Resistance on the rock: sex workers in NL “talk back”

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University of New Brunswick


This dissertation has found that the ways in which sex workers in St. John's, Newfoundland resist stigma, by “talking back” to power, challenges conventional sociological understandings of the concepts of stigma and stigma management. Rather than problematizing the negative outcomes of stigma for individuals, as in the majority of stigma research, the current research problematizes stigma as a sociological concept in and of itself. In doing so, it addresses shortcomings in traditional sociological theorizing, including Goffman's (1963) inattention to structural stigma; and the inadequacy of his concept of stigma management as a means of understanding the stigmatized person's agency. The focus on how sex workers' “talk back” to power revealed their critical analyses of structural stigma, as well as the agentive resistance inherent in their everyday talk. Providing a conceptualization of resistance via individuals' talk also furthers sex work research; as it has hitherto understood ‘resistance’ in terms of community/collective advocacy primarily. Reliance on Miller's (2000, 2003) unique form of discourse analysis facilitates analysis of interviews for the politicality inherent therein, offering a variety of ways to rethink how stigma is resisted in the everyday talk of the marginalized. Further explorations of resistance are then presented in the form of three distinct publications. This format results in a multi-pronged approach that explores sex worker resistance to religion/community (Publication One), to policy makers and theorists of certain persuasions (Publication Two) and to the social nature of law (~Publication Three), respectively. Whereas the first publication is mainly empirical, the other two publications explore theoretical ways that sociologists might go beyond Goffmanian understandings of stigma. Thus, Fraser's (2003) misrecognition is discussed as a framework that seeks to integrate interpersonal and structural stigma, while Thrift's (1997, 2004, 2008) non-representational theory is suggested for possible use in future research, especially research at the micro-level of embodied action. Traditional stigma research positions sex workers as research subjects; progressive approaches such as van der Meulen's (2011) Community Action Research views sex workers as co-researchers in advocacy research. However, the current research adapts those ideas and extends the idea of resistance, and advocacy in research, to sex workers “talking back” at the interactional level. Simultaneously, this analysis hopes to more accurately reflect both understandings of, and resistance to, stigma for people who do sex work in St. John's. As a result, sex workers are now to be seen as active agents capable of informing and re-thinking the sociological concepts and theories that have traditionally been used to research them and their lives.