Black Women Sex Workers: Identity, Black Feminist Consciousness, and Acculturated Stress

Sociologist Stephanie L. Tatum discusses the stress Black women sex workers experience having to navigate dominant culture in her 2010 Black Sexualities essay.

Tatum states the information in this essay best helps practitioners, researchers, and policy makers who do work on Black women sex workers that experience acculturated stress. According to Tatum, acculturated stress is “the hostility and discomfort felt by Blacks when their interactions with Whites are negative.”1

Often, discriminatory practices precede these negative interactions and thus racial hegemony serves as the core of these interactions. Black women experience what describes as “multiple hierarchy stratification” and lack financial security, quality education and social mobility. Nevertheless, people who study sex work rarely debate the structural barriers that keep women in this industry.

Tatum blends a Black feminist and social psychological lens to formulate her argument. According to Tatum, Black feminists insist Black women experience discrimination due to their race and gender because dominant society defines the appropriate social roles for Black women, which precludes sex work. Yet, Black women have difficulty leaving the profession of sex work because people perceive them as fulfilling their role as the sexually available other.

Scholars like Catherine MacKinnon argue prostitutes have no liberty because prostitution gives men personhood while robbing prostitutes of agency.From a social psychological perspective, racial identity matters for self-definition and definition of social groups. Since a person’s behavior is a function of their environment, Black women sex workers interactions and sexual exchanges might reveal insight about their psychological well-being. Black women sex workers are exposed to various triggers but might continue the work because they feel are there are no other options due to their lack of formal education.

Tatum analyzed 30 studies on Black women sex workers.They categorized them as: sex workers, racial identity, Black feminism, and acculturated stress. This generated insight about psychological distress, multiple hierarchy stratification, risky behaviors and inequitable treatment. Research indicates sex workers face a multitude of obstacles:

  • Poor married women who are prostitutes do it because their husbands do not seek unemployment
  • Sex workers are  among the working poor
  • Sexist and racist experiences trigger psychological distress

For Black women, this also includes inherent discrimination based on race, gender, physical appearance, class, and age.

Tatum found that immersion or internalization of Black identity leads to a significant relationship between racial socialization and acculturative stress. People perceive Black women as sexually available, treating them like prostitutes whether they are or not. Women who refuse get treated unfavorably:

Their findings illustrate the need to develop paradigms that articulate negative consequences associated with racism and sexism, particularly for counseling psychologists, because these episodes are important sources of psychological distress for Black women 2

Tatum found that Black women sex workers engage in risky sexual behaviors and regular drug use to increase confidence and manage their sense of guilt and sexual distress. Moral judgment places the sex work industry underground. Therefore sex workers need laws to protect their rights. However this type of advocacy gets challenged by those who do not see sex work as work. Those who do say fail to recognize sex work as a colonial and imperial practice with racist, classist, sexist and ethnocentric implications.

  1. (Tatum 2010: 312) 
  2. (Tatum 2010:318).