On ‘Controversial’ Research

This blog was originally published on the brilliant PhD Women Blog – an essential read for anyone making their way through a PhD.

Two things have happened to me this year. I have hit the season of weddings – all my friends are getting married and most of my weekends are spent wearing fancy hats (because, any excuse) and mingling with my favourite people’s favourite people. Secondly I have begun my PhD research.

I tell you these two facts because in my case, they do not sit comfortably together. Weddings are a place designed for small talk and dancing and celebration. The person I have been put beside on the seating plan will often, rightly, enquire about something safe – ‘what do you do for a living?’

‘I’ve just started a PhD’

‘Oh lovely – what’s your topic?’

And here’s where it gets a bit more complicated. My topic is Prostitution.

There are usually two reactions when I tell people that my research is looking at prostitution. Firstly and most common is fascination, often followed by disclosures of personal experience, of a friend or a cousin who was once involved, or secondly a look of absolute panic and a hasty fumble to change the subject.

Neither of these reactions is wrong – I understand. My research means that in the course of politely asking about my job small talk suddenly goes straight to the big questions. My PhD title means that you bypass all the niceties that normally come before discussing issues of sex and violence and consent. There is a broad and highly contested political landscape around prostitution, but that’s a topic for another day. As a woman dealing with what is largely a gendered issue there is another layer again.

People don’t go into ‘controversial’ fields without a reason – very few people fall into a PhD. My background was as a Support Worker with prostituted women – I worked with some brilliant women who would turn up and show up under the most difficult of circumstances and still remember to ask if I had a nice weekend. My research is interested in how these women are being repeatedly failed, what factors make people who have experienced childhood trauma, addictions, homelessness, repeated abuses and who don’t want to be involved in prostitution feel they have no choice. I care about this topic and the women who have shared with me in the past immensely. My research feels valuable, and rewarding. Part of my drive is absolutely to amplify the voices of a marginalised population and some days I am ready to take on the patriarchy – but some days my research makes me sad and tired and I have had to be very stringent with putting aside time for self-care, including taking holidays and weekends where I don’t take my research with me.

Which is why – sometimes, I lie. Or at the very least try to tone it down. When asked about my research I sometimes call it Violence Against Women. Social Relationships. Psychology. All of these are central parts of my research but somehow seem much more acceptable way of packaging it when someone has politely enquired over a piece of wedding cake.

I’m not alone in this – I was recently lucky enough to attend a workshop on Researching Trauma (big up SGSAH and all the organisers – more of this please!) and found myself surrounded by people who shared this experience, people who were researching the messy parts of society, the bits that make us uncomfortable, that make us examine ourselves and those around us in ways that are not easy. I feel certain this feeling is something that many PhD women have experienced.

It’s very early days with my PhD, I’m still in my first year, but there are five pieces of wisdom I’ve gathered so far:

–                 You don’t owe anyone an explanation of your research.I find it helpful to have spaces where I don’t talk about my research – my bedroom is one, a haven where none of my reading or discussion of my topic goes. A colleague I used to have would wear a lanyard, and take it off as she entered her door, leaving her work self behind. Another would tell herself she was leaving work as she put the key in the lock. It’s ok to have boundaries and to politely refuse to explain if it’s not a time or place that suits you.

–                You don’t have to fight every battle. This includes on Twitter. There are times and places where you can, and will, fight your corner, but you don’t have to take them all.  You are just one person, it’s ok to take a weekend off

–                 You are much more useful if you are well rested, looked after and in it for the long-haul. Too many researchers do not complete their projects as a result of vicarious trauma. It is just as important to go to the cinema, go for a run, volunteer, see your friends – whatever helps you to feel like you. If you’re feeling unwell make use of your university’s support services. You are more than your project, and your project will form much better if you give you are able to take the time needed to invest in yourself.

–                 Find your tribe.There are people out there who understand. They might be outside your subject area or university but they are there. There are people studying challenging topics in every department. Reach out and you’ll find them. Like with any research I don’t have all the answers yet, my ideas are not fully formed. We need more safe-spaces where we can discuss controversial ideas and be safely challenged, be wrong, reassess and not have it played out in public.

– It’s ok to be a bit rubbish at following these rules. I am. The PhD is a learning process – be kind. Notice if your research is getting you down, if it’s coming home with you at the weekend, and try to take tiny steps to phase it back out.

Back to the wedding. Like all the best it is full of food and wine, and we’ve hit the post cheesecake slump. It’s a comfortable place a million miles from the world I spend my week engaging with.

‘What’s that Great Aunt Petunia? My research?’

It’s about social networks. The importance of friends and families and the tiny white lies that sustain them.

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