This post is part of a series where Rutgers grant and/or fellowship winners are invited to share their thoughts and experiences with the process of applying for funding in graduate school.
By Niina Vuolajarvi
Hello, I am Niina, and I am currently in my final year of graduate studies in the program of Sociology under the supervision of my advisor Dr. Arlene Stein.
In my ethnographic dissertation “Governing in the Name of Caring – The Politics of Migration and Sex Work in an Era of New Humanitarianism,” I examine feminist-inspired prostitution and anti-trafficking policy approach and its intersections with immigration controls from the perspective of migrant sex workers. My dissertation draws on large-scale ethnographic, interview, and media data, including 210 interviews with migrant sex workers, policy-makers, police forces, and activists in the Nordic region (Sweden, Norway, Finland) where the approach originates.
This research examines a policy approach to prostitution and sex trafficking that aims to target the ‘demand’ for sexual commerce, instead of the supply. In other words, it criminalizes the buying but not the selling of sex in the name of the protection and caring of women and to achieve gender equality. This highly debated approach, called the ‘end demand’ approach, originated in Sweden in 1999, and has since then dominated the prostitution and anti-trafficking policy debates around the world.
Having studied sex work and migration politics I have observed many contradictions related to the ‘end demand’ approach. Firstly, there is no evidence-based research to support its effectiveness. Secondly, the highly moralized debates around it do not address migration, even if most sex workers in the countries where the approach is applied are migrants. In my dissertation research, I examined the effects of the ‘end demand’ approach and its ideological appeal. My study uses data from the Nordic region where this policy approach originates. Moreover, the project moves away from moralizing understandings of prostitution and it sheds light on the connections between migration, sex work, and precarity.
I am also developing a new research project on algorithmic governance that continues my interest in the intersections of technologies of governance and policing of sexuality, migration, and race. The moral rhetoric related to sex trafficking in recent years has justified the forging of public-private partnerships and the use of algorithms in policing of sex workers through websites, online platforms, money transfers, and credit card companies. This project will shed light on these new structures of policing, how they impact sex workers, and how communities respond to these arising forms of control. I will focus on the effects of algorithmic governance on migrant sex workers and sex workers of color. In the project, I will especially examine the role that social media and sharing-economy companies, such as Instagram, PayPal, and Airbnb, play in these data-driven interventions made in the name of countering sex trafficking.
The research and human rights communities are increasingly divided on the effectiveness of the ‘end demand’ approach. The project provides a pioneering large-scale and multi-country analysis on the effects and ideological production related to the ‘end demand’ approach. demonstrating how feminist-humanitarian discourses are used as a smokescreen to punitive practices targeting vulnerable populations, the project illuminates emerging patterns of governance that are operating across multiple arenas of contemporary life.
Moreover, through rich ethnographic material, the proposed project will offer a window into the often-hidden lives of migrants who use their intimate resources to advance their lives in the Global North. By focusing on a highly stigmatized gendered form of informal labor, the results of the project advance social understanding of structural factors and reasons for migrants engaging in sex work. Hence, the research can help to reduce the stigma related to sex work, as well as shape services directed to sex workers and victims of trafficking.
The outcomes of my research have attracted considerable attention, which has highlighted its potential policy impact. My research has been featured for example in The Economist and The New York Times. Additionally, the Swiss Ministry of Health and Amnesty International among others have invited me to talk about my research.
In January 2021, I am starting a two-year postdoc at the New School. I also hope that my research will have an impact on how we approach prostitution and immigration policies, as well as how we perceive sex work and sex workers.
My experiences with the world of funding
My work has been recognized by the Mellon/ACLS Dissertation Completion Fellowship, The Law and Society Association Article Prize Honorable Mention, the Fulbright Foundation, the Visual Journalism of the Year Award, the American-Scandinavian Foundation Award, the Kone Foundation, and the Scandinavian Research Council for Criminology, among others.
Without the funding, I would not have been able to do my extensive three-country fieldwork and 210 interviews among migrant sex workers in the Nordic region. The fieldwork has been crucial for the overall success of my dissertation research and also to my goal to produce evidence-based research on the “end demand” approach to prostitution and its intersections with immigration policies from the perspective of those most affected: migrant sex workers.
Securing the dissertation finalization fellowship enabled me to focus on writing my dissertation alongside the job market without teaching duties.
My advice for other applicants
- Contact previous grantees to see how successful applications look like, but still, be true to your own project!
- Ask different kinds of people to read and comment on your application, people specialized in your field, laypeople, other academics. Your project might seem clear to you but not to outsiders. Here GradFund is a very valuable resource, as I met with them and found the advisors’ feedback on my application materials to be very helpful.
- Read closely the purpose or mission of the fellowship or funder and adjust your application to fit that.
- Apply broadly and don’t take rejections personally.
You can follow Niina on Twitter @niinavu
To learn more about Niina’s research check out her website: https://vuolajarvi.weebly.com/