Sexuality & Culture

, Volume 16, Issue 3, pp 209–229 | Cite as

Independent Female Escort’s Strategies for Coping with Sex Work Related Stigma

  • Juline A. KokenEmail author
Original Paper


Despite the reframing of ‘prostitution’ as ‘sex work’ in research and advocacy literature, the stigma associated with this activity persists. This study examines how independent female sex workers advertising online as “escorts” perceive and manage the stigma associated with their work, and how these coping strategies impact their personal relationships. Thirty escorts participated in semi-structured qualitative interviews; Goffman’s (1963) theory of stigma and information management strategies was used as a theoretical framework to guide the analysis of women’s experiences. Women who engaged in selective disclosure regarding sex work reported greater access to social support, while women who concealed their work from most people often reported feeling lonely and socially isolated. Escorts’ stigma coping strategies may have significant impact on their social relationships and access to social support.


Stigma Female escorts Sex workers Coping 



This project was funded through a Dissertation Research Grant by CHEST and Hunter College of the City University of New York. Additional funding for Dr. Koken was provided by the Behavioral Sciences Training in Drug Abuse Research Program sponsored by Public Health Solutions of New York City, and the National Development and Research Institutes, Inc. (NDRI), with funding from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (T32 DA07233). Points of view, opinions, and conclusions in this paper do not necessarily represent the official position of the U.S. Government, Public Health Solutions or National Development and Research Institutes. The author would like to thank Dr. Jeffrey Parsons and the anonymous reviewers who provided helpful feedback on earlier drafts of this manuscript. Also appreciated are the contributions of Kevicha Echols and Blair Morris for their assistance in the early stages of data coding. Finally, great thanks are due to the women who chose to participate in this study and share their perspectives.


