Dissertations, Theses, and Capstone Projects

Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name



Criminal Justice


David Brotherton

Committee Members

Richard Curtis

Anthony Marcus

Subject Categories

Anthropology | Other Anthropology | Psychology | Social and Behavioral Sciences | Social and Cultural Anthropology | Social Psychology | Sociology


Identity Shifts, Sex Work, trans- and cis- female, Ethnography


The Deviant Identity Shift (DIS) Model that is introduced in this dissertation provides a framework for making sense of how sex workers come to understand their own place in the world, including the experiences of violence that often accompany their lives, and it shifts our attention away from static models that focus on unidimensional or even multidimensional factors that impact the lives of sex workers, to a far more dynamic view of the evolution of their distinctive forms of cultural identity. A series of themes emerge from the life histories of 18 cis- and 15- trans women between the ages 18 and 30, who solicited clients on the streets of New York. The narratives presented here that are emblematic of the involvement that the women experienced during various stages of their sex work careers embodies and reflects the identity shifts that they experienced within and across the illicit sex markets, and together, fit into a model that tracks the evolution of their cultural identity. This study used an ethnographic grounded theory approach to analyze and collect data. The nine themes were classified into four groups reflecting the cis- and trans- women’s involvement over time: 1) rationale for selling sex, 2) facilitated involvement, 3) changes in client recruitment and solicitation methods, and 4) diminished involvement. The model addresses gaps in our understanding of the lives of those who participate in illicit sex markets, and it relies upon detailed life histories that provide rich narratives that describe the social and psychological contexts which allow us to make better sense of their lives.