I Studied The Sex Industry For 7 Years — And It Forced Me To Face An Uncomfortable Truth In My Own Life

"I was taught to be a good feminist and turn my nose up at porn. Then everything I thought I knew about resisting objectification was turned upside down."
The author at the University of Ottawa.
Courtesy of Madeline Toubiana
The author at the University of Ottawa.

I was taught to be a good feminist and turn my nose up at porn and popular culture that tried to teach me that my worth could be measured by how desirable I was to a man.

I kept my nose turned up right into my 40s, until I started a project researching the sex industry. Then everything I thought I knew about resisting objectification was turned upside down.

You’re probably thinking that makes sense because the sex industry is assumed to be the heart of objectification for women. And while that may be true in many ways — and was indeed what I expected — it was not what I and my co-author, Trish Ruebottom, found.

Our study involved speaking to women and transgender entrepreneurs who were working in different fields within the industry, and led to 86 interviews over seven years. The work resulted in multiple journal publications that are the “marker” of success for academics. However, the truth I discovered about objectification (which I didn’t get to write about in those articles) was that resisting it is not necessarily achieved by turning away from its typification and sensationalism in the media, pop culture and sex.

While I resisted the idea of the cultural objectification of women, I discovered my very vanilla life as a university professor, with two kids, a husband, and a dog was filled with it.

Philosopher Martha Nussbaum identifies several different types of objectification that can be broken down into three categories: being used for the purposes of others, being denied one’s own subjectivity, and being treated and perceived as passive and agreeable. When our research made me take a hard look at my own life, it became clear I was an object and, even in the times that I wasn’t necessarily being objectified, I still wasn’t a subject.

At the conclusion of our seven-year journey, I realized that I have no clue what I desire. I feel confident I know what my son desires, and what my daughter desires, and my colleagues, and what men desire. But me? I saw I had erased myself from my own life. I was whatever my family, friends and colleagues wanted or needed (or at least what I thought they wanted or needed).

Yet, the women and trans folk we spoke to in the sex industry had found ways to carve out unique space for themselves — for their own unique desires — in an industry defined by its desire to objectify them. They used their businesses to transform themselves from objects to subjects.

How was it possible that I — a self-proclaimed feminist with a Ph.D. — had no idea how to be a subject in my own life? This not only puzzled me, it embarrassed me. And I’m not the only one who feels this way. So many of us have turned down lipstick and heels for sweats and running shoes, thinking that is resisting objectification, but all the while, we have erased ourselves from our own lives.

The author (right) and Trish Ruebottom, the co-author of the seven-year study of the sex industry, celebrating their research being published in Administrative Science Quarterly.
Courtesy of Madeline Toubiana
The author (right) and Trish Ruebottom, the co-author of the seven-year study of the sex industry, celebrating their research being published in Administrative Science Quarterly.

As I poured over the research we had done, I came to some profound realisations about objectification and desire thanks to the amazing people in the sex industry who enthusiastically and generously opened up their lives to us. Here are four tips that might help you figure out what you desire in order to welcome your subjective self (back) into your life (especially if you don’t identify as a cis straight man):

Watch (or even participate in) content created for the female gaze.

The feminist porn producers and burlesque performers we spoke with told us about creating content by and for women as an exploration with the audience of what female desire might look like in all of its multitudes. Witnessing a striptease performance produced by women for women is fundamentally different from the typical content we are used to being served. In fact, it’s so different, it can start to help you turn your gaze on yourself in new ways.

Thanks to such radical performances, I realised that I had been viewing myself using the tropes and trappings of a male gaze. This is why I was having such a hard time imagining what I wanted. By working to remove yourself from your comfort zone — and the male-centred default approach to women’s bodies and desires — you can begin to unlearn the limiting lessons you’ve been taught all these years. So go to a show — or perform in one! — and considering trying new kinds of porn, erotica and/or other creative endeavours that aren’t created by and for men.

Embrace your imperfect quirkiness.

The independent cam models we interviewed actively worked to reject the pressure to be the (supposed) ideal: young, thin, blond, big boobs, and white. Instead, they focused on being their whole, genuine, perhaps a little weird and imperfect selves, which allowed them to connect with others based on their unique humanness. By being exactly who they are, they gained viewers who valued their vulnerability and authenticity, and who became more loyal followers because of it. Leading with your quirks rather than burying them is critical to creating your own subjectivity.

Define your own boundaries.

We also spoke to many dominatrices and almost all of them had a lot to say about defining their boundaries outside of what’s considered “normal” by society. But they didn’t just accept a set of rules or guidelines typically associated with being dominatrices — they chose and created them for themselves, slowly and purposefully, over time, as they found what they wanted and, importantly, what they didn’t want to be a part of their careers (and lives).

Part of resisting objectification — the part I hadn’t seen in my own life — is how being an object doesn’t just mean being used by others, it can also mean being passive and overly agreeable. I realised that too often I don’t hold my own space or boundaries — I say “yes,” “sure,” and “of course,” a lot more than I should. To resist objectification, you have to be an active participant in your own life and make choices that are right for you — not other people or society. Sometimes that means dissenting, taking and holding fast to difficult or unpopular stances, and carving out boundaries that suit you even if nobody else approves or likes it.

