Abstract: Client Partnership in Human Services: Looking at the Role of Sex Workers within Nonprofit Service Providers (Society for Social Work and Research 24th Annual Conference - Reducing Racial and Economic Inequality)

Client Partnership in Human Services: Looking at the Role of Sex Workers within Nonprofit Service Providers

Friday, January 17, 2020
Marquis BR Salong 13, ML 2 (Marriott Marquis Washington DC)
* noted as presenting author
Theresa Anasti, PhD, Assistant Professor, Oakland University, Rochester, MI
Background/Purpose: The field of social work has a long and fraught history in service provision to sex working clients. Charity Organization Societies and settlement house members proclaimed prostitution to be an “ancient evil,” describing the horrors that would befall women should they enter prostitution. Although the role of social work with the sex working population has shifted considerably since the beginning of the profession, the focus on getting sex working-clients to cease involvement in the sex trade remains present.

Sex worker activist groups have denounced the social work field for failing to include the voices of sex workers within nonprofit service organizations, and focusing exclusively on exit from the sex trade, rather than reducing the harm of sex work.  As sex workers have increased their visibility as political actors demanding their rights, they are pressuring nonprofit service organizations to include sex workers as organizational user-partners. This leads to the following research questions: 1) How are sex working-clients included as user-partners in nonprofit service organizations?  2) What are service providers’ perceptions about using the lived experiences of sex working-clients to provide insight into human services for this population? 

Methods: The author conducted 67 semi-structured interviews with human service managers (38) and frontline-service workers (29) that provided services to individuals involved in the sex trade in some capacity, regardless of whether this was the primary population served. Respondents worked in two Midwestern cities, and were selected using purposive and snowball sampling. Interviews were recorded, professionally transcribed, and coded using NVIVO qualitative software to facilitate analysis. Thematic analysis was the analytic approach used to understand how and why providers developed (or did not develop) partnerships with their current or former sex working clients, as the author used inductive and deductive coding methods to address predetermined topics of interest and new insights.  

Findings: Findings show that although respondents are open to the idea of having current or former sex workers on staff as partners, most (85%) do not.  Data shows that although there isn’t a specific reason for sex workers being excluded as user-partners that providers share, providers are more likely to accept individuals who have since left the sex trade as user-partners. Interviews with respondents reveal that they believe individuals who have left the sex trade can assist other clients in the struggles that they have in leaving sex work and transitioning to other forms of work. Consequently, it appears that the partnership is preferred only when the client has since left the sex trade, and can assist other clients in exiting.

Conclusion/Implications: This project will provide valuable information about how service providers partner with service users, specifically those with involvement in the sex trade. While organizations are opening to partnering with their clients with lived experience in the sex trade, this option often extends to clients with “former” experience, eschewing partnering with sex workers still in the trade.  This has implications for how current sex workers are perceived by social workers as experts in their own experiences.