Academic journal article Social Work

Understanding the Social Needs of Streetwalking Prostitutes

Academic journal article Social Work

Understanding the Social Needs of Streetwalking Prostitutes

Article excerpt

Social workers often come in contact with women who use prostitution as a means of survival. These clients may earn all of their income from or supplement low earnings or welfare benefits with prostitution, or they may trade sex for drugs, shelter, or the safety of pimps. Because prostitution is illegal in 49 states and only brothel prostitution is legal in certain localities in Nevada, most streetwalking prostitutes make efforts to hide their activities. Those engaging in prostitution fear losing benefits and being arrested. Prostitutes have reported that their greatest fear is that of being investigated by social service agencies and having their children taken away" (Shedlin, 1990, p. 138).

To provide appropriate services, social workers need to understand the life circumstances of this vulnerable and disenfranchised population. The social dynamics of prostitution involve discrimination based on sex, race, and social class, placing streetwalking prostitutes at risk for being unable to meet their basic human needs. Given the life circumstances of many of these women, prostitution helps provide needed resources for themselves and their families. Social workers need to appreciate and understand both the strengths and vulnerabilities of such families and offer services that support their strengths without placing them at further risk.

Although there have been some limited studies of streetwalkers, knowledge of the life circumstances of this vulnerable population is sketchy and based on stereotypes or media sensationalization. This article describes some of the social and medical needs of 1,963 streetwalking prostitutes in New York City.

Literature Review

Day (1988) suggested three general issues involved in understanding the social dynamics of prostitution: (1) The practices associated with prostitution vary in time and place, (2) in some geographic areas there are no clear boundaries between prostitution and other forms of sexual union such as marriage, and (3) the practices associated with prostitution are determined by societal factors such as the nature of labor and how children are legitimized and incorporated in a wider kin group. Throughout history, societies have ritualized and legitimized activities that might be considered prostitution in 20th-century Western civilization. Day also noted that "professional prostitutes tend to create a marked distance between their working and private lives" (p. 42 1).

Because of social stigma and financial factors, it is extremely difficult for prostitutes to leave the business and find and hold legitimate jobs. The criminalization of prostitution forces prostitutes underground and into association with criminal activity, particularly the use and exchange of illegal drugs for sex. The relationship between illicit drugs, particularly cocaine, and prostitution has been documented (Rolfs, Goldberg, & Sharrar, 1990). Women who use cocaine are more likely to engage in prostitution than women who do not use cocaine. Cocaine use is a risk factor in the transmission of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) (Rolfs et al., 1990) and HIV (Chiasson et al., 1991; Weiner, Wallace, Steinberg, & Hoffman, 1992).

Shedlin (1990) conducted 30 hours of semistructured, in-depth, informal conversational interviews with 15 street prostitutes and call girls in Bridgeport, Connecticut. All participants were currently or had been IV drug abusers and had been recruited through a methadone maintenance program. Shedlin observed that street girls occupy the bottom rung in the hierarchy of prostitutes; however, individuals on the street differed greatly in age, education, ethnicity, drug involvement, and price for services. She found that streetwalking prostitutes continued to engage in unprotected sex and share IV drug equipment and suggested this was due to drug use, poverty, low educational levels, hopelessness, and a lack of support services. …

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