Professor and student study visibility management, perceptions of sex work

Dr. Rebecca McHugh, an assistant professor of psychology, and her students conduct research among people who are often stereotyped against, including the furry community and sex workers.

McHugh has been training some of her students to gather data on practices and people who are on the margins of the larger society.

This year, she has been working with psychology graduate Darien Talley '19 of Media, Pa., to interview legal sex workers and explore attitudes toward them and problems they face.

It is all part of McHugh's ongoing research into how people reveal parts of their identities to others, particularly if there is stigma involved. It is an area called visibility management. People choose whom they let know about their sexual orientation, mental health status, personal sexual history or other non-visible attributes. McHugh studies whom people choose to come out to, when and why.

As a developmental psychologist, McHugh became interested in the area because identity formation and visibility management are primary tasks of adolescence. Additionally, it's an area that has not been thoroughly researched.

McHugh and Talley's current research is taking place anywhere people are having conversations about sex work - on Facebook and Reddit, in interviews they conduct, and in a legal brothel outside of Las Vegas, where the pair traveled together in February. While in Las Vegas, they also attended the Ethnographic and Qualitative Research Conference, where Talley presented on a preliminary aspect of their research.

At the brothel, the pair interviewed exotic dancers, prostitutes and women working in the pornography industry.

“They were all really nice,” said Talley, who was interested in finding out how counselors can help those in sex work. She said that often sex workers won't talk to counselors or other health care providers because of stereotypes that the workers are only sex workers because of trauma in their past.

“It's hard for sex workers to find people to open up to,” Talley said. “There is a huge stigma associated with sex work.” She said that some of the interviewees had not even told their primary care physicians about their work.

After the interviews, come hours of listening, transcribing and coding each bit of conversation to detect trends in the data.

In addition to the interview data, the pair have similarly analyzed a conversation on the Facebook page Humans of New York about International Whores' Day and plan to recruit additional open-ended survey participants in various threads on the social website Reddit.

On her own, Talley has begun individual research examining misogynistic song lyrics from the last 20 years.

When the analyses are complete, the pair plan to write papers about the trends and information they found.

Gathering and analyzing this kind of subjective data requires a lot of time and training. McHugh first trained Talley as part of similar visibility management research she has conducted for two summers at Anthrocon, a four-day convention held annually in Pittsburgh to celebrate the “furry” fandom - people who are interested in media and art focusing on anthropomorphic characters.

Talley hopes to use her research experience to pursue a doctoral degree in clinical psychology, which would allow her to pursue her own research further, as well as treat individuals who struggle with past trauma.