Street-based sex work in research spotlight

As a PhD candidate, Dr Katie Hail-Jares’ days were pretty normal–teaching, writing, and reading–but her nights were more unconventional. For five years, Dr Hail-Jares volunteered with an overnight syringe exchange, driving around Washington, DC to distribute condoms, syringes, and hot chocolate to people who used drugs and street-based sex workers.

That volunteer experience inspired Dr Hail-Jares, now a post-doctoral research fellow with the Griffith Criminology Institute, to pursue epidemiological criminology. “That is a fancy way of saying I am interested in how criminalising behaviour impacts health outcomes for different people.”

During these outreach shifts, Dr. Hail-Jares was especially interested in how street-based sex workers navigated and pushed back against the policies introduced to make them less visible. It was this first-hand experience that formed the basis for her new book Challenging Perspectives on Street-based Sex Work.

Dr Katie Jares's work explores the lives of street-based sex workers.
Dr Katie Hail-Jares

Edited by Hail-Jares, Corey Shdaimah (University of Maryland), and Chrysanthi Leon (University of Delaware) the book brings together academics and people whose lives are impacted by street-based sex work. Chapters are written by police officers, public defenders, foreign aid workers and sex workers themselves.

“The book highlights some of the current approaches to sex work and firsthand reactions, such as diversion courts, trafficking task forces and decriminalisation’’ Dr Hail-Jares said.

“It also examines how sex workers navigate seldom-discussed social phenomena like gentrification, pregnancy and being the subjects of research.”

Hail-Jares’ own work within the book focuses on how neighbourhood gentrification–changing a neighbourhood to make it more middle- or upper-class in character–affected transgender sex workers. In interviews, Hail-Jares found that transgender sex workers experienced more police harassment and verbal abuse for their gender identity as a neighbourhood gentrified. At the same time, most were optimistic about how the new, wealthier residents may improve business.

Beyond bringing a diversity of voices to the book, the edited volume has also served as the basis for a new original play, Project Dawn. The play premiered in June 2017 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and follows the lives of various women such as a prosecutor, judge, public defender, and sex workers involved in a prostitution diversion program.

A public defender and probation officer for the real Project Dawn authored chapters for the book. In the play, their words are brought to life, and acted out. Portions of their chapters are even included in the program notes.

“Such collaborations between artists and researchers are unique. We are very excited to see the volume being used in this way already. We hope that there are more opportunities to bring Project Dawn to other locations, both across the United States and abroad.” Hail-Jares said.