Recovery Narratives, War Stories, and Nostalgia: Street-Based Sex Workers’ Discursive Negotiations of the Exclusionary Regime

This article draws upon 18 months of participant observation with 50 street-based sex workers living in a transitional housing facility. Subsequent in-depth interviews with 50 different women actively working on the street also inform analysis presented here, which explores discursive practice as one of the most salient means by which women maneuver within a socio-legal system that targets them as individuals engaged in criminalized behavior. Findings presented in this article build upon the larger project’s goal of articulating the complex and highly individualized ways in which US street-based sex workers struggling with addiction negotiate the move from membership in a criminalized group to what more than a few women describe as “being a productive member of society.” Street-based sex workers engage in this complex shift while embedded in what I term an exclusionary regime, a dense coalescence of punitive forces which involve both governance in the form of the criminal justice system and engagement with the courts and other state agents, and regular patterns of action, including myriad forms of discrimination resulting from stigma. This article discusses three narrative forms that partially enable street-based sex workers to negotiate the exclusionary regime: recovery narratives, war stories, and nostalgia. These highly context-bound expressive forms function as powerful tools that help women to obtain resources and status, as well as convey the complexities of their experiences in ways that move beyond the otherwise constrained identities available to them.

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