Graduation Year


Document Type




Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)

Degree Granting Department


Major Professor

Michael J. Lynch, Ph.D.

Co-Major Professor

Max L. Bromley, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Dawn K. Cecil, Ph.D.

Committee Member

John K. Cochran, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Leonard Territo, Ed.D.


Social construction, media, prostitution, film, newsmaking criminology


This study examined media portrayals of street-level prostitution. The objectives of this research were twofold. The first was to examine the nature of the film industry’s portrayal of females engaging in street-level prostitution in the United States in the following areas: 1) entry into sex work; 2) the economic need behind the women’s involvement; 3) experiences of childhood victimization; 4) presence and role of pimps; 5) drug/alcohol abuse; 6) victimization; and 7) mental/physical health. The second objective was to determine if this media coverage is analogous to extant research on these aspects of prostitution culture.

The Unified Film Population Identification Methodology was used to identify 15 major motion pictures depicting street-level prostitution that were released in the United States between 1990 and 2014; these films were analyzed using media content analysis. The review of the prostitution literature (encompassing the disciplines of criminology, sociology, victimology, and health) consisted of an examination of 77 studies. The content of this literature was used to determine if the portrayal of prostitutes and prostitution in film are accurate. In addition, an Assessment Index was created to allow for the comparison of films to characteristics of prostitution in the extant literature.

Media content analysis revealed that the films in this study did not accurately portray female street prostitutes; while not necessarily misrepresented, movies tended to provide an incomplete picture of the reality of prostitution. These findings are important because media portrayals of prostitution have the capacity to influence public opinion of prostitutes and prostitution. Overall, films in this sample presented prostitutes in such a way that failed to mobilize moral outrage and did not encourage viewers to care about the issue of prostitution. This can subsequently affect the types of policies they expect legislators to implement and police to employ as a means of responding to prostitution. Therefore, it is important that researchers and educators involve themselves in the social construction of public opinion, thereby having the capacity to offer alternate themes of crime, criminals, and justice. This will allow for a better-educated public to make a distinction between the veracity of prostitution and what is created by the media.