PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Two Brown University scholars who study sexuality and freedom landed major Institute for Citizens and Scholars funding awards that will help them take their book projects to the finish line.
Elena Shih, an assistant professor of American studies who is an expert in human trafficking, labor migration and sex work, won the Mellon Emerging Faculty Leaders Award, which supports research by faculty who are dedicated to making their campuses more equitable and inclusive.
Emily Owens, an assistant professor of history and historian who focuses on race, gender and sexuality, won a Career Enhancement Fellowship, which provides junior faculty who are committed to diversity and inclusion with sabbatical stipends, professional development opportunities and funds to offset the cost of research travel.
The two scholars won awards that, according to the ICS, are ultimately intended to support faculty who hope to balance their research and career aspirations with a deep desire to serve their campus communities. But that’s not all they have in common. Shih and Owens are neighbors, fellow parents and close colleagues. And though their work may seem different on the surface, they say the subjects they examine — sex work, consent, power imbalances — are inextricably linked.
Following news of their awards, Shih and Owens answered questions about their research projects, commonalities in their scholarship and more.
Q: What projects will you work on with your award funding?
Shih: My book project is titled “Manufacturing Freedom: Trafficking Rescue, Rehabilitation, and the Slave Free Good.” It’s a global enthnography of the movement to combat human trafficking in China, Thailand and the United States. With this project, I’m exploring a lot of the complexities of the anti-trafficking movement that don’t get addressed very often. Unfortunately, the anti-trafficking movement has made the lives of many sex workers harder and has taken away a lot of their agency. And those who do want to extricate themselves from sex work often have to portray themselves in a particular chaste, feminine way to get legal help and to find other paid work.
Owens: My book is called “The Fantasy of Consent: Violence and Survival in Antebellum New Orleans.” It’s about the history of a slave market in which white men purchased enslaved women for sex, as concubines and brothel workers. When these men tried to “buy” women’s consent, society imagined these women as part of a deal or contract, and the laws of the time reflected that: They excluded enslaved women, and women who sold sex, from protection against sexual violence, making it impossible for them to file a rape claim. I’m writing about the violence these women encountered, the structures that facilitated the violence, and the creative ways they used the courts to their advantage, despite the fact that the system was set up to harm them.