Survival stripped bare: an ethnography of street sex workers in Dandenong


Durant, Ben L. 2015. Survival stripped bare: an ethnography of street sex workers in Dandenong. Thesis
AuthorsDurant, Ben L.
Qualification nameDoctor of Philosophy (PhD)

This thesis is an ethnographic exploration of the micro world of the street sex market in Dandenong Australia. Using participant observation and semi structured interviews it explores the culture of the markets and network of people who sells sex in it, and considers how this knowledge may contribute to a more effective response from the youth and community sector. This study contributes to the existing body of research on street sex work through its exploration of the emerging and currently under-researched street sex market in Dandenong. Using an ethnographic approach, this study provides an in-depth account of the daily lived experience of people selling sex on the street in this context. This study asks questions about the geography of street sex work in Dandenong, the social network of this street sex market and its role in the lives of people selling sex in this context, the relationship between agency and addiction in the lives of local sex workers, and of the men who buy sex in this market. The study finds the space of street sex work in Dandenong to be the product of competing tensions between sex workers, police and the broader community as they play out on the street. People selling sex on the street in Dandenong are among the communities most marginalised, vulnerable and disenfranchised. Local sex workers often have few positive mainstream social connections, which can increase their reliance on peer connections and position in the markets social network for access to key resources required for their survival. The relative isolation sex workers often empowers violent or exploitative partners and can keep them in these relationships longer than they may have been otherwise. This study finds that most people selling sex on the street in Dandenong do so to fund a high-cost addiction to heroin. The thesis suggests that the participation of local sex workers in illicit, high-risk forms of commercial sex forms part of their negotiation of the negative affects of heroin addiction. Their experience of addiction and reliance on the local street economy for their survival binds them to a cycle of drug use and street sex work around which life for most people in this context revolves. Finally, clients report a preference for ‘authenticity’ in the sex they buy. They cite the use of public space and more casual style of dress and demeanour of street sex workers in Dandenong as key to their decision to buy sex in this market instead of in other commercial sex contexts. Street sex work in Dandenong occurs in a high-risk, contested space in which sex workers negotiate risk and exposure to harm as part of their daily lives. Their relative isolation from mainstream support increases their reliance on their ingenuity, savviness and position in the peer network for their survival. This thesis argues that a front-line, relationship based response from the youth and community sector could reduce local street sex workers’ reliance on the range of potentially exploitative social ties that become particularly problematic when they develop beyond the reach of mainstream support.

PublisherACU Research Bank
Digital Object Identifier (DOI)
Research GroupSchool of Arts
Publisher's version
Publication dates11 Jun 2015
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