Sexuality Research and Social Policy

, Volume 16, Issue 4, pp 419–433 | Cite as

“Women Make That World Go ‘Round”: the Role of Women’s Sexual Capital in the Gendered Scaffolding of Street Life

  • Jennifer K. WeselyEmail author


While all girls and women experience sexualization, these experiences differ based on a range of individual-level factors to structural contexts. For marginalized populations of women, such as those on the streets, sexualization can take on a particularly pivotal role. Using in-depth interviews with formerly street-involved women, the study explores the processes through which the street context reified the participants’ dependence on their “sexual capital” in order to survive. While they did exercise some agency over their bodies, the ability to make decisions in this regard dissipated as they became more tethered to street life. Dependence on sexual capital preserved street dynamics that disempowered and damaged them vis-à-vis men, a vulnerable status which effectively sustained the arrangement that harmed them. Control over participants’ sexual capital was usurped by others on the streets as they were traded, sold, and victimized by violence. Ultimately, participants’ experiences suggest that sexual capital is central to the gendered scaffolding upon which the street context is constructed.


Qualitative research Sex work Prostitution Sexualization At-risk Street life Women Gender 



Thank you to Drs. Susan Dewey and Michael Cherbonneau for their thoughtful comments and suggestions on earlier versions of this manuscript. The author also thanks the editor and two anonymous reviewers for their insightful recommendations.


This study was funded in part by an Academic Affairs Faculty Scholarship Development Grant from the University of North Florida.

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Ethical Approval

All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and/or national research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards. This article does not contain any studies with animals performed by any of the authors.

Informed Consent

Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in the study.

Conflict of Interest

The author declares that she has no conflict of interest.


