Sex as a method

August 22, 1997

In the second of our series on young researchers, Julia O'Connell Davidson tells Harriet Swain how using sex as a teaching aid led her to study the murky world of prostitution

For Julia O'Connell Davidson, the only way to keep her students interested in lectures on sociological method was to introduce sex. From this it proved but a short step to prostitution and thence to sex tourism. It happened like this ...

After a BSc in sociology and psychology at Bath University and a PhD in employment relations and privatisation at the University of Bristol, Davidson took a lecturing job in sociology at the University of Leicester where she was given the task of teaching methodology to a group of yawning students. "I thought if I took examples of method to do with sexuality it might help because students are always interested in sex," she says. "It meant they actually listened." This led to a textbook on Methods, Sex and Madness.

Enter "Desiree", a successful, entrepreneurial prostitute who employed one of Davidson's students part-time as a receptionist in her brothel. The student suggested introducing teacher and boss in the interests of research. "I was very interested because I had been working on labour organisation and employment and prostitution provides interesting examples of how people organise their work," Davidson says. But she soon became fascinated by the business of prostitution itself, eventually taking over the brothel receptionist job in order to study it more closely.

Desiree filled out questionnaires on her clients' requirements, tape-recorded some of her sessions and supplied letters detailing the men's fantasies about her. Through her, Davidson secured interviews with a number of prostitute-users, including a man who regularly visited Thailand as a sex tourist. So began a major research project, involving interviews with more than 220 sex tourists, and the prostitutes and pimps who served them. With her fellow researcher, Jacqueline Sanchez Taylor, 33, she visited Cuba, South Africa, Goa, the Dominican Republic, Costa Rica and Southeast Asia, questioning men in bars and beaches about their sex lives.

On the whole, she says, they were willing to talk. "A lot of men go out for weeks by themselves," she says. "The women they are with don't speak English. They don't speak to Thai men and they get quite bored. They're also sexist which means they like explaining things to you because as a woman you're too stupid to understand."

Davidson, 37, and Sanchez Taylor would say they were studying tourism in general and then get around to the subject of sex. They would test out any of their findings by interviewing the other sides of the triangle - the prostitutes and pimps.

It was a perfect example of the methodology she had been struggling to teach her students - ethnographical research which relies on immersion in a particular community to gather qualitative rather than quantitative information. The two women conducted as many interviews as they could with as many different players and supplemented this with observations, questionnaires, Internet material from tourists, advertising materials from tour operators and archive research. The purpose was to draw up a profile of the kind of men who use children for sex for the organisation End Child Prostitution in Asian Tourism, which campaigns for legislation to stop the practice.

They used the United Nations definition of a child, which is anyone under 18. This showed how difficult it is to distinguish between all prostitute users and child prostitute users in particular, Davidson says. "Many are just ordinary heterosexual men who tell themselves the prostitutes are not children, or say it's different 'over there', or they grow up faster 'like tropical plants'. In most of the world the average age of prostitutes is very low anyway."

They found sex tourists represented a cross-section of society in terms of class, income levels and background and differed in how they saw prostitutes. In Cuba, for example, they found Jake, a 46-year-old Canadian diet and fitness writer, who believed sexual mores were different in the Third World, that the women and girls there saw sex as a good thing, a way of releasing tension and were "natural and in tune with their bodies". But they also found a 52-year-old Spanish widower, racked with guilt, blaming his use of prostitutes on "irresistible temptation".

For some, the fact that the prostitutes were children was irrelevant. They simply preferred a particular slim build which many underage prostitutes happened to fit. Others liked young children because the younger they were the more powerless they were and the less able to define sexual or financial limits. A further category believed, wrongly, that Third World children were less likely to be HIV positive.

Davidson says her work showed sex tourism involved many paedophiles and should put pressure on the tourist industry. "If you go to any of the main sex tourist sites, there isn't any other sort of tourism going on except sex tourism because you wouldn't take a child or a family there. Travel companies say they don't know it's going on but their brochures talk about 'exciting nightlife' and say they aren't family destinations."

Now a reader in sociology at Leicester, she is putting her findings together in a book,To Enter in These Bonds: On Prostitution, Power and Freedom. But she is also still teaching methodology. And she has foundherself inexorably drawn further into the sex business. Another of Desiree's receptionists arranged interviews with friends who had worked on the streets and in massage parlours in Britain.

Male students who have learned of her research interests have revealed their use of prostitutes and agreed to be interviewed. A confessed paedophile has written her letters about his sexual practices. This has allowed her to gather more information on the broader phenomenon of prostitution and prostitute use. It has taken her some way from her first published book - Privatisation and Employment Relations: The Case of the Water Industry.

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