Abstract: Social Workers and Advocacy on Behalf of Sex Workers (Society for Social Work and Research 26th Annual Conference - Social Work Science for Racial, Social, and Political Justice)

Social Workers and Advocacy on Behalf of Sex Workers

Sunday, January 16, 2022
Independence BR H, ML 4 (Marriott Marquis Washington, DC)
* noted as presenting author
Theresa Anasti, PhD, Assistant Professor, Oakland University, Rochester, MI
Background/Purpose: Sex workers experience multiple oppressions in the form of stigmatization and criminalization. As social workers are on the frontlines of service provision to this population, this paper contributes to research on how US-based social workers support social justice on behalf of sex workers. This project seeks to answer the following research question: How do US-based social workers collaborate with sex workers to advocate for this population’s human rights? Specifically, how do social workers support (or not support) the decriminalization of sex work, as advocated for by sex worker rights activists? As national and international organizations such as Amnesty International, Open Society Institute, and the World Health Organization support the decriminalization of sex work, it is important to understand how social workers providing services to this population in the US are open to collaborating with sex workers on this specific social justice concern.

Methods: This project involves 63 qualitative interviews with front-line human service providers that provide services to sex workers, and 10 interviews with sex worker rights activists in the Midwestern part of the US. In addition to interviews, I also engaged in 600 hours of participant observation at events located in the Midwest that discussed issues of sex work in order to provide context to the interview data. At these events, I conducted informal interviews with sex workers and service providers about the role of social work in advocating for the rights of sex workers. Data analysis included constructive grounded theory, using methods of “constant comparison." Data points were compared through an iterative process of coding and pattern recognition, leading to theory construction.

Findings: Data shows that while many social workers support sex work decriminalization, the ability to be public about their support comes with challenges. The stigmatization of sex work appears to dissuade many social workers from openly working with sex worker rights activists. First, because most policy makers do not support the decriminalization of sex work, social workers express hesitancy about being public about their support of this stance. Second, because some of their collaborating organizations are in opposition to the decriminalization of sex work, social workers may support decriminalization privately as an individual, but are hesitant to engage publicly in fear of repercussions from their employer. For sex workers and sex worker rights activists, the hesitancy of social workers’ support for sex worker rights appears to lead to a mistrust of the social work profession by sex workers.

Conclusion/Implications: This qualitative data aids in the understanding of how social workers engage in advocacy on behalf of the population they serve, focusing on sex workers. This work also helps to clarify the varying levels of trust that sex workers have with the social work profession, and find that this may hinge upon social workers' open support of social justice issues affecting sex workers. The findings of this research will have implications for understanding how social workers engage in policy advocacy, and how they situate opposing viewpoints of other organizational and individual actors working in similar fields.