Street-Level Bureaucrats and Ethical Conflicts in Service Provision to Sex Workersedit
Social workers and other service providers are the agents that often have initial contact with sex workers, a highly stigmatised population that has a fraught history with the social work profession. In this paper, I use Lipsky’s theory of street-level bureaucracy and show how social workers use professional discretion when working with this population, even as it might conflict with their personal ethics. Specifically, I focus on the dual service technologies of abstinence and harm reduction, and how service providers have negotiated these technologies in their work with sex workers. In regards to these technologies, I focus on how the emotional and moral discourse surrounding sex work has shaped the response of street-level bureaucrats (SLBs) that work with this population. Using qualitative data from interviews with 29 frontline service providers in a midwestern US state, I argue that these frontline workers use interpersonal modes of discretion to understand ethical conflicts in working with sex trade-involved persons, conflicting with both agency and field-level policy. Implications of this project show how frontline service providers negotiate their responsibilities to this population amidst conflicting personal ethics and service technologies.