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Rethinking ‘Involvement’ in Sex Work: Examining Sex Workers’ Relationships with Sex Work





Degree: Doctor of Philosophy Abstract: Sex work discourse operates with multiple assumptions about what it means to be involved in sex work and, subsequently, what it means to no longer be involved. These assumptions combine to produce a one-dimensional categorical framework for thinking about sex work participation – in which sex workers are labeled ‘involved’ or ‘exited’ – that ignores the diverse ways sex workers make sense of and participate in their work. This study uses the narratives of twenty-five women with experience in Edmonton’s street-level sex trade to engage in a critical rethinking of the meaning(s) and practice of sex work involvement. I bring participants’ lived experiences into a dialogue with current theorization around four guiding questions: 1) What does involvement mean, 2) What does involvement look like, 3) What does it mean to exit, and 4) How can we best acknowledge the complexity of sex work involvement? Findings reveal that sex work involvement is the product of multiple intersecting open-ended vectors that produce an infinite number of relationships with the sex trade. Vectors speak to elements like frequency and manner of participation, level of income dependency, and subjective interpretations of participation, which are themselves contextual and dynamic, with the result that the significance and practice of involvement varies among sex workers as well as over time. Eschewing generalizations in favour of plurality, variability, and contradiction, this dissertation reveals there are unlimited ways to ‘be’ a sex worker and ‘do’ sex work. Accordingly, I advocate for a discursive shift away from categorical approaches that theorize ‘involved’ and ‘exited’ as distinct and stable categories, towards process-based methodologies that make involvement itself the focus of inquiry.

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