Allow yourself support and autonomy.

The common belief is that escorts exist solely to serve clients’ needs, often to line the coffers of an escort agency or a pimp. This frequently means a lack of support for the escorts, and limited choice in how they find and do sex work. Over the course of our research, we discovered an innovation in the industry: the formation of escort collectives. These empowered groups are a new business model run by escorts themselves, and they provide support and community, but also autonomy and the opportunity to do work without being controlled or coerced by entities that do not have their best interests at heart.

Objectification can mask itself as support, but this type of support takes away an individual’s power and requires them to give parts of themselves away to receive it. If the support in your life comes at a steep, damaging or toxic cost, this is not true support. We can innovate and create new and better kinds of aid and assistance, thereby leaving behind the ones that force us to deny ourselves and our needs to obtain it.

The author in her office with her books. "Note historical fiction take up several shelves!" she writes.
Courtesy of Madeline Toubiana
The author in her office with her books. "Note historical fiction take up several shelves!" she writes.

I have come to realise through doing this research that I need to question societal scripts about women’s desires, and, when something doesn’t work for me, it doesn’t mean it’s because I’m broken or less than others — it’s just me. There are a lot more ways to live our lives than we’ve been taught, and I am trying to make room for my own approach.

I am also trying to make time and space for myself and to explore spaces designed by and for women. Maybe that means attending a burlesque festival with a whole range of bodies and aesthetics, as one of my research assistants did. Maybe it’s subscribing to a feminist porn site that lets you explore many different kinds of sexual and sensual content. Or maybe it’s as simple as my personal favourite activity: running a bubble bath, pouring a glass of wine and reading a steamy historical romance novel. (Even as I write this, I am trying not to judge myself for having more “vanilla” desires than my colleagues or friends. I mean, how nerdy is it that historical fiction is my thing?)

The truth is that even with all of my encounters with so many incredible, trailblazing people over the last seven years — and all of the lessons I learned from researching their lives — I am not completely there yet. I am quite surprised how — even upon realising my own objectification — it is still incredibly difficult to do the work to define my own subjecthood.

Not long after Trish and I finished our study, and my personal insights were beginning to crystallise, my father passed away. It was a devastating blow to me, and it shook me to my core. I realised that if I kept on erasing myself in my own life, I would also erase all that was left of him. Being who we are — and recognising and embracing our desires and our subjectivity to do so — not only cements our own place in the world, it honours the legacy of those who helped us become who we are. It was at that moment that I began to take my desire seriously and started to rewrite my boundaries, the rules that govern my choices, and allow myself to make room for all of me.

I also seriously began to consider where I get support in my life, and, like those escorts who eventually banded together to create their own collective, whether it is serving me or hurting me, I’ve found that some of the people you love the most may find it troubling when you try to assert yourself and make clear what you will and won’t accept anymore. This is hard because I obviously still care about those people, but prioritising myself in my own life requires that I shift my gaze in ways that not everybody understands, approves of or likes. It requires finding a new balance, which is still a bit uncomfortable for me, but is getting easier the more I do it.

When Trish and I set out on this journey to explore the sex industry seven years ago, I had no idea what we’d find. I certainly didn’t expect to learn so much about myself — or feel that I had so much work to do in my own life to feel fulfilled. We live in a capitalist society that is still, by and large, designed for the power and pleasure of male-identifying individuals, which makes it almost impossible for anyone who doesn’t identify that way to have agency over their own bodies and lives. But getting to know so many brave and bold people in the sex industry and seeing the ways they’re navigating a world that isn’t necessarily made for them (and maybe even actively opposes what they do and who they are) has inspired me to live my life differently.

I’m committed to taking the things I’ve learned through my research and applying them in order to continue to identify and cultivate my desires, to resist objectification, and to be the subject of my story. I hope you will be inspired to do the same.

Madeline Toubiana is an associate professor and the Desmarais Chair in Entrepreneurship at Telfer School of Management, University of Ottawa. Her research program has been focused broadly on what stalls and supports social change. Some of her previous and current work has studied social enterprises, the prison system, the sex trade, unemployment, nonprofit organizations, and taxi-driving. Her research has been published in the top journals in her field including Administrative Science Quarterly, Academy of Management Journal, Academy of Management Review, Academy of Management Annals, Annual Review of Sociology, Organization Studies, Journal of Management Studies, Journal of Management History, and Journal of Management Learning, among others. She is associate editor for the journal Organization Theory and Journal of Business Venturing, and is on the editorial review board for Academy of Management Journal, Academy of Management Review and Organization Studies. She has also written, and/or been written about, in Harvard Business Review, The Conversation, London School of Economics Business Review, the National Post, Global News, the Tyee, The Ringer, TalentEgg, Charity Village, and Canadian Innovation Space. Madeline has a TEDx talk on the research she conducted in the sex industry with Trish Ruebottom.