Leaving Prostitution: Getting Out and Staying Out of Sex Work

Leaving Prostitution: Getting Out and Staying Out of Sex Work

Author: Sharon S. Oselin
Publisher: New York: New York Univerity Press, 2014. 218p.
Reviewer: Melissa Hamilton | July 2014

Scholars of sex work have often oriented toward understanding the various reasons and contextualizing factors that might help explain how and why individuals enter and remain in prostitution. Oselin claims to be one of the first sex work scholars to investigate pathways and experiences of prostitutes in trying to exit the profession and to permanently desist from sex work. In this text, Oselin focuses exclusively on female street-level sex workers who utilized the services of prostitute-serving organizations (PSOs) to help them abstain. The research is an ethnographic study whereby Oselin conducted numerous in-depth interviews and spent many hours observing interactions between female prostitutes and PSO staff members connected to a convenience sample of four PSO sites around the United States. The text provides a rich perspective on the stages and modalities of role exiting and desistance of women from an occupation that is presumed deviant and highly stigmatized.

In Chapter 1, the author introduces the reader to the methodological background and sample data that are at the heart of the study. The choice of four PSOs scattered around the country permits the author to conduct a comparative analysis across the four chosen PSOs. The four include the following: two total institutions offering long-term, residential services in Chicago and Los Angeles; a quasi-total institution offering residential placement for up to three months in Minneapolis; and a much shorter, two-week, day program located in Hartford, Connecticut. Oselin spent three months at each site observing the operations and conducting semi-structured interviews of a total of 14 staff members and 40 clients. While known in her role as a researcher, she also was active in providing various services, such as teaching classes, writing reports as requested by directors, and providing feedback to staff members. The clients interviewed offered variety in terms of demographic and occupational characteristics. From a racial/ethnic perspective, most represented minority groups in that 22 were black, 14 white, and 4 Hispanic. The women ranged in age at the time of interview from age 20-51, and their sex work careers lasted between 1 and 39 years before their formal engagement with their respective PSOs.

Though the thesis of the book concerns role exiting, Oselin does properly provide some context for the reasons and circumstances whereby the women entered the criminalized profession in the first place. Thus, Chapter 2 contains the author’s conceptualization of five pathways to entering street-level sex work that are mediated by age of entry. A commonality across pathways was that the vast majority of the women had been poor at the time of entry and came from lower class families. Two of the pathways are conceptualized as relevant to those females who had entered prostitution as juveniles (defined as age 18 and under). One of these typologies for young entrants was to flee physical and sexual abuse at home, while at the same time attempting to reclaim control by using sexual interactions to feel empowered and to exert agency over one’s sexual experiences. The second typology involving youth is referred to as “normal,” in the sense that these girls envisioned sex work as being economically lucrative, exciting, even glamorous, and normal in the sense that they tended to have been socialized by family or friends already involved in their local street-level criminal enterprises. Two of the three pathways for the adult onset prostitutes involved the need for money, either because of drug addiction or as a means to survive due to homelessness or other tragic circumstances. The final pathway is a residual one involving a few clients and titled with the generic “other” as the main reason(s) did not otherwise easily fall into the prior typologies. Oselin notes that an overriding difference between the age groups (juvenile v. adult at entrance) is that those starting as adults were more likely to battle moral concerns about their work from the beginning. It is interesting to note that the women who entered in adolescence on average remained significantly longer in sex work and suffered a greater toll. The author observes that women with longer careers were more likely to have experienced greater violence, heightened stigmatization, increased likelihood of family disruption, stronger drug addictions, and more arrests and hospitalizations.

Chapter 3 moves onto the initial stage of the exiting process, which in this study involves the entry into a PSO program and the reasons therefor. Often the justifications involved both internal and external factors. Personal reasons included spiritual/religious influences, gaining sobriety, wanting to salvage private relationships, reacting to excessive violence, and overall exhaustion from street work. External turning points were often an arrest or hospitalization, though pregnancy was another less common event. While many of the women turned to a PSO for assistance as they did not feel they could desist on their own, some were less than purely voluntary program participants in that third parties (such as probation officers or defense counsel) cajoled them into cooperating with a PSO. From a policy perspective, it is of interest that multiple women reported having heard of their local PSO through various community resources long before entering their programs, suggesting that knowledge of the PSO may not be immediately acted upon, yet the information may eventually prove fruitful when the individual finally decides to attempt an exit.

