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This project looks at organizations working on issues of sex work and sex trafficking in Chicago as a strategic action field (SAF): a space where actors engage in collective action with a shared understanding of the field’s purposes, rules and norms. Through analysis of SAFs, scholars focus on how actors in organizations intersect, manifesting in a context that simultaneously allows for reproducing the status quo, as well as producing social change. Actors in SAFs hold varying positions; some actors (incumbents) hold more power and legitimacy than other actors (challengers). In this project, I show how one challenger organization—a hybrid advocacy/service sex worker rights nonprofit—has succeeded in gaining political legitimacy by working with established human service nonprofits (HSNPs). These efforts to gain legitimacy were complicated by the fact that the challenger’s proposed solution to the sex trade, the decriminalization of sex work, runs contrary to what incumbent advocacy organizations advocate for locally, nationally and internationally. Discourse of incumbent advocacy organizations promotes increasing criminal penalties on individuals purchasing sexual services, while providing rehabilitation services for people selling sexual services, a policy referred to as “End Demand”. Despite the popularity of End Demand, the policy met with some skepticism among the part of HSNPs, who have exhibited concern about the collusion between law enforcement and human services. This concern has opened an opportunity for the challenger hybrid organization to promote decriminalization to this population of HSNPs.
Over the course of fourteen months (July 2015-September 2016) I conducted 53 qualitative interviews with actors in the SAF of sex work/sex trafficking, including HSNP managers, leaders of the challenger organization, and leaders of incumbent advocacy organizations. This qualitative research also included participant observation at events in Chicago including anti-trafficking conferences, panels, and other events relating to the sex trade.
Incumbent organizations advocating increased criminalization have dominated the SAF of sex work for many years nationally and globally—they are the primary source of information around trafficking, frequently working with policy makers and law enforcement to promote their policies. However, this research indicates that sex worker rights organizations challenging this discourse have succeeded in altering the SAF as one that accepts the possibility for the decriminalization of sex work. After years of operating as clandestine organizations, organizations advocating for the rights of sex workers and the decriminalization of sex work are accepted as legitimate challengers to a criminal justice-oriented system which HSNPs are trying to distance themselves from.