Sex Work and Human Rights

Behind The Scenes

Online Documentation

The idea to provide an online documentation of Research Project Korea was borne out of several motives. At first, I used my personal blog to start a fundraiser to partially finance the project. It proved a huge success and so I felt that in return, I should provide donors with some updates to reassure them that their donations were put to good use. But while I sometimes send out email updates, I generally like to keep those to a minimum and instead encourage supporters to follow the progress of the project on their own initiative. To that end, I began to publish updates in English and German, and thanks to the help of my great assistants, there is also some information in Korean available.

As the blog became more and more popular, I decided to move it to a separate page to make it easier to navigate. The blog now helps me greatly to network with all sorts of people, and not a week goes by in which I don’t get to know someone new or learn about new facts or projects by sex workers. My internet meme What People Think I do / What I Really Do proved particularly successful and I am glad to report that it received plenty of positive feedback. Among others, it got me in touch with two younger researchers, one from India and one from the United States. For them, and for anyone else interested in the work involved in a research project, I like to explain the necessity of informed consent forms in research interviews and how our team uses them.

Informed Consent

When conducting interviews as we do for this project, research ethics require that participants are provided with detailed information about the background, methods and objectives of the research. Researchers have the responsibility to secure the actual permission of everyone involved in the study. It is their duty to protect the rights as well as the privacy of the participants, to not misuse any of the information they are given, and to maintain a high degree of moral responsibility throughout.

At Research Project Korea, we provide our interviewees with a leaflet that includes information about the project’s name and affiliation (in our case that’s none as we are independent), the objective and utilisation of the interviews, the team members’ names and backgrounds, and the interview method.

Finally, there are several legal instructions. They include the following:

  • You have the right to remain anonymous. All interviews will be treated confidentially and interviewees can choose what alias shall be used for them.
  • You have the right to go ‘off the record’ at any time. You also have the right to change comments that you made ‘on the record’ to be considered as ‘off the record’ in retrospect.
  • You have the right to withdraw from the interview at any time and for any reason, without having to give an explanation, unless you wish to do so.

We explain each section of the leaflet in great detail and encourage our interviewees to ask questions at any time. Only after we completed this process, we ask them to sign the consent form. The leaflet and one copy of the consent form is theirs to keep and include our contact details, so that interviewees can reach us to retract or change his or her statements, should it become necessary.

The consent form comprises two sections. The first section contains a number of questions that include the following:

  • May we take notes and record this interview?
  • Do you understand your rights as outlined by the research team and in this form?
  • Have you had an opportunity to ask questions about this study?

The second section contains several statements that include the following:

  • I have read and understand all explanations provided to me.
  • I have had all my questions answered to my satisfaction, and I voluntarily agree to participate in this study.

Finally, participants can choose to sign the form either with their real name or with an alias.

The entire form is bilingual, in Korean and English, and written in a simple, non-technical style so that it is easily understood by anyone.

Conclusion

There is no one-fits-all consent form for social science research interviews. Each researcher might deem certain aspects as either important or unnecessary. To develop a consent form for your own research, it is useful to take a look at different consent forms that you can find online. You may then decide to adopt certain parts, to rephrase and use others, or add some that you deem of particular importance for your specific topic.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank Ms Kate Cooper, formerly a student at the Centre for Applied Human Rights at the University of York, for providing me with the consent form of her research project as an initial point of reference.

If you are a researcher or a sex worker currently planning a research project, please feel free to ask me any questions you might have. A copy of our consent form is available upon request. Please leave a comment below.

4 responses

  1. I am a bit puzzled by this fairly standard informed consent procedure with any human subjects. Was it required by a local ethics committee? Isn’t informed consent mainly about encouraging responses and protecting the researcher from claims by the subject? A researcher doesn’t need his subjects to sign anything to stop him breaching their privacy. But he needs to be able to protect himself by showing that consent was informed.

    March 5, 2012 at 12:28 pm

    • Thank you very much for your comment, Cheryl. Please let me check first if I understood you right. Your comment sounded to me like you were saying that you believe ensuring informed consent should mainly serve to protect the researcher and not the subject, is that correct?

      It is true that my consent form is designed to protect the participants, rather than the researcher (me). I had a look at several consent forms but I admit I wouldn’t know what would represent the standard.

      As far as I looked into this matter, there are no strict guidelines for social science research, as opposed to medical research for example, leaving it up to each researcher to judge what type of informed consent he or she requires.

      No local ethics committee was involved when I developed my consent form, and you might well be right that it isn’t necessary for researchers to have the participants sign anything to stop them (the researchers) from breaching their privacy.

      I admit that I thought much less about my own protection than about that of the participants. Note, though, that this consent form is for my interviews with sex workers only, not for interviews with representatives of government agencies or non-governmental organisations.

      I developed my form taking into account the frequent criticisms of sex work research I have read about, e.g. that researchers treat sex workers like objects, rather than as subjects – and I don’t even like that term. I like to treat the sex workers that we interview as participants in the true sense of the word: as people taking part in the project. I hope, and so far it seems to work out, that my interview method and consent form manage to establish as much trust as possible, as I am aware that previous researchers, journalists and others have often been disappointments.

      Should any interviewee contact me to retract or change a statement, it doesn’t have to be the end of the line, by the way. If I thought that the statement was of great importance, I would of course try to discuss the matter and see if we could find a compromise.

      Does this somewhat answer your question?

      March 5, 2012 at 5:05 pm

  2. We are looking with great anticipation to the results of your research. We have always wanted to undertake similar studies but we have been faced with lots of constraints which have placed our plans on hold.

    We wish you all the best in your research work. Cheers!

    April 1, 2012 at 6:26 pm

    • Thank you so much for your encouraging comment. Constraints are aplenty, that’s for sure. We will try our best and I look forward to learn more about your work in the Philippines!

      April 1, 2012 at 6:30 pm

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