Friday, 14 January 2005 - 10:00 AM

This presentation is part of: Substance Abuse, Mental Health and Prostitution

Being in the World of Prostitution: A Study of Women’s Experiences and Their Relation to Service Providers

Jolanda M. Sallmann, MSW, University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.

The social work profession has little information about either the lived experiences of women involved in prostitution or their perspectives of what is helpful in service settings. Previous studies document a high prevalence of substance use and sexual abuse in the lives of prostitution-involved women, but the mechanism for how these elements work together and how service providers can help women seeking change is largely unknown. The purpose of this study is to generate knowledge about the experience of prostitution from the perspective of women involved in order to sensitize social workers to women’s lives and inform social work practice, education, and policy to better meet this population’s needs. Interpretive phenomenological data analysis was used to analyze transcribed in-depth interviews conducted with a sample of fourteen adult women recruited from a Midwestern program that provides prostitution-specific services. Interviews focused on what it means to be a woman who has engaged in prostitution and what has been helpful in situations where receiving help or services. Common themes, or meanings, are revealed via interpretations of the narratives women share. Participants’ narratives highlight the multiple routes through which they became involved in prostitution and the various service systems with which they interact, including criminal justice, mental health, substance use, trauma, housing, and child welfare. The service needs of participants were multiple and complex. Analysis reveals that participants’ stories focused on two aspects of their lives: women’s involvement in prostitution (“The Life”) and their current attempts at changing the lifestyle that accompanied such involvement. Two major themes reflected each of these aspects respectively: (1A) “Living a life of using substances and exchanging sex” highlights the gendered coexistence of substance use and prostitution involvement in this population of women, (1B) “Living with stigma” illuminates participants’ day-to-day experiences with labeling, victimization, and institutional discrimination because of their involvement in “The Life,” (2A) “Wanting to change” reflects participants’ assertion that lifestyle changes could only occur if a woman desired the change, and (2B) “Being cared for” describes the on-going interpersonal relationships with service providers and peer support groups that participants identified as being helpful to their change process. This study suggests the importance of providing gender-specific services that address the coexistence of substance use and prostitution in women’s lives. Findings highlight the importance of utilizing principles of recovery and empowerment when working with prostitution-involved women and the significance of the therapeutic alliance between such women and their service providers. Supportive helping relationships provided stability and hope to participants and were characterized by trust, caring, and a nonjudgmental attitude, even during cycles of relapse. Such relationships were also helpful in countering the negative social messages participants received as an effect of living with stigma. Findings support the adoption of policy requiring specific educational content on stigmatized women in the curricula of schools of social work. Although more research is needed to examine the relationship between the criminalization of prostitution and institutionalized discrimination against women involved, the current study suggests the need for serious consideration into alternative legal policies.

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