  1. Benoit, C., Jansson, M., Millar, A., & Phillips, R. (2005). Community-academic research on hard-to-reach populations: Benefits and challenges. Qualitative Health Research, 15, 263–282.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Bernstein, E. (2007). Buying and selling the ‘girlfriend experience’: The social and subjective contours of market intimacy. In M. B. Padilla, J. S. Hirsch, M. Munoz-Laboy, R. E. Sember, & R. G. Parker (Eds.), Love and globalization: Transformations of intimacy in the contemporary world. Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University Press.Google Scholar
  3. Brewis, J., & Linstead, S. (2000). ‘The worst thing is the screwing’ (1): Consumption and the management of identity in sex work. Gender, Work and Organization, 7, 84–97.Google Scholar
  4. Califia, P. (1988). Macho sluts. Los Angeles: Alyson Books.Google Scholar
  5. Carver, C. S. (2007). Stress, coping and health. In H. S. Friedman & R. Cohen Silver (Eds.), Foundations of health psychology. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  6. Chapkis, W. (1997). Live sex acts: Women performing erotic labor. New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  7. Cole, S. W., Kemeny, M. E., Taylor, S. E., & Visscher, B. R. (1996). Elevated physical health risk among gay men who conceal their homosexual identity. Health Psychology, 15, 243–251.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Ditmore, M. (2008). Sex work, trafficking: Understanding the difference. Reproductive Health, retrieved June 21, 2008, from
  9. Doezema, J. (2002). Who gets to choose? Coercion, consent, and the UN Trafficking Protocol. Gender & Development, 10, 20–27.Google Scholar
  10. Dworkin, A. (1997). Prostitution and male supremacy. In Life and death (pp. 139–151). New York: Free Press.Google Scholar
  11. Farley, M., Baral, I., Kiremire, M., & Sezgin, U. (1998). Prostitution in five countries: Violence and post-traumatic stress disorder. Feminism and Psychology, 8, 415–426. Google Scholar
  12. Fawkes, J. (2005). Sex working feminists and the politics of exclusion. Social Alternatives, 24, 22–23. Google Scholar
  13. Frable, D. E. S., Platt, L., & Hoey, S. (1998). Concealable stigmas and positive self perceptions: Feeling better around similar others. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74, 909–922.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Goffman, E. (1963). Stigma: Notes on the management of spoiled identity. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.Google Scholar
  15. Harcourt, C., O’Connor, J., Egger, S., Fairley, C. K., Wand, H., Chen, M. Y., et al. (2010). The decriminalization of prostitution is associated with better coverage of health promotion programs for sex workers. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health, 34, 482–486.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Huebner, D. M., Davis, M. C., Nemeroff, C. J., & Aiken, L. S. (2002). The impact of internalized homophobia on HIV preventative interventions. American Journal of Community Psychology, 30, 327–347.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Katz, I. (1979). Some thoughts about the stigma notion. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 5, 447–460.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Koken, J. A. (2010). The meaning of the ‘whore’: How feminist theories on prostitution shape research on female sex workers. In M. Ditmore, A. Levy, & A. Willman (Eds.), Sex work matters: Power and intimacy in the global sex industry. London: Zed Books.Google Scholar
  19. Koken, J. A., Bimbi, D. S., Parsons, J. T., & Halkitis, P. N. (2004). The experience of stigma in the lives of male internet escorts. Journal of Psychology and Human Sexuality, 16, 13–32.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Koken, J. A., Bimbi, D. S., & Parsons, J. T. (2009). Male and female escorts: A comparative analysis. In R. Weitzer (Ed.), Sex for sale prostitution, pornography and the sex industry (2nd ed.). London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  21. Kurth, A. E., Martin, D. P., Golden, M. R., Weiss, N. S., Heagerty, P. J., Spielberg, F., et al. (2004). A comparison between audio computer-assisted self-interviews and clinician interviews for obtaining the sexual history. Sexually Transmitted Diseases, 31, 719–726.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Leigh, C. (1997). Inventing sex work. In J. Nagle (Ed.), Whores and other feminists. New York: Routledge. Google Scholar
  23. Lewis, J., & Maticka-Tyndale, E. (2000). Methodological challenges conducting research related to sex work. From: Escort Services in a Border Town: Transmission Dynamics of STDs Within and Between Communities. Report issued by: Division of STD Prevention and Control, Laboratory Centres for Disease Control, Health Canada.Google Scholar
  24. MacQueen, K. M., McLellan, E., Kay, K., & Milstein, B. (1998). Codebook development for team-based qualitative analysis. Cultural Anthropology Methods Journal, 10, 31–36.Google Scholar
  25. Meyer, I. H. (2003). Prejudice, social stress, and mental health in lesbian, gay, and bisexual populations: Conceptual issues and research evidence. Psychological Bulletin, 129, 674–697.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. O’Doherty, T. (2011). Criminalization and off-street sex work in Canada. Canadian Journal of Criminology and Criminal Justice, 53, 217–245.Google Scholar
  27. Pachankis, J. E. (2007). The psychological implications of concealing a stigma: A cognitive-affective-behavioral model. Psychological Bulletin, 133, 328–345.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Parsons, J. T. (2005). Researching the world’s oldest profession: Introduction. Journal of Psychology and Human Sexuality, 17, 1–3.Google Scholar
  29. Pheterson, G. (1990). The category “prostitute” in scientific inquiry. The Journal of Sex Research, 27, 397–407.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Quinn, D. M., & Chaudoir, S. R. (2009). Living with a concealable stigmatized identity: The impact of anticipated stigma, centrality, salience, and cultural stigma on psychological distress and health. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 97, 634–651.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Roberts, N. (1992). Whores in history: Prostitution in western society. London: Harper Collins.Google Scholar
  32. Rubin, G. (1992). Thinking sex: Notes for a radical theory of the politics of sexuality. In C. S. Vance (Ed.), Pleasure and danger: Exploring female sexuality. London: Pandora.Google Scholar
  33. Sallmann, J. (2010). Living with stigma: Women’s experiences of prostitution and substance use. Affilia: Journal of Women and Social Work, 25, 146–159.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Sanders, T. (2002). The condom as a psychological barrier: Female sex workers and emotional management. Feminism & Psychology, 12, 561–566.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Sanders, T. (2004). Controllable laughter: Managing sex work through humour. Sociology, 38, 273–291.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Sanders, T. (2005a). It’s just acting: Sex workers’ strategies for capitalizing on sexuality. Gender, Work and Organization, 12, 319–342.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Sanders, T. (2005b). Researching the online sex work community. In C. Hine (Ed.), Virtual methods in social research on the internet (pp. 66–79). Oxford: Berg.Google Scholar
  38. Sanders, T. (2005c). Sex Work: A Risky Business. Devon: Willan Publishing.Google Scholar
  39. Scambler, G. (2007). Sex work stigma: Opportunistic migrants in London. Sociology, 41, 1079–1096.Google Scholar
  40. Scoular, J. (2004). The ‘subject’ of prostitution: Interpreting the discursive, symbolic and material position of sex/work in feminist theory. Feminist Theory, 5, 343–355.Google Scholar
  41. Shaver, F. M. (2005). Sex work research: Methodological and ethical challenges. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 20, 296–319.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Shehan, D. A., LaLota, M., Johnson, D. F., Celentano, D. D., Koblin, B. A., Torian, L. V., et al. (2003). HIV/STD risks in young men who have sex with men who do not disclose their sexual orientation- six U.S. cities, 1994–2000. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, 52, 80–84.Google Scholar
  43. Sprinkle, A. (1998). Post-porn modernist: My 25 years as a multimedia whore. San Francisco: Cleis Press.Google Scholar
  44. Starks, H., & Trinidad, S. B. (2007). Choose your method: A comparison of phenomenology, discourse analysis, and grounded theory. Qualitative Health Research, 17, 1372–1380.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Thukral, J., & Ditmore, M. (2003). Revolving door: An analysis of street-based prostitution in New York City. Report issued by the Sex Workers Project at the New York: Urban Justice Center.
  46. Thukral, J., Ditmore, M., & Murphy, A. (2005). Behind closed doors: An analysis of indoor sex work in New York City. New York: Urban Justice Center.
  47. Unger, R. K. (1998). Positive marginality: Antecedents and consequences. Journal of Adult Development, 5, 163–170.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Unger, R. K. (2000). Outsiders inside: Positive marginality and social change. Journal of Social Issues, 56, 163–179.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Vanwesenbeeck, I. (1994). Prostitutes’ well being and risk. Amsterdam: V University Press.Google Scholar
  50. Vanwesenbeeck, I. (2001). Another decade of social scientific work on sex work: A review of research, 1990–2000. Annual Review of Sex Research, 12, 242–289.Google Scholar
  51. Vanwesenbeeck, I. (2005). Burnout among indoor female sex workers. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 34, 627–639.Google Scholar
  52. Weitzer, R. (2010). The mythology of prostitution: Advocacy research and public policy. Sex Research and Social Policy, 7, 15–29.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Whitaker, T., Ryan, P., & Cox, G. (2011). Stigmatization among drug-using sex workers accessing support services in Dublin. Qualitative Health Research, 21, 1086–1100.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Center for Motivation and ChangeNew YorkUSA

Personalised recommendations