‘Come as you are’: Peer research exploring the everyday lives of sex workers in South Australia

Author: Roxana Diamond

Diamond, Roxana, 2022 ‘Come as you are’: Peer research exploring the everyday lives of sex workers in South Australia, Flinders University, College of Education, Psychology and Social Work

Terms of Use: This electronic version is (or will be) made publicly available by Flinders University in accordance with its open access policy for student theses. Copyright in this thesis remains with the author. You may use this material for uses permitted under the Copyright Act 1968. If you are the owner of any included third party copyright material and/or you believe that any material has been made available without permission of the copyright owner please contact copyright@flinders.edu.au with the details.


Underpinned by a ‘Nothing About Us Without Us’ approach, this research is conducted by a sex worker and explores the everyday lives of South Australian sex workers, centring their voices. It rejects the binary that depicts either the ‘victimised’ sex worker or the fully empowered one to expose the nuances and shifts in power and agency that sex workers experience day to day. This approach avoids the inevitable creation of a simplified version of sex work that is often perpetuated by unintentionally reinforcing stigma and leaving out stories of resilience. In South Australia, unlike some other Australian states and territories, sex work is fully criminalised. Subsequently, there has been relatively little empirical research conducted compared with other Australian jurisdictions.

The method undertaken strongly adheres to the more stringent requirements for consultation laid down by sex workers and their organisations compared with those laid out by university ethics committees. This is in contrast to much of the literature on sex work and sex workers, which continues to be written by outsiders and where a focus on the ‘problems’ associated with sex work prevail.

This thesis found that in everyday life discrimination does not exist without resistance. Everyday stories with sex workers delved into the mundane—but also complicated—facets of life, and these nuanced depictions better highlight the impacts of social and institutional structures that influence everyday life and showcase other intersections impacting sex workers. Sex workers spoke about heteronormativity, gendered violence, sexuality, race, class and fatphobia, and that they were not only at the whim of such forces, but actively challenged these structures in both subtle and overt ways. This was demonstrated through the relationships sex workers spoke about and that were found to be central to everyday life: with clients, lovers, family, friends and the personal relationship to oneself. These stories showcase rich and complex narratives that sex workers learned to manage. Stigma was understood to be part of sex work but also contributed to creating an evolved understanding of sex work and marginalisation and was demonstrated by all aspects of life—the good, the bad and the mundane—highlighting that these manifest in relationship with one other and do not exist in isolation.

Key findings include the importance of exploring the everyday to ensure that important and nuanced findings beyond the binary are discovered. The ways sex workers use their skills, experience, and connections to the sex worker community and organisations to navigate pervasive stigma and the challenges they face in a fully criminalised setting highlight the skills required to do this work. These challenges, and the ways sex workers in South Australia resist stigma and discrimination arising from criminalisation, reflect inequalities that exist elsewhere in society, and sex work might better be viewed more broadly as a microcosm of everyday life rather than as a profession in which sex workers need ‘rescuing’. The growing importance of sex worker (peer)-led research is highlighted, along with suggestions for ensuring that ethical and accountable research with sex workers is prioritised.

Keywords: Sex work, Peer Research, Sex Work Feminism, Everyday life, Phenomenology, Constructionism

Subject: Social Work thesis

Thesis type: Doctor of Philosophy
Completed: 2022
School: College of Education, Psychology and Social Work
Supervisor: Professor Sarah Wendt