This piece was originally featured on Research Matters.
Niina Vuolajarvi began her postdoctoral fellowship at NSSR in January 2021, bringing her long background of activism and academic research “at the intersection of sex work studies and migration studies” to the Zolberg Institute on Migration and Mobility.
Before starting her PhD in Sociology at Rutgers University, Vuolajarvi organized around migrant rights, anti-racism, feminist movements and sexual rights in Nordic countries. Later, as a doctoral student in Finland, she became aware of the debate surrounding sex work, especially one curious characteristic of the discourse: “The way feminists have been one of the main groups promoting oppression of sex workers rights and sex workers’ self-expression,” she says.
Vuolajarvi began her doctoral field work among migrant sex workers in 2013, when discussions of the “Nordic model” of legislation—which criminalizes the purchasing of sex, but not the selling of it—were increasing in Finland. As part of her organizing work with feminist networks trying to halt the promotion of these laws, Vuolajarvi compiled a research report on the effect of client criminalization on sex workers for the Finnish National Gender Studies Association.
“I noticed there actually wasn’t much empirical research done involving sex workers themselves, interviewing them to see how [they] themselves experienced this law,” Vuolajarvi says. “There was especially no research that would have included migrant sex workers.”
Eager to address this disparity for organizing work and for her dissertation, Vuolajarvi interviewed over 200 people, most of whom were sex workers, in Finland, Sweden, and Norway. “I tried to talk with people from different residence permit categories, from different ethnic groups, and also different working locations to really make an intervention in the debate,” she explains. She published her results in her dissertation, Governing in the Name of Caring: Migration, Sex Work and the ‘Nordic Model’.
Her commitment to centering the voices of directly impacted individuals in academic debates is one way that Vuolajarvi’s background in activism informs her approach as a scholar. She has thoughtfully moved between those spheres, always considering the impact her research could have on the communities it focuses on.
From 2015 to 2017, Vuolajarvi worked as the main researcher on an interdisciplinary project called Deported, which raised public awareness of the criminalization of migration’s impact on communities. The project won the 2017 Visual Journalism of the Year Award.
“You have to make sure your research doesn’t just serve you and your academic career, but that it’s really available to communities to advocate for their rights.”-Niina Vuolajarvi
“Especially doing research with populations that have been historically mistreated by researchers, where the research has often been mobilized to initiatives that work against these communities, I think it’s very important to think about the politics of your research and what your research does,” she cautions. “You have to make sure your research doesn’t just serve you and your academic career, but that it’s really available to communities to advocate for their rights.”
“I don’t want to speak for sex workers. I think they are very capable of speaking for themselves and can voice their concerns much better than I do,” she explains. “But I also think that producing knowledge and providing tools for the movements in this ‘expert’ role can have a different impact in the debates.”
Since January, Vuolajarvi has met weekly with the Zolberg Institute, where she is developing her dissertation research into a book. “I’m really happy to be at the Zolberg Institute. I took courses there as a graduate student at Rutgers,” she says. “They nurture a very open and warm environment, so it was really easy to land even in the time of Zoom.” Vuolajarvi also hopes to collaborate with The New School’s Gender and Sexualities Studies Institute.
“Niina will expand the focus of the Institute, through her important scholarship and new courses she will add to our curriculum,” says Alex Aleinikoff, University Professor and Director of the Zolberg Institute. “We are thrilled to have her join us.”
Vuolajarvi also hopes to begin research on “the technologies of governance and policing of sex work,” analyzing the ways that technologies like social media and money transfer companies use algorithms to police sex work. “I would like to look more into these new forms of governance, how they function and how they affect the way sex workers organize their everyday working lives,” she explains. “Also, I want to research how the communities organize to resist these new forms of control.” Vuolajarvi has already published more than 20 articles, book chapters, book reviews and research reports on the policies and politics of immigration, commercial sex, and healthcare.
Vuolajarvi hopes to move to in-person work at The New School in Fall 2021. “It’s been a very positive experience so far,” she says. “I’m looking forward to getting into the everyday life of the New School.”