Co-occurring Threats to Agency Among Female Sex Workers in Baltimore, Maryland

Document Type

Journal Article

Publication Date



Journal of interpersonal violence








Driven largely by the unequal distribution of power, female sex workers (FSW) globally bear a disproportionately high burden of HIV, sexually transmitted infections, and interpersonal violence. Prior literature has identified a number of multi-level factors that may serve to constrain FSWs' agency, or their ability to define and take action to realize goals. Among these are work-based violence and substance use, which are potentiated by the criminalization of sex work and structural vulnerability. Quantitative research related to U.S.-based FSWs' own sense of agency, as well as the barriers that may impede it, is sparse. We sought to identify patterns of various threats to agency and explore to what extent they were associated with perceived agency among a cohort of 381 FSW in Baltimore, Maryland, United States, using latent class analysis. Latent class indictors were past-six-month experience of client-perpetrated sexual violence, client-perpetrated physical violence, homelessness, food insecurity, arrest, daily crack-cocaine use, and daily heroin use. Perceived agency was measured using the short form of the Pearlin Mastery Scale. We identified three typologies of threatened agency among women in our sample: a "threatened by structural factors, drug use, and violence" class, a "threatened by structural factors and drug use" class, and a "less threatened" class. Mean perceived agency score was significantly lower for the class characterized by client-perpetrated violence than for either of the other classes. This suggests violence, in the context of deeper, structural power imbalances embedded in hunger, homelessness, and drug use, may dramatically reduce one's sense of agency and operate as a critical barrier to empowerment. Our study adds important insights to the broader FSW community empowerment literature and supports the need for interventions to bolster both individual and collective agency among U.S.-based FSW, including interventions to prevent sex work-related violence.


Prevention and Community Health