Sex Work Grabs Spotlight at Policy & Politics Conference

Sex Work Grabs Spotlight at Policy & Politics Conference
Dan Miller

LOS ANGELES — The topic of sex work will receive an academic spotlight this week at the annual Policy & Politics Conference in Bristol, England.

Hosted by the University of Bristol at the Marriott Royal Hotel, Australia-based Paul Maginn will lead a special session titled “From 50 Shades to Monochromatic Sexual Citizenship: Regulating Erotic Labor, Sex Work and Pornography in the 21st Century.” He’ll be joined by London-based Erin Sanders-McDonagh in convening the session.

The “Policy & Politics” journal, published by Policy Press, focuses on key works in the areas of public and social policy, and politics. The 2015 Policy & Politics Conference theme is centered on “Democracy, Inequality and Power: Redefining Classic Concepts for the 21st Century.”

Inspired by the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta in 2015, Policy & Politics organizers say this year’s theme provides an opportunity to reflect on both “the failures and successes of democratic policy and politics in the U.K. and abroad.”

Maginn is an associate professor of Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Western Australia and co-editor of the 2014 book “(Sub) Urban Sexscapes: Geographies and Regulation of the Sex Industry.”

He recently convened a special session on sex work at the Association of American Geographers (AAG) conference in April in Chicago.

Maginn’s co-convener at Policy & Politics is Erin Sanders-McDonagh, a senior lecturer in Sociology and co-director of the Centre for Social & Criminological Research at Middlesex University in London.

The special session on sex work marks the first time the Policy & Politics conference has had a full lineup of papers on anything to do with sex work and pornography, Maginn noted.

He and Sanders-McDonagh have selected 13 different papers that will be presented during three different panel sessions at the conference, which is welcoming practitioners and scholars in numerous fields and disciplines from around the world for the two-day event starting Tuesday in southwest England.

The title of the special session, “From 50 Shades to Monochromatic Sexual Citizenship: Regulating Erotic Labor, Sex Work and Pornography in the 21st Century,” is multi-faceted, Maginn told XBIZ.

“We were trying to play on a number of issues,” Maginn said. “One was the whole ‘50 Shades’ phenomenon and playing it on that term because obviously it’s been a big market in the industry for BDSM and BDSM toys because of the book and the movie. But at the same time there’s been a number of laws introduced intended to control sex work or control access to porn.

“So the real world is moving on and there are multiple sexualities out there, but at the same time the government is trying to bring us back to a monochromatic world of black and white when it comes to sex, rather than ‘50 Shades of Grey’ when it comes to sex and sexual citizenship. So the title is a play on those two processes.”

The breadth of papers captures a range of different areas of sex work, including lap dancing/stripping, sex shops/adult retail, prostitution and porn.

In Panel Session 1, Maginn will join Christine Steinmetz, the co-editor of “(Sub) Urban Sexscapes,” in presenting “The 50 Shades Effect: Geography, Typology and Regulation of Adult Retailing in Perth & Sydney.”

Steinmetz is a senior lecturer in the Bachelor of Planning program at the University of New South Wales, Australia.

“With my paper with Christine Steinmetz, we’re looking at really two things. We’re looking at adult retailing in Perth and Sydney, where they’re located, how they’re regulated and what type of retail stores are there.

“The data we have is showing an increasing number of stores in both Perth and Sydney. We’re using the term the ‘50 Shades effect,’ because clearly there has been some kind of mainstreaming of sex toys and adult products.”

A key component of Maginn and Steinmetz’s research is the access they had to anonymous sales data from a pair of online stores that share the same parent company — and

“The data is anonymous so I don’t know who got what products,” Maginn said.

The data covers 2012, 2013, 2014 and up to May 2015 and amounts to more 66,500 orders. The pair also mapped what products went where.

“It’s basically looking at the geography of where that online store is selling its products and the sales within Australia,” Maginn continued. “What’s interesting there is geographically a lot of sales are going to what we call regional or rural Australia, particularly here in Western Australia and also in the state of Queensland.”

They even evaluated the “seasonality” of the stores’ sales, “from batteries through to 20-inch, double-ended dongs to lingerie and male masturbators and beyond.”

“In terms of the ‘50 Shades’ phenomenon, they sell a lot of product from the Fetish Fantasy line [from Sportsheets] and a whole range of stuff that’s all kind of related in the BDSM territory,” Maginn said. “What the data seems to be suggesting to us is that certainly the ‘50 Shades’ effect does seem to play a role because when you look at the seasonality of their sales from 2012 to 2014-15, they were particularly high in 2012-13, which was the back end of when the books came out.”

