Award Date


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Committee Member

Barbara G. Brents

Second Committee Member

Christie Batson

Third Committee Member

Marcia Gallo

Fourth Committee Member

Kate Hausbeck Korgan

Number of Pages



In a post-industrial, de-regulated economy, worker organizing is changing shape and function. While much research has focused on the decline of U.S. union organizing and the difficulty of organizing today's workers, a growing body of research on social movement unionism interrogates how "un-organizable" and "non-traditional" workers like day laborers and domestic workers are organizing. Yet sex worker activism in the U.S. is little studied, which is interesting given sex workers unique position as criminalized and contingent workers. Based on a two year ethnographic study from 2010 to 2012 of a national sex worker rights organization, the Desiree Alliance (DA), I examine the organizational structure and organizational goals of sex worker activists and their allies. I find that the Desiree Alliance embodies many characteristics of social movement unionism, such as an internally democratic structure, a reliance on a small, dedicated core of activists to maintain the organization, and an emphasis on worker development and community building over political advocacy or collective bargaining.

However, there are also aspects of the Desiree Alliance (DA) that do not fit with, and arguably problematize, the social movement unionism model. First, organizationally, as an alliance, the DA has no physical space, with decentralized leadership and diffuse membership spread across the country. Second, DA organizational goals revolve around community building and worker empowerment precisely because sex work is largely criminalized. Criminalization necessitates a strong internal support system. Further, it limits worker's political efforts to the criminal justice system. Third, anti-trafficking advocacy shapes sex workers' collective identity, and impacts the success or failure of political advocacy efforts to decriminalize sexual labor. Arguing for decriminalization from a labor rights approach has been ineffective thus far, while using a language of protection--the language of mainstream anti-trafficking advocacy--has won some gains at the state level, such as the removal of prostitution charges for someone found to be trafficked at the time of arrest. Therefore I argue that "social movement unionism" as a concept has yet to fully theorize the contemporary relationships between criminalization, contingent labor, and class, race, gender, and sexuality. Criminalized workers develop a counter-ideology in response to a socio-legal master status. In this way, worker rights intersect with citizenship rights. Social movement unionism literature fails to make explicit the role of criminalization as a form of labor control. And while social movement unionism research emphasizes the necessity of localized efforts, it has yet to parse out the different types and meanings of political advocacy. Overall, the sociological imperative to relate late capitalist worker organizing to early 20th century unionizing overshadows the changing faces and changing needs of low-wage, contingent workers in the U.S. economy.


Desiree Alliance; Labor movement; Labor unions; Prostitution; Prostitutes – Societies; etc.; Sexuality; Sex workers; Social change


Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies | Gender and Sexuality | Labor Relations | Sociology

File Format


Degree Grantor

University of Nevada, Las Vegas




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