the value of visuals: supporting sex workers

the value of visuals: supporting sex workers

Since October, Our team, Brittany and I, conducted design research to understand how the volatility and stigma, often associated with sex and sex-related work, affect the financial decision making of women in this industry. Moving into the second phase of our project, we have begun to transition from initial research and insights to design ideas and prototyping. Working towards this goal, we created concept models that visualize insights and explore areas of interest. These models ultimately serve as a tool for further sense-making and function as a translation between words and visuals to become a starting point for exploring design opportunities.

Our models captured the following ideas:

Sex Work: Exploded View. The goal of this concept model is to examine the direct and indirect value-offerings that constitute sex work. As part of our research, we believe sex and sex-related workers exchange just as much intimacy as they do sex. With this insight, we explore what sex workers are actually trading when they address the unique needs of clients. With an expanded understanding of what sex workers sell, this model produces opportunity for expanding job definitions and work descriptions.

Core Competencies. Our research led us to the insight that sex workers are actually small business owners, and that they, as well as society, should build them up as the small business owners that they really are. Typical organizations and businesses develop grounding statements that keep them in line with their internal values, mission and vision. Supposedly, having these statements built into their company brand gives them a competitive advantage over peers and contributes to their long-term success. In this spirit, we created a concept model (semantic zoom) that gathers and defines core competencies exhibited by the women we spoke with.

If we start with our most zoomed out phase, we will see the classic three pillars of a business model: Mission, Vision, and Values. We then zoom into Values, where we identify the four main values exhibited in sex-related work: Tenacity, Awareness, Determinism, and Entrepreneurialism. Next level deep, we zoom into each of these four values and get our breakdown of twelve core competencies of sex-related workers all of which came straight from the data. From there we zoomed in on one specific competency (creativity) and broke it down into a list of key qualities that define it.

Identity duality: All of the women we interviewed discussed the concept of creating a second identity or persona which they assume in their work. They must create these personas in order to establish a hard divide between their ‘real’ selves and the particular identity they perform for work. The existence of these personas is complex and nuanced but immediately helps keep the women safe by protecting their true identity and details of their real lives.

Our concept model showcases the internal experience of switching between the work persona and true identity. It shows that there is a massive loss of energy that occurs in the event of that switch. Going into a night of work, there is extensive mental and physical preparation that must take place in order to build confidence and set boundaries in inherently vulnerable circumstances. When women then come home from work and switch back into their true selves, they experience a quick and hard come-down which results in amplified negative consequences that are in polarization to the preparation stage (examples: shame, indulgence in spending or alcohol and drugs, and isolation).

Conventions of society: a mental model: Our research revealed self-reliant and nonconformist attitudes. With this mental model, we attempt to examine the relationship that sex and sex-related workers have with “the system” and conventional society. It navigates the different aspects of their lives that go unseen from conventional society. We identified and explored attitudes around government, finances, employment, and community, and believe that women in this work are both excluded from while living in defiance of certain norms in these categories.

Quick money: This concept model visualizes the relationship between quick money and financial emergencies. Our research exposed a cycle of quick cash that adopts an emotional identity leading to behavior that can trap women in financial emergencies. If we continue to isolate and study the different parts of this cycle, we may discover opportunity for support.

Sense of control in life and work throughout career: This temporal zoom compares one’s sex and sex-related work experience against their sense of control in life and work. The model visualizes levels of control at increasing levels of work experience: one day, three months, one year, three years, twenty-five years. We identify additional factors that influence levels of control including health, self-identified privilege, history of addiction, risk of violence, access to support, among other factors.

What did we learn? What was specific knowledge that we gained?

Scaling our work: By working through concept models before semantic and temporal zooms, we used them as play spaces and sources of inspiration for our zooms. This strategy ultimately deepened our knowledge by forcing us to break our own patterns of thought surrounding the data. The act of attempting to scale our insights was and continues to be a challenge, given the emotional qualities of our data. We continue to learn that because human-centered data is so qualitative, it is subject to being highly unreliable, and thus difficult to scale, in both meaning and time, while maintaining credibility and groundedness.

Grew industry knowledge: We gained knowledge about the scope of what “sex work” means throughout exploded concept map, and deepened our understanding of what the industry encompasses both in a physical setting and digitally.

Grew our understanding of the sex workers’ toolkit: Worked through a framework of ‘core competencies’ of sex work – Initially only had identified a few, but the process led to discovery of more hard skills that sex workers described as being in their toolbox.

Got intimate with intimacy: One of our core competencies of sex and sex-related workers that we dug into is a high level of intuition and empathy, which led us to zoom in on our insight related to the monetization of intimacy in sex work. This was one of our more mystifying areas of interest from the outset. We gained a significant amount of knowledge about the different types of roles sex-related workers embody when engaging in the sale of intimacy, which are different than simply selling the commodity of sex itself. We gained knowledge about how intimacy and the human condition manifest in this work for both the client and the provider.
Examples of roles: “girlfriend”, therapist, friend etc.

Creating more: Ultimately, we learned that creating more and creating fast leads to quicker clarity. We initially tried to confine ourselves to a strict plan of exactly what concepts we wanted to explore through this phase, but as we began to dig into them, other, potentially more relevant or on point areas of focus emerged. Like being an artist or songwriter, we learned that we have to create a lot of bad things before we can create one thing worth holding onto and working on. As we move forward with the work, we will continue to make more and more “bad” concept models in the search to find those little melodies worth playing out.

Progress: Did we accomplish what we intended to this week? Where did we fall short and why? What would we have done differently? What will we commit to doing differently next week?

In short, we started the week with a plan and largely executed what we set out to do.

If we were to do this work over again, perhaps we would have started digging into our temporal zoom earlier, which is rich with the potential for untapped insights. Additional synthesis can deepen our understanding of the relationships between experience, age, privilege, family circumstances, drug addiction, support systems, and degree of choice.
Next week, we will prioritize our areas of greatest interest and make more strategic use of time.

This week we also did not prioritize digitizing our concept models, which could be considered falling short. While this was an intentional choice, in the future we can do a better job at committing to work digitization into the initial plan of action.

Priorities & Commitments:

What are you committing to do this next week?

Learn how to use reframing and insight combination methods to generate new ideas.