Alberto Cifuentes, Jr. is a PhD student in social work at the University of Connecticut. He is a member of Health Policy Research Scholars Cohort 2018.
Tell us a little bit about yourself and what your research interests are.
I’m a queer Latinx scholar activist and social worker who specializes in gender and sexuality studies. My research interests align with my practice interests since I’m very interested in how marginalized communities organize for social change and transformation, particularly how disenfranchised communities challenge and resist stereotypes and stigmas. As a macro social work practitioner, I’m interested in how the LGBTQ+ community negotiates and dismantles certain forms of prejudice and discrimination. Within the LGBTQ+ community, I aim to explore how sex workers or those involved in the sex trade experience stigma, resist prejudice and discrimination, and seek out resources to improve their health and living conditions.
What’s the story behind why you’re doing what you’re doing?
When I was getting my master’s degree, I did a lot of research on HIV prevention strategies, especially for men who have sex with men (MSM) and transgender women. There was little discussion about the impact of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections (STIs) on sex workers in the literature. I also had been doing some research on pornography and the impact this may have on the sexual practices of MSM. What were the conditions for those men involved in pornography when it’s usually viewed as a “female phenomenon?” Did people involved in the porn industry have proper access to housing, education, healthcare, and other financial and social capital? It seemed to me that there was a gap in the literature that needed to be filled, especially when discussing male sex workers and their access to life-saving resources.
Tell us about a project you are currently working on that you are excited about.
The project that I’m working on for my dissertation is a mixed methods study of the impact of stigma on the sexual health and substance use outcomes of online MSM sex workers. I’m surveying 200 to 250 online MSM sex workers and interviewing 15 to 20 online MSM sex workers. I’m about to start data collection for this study. I’m exploring the experiences of online MSM sex workers because this is an under-researched and underfunded area of study. Much of sex work during the era of COVID-19 transferred to online forums such as OnlyFans, so this is an area ripe for research and insights. My study will aim to help develop more equitable resources and tools for HIV/STI prevention for online MSM sex workers. It will also benefit online MSM sex workers by amplifying their voices and lived experiences through the interview process. For years, sex workers have not felt their voices heard at the policymaking tables. Through my dissertation study, I hope to advocate for all sex workers to be involved in civic education and political mobilization efforts.
For people unfamiliar with your research area, what is one piece of information you think is important for them to know?
The stigma experienced by sex workers is correlated with the criminalization of sex work. Higher levels of stigma or shame based on sex worker identity translates to higher levels of victimization and incarceration of sex workers. Sex workers, especially those who are Black, Latinx, and transgender, are incarcerated at higher rates than many non-sex workers. Often, the way that society has tried to “fix” the problems associated with sex work is by arresting and incarcerating sex workers, diminishing their life chances and ability to access resources. If someone wants to make the lives of sex workers better, then sex workers themselves need to be at the decision-making table. Arrest and incarceration are not the answer to restoring equity for sex workers; this is clearly seen through the “Walking While Trans” laws that exist in some states and imprison people simply based on the suspicion of being a sex worker, which has targeted a lot of trans people and survival sex workers. Sex work is work, and it should be treated as actual labor without criminal penalties.
Who is a researcher you admire and why?
Fortunately, this researcher is already on my dissertation committee, and I’ve published two articles with her: Cristina Mogro-Wilson, MSW, PhD. Mogro-Wilson conducts research on how culture impacts the parenting styles of Latinx families, especially fathers. Mogro-Wilson is incredibly prolific in her scholarship and very accomplished. She gave me so much guidance on submitting to academic journals and challenged me to refine my writing and editing process. I am very grateful for her mentorship as she has definitely helped me let go of my feelings of imposter syndrome and put a lot of faith in my work as a scholar and professional.
How do you think HPRS will complement your doctoral training?
HPRS has provided me with so many resources and support for achieving my academic and professional goals. Just my cohort alone (Go BTE!) has provided me with guidance on my research and sage advice on how to pursue certain projects. For the first two years of the program, I learned how to write a policy brief and an op-ed that I could use to strengthen my argument that sex work must be decriminalized in the United States. I also had to make arguments regarding more equitable policy during the opioid epidemic that really encouraged me to think outside my comfort zone and critically analyze certain policies.
During my third year, I focused on becoming a better leader and learned strategies that I will take with me as I navigate the next stretch of my academic career. Since I’m only in a cohort of one at my university and receive limited opportunities for professional development, HPRS has helped fill that gap and mobilized me to take on leadership opportunities outside of academia.
What part(s) of HPRS excite you the most?
The part that most excites me about HPRS is the in-person gatherings, which we unfortunately have not seen a lot of due to the pandemic. My last memory was the three-week Summer Institute in Washington, D.C. Most of the programming took place at George Washington University, and it was great to soak up the city (and it was pretty hot). I really bonded with my cohort members during that time. Some of the conversations we had were very challenging, and I felt some discomfort throughout, but everything turned out all right because I was in a safe, affirming, and inclusive environment where I didn’t have to be afraid of making mistakes.
Another part of HPRS that excites me is the numerous funding opportunities, including the dissertation fellowship and travel scholarship for conferences. These two funding opportunities have been incredibly helpful to me as I work on completing my dissertation and seek funding.
In the RWJF HPRS program we will work with you to help you think further about using your research to develop policy. If you could use your research to change any policy, what policy would it be?
I would use my research to decriminalize sex work or remove the criminal penalties for sex work on a federal level. With the exception of several rural areas of Nevada, many forms of sex work, including prostitution, are illegal in the U.S. Research has shown that areas that decriminalize sex work are more likely to produce positive, healthier outcomes for sex workers. Just take a look at New Zealand and parts of Australia that have decriminalized sex work and reduced rates of arrest and incarceration of sex workers. Right now, various cities like New York, Chicago, and Washington, D.C., are working to decriminalize sex work, and they need the help of researchers who can show decriminalization leads to better outcomes for sex workers.
If you could visit any place in the world, where would you choose to go and why?
I would go for an extended vacation to Montreal. It’s a beautiful city full of terrific sights and sounds. The restaurants in Montreal are simply superb, and the nightlife is wonderful. I’ve met some interesting people in Montreal, all of them pretty memorable due to some kind of charming eccentricity. I feel like I’m in a miniature version of Paris every time I go to Montreal. For years, I’ve wanted to learn French, and I’m just in love with the language and culture. I hope to go back to Montreal very soon!