These are the stories of women's lives, private "historias" if you will. Embedded in these stories lie the accounts of several women who define themselves as successful, having achieved their success by embracing the sex worker identity. For two of the women, this embracement has led to a heightened commitment to remain in the profession. Three have fully embraced the identity while navigating life paths leading them out of prostitution.
Three years ago I set out to conduct a study of prostitution. At that same time I embarked upon a personal journey heretofore unparalleled in my life. Contrary to others before me, I did not intend to explain sex work as a deviant activity. I was not interested in resolving the contemporary debate raging between those who claim prostitution is a freely chosen employment option for many women and those who view it as yet another example of women's victimization within the larger society (see Jenness 1993 and 1990). I wanted to ask why prostitution, the recipient of so many negative social evaluations, remains an attractive and viable form of employment for many women. I wanted to understand how the processes of becoming and being a sex worker contribute to the maintenance of prostitution as an enduring social institution. At the same time, I also wanted to examine the flip-side of the coin. I wanted to understand how and why some women leave the life while so many remain forever entrenched in the world and work of prostitution.
I took my questions of interest into the world of prostitution and listened to the life stories of the sex workers themselves. These life stories became my data. They served as the threads from which I was able to weave a more complete understanding of the prostitute and her occupation. I became the bricoleur, the researcher who is comfortable with and adept at using multiple and innovative strategies in order to produce the bricolage, the "... complex, dense, reflexive, collagelike creation..." (Denzin 1994, p. 3) that represents my images and understandings of the prostitute, her life, and her lived experiences.
All but two of the women I interviewed professed to be leaving the life and attempting to make it in the conventional world. I must admit I doubted many of the claims. I did not question each prostitute's individual belief that she intended to leave the life. Like many of the sex workers themselves, I questioned how successful they would actually be in their attempts. Lynn echoed the sentiments of many local prostitutes the day I asked her about her plans to leave the occupation.
Without a doubt, Lynn was quite capable of assessing her life without naiveté as she talked about her time in the life and her future aspirations. Sabrina was just as candid and forthright when asked about her own attempts to leave the occupation.
Sabrina considers herself successful because she has managed to remain out of hooking and maintain a sense of self-respect in so doing. Yet, as I came to know the women who participated in my study I learned the notion of success can be defined very differently by different individuals. For two, Debbie and Amber, feelings of success came as a direct result of their occupational endeavors.
I first met Debbie at the Residential Corrections Facility in Davenport, Iowa, where she was incarcerated on forgery charges. Although Debbie had been placed in the facility as a result of her deviant activities, she was more than candid as she talked about her desire to obtain her release and resume her previous lifestyle. Debie made it clear to me that she considered herself to be a sex worker, even though she had not actively practiced her trade since entering the corrections facility four months prior to our meeting. It was also evident that Debbie will always view herself as a prostitute, regardless of her occupational status in the upcoming years.
Debbie has spent more than half her life on the streets, having entered prostitution at the age of fourteen. Yet, in spite of the way society evaluates the street hooker, Debbie sees herself as a high-class sex worker.
Amber similarly views herself as successful in her chosen occupation. Once she assumed the sex worker identity, Amber received much more than the monetary rewards offered by the occupation. Becoming and being a prostitute helped Amber redefine herself and replace her early feelings of inadequacy with the perception that she is a worthwhile, competent person. Perhaps this, more than any other occupational feature or socialization outcome, accounts for her acceptance and internalization of the work-related identity.
Both Debbie and Amber had early life experiences that laid the groundwork for the successful socialization experiences they encountered once they became sex workers. Each took a defining sense of self with her from the socialization experience. Debbie's experience reinforced her belief that she was competent and capable. Amber's taught her she could be competent and capable.
Each woman speaks of being a prostitute. Each woman includes a return to sex work in any discussion of her future plans. Each has found an integral component of her individual self through her occupational endeavors. In so doing, each woman expresses her personal belief that she has achieved success.
For others, success was ultimately to be found by leaving the sex worker's role. Those who have achieved this goal and remained out of the life are the individuals who have done more than merely acknowledge the unconventional identity and its impact on their lives. They are the women who have actively embraced the sex worker's identity, reconciled their past behaviors with their notions of who they wanted to become, and entered the conventional world armed with a new sense of self--a self that was part and parcel of the unified past and present. Bethany is one whose individual notions of success were achieved as she removed herself from the world of prostitution and established a life in conventional society. Bethany now acknowledges her time as a prostitute and uses her own life experiences as she counsels other women attempting to exit the occupation.
