Participating, Observing, Publishing: Lessons from the Field
by Samantha Majic, John Jay College-City University of New York
Sex work raises questions about gender, sexuality, power, politics, policy, and government that will interest many political scientists. Additionally, studying sex work offers important methodological lessons about the value of participant observation research. To illustrate these lessons, I draw from two research projects: 1) a study of sex worker-rights activists in the San Francisco Bay Area and their creation of two nonprofits, the St. James Infirmary (SJI) and the California Prostitutes Education Project (CAL-PEP), which offer health and social services to sex workers, by sex workers, and 2) a study of “john schools”—programs where men arrested for prostitution offenses pay a fine and attend a day of classes in lieu of prosecution—in San Francisco, Brooklyn, and Phoenix. This article explains explain how participant observation research helped answer my research questions and challenge assumptions about sex workers, political activism and public policy. In so doing, I illustrate a broader argument that engaging with sex workers in the research process can provide data that counters hegemonic characterizations of their community, and raises questions about the policies that govern them. I then offer insights about publishing my research, which, to some, may seem “unrelated” to the discipline of political science.