For this edition of '10 questions with ...' we spoke with Melissa Marques, who is currently in New Zealand studying for her Masters degree in ethnology at Tübingen University in Germany.
1. Where are you from and what are you working on?
I am an American studying for my Masters degree at Tübingen University in Germany. I currently hold degrees in cultural anthropology and political science, and my Masters degree, which I will obtain in July 2017, will be in Ethnology. That being said, my Masters thesis is a cross-cultural look at the lives of sex workers in countries with different laws and policies. My research involves interviewing workers in the United States and New Zealand in hopes of a better comprehension of issues they may face such as stigmatization, victimization, violence, and STI/STD transmission. I aim to present these matters through the voices of the workers themselves and share their opinions with the public along with any additional concerns or topics they deem important to discuss. I will also be interning at the New Zealand Prostitutes’ Collective (NZPC).
2. How would you describe your research to a non-anthropological audience?
I’m looking at the lives of sex workers in countries that have different laws - so in places where it’s illegal, like New York City, or where its decriminalized, like in New Zealand. I plan on interviewing workers and seeing what it’s like working under their conditions. What is it like if you have to hide everything, and can’t go to the police or a lawyer if you have an issue with a client or boss? Or, what are the benefits of the law where you live? Are they satisfied and happy? Are they not?
3. Why New Zealand?
New Zealand is the first nation to decriminalize all forms of sex work. I first learnt of the Prostitution Reform Act of 2003 back in 2014 when I was working in Auckland, freshly graduated with a bachelor’s degree and a passion for both human rights and women’s rights activism. New Zealand’s model fascinated me; this was because in my own backyard, New York City, it is illegal. After doing more research on the topic I began to form a strong opinion and favoured New Zealand’s take on it, by far. The NZPC advocates for the rights, health and well being for all sex workers. They supply workers with things such as kits, tips and clinics among much more. In fact, I was so taken with the rights that sex workers had in New Zealand that I decided to commit myself to getting the word out about the good work that the NZPC does and how much the New Zealand model benefits the workers here. From overseas I unfortunately was not able to find much literature on sex work in New Zealand, and I hope to help change that.
4. What kind of questions or assumptions are you planning to explore?
Since coming to New Zealand, I’ve learned that I need to change some of the usual questions that I may ask, since much of it doesn’t apply here as it does in NYC, where I just finished research. Normally I make my interviews unstructured, that way they flow into whatever direction my interviewee likes. In NYC, I asked ‘starter questions’, such as: “How and why you got involved in sex work?; what type of work do you do?; Are there any situations that you found yourself in where you had wished the laws in your area were different?; Could you name a time that your work felt really rewarding? What’s something you feel I should know about your profession? What do you feel people need to know?; What do you want to talk about?” These questions usually opened up to great conversations.
5. How has your research been thus far?
It’s been great! All the women I have interviewed have taught me so much, and their willingness to explain themselves as I explore deeper into this topic really motivates me to shed as much light as possible on this subject.
6. What have you learned about yourself as a result of your research?
I’ve learned a lot, and most importantly I’ve learned how much I’ve been wrong about regarding my initial mindset when it came to sex work. I knew that some people did it because they felt they had to, and some did it because they wanted to. I knew that I felt it should be decriminalized because every type of worker in any job out there deserves to have their rights protected and to not be treated any different. But I don’t think I realized until I started my interviews in NYC that sex work really is just like any other profession. It’s not so black and white, like most things in life. I’m glad I’m interning at the NZPC, the people there are happy to help me and answer whatever questions I may have.
7. What other topics interest you?
Because the topic of sex work can be broad, I plan to concentrate mainly on females in heterosexual sex work for my thesis. Unfortunately that means that I won’t be covering other equally important workers for my current research. Because of this, I plan to also learn more about those who are in the transgender community and working, or those who perform male on male sex work, just to name two. I’m learning that there are many other types of sex workers that encounter issues or situations more specific to them. I also wish to explore the issues of- along with stopping the human rights violations of- sex trafficked people and exploited children.
8. What do you plan to do after you’ve completed your Masters degree?
I’d really like to continue work in advocacy for sex workers rights, or to find work in helping to end sex trafficking or exploitation of children as I just mentioned. I just want to use my knowledge to continue to aid in the human rights sector.
9. What are you reading at the moment?
Right now I’m really just reading lots of literature regarding my research! But the last book I read for entertainment was The Life Of Pi. It was amazing!
10. How are you finding Wellington so far?
It’s been beautiful! The day I arrived was sunny and nice, which I’m happy about since the earthquakes and rain hit not too soon after. Summer is on its way and I’ve already got my first burn! I think Wellington is lovely, the people are really friendly, and all the cafes are great! Perfect for a coffee lover like me.
If you would like to talk with Melissa about her research, please feel free to contact her directly.