Sex work can be contextualised by violence, social and material inequality, and HIV vulnerability. We undertook a qualitative study to explore female and transvestite sex workers’ accounts (n = 31) of HIV risk environment in Belgrade and Pančevo, Serbia. Violence emerged as a key theme. Accounts emphasise the ubiquity of multiple forms of everyday violence – physical, emotional, social – in street sex work scenes, linked to police as much as clients. We highlight the salience of emotions in sex work risk management, in which the preservation of dignity is of prime importance. Accounts draw upon narratives of hygiene and responsibility which, we argue, seek to resist portrayals, normative to this setting, of sex workers as contaminated and irresponsible. Findings highlight how the ubiquity of the risk of violence in street sex work scenes reflects institutionalised social inequalities and injustices. Sex workers are inevitably participant in the cycle of symbolic violence they seek to resist. The challenges for HIV prevention are therefore considerable, and require interventions which not only seek to foster safer micro-environments of sex work but structural changes in the welfare, criminal justice and other social institutions which reproduce the cycle of violence faced by sex workers day to day.