Academic journal article Wagadu: a Journal of Transnational Women's and Gender Studies

Nine: "Some of Them, They Do Right; Some of Them, They Do Wrong": Moral Ambiguity and the Criteria for Help among Street Sex Workers1

Academic journal article Wagadu: a Journal of Transnational Women's and Gender Studies

Nine: "Some of Them, They Do Right; Some of Them, They Do Wrong": Moral Ambiguity and the Criteria for Help among Street Sex Workers1

Article excerpt

Abstract: Debates surrounding criminalization and legalization are often polarized and occur without including the experiences and expertise of street sex workers. This article places street workers at the center of this conversation and offers perspectives on how these women can "get help" in the context of a system that criminalizes sex work. Drawing upon an ethnographic study conducted in a large city in the southwestern United States, I rhetorically analyze how street workers talk about these issues, thereby illuminating the contradictions and complicated existence of sex work while providing insights into how these systems might be rehabilitated.

I need some help.

-Karen, Street Worker

I think [the community] should try to help them more than arrest them and take them to jail because that's not really teaching them anything... And when it comes to exchanging, if you find somebody exchanging [sex], help; it takes people to help. Show them the way.

-Ava, Street Worker

I wish I could help them, like me, you know, and help them get sober.

-Olivia, Street Worker

Introduction: Criminalization, Morality, and Street Work in Jemez

Unlike other crimes that are viewed more clearly as having perpetrators and victims, prostitution/sex work is complicated because those who exchange sex, especially on the street, are often viewed not as perpetrators of a crime, but as victims themselves in need of services ranging from housing and employment that provides a living wage to counseling and rehabilitation from systemic and personal violence and abuse. Following from this perception, sex workers' bodies and identities have been presented as both sites of oppression and objectification (Jeffreys 2007; Raymond 2003) as well as the basis for social justice and human rights (Kempadoo and Doezema 1998; Weitzer 2010). When viewed through the eyes of street workers, each of these perspectives can be validated. As Teela Sanders argues: "Few other jobs attract stigma and marginalization to the same extent as sex work. Also, the fact that selling sex, particularly on the street, is criminalized and continually policed by law-enforcement agencies and community protesters increases the stress and stigma experienced when trying to earn money" (2005, 40).

Drawing on his research in the UK, Roger Matthews explores the relationship between prostitution, the vulnerability of those involved, and their risk of victimization. He argues that in the past ten to fifteen years, "there are a number of signs that attitudes to those women who work on the streets are changing and they are increasingly being seen as victims rather than offenders, being more in need of welfare and support than punishment" (2008, p. 54). One factor that contributes to this process is the growth of "prostitute support agencies" that are taking a central role at the local level in finding solutions to problems associated with prostitution (2008, p. 54). This article places street sex workers' voices at the center of these conversations within the context of a system that criminalizes sex work3. Drawing on the discussions surrounding the language and lived reality of victims/offenders/agents, I explore a concept that was at the core of almost every interview I had with the participants in my ethnographic study-getting help. My examination focuses on how the women who participate in street sex work view the morality of their actions, the relationship between this morality and "getting help", and how help can be enacted in direct community action.

The following analysis demonstrates how quotidian rhetoric, or the language of the everyday, can be analyzed in order to better understand how goals, agendas, interests, and ideologies are represented and implemented through language.4 A number of these goals and agendas have historically resulted in policies that render the selling and buying of sex illegal, thereby situate those who sell and purchase sex as criminals. …

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