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Doctoral student investigates societal stigmas placed on sex workers

March 13, 2013

Kathleen Read, a doctoral student in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, is delving into the world of sex work and uncovering the societal stigmas that affect the way individuals connect and self identify.

Read became introduced to the world of sex work as a volunteer at DIGNITY House, a halfway house in Phoenix for sex workers looking to exit the industry. The program also provides street outreach and access to rehabilitation programs for those facing substance abuse issues.

One of her main jobs as a volunteer was to organize a narrative writing therapy class. It was during these sessions that Read began learning about the experiences of sex workers and an inner dialogue that appeared to be common among the group.

“They would use terminology that I had never heard before," Read said. "One woman said ‘I love to hand my daddy stacks.’ They had to explain to me that ‘daddy’ stood for pimp and a ‘stack’ is a thousand dollars.”

Read then decided to conduct a study with 16 women in the Phoenix Diversion program to see if this inside language created kinship and how these networks function. She also conducted a second study on the idea of kinship within a legal sex work setting. For this, she turned to a brothel in Nevada. Her results showed that in Phoenix there was definitely a connection between workers, but not in Nevada.

Upon completing her master’s degree in English from the Department of English at ASU, Read set her sights on earning a doctorate from the department as well. She chose to focus her dissertation on how discourse within the sex worker industry facilitated the development of stigmas, and how these stigmas in turn caused identity constructions within the individuals.

To gain insight, Read began volunteering at St. James Infirmary in San Francisco. She was a volunteer for a full year before she became a trusted ally in the eyes of sex workers that frequented the facility. Not only did she learn how to better serve the community, but also it helped her connect with men, women and transgender workers who were looking to share their story.

“Everyone has a voice that they want to be heard," she said. "For this community, they are used to being dismissed or having their voice muted. I was really lucky to speak with them.”

Read says that there are three general stigmas placed upon sex workers. The first is that their work is illegal and, therefore, wrong. The second is that sex work is deviant and immoral. The third discourse is the stereotype that all sex workers are dangerous and need to be contained. She adds that many of the people she interviewed said they felt these negative stigmas and consequently felt shame about what they did for a living.

However, with the propagation of these stigmas has also come resistance. Read says that some of the group developed a political voice and refusal to fall in line or take on a negative self-identity.

“Some people took on the attitude that this was just something they were doing to make money and didn’t internalize the stigma. One woman even said, ‘I ain’t nobody's ho. I’m a business woman,’” she said.

After concluding her research, Read feels that a solution to reverse these stigmas and provide safety measures for sex workers is to decriminalize the work.

“Making sex work illegal makes the situation for workers worse because they don’t have any protection. At the same time though, making it legal makes things difficult for people who do want to legally register as being in the sex work industry,” she said.

Read recently defended her dissertation to the Department of English staff. She says the experience was positive and felt like a celebration of her hard work.