Method: This paper draws on interviews with 29 cisgender women from a longitudinal study (2012-2014) of two court-affiliated prostitution diversion programs, Philadelphia’s Product Dawn Court (PDC; N=18) and Baltimore’s Specialized Diversion Program (SPD; N=11), and observations in these programs. Respondents were interviewed between one and seven times, depending on their term in the program and availability for subsequent interviews. Interviews were open coded by two independent coders, who developed a consensus coding scheme through dialogue and revision. Using NVIVO11 data analysis software, coders applied the consensus coding scheme to all interviews, with checks for consistency across coders. Data for this paper were drawn from codes relating to relationships, which were coded again as an independent set by the same coders.
Findings: Study findings show that respondents were embedded in a rich web of intersecting relationships that evolved over time. Study participants ascribed great importance to their different relationships due to: 1) their influence on women’s sense of identity (as mother, child, partner, friend); and 2) as a source of material and emotional support. Respondents often made relationship-related decisions based on perceived lack of social, financial, and material options and constraints, suggesting interplay between relationships and mezzo or macro factors. Findings further show that relationships are multi-faceted and evolve over time, often in response to changes in respondents’ employment, housing, and health needs. This is often in contrast to the views of program staff, who make automatic or static characterizations of particular relationships as “good” or “bad”. Sources of tension between respondents and program staff came from this gap in knowledge about all of the factors impacting respondents’ relationship choices, as well as their different goals and visions for the future.
Conclusion and Implications: Study implications point to the importance of viewing women in sex work within their social context rather than as isolated agents. Because relationships are important “push” and “pull” factors for women’s engagement in sex work, policies and programming must recognize and account for them as a central factor in women’s decision-making. Diversion program administrators and staff should avoid overly simplistic valorization or demonization of relationships based on unexplored assumptions. Future directions for research include better understanding the different and changing roles and ways that relationships function for women in prostitution, and how these are influenced by environmental factors.