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Book Reviews- Fall 2014

Oselin, Sharon. 2014. Leaving Prostitution: Getting Out and Staying Out of Sex Work. New York: NYU Press.

Reviewed by Andrea J. Nichols, Professor of Sociology, Forest Park College.

Sharon Oselin is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of California at Riverside.

In a comparative analysis of four prostitute serving organizations (PSOs), including in-depth interviews and observations of PSO staff and women leaving prostitution, the author examines various aspects of women’s transition out of prostitution. In particular, Oselin examines women’s experiences leaving the roles of prostitution, creating new roles and identities, as well as the Prostitute Serving Organizations’ impact on this process.

In the introduction, the author concisely reviews the sociological and criminological literature related to crime desistance, role exit, and the impact of organizational culture.  The author briefly introduces key points in the literature related to street prostitution, including violence against prostitutes, reasons why people engage in sex work, and challenges to leaving.  These factors set the tone of the book.

Chapter two emphasizes pathways into prostitution, drawing important distinctions based upon age of entry. Factors such as childhood abuse, normalization of prostitution in their home environments, economic motivations, runaway status, personal empowerment, family lives, addiction, moral conflicts, homelessness, and survival are described. The chapter largely draws from women’s narratives, emphasizing both positive and negative aspects of prostitution in their lives, ultimately finding the negative aspects of prostitution became increasingly difficult for women to negotiate over time.

Also largely drawing from women’s narratives, chapter three focuses on women’s initial exit from prostitution, including the complex and multi-layered ways in which women came to the point where they were ready to leave prostitution and join PSOs. Reasons for leaving prostitution involved personal motivations and reactions to “turning points,” as well as third parties who referred or brought awareness to women about the services the PSOs offered.

Chapter four highlights women’s separation from their former identities and lives as prostitutes. Oselin examines the role of the organizational culture on the ways women see themselves and their former roles as prostitutes, as well as the ways women see themselves and their roles in the present and future. Oselin also shows the complexity of leaving prostitution, by illustrating how some women felt conflicted about leaving prostitution. Distinctions in organizational culture between the study sites, including differences in formal and informal controls, show a profound impact on women’s exiting prostitution.

In chapter five, Oselin shows how women may gain a new sense of identity, and a new coinciding set of roles to replace the identities and roles associated with prostitution. Like in chapter 4, the author indicates a relationship between aspects of organizational culture and the acceptance of new roles and the coinciding shift in identity. In comparative analysis, the author found two organizations strongly emphasized the shift in identity and roles, whereas the other two did not, resulting in distinctly different outcomes. Far from being the only influence on role embracement and identity change, in addition to organizational influence, the complexities of women’s lives also played a significant role in this stage of transitioning.

Last, in chapter six, the author neatly sums up key points, and provides the related implications. Such key points include the initial decision to and dynamics surrounding the choice to leave prostitution, to take on new roles and identities moving forward with their lives, and the important role of organizations in each of these key areas. The author also examines the stories of women who have transitioned out of the PSOs, and reveals the related supports, barriers, and challenges these women experienced. The author further provides a sociological analysis of the structural and cultural shifts recommended to improve the lives of street prostitutes, and the issues related to prostitution more generally.

This book would be appropriate for graduate level or upper level undergraduate courses in the fields of Social Work, Sociology, and Criminology or Criminal Justice. In particular, courses such as Gender and Crime, Violence Against Women, or Social Work Practice would be appropriate forums for this book.