Sex Work to Receive Special Session at Geography Conference

Dan Miller

LOS ANGELES — A group of academics led by Paul Maginn will convene a special session on sex work at the Association of American Geographers conference next month in Chicago.

The AAG Annual Meeting, scheduled for April 21-25 at the Hyatt Regency, will host more than 7,000 geographers from around the world and feature more than 5,000 presentations by leading scholars, experts, and researchers.

Maginn, an associate professor of Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Western Australia, will be joined by fellow academics Emily Cooper and Martin Zebracki in convening the session.

Cooper is a lecturer in Human Geography at England's Northumbria University, while Zebracki is a lecturer and assistant professor in Critical Human Geography at the University of Leeds.

Maginn told XBIZ he teamed with the U.K.-based pair in an effort to maximize the range of submissions when they put out the general call for papers.

“It provides good geographic coverage to tap into other networks,” he said Tuesday from his office in Perth, Australia.

“Martin does quite a bit of research on what’s called queer geographies. He’s into the LGBT set of things.  … I met both Emily and Martin last year at a conference in the U.K. Emily is doing some research on massage parlors in the U.K."

The topic of their special session is the “(De)sexualisation and (De)pornification of Space.”

Maginn said when they issued the call for papers via Twitter and various other channels, “we got a fantastic response." They narrowed the list of papers to 30 — some were too off-topic or not directly related to commercial sex work.

“What we did is we looked at the whole set of papers and we grouped them into sub-sessions that have coherent subthemes to them,” Maginn explained. “We have seven [sub-sessions] in total which cover a range of specific things.”

The sub-topics include: Methodological Frontiers; Insider/Outsider Perspectives; Sex Work(er) Markets and Mobilities; Queerying Sex Work, Sexuality and Public Spaces; Governance and Regulation of Sex Work; Consuming/Producing/Regulating Sexualised Spaces; and The (Im)Moral Landscapes of Sex Work.”

Each sub-session will be 100 minutes, giving each presenter 15-20 minutes at the podium before an audience Q&A.

“We wanted this special session to be more than just academics,” Maginn said. “There are some sex workers, some journalists and some industry people here. There are also some people who are not part of the sex industry but have done some research and analyzed online data about sex work. We wanted it to be inclusive.”

Maginn continued, “There is a lot of stigma around sex work despite that every man, woman and his dog is watching it. We were keen to get some sex workers, some sex-worker advocates and sex-worker activists to get involved in the sessions.”

Veteran filmmaker/industry journalist Ari Bass, aka Michael Whiteacre, will present “From Frisco to Vegas: The Economic Geography of the American Commercial Pornosphere”; the Chicago-based, sex-worker activist, Serpent Libertine, will present “Displaced: The Role of Moral Panics in the Destruction of Sex Worker Spaces”; and journalist/author Melissa Gira Grant will present “w4m: The End of the American Red Light District.”

In addition, the lineup includes Lynn Comella, an associate professor of gender and sexuality studies at UNLV, who is scheduled to present “Geographies of Porn: Public Policies and Industry Practices”; and Christina Parreira, a Ph.D student at UNLV and cam girl who will present a paper titled, “Auto-Ethnographic Reflections on Selling Sex in the Nevada Desert.”

Robyn Longhurst, a professor of Geography at the University of Waikato in New Zealand, will present “Skype Sex, Love and Romance"; and Erin Sanders-McDonagh will deliver a presentation on "Women's Consumption of Live Sex: Understanding Public Sex Performance in Thailand and the Netherlands."

Sanders-McDonagh is a Senior Lecturer in Sociology and Co-Director of the Centre for Social and Criminological Research at Middlesex University in London.

“We were pretty blown away by the response,” Maginn said. “I think what it showed is there’s a lot of scholarship in this kind of sexuality, sex-work sphere.”

He added, “To use a euphemism, we were pretty stoked that we got a good mix of people. We have some early career researchers such as Ph.D students and recently graduated Ph.D students, as well as some mid-career and established researchers. And the topics are great. It’s a nice, eclectic mix.”

Maginn said the group welcomed papers from all standpoints; he even reached out to Professor Gail Dines, author of "Pornland" and founder of Stop Porn Culture, informing her of the special session and inviting her to submit an abstract and circulate the call for papers among her networks. But Dines declined the invite citing other obligations, according to Maginn.

“I’m a firm believer that academic scholarship should be as inclusive as possible, even with those in opposite camps," Maginn said, admitting it was “a bit disappointing” to not have any presenters from the so-called “anti-sex work” position.  

After the conference, Maginn, Cooper and Zebracki will be exploring outlets in which to publish the papers presented at AAG “once we kind of see what works for the papers," Maginn said.

His recently released book “(Sub)Urban Sexscapes came out of the special session he attended at the 2012 AAG Annual Meeting in New York.

“This conference and geography in general actually has a very inclusive philosophy," Maginn said. "With people that are under the gaze of academic research we try to involve them in the research. We were particularly committed to trying to get sex workers involved in our academic practices as much as possible. They’re the people with experience.”

The scope of this special session on sex work is shaping up to be the largest ever presented at AAG, he noted.

“I think this is. There has been other stuff presented on sexuality, but in terms of looking at the sex industry, I think this is the biggest one with the diversity of papers and the diversity of presenters — both academic and non-academic," Maginn said.