Soundscapes of Sex Work: Methodology

In my previous post I discussed the need to consider both sound and sex work in the context of public policy and urban planning. Examining the city's literal and figurative infrastructures can reveal social power hierarchies and social value systems. My interest in social justice and creative research methods led toward a consideration of urban social inequities and how they may be observed through study of the soundscape. Current scholarship in this area makes use of auto-ethnographic methods (Anderson & Rennie, 2016; Gutierrez, 2019; Martin, 2019) in an effort to examine the researcher’s relationship to place as well as one that readily combines with frameworks of critical inquiry, such as feminism and social justice. In this post, I will describe the fieldwork I conducted in order to document and analyze the sonic environment of areas of the city in which sex work takes place.

“Sex work” is an umbrella term that encompasses various professions, including, but not limited to: stripping, webcam modeling, sugar dating, domination/fetish work, and full service work. Diverse as these professions are, the boundaries defining their work environment are nebulous and occasionally merge or overlap. Particularly in the age of the side-hustle and digital employees, an exotic dancer may also be a webcam model and operate their business in both the physical and cyber spaces. Further complicating the issue of designating defined environments for sex work is the criminalization and stigma of certain types of sex work. Full service work—and in particular street level sex work—is stereotyped, demonized, and punished via cultural anxieties regarding sex, women, and bodily agency. Taking the safety of these service providers into account, it is difficult, ethically and logistically, to map out locations where this type of sex work takes place. Strip clubs, as public institutions, exist in a social grey area where highly regulated (but not necessarily enforced) sex work happens. Dancers at strip clubs exist within (and usually at the bottom of) an enclosed system of business models, liquor licenses, and city legislation. There are multiple levels of control encasing the conditions under which strippers work, and further control exerted through social shaming of the profession. Janis Luna wrote an incredible article for Autostraddle on the harmful, unoriginal, and one-note portrayals of sex workers in film. Strip clubs also represent a cultural constant within urban life when trying to look into the history of sex work.

This in mind, I decided to take field recordings of three strip clubs in British Columbia's Lower Mainland Region. Each case study presented here contains an acoustic ecology unique to that venue and neighbourhood. These recordings serve as the basis for my analysis of the sonic relationship between venues in which sex work takes place and their neighbourhoods.

It's necessary to contextualize these clubs within the history of Vancouver's sex industry to address the potential issues that arise from observing subjects—the subjects in this case are the strip clubs themselves—which exist on the margins of society. Here, I attempt to locate the presence of those power structures through field recording and self-reflexive listening. I provide a brief background of each club’s origins, as well as draw attention to the reputations/narratives they have earned. In an effort to remain focused in my objective, yet not objectifying, I outlined specific research questions to reflect on during and after capturing each soundscape. Divided into three categories (audio quality, observation of others, and observation of self) I have included some of my research questions below:

Audio Quality

· Which location has the highest sound level (dB)?

· Which location has the largest dynamic range?

Observations of Others

· How to patrons or passersby interact with the venue?

· How do the patrons or passersby interact with the neighbourhood?

Observations of Self

· Where do I feel most comfortable and why?

· What narrative am I constructing through my field recording?

Two recordings were made at each club, one while the club was open to patrons and another while it was closed. I included my sonic presence as it emerged incidentally and organically. I maintained a constant gain structure on my Zoom H6 field recorder for the purposes of later conducting a high-level spectral analysis. I conducted post-observation reflections while listening back to the recordings, and while primarily paying attention to the aural experience, I acknowledged and recorded other sense memories and affects as they arose. Finally, I produced six sonic postcards as “souvenirs” from my experience and posted them to Soundcloud. This framework would serve as an interdisciplinary method of exploring the urban soundscape of Vancouver, as well as the sonic conditions under which sex work coexists with the urban Vancouver environment.


Next Week on "Lurking in Doorways with a Recorder" I'll post about my experience listening to Paramount Gentlemen's Club in New Westminster


–Anderson, I. & Rennie, T (2016). “Thoughts in the Field: ‘Self-Reflexive Narrative’ in Field

Recording.” Organised Sound, 21(3), pp. 222–32.

–Gutierrez, A (2019). ‘Flâneuse>La Caminanta’. Sounding Out!

–Martin, A. (2019). ‘Hearing Change in the Chocolate City:  Soundwalking as Black  Feminist Method’. Sounding Out!

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