This is our truth, tell us yours
This piece of alleged research by Laura Seebohm and her colleagues at Changing Lives made me pause and think about what the team at Changing Lives are trying to tell us.
Seebohm has been peddling her brand of qualitative research about a subset of sex workers on Tyneside for nearly a decade now. This brochure is from a conference she attended in 2008; you’ll search in vain for evidence that the studies presented were peer reviewed or rigorously appraised. Now, of course, peer research (as opposed to peer review) has a particular value when it comes to understanding isolated or excluded groups, but as a stand alone practice, over eight years,with peers becoming researchers who seek out people like them, who then get access to support and services, it starts to look self sustaining rather than inquisitive.
The problem I have is that it’s not hard to picture the kind of young women and young men Changing Lives works with, but I’ve lived in and worked in the north east throughout the period Laura Seebohm has been doing her work, and I’ve seen no quantitative change in the challenges her clients face. Operation Sanctuary rumbles on, and there’s no clear evidence that the problem has been dispersed, as opposed to displaced. The peculiar environment of Tyneside as described by Seebohm, with no obvious red light district but a thriving sex work industry operating at income levels above the subsistence level described by Seebohm demands both quantitative and qualitative research, as well as a certain scepticism about any approach endorsed by Northumbria Police. Peer research may be telling us what some young people are experiencing, but not changing what their peers experience overtime, and not describing the whole picture. Want an example? Anyone who thinks that all the sex negotiated in the cruising areas around the gardens on the banks of the Tyne, or around the Arena, is negotiated on a non cash basis doesn’t understand what’s going on. Cash changes hands in those locations, but of course Newcastle doesn’t have a red light district.
If you want to understand how young people on Tyneside end up in inappropriate sexual relationships, being used for others pleasure for less than their real value, you have to look beneath the surface.
A good place to start is at St James Metro station, just outside Newcastle’s football stadium. Trains only leave the station in one direction, eastwards; although there are stubs of tunnels pointing west, no-one’s ever wanted to replace the transport links to Newcastle’s West End that were severed in the generation after World War Two. First the trams went, to be replaced, but not completely, by buses. Then the heavy rail network north of the Tyne was abandoned. People in the West End were on their own.
At the same time as roads that prioritized through traffic to the city centre were being widened and stripped of local features like shops, pubs and small businesses, so the housing of the area was also being devastated by slum clearances that were much more about projecting an image to the outside world of the Brasilia of the north, than about providing sustainable homes for people. Authors like Peter Flannery and Martin Waites have made much of this history, but they’re not alone. In amongst the clearances, the removal of homes and comunities, the story of Mary Bell looms large and has inspired a lurid library of crime novels and poverty porn. The notion that amongst those fractured, disposable communities, sexwork was just another facet of getting by, that it may have existed and persisted in ways that were not especially visible is elided by some who want to argue that somehow, dysfunctional relationships fed by non-existent self esteem are not related to dysfunctional communities.
If you want to understand sex work in Newcastle, qualitative research alone is not enough. A good starting point might be, for instance, some work on the relationships btween kerbcrawling, car ownership in surrounding communities and proximity to other areas where kerb crawling occurs. Or to put it another way, how would you test the hypothesis that the reason why kerb crawling doesn’t occur in Newcastle is because the potential customers all head down the A19 to Middlesbrough? Another useful data set might be the postcodes of offenders convicted or warned in the Middlesbrough area, to help understand the scope of the customer base for its sex market.
Now, as a practice, evidence based research has a lot going for it. One data set I’d love to see created, and explored, is the comparative quality of life of, say, people living in a red light district like Middlesbrough, and high ASB non street sex work areas like Arthur’s Hill in Newcastle. A structured approach to collecting data, over time, from the cohort Laura Seebohm describes as survival sexworkers might enable those experiences to be mapped against changes in entitlement to benefits and access to housing.
A tiny anecdote here. I once offered the use of my sofa to a young man who’d been left homeless and bereft by the discovery that the older man who had been paying his rent had stopped paying his rent, and had neglected to tell him before the landlord changed the locks.The young man assumed I’d expect a blowjob in return. These arrangments might fit some people’s definition of sex work, but that creates such a broad definition that it’s almost useless. In case you’re wondering, I declined the blowjob, not because of any moral objection, but because I figured it would make it harder to move him on in the morning.
Trying to understand what Laura Seebohm and her team are up to is challenging. On one level it would be easy to argue that by creating a new category of survival sex work, and including within it anyone who’s fucked someone in return for food or drink, they’re obscuring the debate and in the process othering sex work in a way they can’t with the sex workers who integrate sex work within functional lives. As I’ve mentioned before, like other young queer men I knew, the bargains we negotiated to make small town life posible would have made me, by Seebohm’s definition, a sexworker. Like the obsession of some campaigners with street sexwork, such a definition of my experiences cannot help understand what makes the overall market for sex work tick. If you’re opposed to sexwork on every level, then of courseothering sex work, painting it as being about dysfunctional lives, dysfunctional communities, chaotic circumstances ismuchmore useful a tactic than accepting that sex work is also about university educated women (Laura Lee, Brooke Magnanti, Jem, for instance) managing small businesses that fit with their lives and ambitions. If, like Laura Seebohm, you’re happy to share a platform with Julie BIndel, you’re going to struggle to describe yourself as ideologically independent.
The second area that poses a challenge to Laura Seebohm’s methodology is the nature of the organization she works with. Despite being a charitable organization, Changing Lives are deeply embedded in the local state in Newcastle, as partners with the National Offender Management Service and with Newcastle City Council on its controversial #noneedtobeg campaign. Newcastle set out to use a Public Space Protection Order to drive beggars off the street of Newcastle, to control and police public spaces and, in the process, protect the commercial interests of the city’s businesses. Here’s the Director of Housing at Changing Lives;