Thursday, January 21, 2021: 5:00 PM-6:00 PM
Daria Mueller, MSW, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
Shelly Wiechelt, PhD, University of Maryland Baltimore County
Women engaged in street-based prostitution* tend to be viewed dichotomously as either victims or offenders, or as targets of behavioral change. Research has focused on the risks associated with entry into and involvement in street prostitution, as well as the factors and processes related to exiting or desistance. Very few studies examine the relationships of women engaged in street-based prostitution, and how they affect their engagement in or exit from prostitution. The four studies presented in this symposium explore how women who sell sex perceive their relationships with service providers, police officers, family members, intimate partners, friends, and other people engaged or formerly engaged in prostitution. Understanding the role others play in the lives of women engaged in prostitution illuminates how relationships can play dual roles of increasing risk and support, as well as how relationships are leveraged to end, decrease, or maintain engagement in prostitution. These studies center on women's experiences and individual agency within a broader context that examines social processes, structures, and environments. In alignment with the theme of "Social Work Science for Social Change", this symposium offers research that advances our understanding of a population that is highly stigmatized and marginalized. The symposium invites us to challenge biases and one-dimensional perspectives about women who sell sex on the streets. In spite of complex trauma and economic deprivation, women engaged in street prostitution act in resilient and resourceful ways, particularly in their strategic use of relationships. In accordance with social work ethics and practice, these studies highlight the deficiencies in policy and programming that fail to account for social processes and structures and their influence on women's complex lives and relationships. The symposium's discussant, with 30 years of research and practice related to trauma, substance use, and street-based prostitution, will introduce panelists and facilitate discussion. All four studies used qualitative methods to examine different kinds of relationships that women maintain and how they impact their engagement in prostitution. The first panelist will examine the importance of relationships for women's identity and as a source of support, as well as the evolving nature of relationships as they interact with women's changing opportunities and constraints. The second panelist will examine how perceptions of risk to one's relationships, and expectations and stigma from significant others encourage or discourage exiting prostitution. The third panelist will discuss the influence of peer-support on the exiting process of women engaged in street prostitution, specifically examining how it affects their lived-experiences, self-worth, and ability to share and learn from their experiences. The fourth panelist will present mixed methods research that explores the influence of interactions with police on women's motivation and ability to exit from street-based prostitution, with attention to the impact of both negative and positive relations with the police and study participants' recommendations for change. The symposium will conclude with a discussion of how to expand the impact of research with women engaged in street-based prostitution and implications for social change. *"Selling/trading sex," "sex work," "sex trade," and "prostitution" are used interchangeably.
* noted as presenting author
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