The next phase in the exit process involves role distancing. The relatively unique and difficult challenge for prostitutes is physical and emotional separation from a highly stigmatized status and troubled relationships. Chapter 4 explores role distancing largely through a comparative analysis of the PSOs from an organizational perspective. Oselin discusses the use of coercive organizational control and normative controls. For coercive organizational control, the author concludes that the three residential programs provided more opportunity than the short-term, day program for the women to separate from the street subculture by providing such resources as housing, food, shelter, and educational services. The two total institutions outperformed the others, Oselin concludes, in particular by maintaining clear guidelines for using rewards and punishments to better direct program participants away from the talks and behaviors that imitate street interactions that otherwise inhibit distancing from the stigmatized role and status. The day program was particularly troublesome, as the women generally returned every night to their old haunts and habits and experienced role conflict as a result. The author likewise determines that the two total institutions foster and accelerate role distancing through normative controls, such as creating fictive families between clients and staff members and encouraging positive peer socialization and role models amongst clients. The greater potential for role distancing is also heightened by the two total institutions because their long term duration (up to two years in length) allowed for ongoing socialization while the other two programs of less than three months were seen as too short for the difficult and lengthy process of separating from a deviant social position. Many women in the shorter programs resisted change.

Chapter 5 moves onto the next exiting phase of constructing and accepting a new role and sense of identity. Oselin correctly observes that a major lifestyle change is necessary — one inevitably involving a cognitive transformation from a deviant to a prosocial position. To successfully exit, a woman must work to lose her master status as a prostitute, and all of its accompanying shame, to embrace new and positive personal and social identities. Again, from a comparative organizational analysis, Oselin finds the two total institutions to have offered women better opportunities to negotiate their new identities through methods of formal social control. The PSOs functioning as total institutions offered highly structured programming, such as life skills and occupational opportunities, which encouraged individuals to assume personal responsibility. The total institutions also engaged in normative control by promoting role modeling, mentoring, bonding, and used corrective measures to foster and encourage women to embrace new identities. The other two types of PSOs rarely exemplified these controls and again, their far shorter program durations were deemed inadequate for full role transformations to occur.

The final chapter concerns the achievement of long-term desistance from street-level sex work. Of the women who had graduated from their respective PSO programs (it is unclear from the text how many in this study had), Oselin briefly mentions some of the likely factors that contributed to their desistance. These included continued contact with their PSOs or staff, joining therapeutic support groups in their communities, building human and social capital through education and employment, and constructing and maintaining prosocial goals. Oselin then discusses potential public policy changes which could improve the lives of street-level prostitutes and foster the exiting process. She discusses decriminalization, but quickly dismisses the possibility due to the continued vehement public disapproval of prostitution in American society. PSOs can offer not only opportunities to exit roles and adopt prosocial roles in lieu thereof, but can also assist street workers in other ways such as distributing condoms, encouraging the buddy system to reduce violent encounters, offering health screens, and providing access to social workers. She also suggests that police officers fundamentally alter their relationships with sex workers by giving information about community services, even offering transportation to PSO offices, in lieu of arrest. This change would have the added benefit of encouraging sex workers not to automatically fear law enforcement such that they may approach and seek assistance when frightened or otherwise in need of assistance. Finally, Oselin recommends that the federal, state, and local governments assign substantial funding to PSOs across the country. Overall, she finds that PSOs, if sufficiently resourced and able to provide appropriate programming, can offer substantial benefits by reducing problems associated with prostitution and in assisting street-level sex workers with successfully exiting and desisting from the work that imposes multiple and serious consequences on their lives.

Leaving Prostitution is a wonderfully rich sociological study of a group that society marginalizes and stigmatizes. Despite America’s capitalistic society, earning money through sex continues to draw cultural contempt. Street prostitutes are particularly scorned as they often represent racial/ethnic minorities and lower socioeconomic classes, and they generally need to be publicly visible to market themselves. Oselin’s work goes beyond investigating the entry into and maintenance of sex work. She offers sex work scholarship an interesting perspective on the role exiting process for female prostitutes using an ethnographic approach. The writing is not too heavily reliant upon academic style and research references, with the flow of the piece making it accessible to multiple audiences.

The research, however, is limited to insights for sex workers utilizing the services of prostitute-serving organizations, and Oselin, correctly, does not try to generalize her findings outside the context of workers relying upon the assistance of an external structure and programming. The author is not an entirely objective and passive observer of her subjects as she was not only embedded within the PSO institutions, she actively engaged in non-research activities with clients and staff and exercised her ability to have impromptu discussions with them. Thus, it is impossible to tell how much bias in terms of observer effects may have been introduced by the researcher establishing potentially more personal and informal relationships. In addition, reliability and validity may be challenged due to interviewer bias from the semi-structured interviews. Still, these are common concerns in ethnographic research. Likely, with these particularly stigmatized individuals, other forms of study would not have been able to tease out such personal admissions that the author was able to obtain. Her suggestions for change, such as decriminalizing prostitution, offering more community services, and funding more PSOs are rather cursory, in that they are recommendations without much development. Again, this does not seem to be a fatal flaw considering the purposes of ethnographic research are to explore cultural phenomena. The author does not assert that the work intends to make any significant policy contribution. Overall, this is an informative piece of research extending sex work scholarship in an interesting direction.

Melissa Hamilton, Visiting Criminal Law Scholar, University of Houston Law Center

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