As I listened to Bethany I was impressed by her ability to talk so openly about the women she counsels and their views of her. Although candid, Bethany's remarks were never arrogant. She accepted the fact that others found merit in the unconventional identity that had become such an integral part of her self. Bethany left me with the distinct impression that she has moved well beyond the simple acknowledgment of the sex worker's identity in her life. Bethany has embraced the unconventional identity and, in so doing, has confirmed her own notions of who she is. Now empowered, rather than disadvantaged, Bethany willingly dons the sex worker's mask as she counsels other women attempting to leave the life.
The career path Bethany chose allowed her to use her past life as a means of building a new beginning. Hers is a life course many women in my study want to emulate. Liza talks of the day she will use her past experiences to help other women leave the life.
The sex worker label is a stigmatizing designation in American culture. It is a label the woman typically carries throughout her life course, even after she leaves the occupation. My conversations with local sex workers have convinced me that the label, once it becomes known to the general audience, assumes the character of a "master status" (Becker 1963). As such, the label itself becomes the focal point of all interactions, defining and determining how the exchanges unfold.
Those who interact with the sex worker do so from the knowledge they are engaged in discourse with a prostitute. In return, as the interaction unfolds, the prostitute is always aware of the identity she brings to the exchange. The stigmatizing nature of the identity interferes with the interaction, disrupting its normal flow by placing artificial constraints and limitations on the parties involved (Sandstrom 1990). This, in turn, affects the messages each party receives as the interaction unfolds.
Embedded within the messages the prostitute receives are the reflected appraisals that are a part of any social exchange. These appraisals tell the woman a great deal about herself and how the outside audience evaluates her. The women I have spoken with readily admit they are wary of the generalized other and its evaluations of them. Hence, they typically engage in guarded interactions, exchanges characterized by active attempts to protect and preserve the self-concepts they wish to project. In essence, the women I have met expend a great deal of energy involved in identity work (Sandstrom 1990). The character of this identity work varies from woman to woman. It also varies as each woman encounters different social audiences.
In his examination of persons with AIDS (PWAs), Sandstrom (1990) identified four specific types of identity work individuals typically engage in when they carry a stigmatizing designation into their interactions with others, including passing, covering, isolation, and insulation. Eventually, most PWAs arrive at a point where they want to reformulate the personal meanings attached to the illness and its associated label. Once at this point the individual embraces the identity and, in so doing, creates new definitions of the previously stigmatizing label more congruent with his or her general notions of self. The PWA is then able to verbally and expressively confirm his or her acceptance of and attachment to the social role and its associated identity.
As I thought about Sandstrom's (1990) descriptions of the AIDS victims he had interviewed, I realized both they and the women who had participated in my study were adept at employing identity management strategies. I also discovered the prostitutes in my study used a variety of techniques in order to actively manage their identities in front of the outside audience. The choice of strategy was influenced by the woman's own level of identity acceptance and the venues at her disposal for enactment of the sex worker's role.
During my conversations with sex workers, I found the women who were least accepting of their occupational identities were those most likely to express the belief they had not encountered success in their lives. They were the women who did not view themselves fully as prostitutes, yet neither did they feel as if they belonged to or were accepted by members of conventional society. These were also the sex workers who typically employed one of the four identity management techniques identified above when interacting with others outside their familiar turf.
The most common identity management strategies used by the women I interviewed were the techniques of passing and covering (Goffman 1963). The women I met during my time in the field readily admitted they were no strangers to the art and technique of passing, actively attempting to suppress information about themselves and their occupational endeavors when interacting outside the unconventional environment. If, however, outside others became aware of the prostitute's occupational identity she often covered her activities by providing accounts and justifications for her behaviors.
Few of the women I met, even those who were the least able to personally accept the work related identity, engaged in either isolation or insulation (Goffman 1963). These strategies require complete withdrawal from interaction in an attempt to avoid the psychic strain that arises when others recognize and acknowledge the presence of the stigmatizing label (Sandstrom 1990). Although this is an effective way of avoiding others' negative appraisals, it is also a technique that exacerbates individual feelings of alienation.
After spending time with the Quad City prostitute I am not surprised she seldom employs these strategies when attempting to manage her identity. I have found the local sex worker to be an amazingly social creature. She is not one who is comfortable contending with feelings of alienation. Although she may feel the sting of conventional society's reflected appraisals when interacting, she is not given to withdrawal. Interaction rests at the heart of who she is and how she makes her living. The local sex worker may limit her encounters in the conventional environment, focusing instead on the social milieu where she finds support for her activities and identity, but she will seldom retreat into herself altogether.
