The Society for Social Work and Research

2014 Annual Conference

January 15-19, 2014 I Grand Hyatt San Antonio I San Antonio, TX

Online and Street-Based Sex Work Exposed: Differences in Perceived of Risk and Stigma

Friday, January 17, 2014
HBG Convention Center, Bridge Hall Street Level (San Antonio, TX)
* noted as presenting author
Andrea N. Cimino, MSW, Assistant Professor, University of Texas at Arlington, Arlington, TX
Background and Purpose: Sex work, the illegal trading of sex for money or goods, may occur on the street, in hotels or in private homes (Sanders, O’Neill & Pitcher, 2009). 81,000 persons are arrested for prostitution annually (Puzzanchera et al., 2009). While any sex-for-money exchange is considered sex work, within “sex work” lays a continuum of typifications characterized by increasing levels of violence and stigma, beginning with “the girlfriend experience” (i.e., high-class call girls) and ending with street-based sex work. In the US, high-class sex work is framed as means for economic independence or personal empowerment (Rabinovitch & Strega, 2004), whereas street-based sex work is notoriously deviant and dangerous (Sanders, O’Neill, & Pitcher, 2009). Since the proliferation of technology use, prostitution has moved off the streets and onto the Internet (CBS News, 2010). Barring attention garnered from “the Craig’s List Killer” little is known about violence and stigma among sex workers advertising online. The purpose of this study was to 1) examine the incidence of violence and stigma among prostituted men and women who advertise online versus those who solicit on the street, and to 2) explore whether violence and stigma acted as a motivator to leave prostitution.  

Methods: Using a narrative design, 16 interviews were conducted with men (n = 3) and women (n = 13) engaged in street solicitation, online advertisements, or a combination of both (n = 8, 4, 4 respectively). Participants were recruited from key informants, flyers in high prostitution areas, and’s “adult jobs” section. A semi-structured interview guide helped participants tell their stories in light of the risks and benefits of sex work. An analysis of the narratives approach (Polkinghorne, 1995) was utilized using Nvivo 10. Trustworthiness strategies included peer debriefing, thick descriptions and reflexivity.

Results: Analyses yielded a descriptive account of entering sex work for the financial benefit, though street workers described greater pressure to prostitute for drugs. When describing the risks, prominent differences emerged: online advertisers’ felt “being found out” was the biggest risk and motivator to exit prostitution; described detailed strategies to protect themselves from being “caught”; dismissively listed violence, murder and rape as potential risks; minimized dangerous situations; and rejected the identity of “prostitute”. Street-based workers were less concerned with stigma until after they left sex work, and experienced multiple significant physical threats to health (i.e., being tired) and safety (e.g. rapes, beatings, murdered friends) that were motivators to leave once they felt “luck was running out”.

Conclusions and Implications: It is a difficult task for social workers to respect one’s right to choose sex work, while fully informing participants of the risks. This study showed that “risks” are markedly different between street and online prostitutes. Understanding and highlighting how a client perceives stigma and the threat of violence are key to reaching out to this population. Online prostitutes were motivated to leave prostitution if they experienced stigma or shame, whereas street workers might better respond to interventions that discuss physical risks and dangers.