He added, “So there were two different data sets. We looked into this general story about the ‘50 Shades’ effect and the geography of them in Perth and Sydney; and the second part is the sales data all across Australia. So we’re trying to combine both to tell an overall story.

“With the data we have from this one store it’s pretty interesting and pretty impressive. Between online stores and actual physical stores, clearly there’s a lot of human interest in sex toys and adult products. What we’ll be arguing in our paper in particular is there is this mainstreaming of sexual experimentation and sexual liberation.”

Maginn said he would welcome the opportunity to work with other adult stores on this kind of research for either academic or consulting purposes.

Emily Cooper, who co-convened the AAG special session on sex work in Chicago with Maginn, this week will present a paper titled “Turning a Blind Eye?: The politics of sex work (in) tolerance in neo-liberal times” during Panel Session 1.

Cooper is a lecturer in Human Geography at England's Northumbria University.  

Katy Pilcher from Aston University in England will discuss her paper, “Subverting heteronormativity in a lesbian erotic dance venue? Queer moments and heteronormative tensions.”

Sanders-McDonagh will also present a paper about what’s happening to sex-work spaces in Soho, London, along with her Middlesex University colleague Magali Peyrefitte. The paper is called  “Mapping gentrification: Critical Cartographies of London’s Soho.”

In Panel Session 2, Clarissa Smith of the University of Sunderland in England will present “The War on Porn: Questions of Policy, Representation and Research.” Smith co- edited the academic journal “Porn Studies” published in 2014 by Routledge.   

Maggie O’Neill (University of Durham, U.K.) and Mary Laing (Northumbria University, U.K.) will present “Sex Worker Rights, Recognition and Resistance: towards a radical democratic imaginary”; Belinda Brooks-Gordon (Birkbeck, University of London) will discuss her paper titled “Sex and Support Online”; and Gemma Commane (Aston University, U.K.) will present “Sit on my Face! Women, Pleasure and Creative Protest in the City.”

“She’s looking at the porn restrictions that were brought into the U.K. last year, the ATVOD regulations in the U.K.,” Maginn said. “One of those acts was face-sitting. Gemma’s paper is kind of a critical analysis of women’s agency and what’s deemed to be acceptable sexual behavior and acts.”

The third panel session includes a paper from Billie Lister (Leeds Beckett University, U.K.) , who will talk about “The drive for cash and shifting power relations in Scotland’s lap-dancing clubs: A problem for Policy.”

“She’s looking at the lap-dancing clubs in Scotland,” Maginn said. “It’s really about issues around lap dancers. Are they employees or contractors?”

Alex Feis-Bryce (National Ugly Mugs, Northumbria University) will present “National Ugly Mugs: An innovative approach to improving the safety of sex workers.”

“National Ugly Mugs provides a support service to sex workers,” Maginn said. “If they are attacked by clients they can report this to National Ugly Mugs who can send out an alert to be aware. It’s a really good support service and system.”

Meanwhile, Jane Nolan (Leeds Beckett University, U.K.) will present “The ‘Whore Stigma’ and the Social Regulation of Sex Work in Queensland and New South Wales (Australia); Rebecca Rae (Reason Digital) will present “Improving the safety of sex workers using a decentralized mobile app”; and Matt Ryalls (Middlesex University) will deliver a presentation about “Sexualization and Fashion Cultures.”

Maginn said the researchers all take “a pragmatic view on the regulation of sex work and porn.”

“In terms of sex work and prostitution, all the contributors would be of the view that decriminalization is the best mode of regulation,” he said.

“The U.K. has been a bit of a hotbed around the regulation of both sex work and pornography. In a way what we’re trying to do is tap into those political debates and unpack them more with evidence. We’re unpacking the issues and regulations.”

Maginn continued, “Nothing like this has been done at the Policy & Politics conference. They tend to focus on public policy, health, education and welfare-type stuff. Hopefully, we’ll add a bit of spice and color to the conference.

“The regulation of bodies and sex work have become major political issues. I think it’s very clear that porn has become socially mainstream and it’s going to raise questions. We’re attempting to try to tap into that in a way and explain things a little more.”

Those participating in the special session will be tweeting about the conference using the hashtags #PP2015 #SexPol15.

Attached is an overview of the total $AUD expenditure from the online sales data from and from March 2012-May 2015.

To contact Maginn, email

Online sales data from and