The successful sex workers I met as my research unfolded were those who actively and unequivocally embraced the work related identity, whether they had found success by remaining in or exiting the occupation. Debbie and Amber defined themselves as successful in their chosen roles. Both had fully accepted and internalized the sex worker identity. They had done so by redefining their occupational activities as issues of choice, decisions they had made freely and of their own will.
Embracement often occurs as the stigmatized individual affiliates with others who share the same social reality, as in the case of the PWAs who formed and joined support groups (Sandstrom 1990). Although different from the traditional notions of a support group, Debbie and Amber benefited from the affiliative nature of the group surrounding each of them as they enacted the sex worker role. Ensconced in a social milieu that legitimated their actions, Debbie and Amber received social support for the definitions they placed on the identities so important to each of them. In this environment they also received support for the particular scripts they used to enact the sex worker role. Thus, their affiliative needs were met in a way that allowed each of them to fully embrace the prostitute identity in a way that was congruent with their overarching notions of who they wanted to be.
Bethany also experienced the personal transformation that accompanies identity embracement. Yet, for Bethany, her personal confirmation and acceptance of the sex worker identity led to a very different outcome than it did for either Debbie or Amber. Bethany found success by embracing the identity and using that confirmation to lead her out of prostitution and into a life of helping others attempting the same moves. In so doing, Bethany redefined herself as an ex-prostitute. She used her past identity to create a sense of self that was fully capable of empathetically understanding the stigma faced by others attempting to make it in conventional society after leaving the life. The women Bethany encountered in this environment accepted and admired her. In so doing, they legitimated her past life as well as the new meanings she was attaching to her identity.
For Bethany, the meanings she had attached to her life as a prostitute were transformed from a curse to a blessing once she seized the opportunity to use her past experiences as a model for others. In his work with PWAs, Sandstrom (1990) found this ideological embracement liberating for the individual. A sense of meaning and purpose is introduced in the individual's life as he or she embraces the belief there is a special mission to fulfill through the acceptance and recognition of the stigmatizing label. As such, the label itself and the social designation that accompanies it are redefined as both positive and redemptive. When an individual experiences this type of transformation the identity itself takes on a new meaning. The new meaning liberates, rather than constrains, the individual as he or she interacts with others (Sandstrom 1990).
After leaving the life and embracing her past identity, Bethany's experiences were similar in many ways to those described by the PWAs in Sandstrom's study. Bethany found a redemptive quality in her past experiences, a new sense of purpose she could take into conventional society and employ in a meaningful and masterful way. Bethany actively embraced a personal ideology that allowed her to develop self-concepts congruent with the person she wanted to be. Looking back on her life, Bethany sincerely believes she internalized the self-concepts many years earlier. Yet, prior to leaving the life she had not allowed herself to embrace them or live up to them.
Bethany obviously benefited from the support she received from those around her as she attempted to reenter conventional society. As she embraced the sex worker identity and attached new meanings to her past life she was surrounded by individuals who were just as willing to embrace the woman she saw herself to be. These individuals, without reservation or judgment, accepted Bethany for who she was and who she was yet to become. After listening to the prostitutes' life stories I have developed the impression that these supporting individuals did more than merely accept the "successful" women for who they were. They came to fully appreciate and respect the sex worker identity as a defining feature of each woman's self. They, perhaps intuitively, recognized that no ex-prostitution could have become who she was had the identity not become an acknowledged part of her life.
For Bethany, the women she encountered through her experiences with the jail ministry team provided unconditional acceptance of and support for her attempts to make it in conventional society. So, too, did her personal encounters with religion. Bethany is firmly convinced that her intensely personal relationship with Jesus Christ accounts for the changes she has introduced into her life. When considering Sandstrom's (1990) notion of identity embracement as both a liberating and redemptive experience, Bethany's tendency to attribute significant changes in her life to religion is not surprising nor is it uncommon.
In Bethany's life there was also the presence of a devil's advocate, an individual who actively challenged the sex worker to incorporate new ways of thinking and acting into her self-repertoire. In Bethany's life, Ted, the man who eventually became her husband, filled this role.
Of the women I interviewed only three, Bethany, Christie, and Liza, have come close to reaching their personal definitions of success, becoming and defining themselves as ex-prostitutes. All have traveled similar paths en route to exiting the unconventional occupation. Each decided to leave the life only after she experienced a crisis situation and established a crucial relationship, an intensely personal affiliation with Jesus Christ. Through this relationship each woman felt as if she found an unconditional acceptance for the life she had lived and for the identity she had assumed in the course of her occupational activities. Each also found a sense of support for the changes she was considering.
