Date of Award

May 2023

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


Social Welfare

First Advisor

James Topitzes

Committee Members

Corey Shdaimah, Colleen Janczewski, Tina Freiburger


exiting, joint display, mixed methods, police, sex trading


Street level sex trading is associated with multiple risks to health, safety, and well-being, thus many individuals who are currently engaged would like to exit and/or have attempted to do so. Multiple facilitators and barriers at all levels of a person’s ecology have been found to affect the exiting process, such as substance use, formal and informal social supports, and the collateral consequences of criminalization of sex trading. Yet, a more comprehensive examination of the complex interplay of these factors has been lacking. In addition, little attention has focused on women’s encounters with police and the ensuing effects on their relationships with police and on the exiting process. This dissertation, grounded in an intersectional feminist and transformative framework, guided by the social ecological model, explores what factors facilitate and impede the exiting process. Further, this study describes the nature of police encounters among women who have traded sex on the street and how those encounters affect their perceptions of the police and the influence of those encounters on the process of exiting from street-based sex trading. This convergent parallel, fully integrated, mixed methods study used novel joint displays and centered the voices of women who have engaged in street level sex trading. Surveys (N=72) and in-depth interviews (N=16) were conducted with women currently or formerly engaged in street level sex trading. Survey participants ranged in age from 18 to 56, with 59.7% identifying as Black; 45.8% were unhoused or precariously housed, 82% were food insecure, and 83.1% had ever been incarcerated for any offense. Descriptive and bivariate analyses combined with grounded theory methods and joint display analysis yielded differences between exiting outcome groups, demonstrating a complex web of interconnected factors across social-ecological levels that act as barriers to or facilitators of exiting from sex trading. Barriers to exiting included economic need, especially related to employment and housing status and child caregiving responsibilities, as well as stigma, trauma exposure, mental health, unhealthy substance use, access to quality social services, and consequences associated with criminal legal system involvement. Increased levels of social support, positive religious coping, and cognitive processes (e.g., positive thoughts and beliefs, readiness and motivation to change) appeared to facilitate exiting. Findings also distinguished positive, negative, and ambiguous police interactions. Negative perceptions of police were particularly common among women who had inappropriate and harmful police interactions in response to their own victimization, and/or who chose to avoid reporting victimization to police due to fear of being dismissed or disrespected. Findings revealed that police act as a barrier to exiting from sex trading (e.g., loss of help seeking) but can be a source of help or a catalyst for change. Participants offered recommendations for improved practices and policies to facilitate exiting, including a wide spectrum of services and resources offered with compassion and sensitivity. Recommendations also included ways to improve relationships with police and prevent police harm against women who trade sex on the street, such as increased professionalism and accountability and a less punitive approach to addressing street level sex trading. This research provides important insights into the need for comprehensive, integrated care for women who wish to exit from sex trading and ways to improve police relations, prevent police harm, and increase help-seeking behavior among women who trade sex on the street.

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Social Work Commons