JUST Capstone- Themes: Women Working in the Sex Industry in 2019


research focus.

For the focus of our research capstone, Brittany Sgaliardich and I looks to better understand women working in the sex industry and how the particularities in the nature of their work affects mental slack and decision making outside their work.

While sex work and the world surrounding can be difficult to swallow at times, there are a number of reasons why this area of focus is important and relevant to focus on in 2019, especially as two young women entering careers as designers. When given the freedom to explore a topic of our choice for our research capstone, Brittany and I knew where we hoped we could help tackle some truly wicked problems that we found to be worth solving.


In 2018, two bills were signed into law that shook up the sex industry on and offline. FOSTA (Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act) and SESTA (Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act) were inacted in an attempt to protect victims of sex trafficking by targeting well-known websites like Backpage which functioned as marketplaces for sex-related services.

FOSTA/SESTA gouges at Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, a bedrock of American online freedoms. It states that,

“No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”

Under FOSTA/SESTA, this is no longer true in the case where third parties are found posting ads for prostitution –including consensual sex work– on their platforms. While the intention was that it would make policing online sex rings easier, in reality it has simply shut down these online marketplaces that provided a lot of safety and transparency for countless consensual sex workers. The effect rippled out across the internet, and many sites that had nothing to do with sex trafficking or sex work in general shut down because of the difficulty that censoring their users would entail. Now consensual sex workers are forced to start over and potentially enter back into riskier situations where they have less autonomy over their business operations, and safety in many aspects, including the client vetting process. FOSTA/SESTA raises issues for thousands of women online, but also for the larger issues of online free speech.

While these women have always deserved autonomy and safety, now more than ever is there a pressing need to help create security and legitimacy for women working online, but also those subjected to taboo and ridicule in our society and culture.


For the ac4d class of 2020 Capstone Research, our cohort is partnered with local non-profit JUST, who’s current mission it is to invest in female Spanish-speaking entrepreneurs in the Austin area coming from a low-income bracket. They seek to empower these women who are generally marginalized and excluded from other types of resources or support, and to provide a community and investment to help them accomplish their goals on their own watch.

JUST seeks to find new opportunity spaces in which to grow their mission with the ac4d class of 2020’s help. Brittany and I understand that our work with women in the sex industry falls in alignment with some of JUST’s current mission, in working with women who are marginalized and often excluded from financial services and instututions.


Our research methodology consists of first collecting real stories from real people. We have spoken so far with 12 participants in form of long form interviews where we discuss their life and work. We sourced these participants through personal networks, through visits to local strip clubs in Austin, but also through local ads on websites like Craigslist and Reddit, which helped us to collect a range of circumstances and experiences.

Due to the sensitive nature of our work, and potential risks for participants, we guarantee absolute anonymity for all the women we spoke with. Their real names and faces will not be disclosed in any of our published material.

Using their stories as our hard data, we are currently working to synthesize their experience into insights which will later become our design criteria for JUST.

As a part of this process we hope to have one to two participants come into the studio and work with us, hands-on, as we go through the material in order to continue to help us with their voice and experience.

emergent broad themes

Already we some broad themes have emerged across all of the experiences we have collected.

Power, Intimacy, and Identity are complex each in their own right, and the intersection of these three forces, especially in the presence of cash, is something that we will continue to explore as we work towards insights. Each of the following themes touches on one of these spheres.




THEME: Feelings surrounding the exchange of money influence how it is used.

Kaylee is a 22 year old woman from California. She has stripped there since she was 18, and is now working in Houston and Austin. Kaylee is all about creating community in her life with her support system of women outside the club, but she was lucky enough to find a community at the club that she worked at for many years in L.A. She says that they need to support each other because “no one cares about strippers”. She still experiences a lot of instability, often times living in her car, which is her prized possession, the way that she helps her friends when they need it,  and what she puts most of her planned money into.

Kaylee has a special way of relating to the cash that she makes as a stripper.