  1. Anderson, E. (1999). Code of the street. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.Google Scholar
  2. Anderson, T. L. (Ed.). (2008). Neither villain nor victim: Empowerment and agency among women substance abusers. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press..Google Scholar
  3. APA (American Psychological Association Task Force). (2007). Report of the APA Task Force on the sexualization of girls. Washington, DC.Google Scholar
  4. Bartky, S. (1990). Femininity and domination. New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  5. Belknap, J. (2015). The invisible woman: Gender, crime and justice (4th ed.). Stamford, CT: Cengage Learning.Google Scholar
  6. Bordo, S. (1993). Unbearable weight. Berkeley: University of California Press.Google Scholar
  7. Brookman, F., Mullins, C., Bennett, T., & Wright, R. (2007). Gender, motivation and the accomplishment of street robbery in the United Kingdom. British Journal of Criminology, 47, 861–884.Google Scholar
  8. Butler, J. (1990). Gender trouble: Feminism and the subversion of identity. New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  9. Chapkis, W. (1986). Beauty secrets: Women and the politics of appearance. Boston: South End Press.Google Scholar
  10. Chen, X., Tyler, K., Whitbeck, L., & Hoyt, D. (2004). Early sexual abuse, street adversity, and drug use among female homeless and runaway adolescents in the Midwest. Journal of Drug Issues, 34, 1–21.Google Scholar
  11. Chesney-Lind, M., & Irwin, K. (2008). Beyond bad girls: Gender, violence and hype. New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  12. Chesney-Lind, M., & Pasko, L. (2004). The female offender: Girls, women and crime (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks: Sage.Google Scholar
  13. Cixous, H., & Clement, C. (1986). The newly born woman. Translated by B. Wing. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.Google Scholar
  14. Collins, P. H. (1991). Black feminist thought: Knowledge, consciousness, and the politics of empowerment. New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  15. Collins, P. H. (2004). Black sexual politics: African Americans, gender and the new racism. New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  16. Connell, R. W. (1987). Gender and power: Society, the person and sexual politics. Oxford: Polity Press.Google Scholar
  17. Connell, R. W. (1993). The big picture: Masculinities in recent world history. Theory and Society, 22, 597–623.Google Scholar
  18. Connell, R. W. (1995). Masculinities. Oxford: Policy Press.Google Scholar
  19. Connell, R. W. (2002). Gender. Cambridge: Polity Press.Google Scholar
  20. Covington, S. (1999). Helping women recover: A program for treating substance abuse. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.Google Scholar
  21. Crenshaw, K. (1989). Demarginalizing the intersection of race and sex: A black feminist critique of anti-discrimination doctrine, feminist theory and anti-racist politics. University of Chicago Legal Form, 1989, 139–167.Google Scholar
  22. Decker, S. H., & Miller, J. (2001). Young women and gang violence: Gender, street offending and violent victimization in gangs. Justice Quarterly, 18, 115–140.Google Scholar
  23. DeVault, M. L. (1999). Liberating method: Feminism and social research. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.Google Scholar
  24. Dewey, S., & St. Germain, T. (2014). “It depends on the cop:” Street-based sex workers’ perspectives on police patrol officers. Sexuality Research & Social Policy, 11, 256–270.Google Scholar
  25. Dewey, S., & St. Germain, T. (2016). Women of the street: How the criminal justice—Social service alliance fails women in prostitution. New York: New York University Press.Google Scholar
  26. Dines, G. (2010). Pornland: How porn has hijacked our sexuality. Boston: Beacon Press.Google Scholar
  27. Esterberg, K. (2002). Qualitative methods in social research. Boston: McGraw Hill.Google Scholar
  28. Fagan, J. (1994). Women and drugs revisited: Female participation in the cocaine economy. The Journal of Drug issues, 24, 179–225.Google Scholar
  29. Farley, M. (2009). Prostitution and the sexualization of children. In S. Olfman (Ed.), The sexualization of childhood (pp. 143–163). Westport: Praeger Publishers.Google Scholar
  30. Flores, E., & Hondagneu-Sotelo, P. (2013). Chicano gang members in recovery: The public talk of negotiating Chicano masculinities. Social Problems, 60, 476–490.Google Scholar
  31. Gilfus, M. (1992). From victims to survivors to offenders: Women’s routes of entry and immersion into street crime. Women and Criminal Justice, 4, 63–90.Google Scholar
  32. Griffin, M., & Rodriguez, N. (2011). The gendered nature of drug acquisition behavior within marijuana and crack drug markets. Crime & Delinquency, 57, 408–431.Google Scholar
  33. Hackett, C. (2013). Transformative visions: Governing through alternative practices and therapeutic interventions at a women’s reentry center. Feminist Criminology, 8, 221–242.Google Scholar
  34. Hagan, J. & McCarthy, B. (1997). Mean streets: Youth crime and homelessness. Cambridge Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  35. Haraway, D. (1991) Simians, cyborgs and women: The reinvention of nature London: Free Association Books.Google Scholar
  36. HGMW (Collaborative Fund for Healthy Girls/Healthy Women). (2001). The new girls’ movement: Implications for youth programs. New York: Ms. Foundation for Women.Google Scholar
  37. hooks, b. (1981). Ain’t I a woman: Black women and feminism. Boston: South End Press.Google Scholar
  38. hooks, b. (1992). Black looks: Race and representation. Boston: South End Press.Google Scholar
  39. hooks, b. (1996). Reel to real: Race, sex and class at the movies. New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  40. Huey, L. (2016). There is no strength in emotions: The role of street enculturation in influencing how victimized homeless women speak about violence. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 31, 1817–1841.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  41. Irigaray, L. (1985a). This sex which is not one. Translated by C. Porter. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.Google Scholar
  42. Irigaray, L. (1985b.) Speculum of the other woman. Translated by G. Gill. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.Google Scholar
  43. Jacobs, B., & Miller, J. (1998). Crack dealing, gender and arrest avoidance. Social Problems, 45, 550–569.Google Scholar
  44. Jewell, K. S. (1993). From mammy to Miss America and beyond: Cultural images and the shaping of U.S. social policy. New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  45. Laidler, K., & Hunt, G. (2001). Accomplishing femininity among the girls in the gang. British Journal of Criminology, 41, 656–678.Google Scholar
  46. Maher, L. (1997). Sexed work: Gender, race and resistance in a Brooklyn drug market. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  47. Maher, L., & Daly, K. (1996). Women in the street-level drug economy: Continuity or change? Criminology, 34, 465–492.Google Scholar
