Limitations of the study

The red-light district of the carrés, like any red-light district, is a complex field to research with its unique challenges. Therefore, certain limitations impacted the recruitment of participants and collection of data such as:

  • Limited time the interactions with participants took place during their working hours in their workplace, during the in-between moments, when the women were waiting for the arrival of clients. The fieldwork happened within a six-month period, which was the maximum time possible due to available funding and the expected deadline of the final report. Therefore, the amount of data that could be collected, and observation that could be done was limited.
  • No private space: there were very few places in the area where the researchers could be without being in the way. Potential customers were always around, and the women did not want the research to interfere with their work. Even on the streets, the researchers had to pay attention to which street corner they stood at for some time as some of the women who did not have windows solicited clients on the streets. In one of the instances, the researchers were asked to move to another corner as they were (unknowingly) obstructing the woman working there. They quickly apologised and moved away. Therefore, visits to the area were often short and interviews were held inside the carrés.
  • The issue of trust: the women are generally not trusting of outsiders (partly related to their background and current living context), which complicated access to the women and in-depth conversations, as a certain level of trust is essential in qualitative research. However, having a culturally and ethnically diverse team of researchers was of considerable added value and ensured a necessarily culture-sensitive approach. The fact that one of the researchers is Nigerian incited a favourable level of curiosity because it also meant that the women could speak in their colloquial tongue and engage in small talk easily, often about topics related to Nigeria or life abroad as an African. This then made it possible to establish some level of trust in a very short amount of time.
  • Mobility: there is a high turnover of women behind the windows. As a result of this, the researchers were unable to maintain contact with most of the women over longer periods. To address this issue, the researchers maximized the time they had with each participant during the interviews, with the knowledge that they may never see that participant again. This turned out to be the case for many of the participants; however, a few others stayed in touch.
  • Limited access to the women's private lives: most of the women preferred to keep their private lives separate (this could be linked to the stigma associated with prostitution).

There is a widespread sense that prostitution simply cannot be taken seriously or ever achieve the status of other service occupations. Yet this folk wisdom is just that - a narrow, surface understanding that does not come close to recognizing the myriad dimensions of sex for sale, how it is experienced by workers and clients, and the value of considering policy alternatives “outside the box” of criminalization and marginalization.

(Weitzer, 2011, p. 3)

The researchers respected the women’s wishes, thereby focusing purely on the interviews, conversations, and observations in the red-light district of the carrés. When they were invited into more intimate settings, like having lunch together or going out for dinner with a participant on a weekend, they accepted and did so at the request of the participants. All these elements resulted in a form of “volatile ethnography”, which required a lot of flexibility and adaptation of the research method. Consistency in the researchers’ visits to the field was one of the most crucial elements that helped to build credibility, as well as participating in some other economic activities in the area (the ordering/purchase of prepared meals, grocery shopping, and a hairdresser visit). Thus, observation became an important part of the data collection.

Some challenges impacted the researchers personally:

  • • The fieldwork had an emotional impact on the researchers linked to their being confronted with situations of deprivation and vulnerability and highlighted by seeing the neglect in the area as well as hearing the stories of violence that the women had experienced - some of which was very recent. In the same vein, however, the researchers were able to observe the resilience of the women through all this and they were often met with much hospitality, strength, and kindness, which was very humbling.
  • • The inability to reach some of the young women who seemed to be under the control of someone else. Most of these women worked at night and seemed extremely nervous when approached or kept looking at someone else (usually an older woman) for permission before responding to the researchers. This raised questions about their safety and care. But, after several conversations, the researchers decided to stay away from them to avoid jeopardizing their safety if they were under the control of a madam and seen talking with the researchers without permission. They were however given the researchers’ contact cards and the research flyer and, through the course of the fieldwork, the researchers said hello to them whenever they walked by.
  • • The area is characterized by the presence of overt drug dealing, intoxicated persons, and petty crimes, and the researchers experienced feelings of insecurity at different times while on the field, including being followed. This highlighted, and helped the researchers to understand, the depth of insecurities that the women are faced with regularly. For safety reasons, the researchers had a security protocol in place which included, but was not limited to, informing the supervisors when on the field, leaving when there was any form of unrest in the area, and staying alert as a team. They also avoided going to the area in the middle of the night.
  • • The researchers’ distinct backgrounds influenced their experiences in the field differently, especially with regards to safety and security in the area, accentuating the notion that perceptions of safety and security differ based on background and previous experiences of (in)security.

Two of the challenges highlighted by Shaver (2005) in research on the sexual service industry are the unknown size and boundaries of the population, and the stigma faced by those working in that industry, which may cause them to either refuse to participate or give cautious answers. These resonated within the study, as well as the number of women working there changing frequently and the stigma and discrimination that they face daily being a recurrent topic during the fieldwork.

24 Research design


  • 1 At the end of the fieldwork, we gave them small thank you packs with condoms, hand sanitizer, intimate wipes, etc.
  • 2 For analysis, MAXQDA was used: a software program designed specifically for computer-assisted qualitative and mixed methods data analysis.


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