhibit.’
Q: One thing that your work or existence is aimed to do for the sex industry?
A: I think the main thing I’m interest in doing is breaking down binaries and challenging the dichotomies between us and them. The idea that sex workers are some stereotypical other…a marginalized and victimized group. There are issues of victimization and problems that the community experiences, but we need to stop thinking in such binary terms. So, feminist and queer theories are great at breaking those things down. They are more like us than we realize. Q: Yeah, ‘they’ are us!
Q: The meaning of life in one word?
A: So, part of me wants to reject the premise of your question. Q: Of course you do. Damn academics [laughter]! A: There is no objective meaning of life, but for me it’s Pleasure!
Q: What do you want to be when you grow up?
A: I’ve always liked the idea of becoming an elected member of parliament, if only to queer the House of Commons by attending important votes in full drag. I’ve said so many controversial things publicly now that I don’t think that I would ever be qualified for that, but there’s too many men in suits and it doesn’t really represent the population.
Q: Three portable items that you would have with you while stranded on a desert island?
A: How long am I on the island for? Q: Well you’re stranded. Between you and Rosie I’m starting to regret adding this question. A: [Laughter] Okay, well I’ll definitely take
(1) a sex toy, like a vibrator or a dildo or something like that, because a boy’s got needs.
(2) Then I would take a full medical kit with my insulin and HIV meds, and plasters if I cut myself on a rock. So that’s sex and health covered.
And I’d take (3) a truck full of wine!