Abstract: The Influence of Police Interactions on Exiting from Street-Based Prostitution (Society for Social Work and Research 25th Annual Conference - Social Work Science for Social Change)

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The Influence of Police Interactions on Exiting from Street-Based Prostitution

Thursday, January 21, 2021
* noted as presenting author
Daria Mueller, MSW, PhD Student, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Milwaukee, WI
Background: Women wishing to exit street-based prostitution face multiple barriers, including lack of economic opportunity, substance abuse, lack of support, impact of a criminal record, and societal stigma. Police intervention in street-based prostitution typically fails to promote desistance, and may have detrimental effects. This study addresses a gap in the research regarding the relationship between police encounters and the process of exiting prostitution.

Methods: This mixed methods study used grounded theory methodology to explore how women’s interactions with the police influence their motivations and ability to exit street-based prostitution. Purposive and snowball sampling were used to recruit women from a large Midwestern city who had ever traded sex on the streets. Surveys (N=72) and semi-structured interviews (N=16) were conducted concurrently. Participants were all female-identified adults, ranging in age from 18 to 56 (mean age 35); 63.4% identified as Black, 19.7% White, 8.5% Native American, 8.5% Other/mixed race; and 17% Latina. Participants reported a range of current engagement in sex trade, from daily activity to fully exited; some were trafficked. Nearly all reported a desire to quit, if they had not already. Respondents had varying levels of contact with police; almost half had been arrested for a prostitution-related offense.

Results: Study findings present experiences with the police that include being paid for sex by police officers (45.7%), falsely arrested, verbally harassed, and used as informants (40% each). Notably, participants indicated that they did not report a victimization experience due to fear of arrest (67.6%) or fear of being dismissed or disrespected by the police (63.4%). Of those who reported a victimization to the police, over 60% were not satisfied with the police response. Due to these experiences, a pervasive distrust of police was identified. Emerging themes include the police 1) treating women in a degrading and unprofessional manner, 2) failing to ask questions or show compassion (despite women’s circumstances, e.g. trafficking), 3) assuming culpability or shifting blame, 4) coercing or exploiting, and 5) re-traumatizing in response to victimization.

Conversely, 50.7% women reported helpful interactions with the police, such as when police offered encouragement, warned instead of arrested, or helpfully responded to a crisis. Helpful encounters with police offered hope that respondents could turn to police in a crisis. For example, women recounted how human trafficking division officers showed compassion, asked questions, and encouraged them to seek help or stay away from certain areas.

Conclusion and Implications: Negative police interactions may exacerbate poor health outcomes of women engaged in prostitution. For those who wish to escape a trafficker or remove themselves from harm associated with street prostitution, police may not be perceived as a reliable source of intervention. Examples of helpful experiences with police provide practical steps for a way forward. The evidence illuminates policy and practice implications for social work, such as acknowledging the role of police interactions with women engaged in street prostitution, the need for police training, and the importance of recognizing and mitigating harms associated with the police and criminal justice responses to prostitution.