Street-Based Sex Work in a Digital Age

Dr Katie Hail-Jares1, Prof Sharon Oselin2

1Griffith University, Mt Gravatt, Australia
2University of California Riverside, Riverside, USA

Sex work researchers have a long and unfortunate tradition of defining sex workers by their recruitment site. Street-based sex workers (SBSW), or workers who sell sex in open-air marketplaces, have long been compared to indoor workers, with research illustrating considerable health and socioeconomic disparities. The expansion of sex work into digital spaces was held up by some harm reductionists as one possible solution to address these disparities. And attacks to these digital platforms are labelled as driving sex workers back to the streets. Such discourse rests on believing that SBSW are i) not currently using online solicitation platforms; and ii) if given the option, would prefer indoor work. We decided to explore these two assumptions. In interviews with 59 SBSW in Washington, DC (80% trans women; 90% Black or African-American), three-quarters reported using digital solicitation platforms and estimated that sixty-percent of their clients came from online. Such market movement was not unilateral; sex workers discussed moving from indoor, online work to street-based work regularly. Fourteen workers indicated (24%) indicated that they had worked online in the past but no longer did so. When asked to explain, these workers mentioned experiences of violence, less ability to screen clients, housing instability, inability to protect their privacy, and costs as major barriers to continuing to offer online services. Workers were relatively evenly split in their opinion on which marketplace was safer.  Our findings—that SBSW are operating online, recruiting the majority of their clients there, and weighing multiple considerations in their decision to return to outdoor work—all suggest that previous comparisons based on work environment may suffer from omitted variable bias. We encourage investigators to consider other language and screening tools for engaging workers in future research to better capture these omitted variables.


Katie Hail-Jares is a Lecturer at Griffith University’s School of Criminology and Criminal Justice. Her research interests include sex work and exchange, incarcerated communities, and wrongful convictions.


Dec 08 2021