Dewey and Zheng’s Ethical Research with Sex Workers: Anthropological Approaches, provides a thoughtful and carefully researched look into the multifaceted world of sex workers. By drawing from cross-cultural data, the authors describe individuals ranging from destitute street-based and crack cocaine addicted prostitutes to ‘high-end’ escorts who revel in their upscale way of life. Their extensive analysis avoids the pitfalls of over-simplifying and/or over-generalizing the lives of those employed in the sex industry.
Dewey and Zheng are steadfast in their dedication to understanding the lives and decision-making processes of sex workers. Their desire for truthfulness is accompanied by the empathy and respect they have for each of their informants. They caution fellow researchers against constructing simplistic dichotomized characterizations of sex workers as pure victims or as pure agents. Instead, the
authors consider sex workers as multi-layered and multi-positioned individuals who have the right to tell their stories. By doing so, they heed the feminist call to give voice to individuals from all sectors of society.
Dewey and Zheng put forth useful methodologies/protocols for collecting data and for maintaining the privacy of informants. The authors call for the use of a ‘Community-Based Participatory Action Research’ Model in which sex workers take part in the design and implementation of the investigation, analysis of data, along with the dissemination of findings. Moreover, they provide a number of specific cases where such methodologies/protocols have proven successful.
Dewey and Zheng also document the ongoing debate between advocates of sex worker’s rights advocates versus those calling for abolition. In some cases, these heated disagreements have resulted in attacks being made on sex researchers’ academic freedom. Sadly, this acrimony has fueled what can be described as anthropology’s ‘culture of accusation’ first documented by Gregor and Gross (2004) and later confirmed by Chacon and Mendoza (2012a, b).
Indeed, the authors describe how the decision to accurately and respectfully report what sex workers tell researchers can come at great personal cost. Sex work researchers have been subjected to unfair accusations from government officials, colleagues, and activists while some family members and friends have shunned them.