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Reviewed by:
  • Listening to Olivia: Violence, Poverty, and Prostitution
  • Celia Williamson (bio)
Listening to Olivia: Violence, Poverty, and Prostitution by Jody Raphael. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2004, 312 pp., $50.00 hardcover, $27.95 paper.

In Listening to Olivia, Jody Raphael writes a compelling book about life as a prostituted woman in the United States. This book presents the personal story of Olivia's progression through prostitution from entrance through exit. Most chapters are arranged in sequence to first present Olivia's experience, and then to explore both quantitative and qualitative information on prostitution to support her experience.

Raphael gives a voice to the most vulnerable in the sex industry. Throughout the course of the book, Olivia's thoughts, feelings, and experiences are exposed. The reader comes to know Olivia and learns that Olivia's tragic journey sadly represents the journey of many women in this country who succumb to street life and drug addiction. Olivia's fears, anger, love, and ultimately her empathy for helping others touches the reader in a way that encourages compassion toward the issue of prostituted women.

The author does a nice job outlining the damaging effects of legalization and presents a compelling argument for continued legal intervention. This is not a book that legalization advocates would enjoy, but one that helps to remind everyone to pay particular attention to the experiences of those who are at the bottom rung of society's ladder. [End Page 226]

Raphael charges society with a dangerous level of tolerance for prostitution recruitment and the negative outcomes of the women involved. She also charges the social service, criminal justice, and health care community with an overall lack of concern for prostituted women. She cites examples of missed opportunities for intervention while acknowledging that these institutions most often represent the initial contact with women in which a meaningful connection leading to intervention could be made.

In her book, Raphael offers a prescription to successfully address the issue of prostitution that speaks to those most vulnerable women in prostitution. The answer to the problem is complex, and Raphael could have easily spent an additional hundred pages explaining possible solutions. She does address a full spectrum of services from early intervention with adolescents through comprehensive services for women. For the informed reader, this section could have represented more of a comprehensive map toward successful advocacy and program implementation, but that is not the intent of the book. This section does provide a nice overview of potential possibilities.

The richness of the many examples of both qualitative and quantitative studies from both national and international research cannot be understated. However, distinctions between national and international data are sometimes blurred and can lead to confusion. Generalizing experiences in other countries, under varied circumstances, to experiences in this country, under different circumstances, can be confusing to the informed reader and unchallenged by the uninformed reader.

Most interesting is the personal story and Raphael's ability to expose the shame and degradation inherent in the experiences of women who end up on the streets and drug addicted. She becomes the vessel through which Olivia can share her most sensitive emotional wounds with the world.

Olivia's experience represents the experiences of women in more vulnerable forms of prostitution. Often born out of early abuse, adolescent runaway, survival sex, and entrance into prostitution, these experiences are reportedly not the experiences of those empowered women who are advocates for the legalization of prostitution. Raphael addresses those "other voices" under the chapter "Other Voices, Other Rooms."

At the beginning of each chapter, Raphael opens with a section from the writings of Rebecca West. In my opinion, the Rebecca West quotes seem distracting. If the reader is not familiar with the work of Rebecca West, it appears disconnected and awkward.

All in all, Raphael's accounts of women in lower levels and exploited forms of prostitution complements what researchers conducting street-level prostitution research have been saying for more than a decade. To her credit, Raphael is able to put a human face on what has been a hidden [End Page 227] tragedy in the country and abroad. I applaud her efforts and hope that many more books and articles...


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