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  • Street Sex Workers’ Discourse: Realizing Material Change through Agential Choice by Jill McCracken
  • Angela Clark-Oates
Street Sex Workers’ Discourse: Realizing Material Change through Agential Choice
Jill McCracken
New York: Routledge, 2013. 276pp.

In Street Sex Workers’ Discourse: Realizing Material Change Through Agential Choice, Jill McCracken explores how material conditions encountered by sex workers—realities that “are created and disrupted by discourse and rhetoric” (xxviii)—have the potential to both deny and construct agential choice. To do this, she used an ethnographic design to embed herself within a community of sex workers as a method for asking questions and spending time “with women who exchange sex for money or drugs and the myriad people who come in contact with them” (191). Consequently, as a researcher and a self-identified advocate for sex workers, McCracken argues for more complex interpretations of the stories, ones that can lead to robust solutions to the systemic and individual traumas experienced by them. Through critical discourse analysis, she disrupts the historical and cultural interpretations of sex workers, showing how these constructed realities have led to ineffective or limited solutions because they have historically been hindered by an over-reliance on the archetypal binary of victim/survivor. This binary obscures not only the kaleidoscopic meaning of these workers’ lives, but also limits opportunities for responsible rhetorical agency, or what McCracken calls agential choice.

During the “multi-sited ethnography,” McCracken conducted fieldwork in the Nemez community (a city in the southwest US whose name was redacted) for thirty months. As a participant-observer, she was more than a neutral researcher. McCracken built credibility and trust in this community. She volunteered for a social services organization, and after two years, she became an employee of an agency that worked with those who were “chronically homeless” (192). In these positions, she learned the systems navigated by sex workers, she participated in outreach and education, and she developed relationships with the clients who were seeking services. Consequently, her [End Page 108] identity as researcher was not static as she moved between her positions as volunteer, employee, and researcher, gathering her corpus of data across three sites in the community: articles from three primary newspapers, interviews with public figures, and interviews with street-based sex workers. As a participant-observer in this multi-sited ethnographic study, McCracken lived her research, engaged in the possibility of what Freire calls the “dynamic movement between researching and acting on the results of the research” (30). And this movement between her positions as researcher, volunteer, and employee allowed her to examine “the relationships between and among people and institutions that exist locally, globally, and internationally” (192).

McCracken organizes the book into six chapters, sandwiched by a preface and four appendices. The preface functions as an introduction to the research purpose, site, participants, and approach. She also introduces key concepts and terms that anchor her analysis in chapters two through five. In chapter one, she unpacks the theoretical framework, situating the reader in relation to the term agential choice, which is McCracken’s foundational concept in the book. In chapter two and three, she examines the status of victimhood in relationships between the sex workers and the community. She goes on to identify various constructions of victimhood, to identify how these constructions get positioned as problems, and finally to explore how these constructions of victimhood and their corresponding positions limit proposed solutions. Chapter four explores the flaws of one particular solution: the individual responsibility and choice to change. Much like her critiques in chapter two and three of the problem/solution dichotomy, McCracken illustrates the failure and humiliation of a solution steeped in an ideology of individualism and self-reliance, which ignores the historical and cultural practices of traumatizing bodies marked as sex workers. In chapter five, she explores this systemic violence. McCracken writes, “…when systemic issues related to poverty and violence are at the root of many of the choices this individual has made, it is unfair to simply place the total responsibility on her shoulders and expect her to change” (125). In chapter six, she shares the implications of her research, focusing on systemic change, agential choice, and a re-imagining...


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