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Gillian Abel

Gillian Abel profile photo
Gillian Abel, Senior Lecturer,
Public Health and General Practice,
Christchurch School of Medicine

Gillian Abel’s PhD into the impact of New Zealand’s prostitution law reform on sex workers could so easily have turned into one of those long drawn-out affairs.

She was studying part-time while working full-time as a lecturer in Public Health; she was launching herself into new fields of sociological theory, distancing herself still further from the hard sciences of her undergraduate years; she not only had to produce a thesis, but also a report for the Prostitution Law Review Committee that funded the research; her mixed method study involved a survey of 772 sex workers and interviews with 58, “a lot for a PhD”.

Yet Gillian completed her thesis, which was formally acknowledged as “exceptional”, in just four calendar years. “I was passionately interested in the topic,” she says of the feat. “It was stimulating, fascinating. It didn’t feel like a chore at all.”

But if passion was her fuel, there was nothing like a deadline to act as an accelerator. “The requirements for the Committee meant their report needed to be issued in 2008. So I really needed to complete the analysis within that timeframe.”

Gillian credits her three supervisors – also her friends and co-workers in the Department – for providing her with the theoretical and methodological support she needed. “They were very available to me,” she reports, and their multi-dimensional relationships proceeded without incident. “I had been to a supervision workshop which introduced a questionnaire for developing expectations with students. It was a useful tool, and it was good to talk about these fundamentals right at the beginning.”

Mind you, she comments, “I was very goal-oriented and producing the work. I didn’t really give them any cause to complain.” And, notwithstanding her external supports, there’s no mistaking that Gillian’s achievements were the result of her hard work and disciplined habits. Having worked in the University for several years, she recalls, “I had seen the ups and downs PhD students faced. I knew the importance of writing from day one!”

Gillian describes having been “quite structured” in her approach. “For example, I planned all my chapters, and wrote preliminary headings quite early on. So whenever I read something relevant I could add it immediately into my thesis.”

In fact, the PhD became such a part of Gillian’s daily life that when she finally submitted, she remembers feeling “quite bereft. It was like giving a baby away”.

However, moving on has given Gillian a welcome opportunity to focus on publishing papers, delivering her findings to a far wider audience. “New Zealand was a leader in its approach in decriminalising prostitution. My research found only positive results from this – sex workers are better able to negotiate safe practices and receive help from police when they need it. The fears, such as more women entering the profession, have proved unfounded. I am very pleased to be able to take these messages to an international audience.”