The personal encounters with Jesus Christ were real to these women, as were the individual outcomes of their experiences with religion. Each woman spoke of gaining insight into her life and her sense of self as a result of this encounter. Each realized she could actively use her lived experiences in the larger social arena by transforming the sex worker identity into an accepted and socially legitimated component of the self. In short, each could now embrace the occupational identity and use it to help others wanting to leave the life. The women now view themselves as agents of change rather than purveyors of iniquity.
The religious experiences described by Bethany, Christie, and Liza were turning points in their lives. The religious encounters opened new doors for these women and provided each with a new way of evaluating herself. Each realized she could find acceptance from others, regardless of, or perhaps because of, their past decisions and experiences. Yet, there is more to the women's success stories than this.
After the transforming religious experience Bethany and Liza each received support and acceptance from a significant other, an intimate partner who played an important role in her daily life. These were men who openly and willingly acknowledged the women's past lifestyles, unconditionally accepted them for who they were and what they had been, and actively encouraged them to become something other than prostitutes. Christie has received her support from family members and counselors with whom she remains in contact.
Bethany and Liza also benefited from the institutional support surrounding them as they attempted to leave the life and make it in conventional society. This benefit came to them only after they were arrested and subsequently incarcerated for their occupational activities. It was at this point that each woman encountered the local jail ministry team and counselors, individuals who supported the hooker's attempts to change her life. These individuals also provided the women with alternative ways of viewing themselves.
Sabrina is also attempting to leave prostitution and make it in conventional society. Sabrina's challenge to leave the life came from two different social audiences. One set of challenges came from her family, a social audience one might expect to exert pressure on the sex worker to change her unconventional lifestyle. The other challenge came from what appears, at first glance, to be an unlikely audience. According to Sabrina, the local police have made her fully aware of the stigma associated with the life she has led. Their reactions to and assessments of her have given Sabrina the resolve to introduce dramatic changes in her life. Sabrina acknowledges a rocky road lies ahead of her. She also admits it will not be easy to change the community's views of her.
As I moved through the stages of my research I found that individual sex workers define the notion of success quite differently. Some of the women I encountered judged their success by the recognition they received within the unconventional milieu in which they worked. These women fully intend on remaining active sex workers. Other women considered themselves successful only if they were able to exit the occupation and make lives for themselves in conventional society.
Common to these women, whether they have left the occupation or continue as sex workers, is an ability to fully embrace the identity they assumed as a result of their occupational endeavors. Embracement has been a liberating experience for the women who have accepted and confirmed the unconventional identity. They are no longer bound by other forms of identity work in their interactions with others, nor are their interactions constrained by their attempts to actively manage or hide central components of their individual selves.
I have discovered through the course of my research that the inter-personal relationship is extremely important to the Quad City prostitute. Every woman I interviewed had experienced an intensely intimate relationship at some point in their lives. Many were involved in such relationships at the time I met them. The relationship plays an interesting role in the life of the local sex worker. It can either sustain her occupational endeavors or it can prompt and support her attempts to leave the occupation.
In this paper I recognize that I have focused a great deal on the relationship as it supports the woman's decision to exit the occupation and attempt to reenter conventional society. There is a reason for this. Exiting is rare; few attempt it and fewer still achieve their goals of leaving the life. But, I have found that social support for this decision can mean the difference between success and failure. The support so necessary to the woman attempting to exit the profession appears in two dominant forms. It can either assume a traditional quality or it can appear in a more non-traditional form. The supportive relationship, as it appears in a traditional form, endorses the woman's decisions to exit the occupation and provides valuable feedback to her about her worth as a person. The individual who offers non-traditional support often does so while enacting the devil's advocate role. This person actively challenges the woman to exit the occupation by presenting her with a contrasting picture of what her life could be compared to what it currently is as she fulfills the role expectations associated with sex work.
Each woman who has attempted to achieve success through exiting the professions of sex work was presented with the challenge of change. Each responded to that challenge by assuming personal responsibility for her previous life decisions and actions. Each used her past experiences as a point of departure from which she moved into a new future. Yet each did so by incorporating her past identity and experiences into a newly defined sense of who she is, thus creating a self that mirrored her notions of who she could be.
Other pieces in this issue by Martha L. Shockey:
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