Sex Workers’ Plans to Exit and Anticipated Fears: Roles of Trauma Histories, Relationships, and External Threats

Mary Finn1
1Michigan State University, East Lansing, United States

Models on exiting prostitution focus on the success of quitting. Desistance theories have defined desistance as a process involving cognitive and emotional processes and relationship and structural changes that embed and flow across the life course. Research has not examined how traumatic histories might be linked to cognitive and emotional processes about plans to desist or to continue in prostitution.  We conducted interviews with 25 sex workers in the U.S. asking about their prior experiences, future plans to exit, and fears if they continued to perform sex work. The women ranged in age from 18-55 (Mean 29.5, s.d. = 9.92) and worked in sex industry for an average of 8.5 years (s.d.=7.4).  Sixty percentage reported entering into sex work before age 18.  At least 80% were black and were mothers. The sample was classified: true desistance – those out of sex work for at least 2 years (28%), substantial step towards desistance- those who reduced time in/earnings from/ sex work (48%), and persistence – those active in sex work (24%).  Childhood trauma experiences included: 40% reported experiences with violent victimizations; 24% reported witnessing violence/abuse; 20% reported disruptions in home life. When asked about future fears, loss of relationships with children was the most prominent (36%). Twenty percent reported fears of death or being raped or murdered, and another 20% reported fears of financial hardships, such as loss of income, home, or job.  We also asked about their plans for the future, which thematically centered around legitimate work (80%), education (52%), family (60%), and helping others (32%).  Themes around fears of future and future plans were relatively consistent across types of trauma. However, we did find that those with early traumatic experiences were more likely to identify future plans that involved helping others.

Mary A. Finn is Professor of Criminal Justice and Director of the School of Criminal Justice at Michigan State University in the United States.  Her research interests include intimate partner violence, human trafficking, corrections, and criminal justice policy. She has collaborated extensively with local justice agencies, advocacy organizations, and divisions of the state government in efforts to bridge the world of academia and the world of policy and practice.  Her recent research focuses on how technology is used to facilitate the sale of sex.  Based on interviews with pimps in the cities of Atlanta and Chicago, she and a colleague have examined marketing strategies of pimps and the degree of coerciveness directed at sex workers.  This work was published in the academic journals, Violence and Victims and the Journal of Interpersonal Violence.


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