By Kathy Quirk
Why do women engage in street-level sex trading and how can they successfully transition out of it? How does policing impact them, both while involved in sex trading and exiting?
Those were the challenging questions Daria Mueller, who earned her doctorate in social welfare in May 2023, researched in her dissertation. She is now a research associate at JBS International, where she has been evaluating the response to the opioid crisis in rural areas.
The topic grew out of her interest in social justice issues, Mueller said. She had previously worked with this population and advocated for policy changes to reduce harm and promote positive change for women trading sex.
One of the reasons she decided to pursue a career in research and evaluation, she said, was because of the lack of information on the effectiveness of different kinds of interventions, approaches and resources to help women who wanted to exit from sex trading.
While there are multiple ways people engage in selling sex, Mueller’s research focused on street-level sex trading. Some reports and summaries use labels such as prostitute for those selling sex, but she decided to use terms such as people selling sex in areas known for sex trading. She made this choice she said because of negative connotations of other labels and out of respect for the women who took part in her study.
“With street-level sex trading, the price of sex tends to be lower, and individuals engaged in selling sex are more likely to be homeless, actively misusing substances and trading sex to meet basic survival needs such as shelter and food,” she wrote in her dissertation, which is now available online.
Her research and that of others shows that policing of street level sex trading also disproportionately impacts Black, Indigenous, and women of color (BIWOC) and transgender women especially through enforcement of loitering laws.
Mueller’s research incorporated mixed methods – quantitative information from those surveyed and qualitative information from in-depth interviews with women who were or had been involved in street-level sex trading. The study gives voice to many of these women.
Many of the women became involved in sex trade as a result of childhood mistreatment, family dysfunction or intimate partner violence. Economic factors often led women to trade sex to meet survival needs for themselves or their children. Drug addiction, frequently growing out of the multiple traumas in their lives, was also a factor for many.
“Many participants spoke of the ways that trauma led to symptoms of extreme anger, guilt, hypervigilance, numbing, dissociation, anxiety, depression, and self-destructive behaviors,” Mueller wrote.
One woman told her: “We’re all addicted because we’re running from something, we’re trying to hide our feelings.”
Economic factors played a role, both in becoming involved in street level sex trading and in getting out of it, Mueller found. Many of the women didn’t have secure housing, and often found finding a job paying a living wage challenging, especially if they had an arrest record.
One woman interviewed said: “I’m at the point where I just do it if I need funds, I need Pampers, I need milk, I need food.”
Previous studies and Mueller’s work show there are many reasons women decide to end sex trading — finding spirituality, a desire to reconnect with family and assume a parental role with children, or to follow the example of a role model who has been able to cease drug and prostitution activity. “People may also feel tired, burnt out or disenchanted with the subculture associated with street sex trading,” Mueller wrote.
Barriers to leaving are a complex web of interconnected factors, Mueller found. “These factors overlap across each other and across levels to affect motivation and ability to exit.”
The role of police
One factor Mueller studied was the role of police. The women she interviewed told her many police officers stigmatized them and told them they were lazy and unwilling to find other work. Often even women who had quit were arrested if they were in an area frequented by people selling sex. If they were victimized by a trafficker or intimate partner, police were most often unresponsive.
“These negative interactions with police were frequent and pervasive among study participants,” Mueller said. “They felt humiliated, violated, and powerless to hold offending police officers accountable or to assert their rights.”
On the other hand, when participants had contact with designated, trained officers within trafficking units, they sometimes received needed help in receiving protection or escaping from a trafficker. One woman agreed to help prosecute a trafficker because of her longstanding relationship with police who knew her history. “I trust this detective because I’ve talked to this detective, I’ve known this detective for years. He’s been there for me, so I talked to him.”
The recommendations that grew out of Mueller’s research reflect the input of the women who took part in the study.
The women mentioned the need for help with financial aid and housing security for themselves and their children as well as mental health resources and ways to mitigate criminal justice barriers – expunging arrest records, for example.
Nearly all women specifically recommended that police change the way they approach and treat women selling sex. The women’s responses reflect a desire for police to treat them with respect, to withhold judgment, and act in a professional and ethical manner.
While most did not specifically talk about decriminalization of sex trading, many participants recommended a less punitive response.
Some suggested the focus of law enforcement on women who sell sex should be redirected toward traffickers and customers.
“They wanted safe, judgment-free services to escape from harm, address trauma, and process their sex trade history, particularly with providers with similar lived experience.” (In fact, some of the women in the study had moved on to help others.)