Researching migrant prostitution: Racism and sexism in the field
Birkbeck Institute for Social Research Birkbeck College London, UK
In this paper I explore some of the methodological challenges that I encountered in the course of the fieldwork conducted in Italy as part of my doctoral research. My PhD thesis examined discourses, policies and practices underpinning the response to, and governance of, prostitution-related migrations of women in contemporary Italy. It analyzed how Italian socio-political factors, such as national identity construction and political opportunism, and normative values and cultural practices contribute to different understandings of, and responses to, the new presence of migrant women operating in the sex industry in Italy.
The study adopted a feminist qualitative research methodology and was primarily based on in-depth interviews and participant observation with a number of diverse third sector organizations that operate in the provision of support services to migrant women in the Italian sex industry. These bodies, and the people working in them play a crucial role in the provision of assistance to migrant prostitute women and often are the only ones to act as intermediaries between them and other Italian social institutions.
After presenting a brief overview of my methodological approach and of the content and context of my doctoral thesis, the paper will focus in particular on two issues. Firstly, my decision, developed in the course of the fieldwork, not to interview migrant prostitute women. This choice wad motivated by the ethical concern not to negatively impact upon the well-being of these women, given the circumstances of my fieldwork and my position as researcher in this context. Secondly, the paper will discuss some of the highly sexist and racist comments and behaviors that my Italian research participants made and displayed towards the migrant women they work with and are supposedly meant to help. I will reflect on these encounters and on the extent to which my outsider position, the sharing of my interviewees´ "race", but not necessarily of their "culture" and gender, may have played a role in creating the space for the display of such strong and hostile sentiments .