“When you appreciate your friends and you have a moment of gratitude, you hug them, right? It’s like there’s cotton candy everywhere and it’s just like, ‘Ugh, I love you, here have some’. We have this sort of notion of, I don’t know. That’s just a few dollars. That’s just money. Money means glitter. Money means a good night. Money means smiles. Smiles come and go. I’ll go back and I’ll make more. I feel like I don’t take it as seriously because of the way that it decorates this nighttime world.

The volatility and the playfulness of the money can create an ebb and flow that creates tension in her life.

“Because it’s also embarrassing to be the stripper, to be making good money – And I go to work and sometimes I come home and celebrate with my roommates if they’re still awake and throw my money around and they all laugh because I had such a good night. And then it’s like, ‘Oh shit, guys, I’m actually dicks poor and I don’t even know how to explain that to you because you saw me with all this money two weeks ago. You think that I can make all this money all the time.

Money comes and goes for Kaylee, but at the end of the day, as long as she can help someone in the way that she knows she can, its going to be okay.

“…My car doubles as my home. And like a security blanket, it’s everything to me. It’s how I get around. That’s how I help my friends. It’s how I picked that one up who doesn’t drive. It’s how I take care of myself and everyone around me and so that thing, having money in that thing’s wallet, is much more important than how this is running.”

THEME: My sense of self-worth is renegotiated each time I go to work.
Zooey is a woman in her 30’s currently working as a pole dancing instructor and burlesque dancer in Austin. She lives in a cute apartment with her siberian husky and her roommates. She works a vanilla 9-5 at a desk, and instructs on the side. Before instructing she was a stripper. She speaks to the complexities of boundary setting and emotional cost of going to work. She speaks about the front she puts up as she re-negotiates her boundaries with every interaction she has with a potential client.

When Zooey started, she endured a tough learning curve.

“I was really naive. I guess I was probably really naive and too much of a pushover like didn’t have a thick enough skin yet to deal with the clientele. Because clientele, try to push your limits and push you as far as they possibly can, like how much can I get for this amount of money.”

There is a learned balance between objectification and control.

“But I think both, both people think that they’re in control. But they’re really just using each other. It was sickening but I was naive and young at the time I didn’t know any better. But yeah, that’s when it really became obvious to me that I was being objectified that I wasn’t necessarily in control.

Zooey experiences that the friction that happens when you need to put up a concrete mask in order to perform that tasks at hand.

“It’s really easy to relate to people or interact with the world when you’re hiding behind the persona that you’ve built up in your mind. It’s a way to avoid intimacy. I feel like the lines get kind of blurred after a while and you’re not really sure who you are. Because you’re trying to protect yourself from yourself.



THEME: The perception of power is just as important as power itself.

Leila is a 42 years old woman with gorgeous flowing hair and a wide smile. She is a former escort, former porn-actress and current cam-girl. She has two children, one who is 18 now off on his own and one who is a 6 year old little girl with autism. She grew up in California, but also lived in Texas on and off because her dad lived there. When she was in high school she had a bad falling out with her mother and ended up moving in with her father, who was “not a very good dad”. She set out on her own, and by the time she was 17 and a half she was engaging in acts of prostitution.

Leila spoke about how money has given her the power to protect herself and her children when they needed it.

“Because if you can’t just go out and do something to protect yourself… If someone is harassing you and you have the power to put yourself in a motel for the night to be safe, that’s power.

She spoke about the power in creating a guise of glamor and power. Here she discusses how her clients saw her in the visual world she created around her work, versus her reality.

“I had a lot of power at that time because of the perception is reality. I lived in a mansion, my roommate was a goddess. They didn’t know it was in a court case fighting to get my kid back and that I had no money except for the money they were giving me…”

She understands how important it is to know you own power while doing this work.

“Let them think that. If you have any power cards, play them, because they surely do have power. They do. They can hurt you. They have the money that you need and a lot of guys are shady.”

next steps.

Our next presentation with JUST will be around the insights we develop out of these and other themes. What resonates with us, and what resonates with our client, will ultimately determine how those insights shape our design recommendations.

We will continue to share our progress and process with you and if you are interested in discussing our work further, we are available for conversation any time: design4women@ac4d.com