  48. Messerschmidt, J. (1993). Masculinities and crime. Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield.Google Scholar
  49. Messerschmidt, J. (2000). Nine lives: Adolescent masculinities, the body and violence. Boulder: Westview Press.Google Scholar
  50. Messerschmidt, J. (2005). Men, masculinities and crime. In M. Kimmel, R. Connell and J. Hearn (Eds.), Handbook on Men and Masculinities (pp. 196–213). Thousand Oaks: Sage.Google Scholar
  51. Miller, J. (1998). Up it up: Gender and the accomplishment of street robbery. Criminology, 36, 37–66.Google Scholar
  52. Miller, J. (2002). The strengths and limits of “doing gender” for understanding street crime. Theoretical Criminology, 6, 433–460.Google Scholar
  53. Miller, J. (2008). Getting played: African American girls, urban inequality and gendered violence. New York: NYU Press.Google Scholar
  54. Miller, J., & Brunson, R. (2000). Gender dynamics in youth gangs: A comparison of male and female accounts. Justice Quarterly, 17, 801–830.Google Scholar
  55. Miller, J., & White, N. (2004). Situational effects of gender inequality on girls’ participation in violence. In C. Adler & A. Worrall (Eds.), Girls’ violence: Myths and realities (pp. 167–190). Albany: State University of New York Press.Google Scholar
  56. Monto, M., & Hotaling, N. (2001). Predictors of rape myth acceptance among male clients of female street prostitutes. Violence Against Women, 7, 275–293.Google Scholar
  57. Mullins, C. (2006). Holding your square: Masculinities, street life and violence. Portland: Willan Publishing.Google Scholar
  58. Mullins, C. (2008). Negotiating the streets: Women, power and resistance in street-life social networks. In T. Anderson (Ed.), Neither villain nor victim: Empowerment and agency among women substance abusers (pp. 65–83). New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.Google Scholar
  59. Mullins, C., & Cherbonneau, M. (2011). Establishing connections: Gender, motor vehicle theft, and disposal networks. Justice Quarterly, 28, 278–302.Google Scholar
  60. Mullins, C., & Wright, R. (2003). Gender, social networks, and residential burglary. Criminology, 41, 813–839.Google Scholar
  61. Mullins, C., Wright, R., & Jacobs, B. (2006). Gender, streetlife and criminal retaliation. Criminology, 42, 911–940.Google Scholar
  62. Nagle, J. (1997). Whores and other feminists. New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  63. O’Brien, P. (2001). Making it in the “free world”: Women in transition from prison. New York: SUNY Press.Google Scholar
  64. O’Brien, P., & Lee, N. (2006). Moving from needs to self-efficacy: A holistic system for women in transition from prison. Women & Therapy, 29, 261–284.Google Scholar
  65. O’Brien, P., & Young, D. (2006). Challenges for formerly incarcerated women: A holistic approach to assessment. Families in Society, 87, 359–366.Google Scholar
  66. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP). (2004). Detection and prevalence of substance use among juvenile detainees. Washington, DC: Office of Justice Programs.Google Scholar
  67. Olfman, S. (Ed). (2009). The sexualization of childhood. Westport, CT: Praeger.Google Scholar
  68. Potter, H. (2015). Intersectionality and criminology: Disrupting and revolutionizing studies of crime. New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  69. Raphael, J. (2000). Saving Bernice: Battered women, welfare and poverty. Boston: Northeastern University Press.Google Scholar
  70. Raphael, J. (2004). Listening to Olivia: Violence, poverty and prostitution. Boston: Northeastern University Press.Google Scholar
  71. Raphael, J. (2007). Freeing Tammy: Women, drugs and incarceration. Boston: Northeastern University Press.Google Scholar
  72. Reinharz, S. (1992). Feminist methods in social research. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  73. Richie, B. (1996). Compelled to crime: The gender entrapment of battered black women. New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  74. Richie, B. (2001). Challenges incarcerated women face as they return to their communities: Findings from life history interviews. Crime & Delinquency, 47, 368–389.Google Scholar
  75. Rios, V. (2011). Punished: Policing the lives of black and Latino boys. New York: New York University Press.Google Scholar
  76. Russell, D. (1995). The making of a whore. Violence Against Women, 1, 77–99.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  77. Schaffner, L. (2006). Girls in trouble with the law. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press.Google Scholar
  78. Scroggins, J., & Malley, S. (2010). Reentry and the (unmet) needs of women. Journal of Offender Rehabilitation, 49, 146–163.Google Scholar
  79. Shover, N. (1996). Great pretenders: pursuits and careers of persistent thieves. Boulder, CO: Westview.Google Scholar
  80. Spjeldnes, S., Hyunzee, J., & Yamatani, H. (2014). Gender differences in jail populations: Factors to consider in reentry strategies. Journal of Offender Rehabilitation, 53, 75–94.Google Scholar
  81. Wardhaugh, J. (1999). The unaccommodated woman: Home, homelessness and identity. The Sociological Review, 47, 91–120.Google Scholar
  82. Warf, C., Clark, L., Desai, M., Rabinovitz, S., Agahi, G., Calvo, R., & Hoffman, J. (2013). Coming of age on the streets: Survival sex among homeless young women in Hollywood. Journal of Adolescence, 36, 1205–1213.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  83. Wesely, J. (2002). Growing up sexualized: Issues of power and violence in the lives of female exotic dancers. Violence Against Women, 8, 1182–1207.Google Scholar
  84. Wesely, J. (2009). “Mom said we had a money maker”: Sexualization and survival contexts among homeless women. Symbolic Interaction, 32, 91–105.Google Scholar
  85. Wesely, J. (2012). Being female: The continuum of sexualization. Boulder: Lynne Rienner Press.Google Scholar
  86. Wesely, J. & Dewey, S. (2018). Confronting gendered pathways to incarceration: Considerations for reentry programming. Social Justice, (in press).Google Scholar
  87. Wesely, J. & Miller, J. M. (2018). Justice system bias perceptions of the dually marginalized: Observations from a sample of women ex-offenders. Victims & Offenders: An International Journal of Evidence-Based Research, Policy and Practice, 14(4), 451–470.Google Scholar
  88. West, C., & Zimmerman, D. (1987). Doing gender. Gender & Society, 1, 125–151.Google Scholar
  89. Wright, R., & Decker, S. (1994). Burglars on the job: Streetlife and residential break-ins. Boston: Northeastern University Press.Google Scholar
  90. Wright, R., & Decker, S. (1997). Armed robbers in action: Stick ups and street culture. Boston: Northeastern University Press.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Criminology and Criminal JusticeUniversity of North FloridaJacksonvilleUSA

Personalised recommendations