Debates about sex workers often fail to feature the voices of the women involved. Laura Seebohm, director of Women’s Services at Changing Lives, explores and explains some of the charity’s insightful research.
A woman leaning into a car window on a dimly-lit street? Billie Piper as Belle de Jour? A window in Amsterdam?
Turn your thoughts to sexual exploitation and it’s a fair bet the conjured imagery will be informed by recent high-profile cases in Rotherham, Oxford and Rochdale.
When Changing Lives started the Girls Are Proud (GAP) service back in 2006 to support women involved in sex work, we had very little idea what it ‘looked like’ in Tyne and Wear, where the project is based. There is no typical red light district and most authorities and professionals were unaware of its existence.
All we knew was the account of three young women, who talked candidly about their experiences, describing a world which was hidden from view.
Our task back then was to work out how we were going to reach out to these women, and our first step was to start up a weekly ‘drop-in’ in a church hall in central Newcastle with these three women, who we asked to bring others who might be interested.
Fairly soon we had a regular group of 10 coming along on a Friday afternoon.
“The link between sex work and poverty was palpable – selling sex for a roof over your head, for laundry, tiny amounts of money, a packet of cigarettes, a bottle of cider.”
We learned a lot in those early days. These women did not fit in with any regular stereotypes of sex workers. They were women with a range of complex needs and vulnerabilities. They were known to many professionals – social workers, homeless agencies, police, drugs and alcohol workers – but did not disclose their lives in relation to sex work to anyone.
Their common experiences of violence and exploitation were unreported and unacknowledged. It appeared the hidden nature of sex work exacerbated the stigma and shame associated with this element of their lives.
We also learned there were many more young women across the area with similar vulnerabilities engaged in sex work and exposed to sexual exploitation.
At the time there were very few professionals who listened openly to what we had to say. There was a scepticism about the nature and extent of the sex work and sexual exploitation we were describing. We decided we needed to demonstrate what we were talking by finding a way to allow the women’s voices to be heard.
“Their common experiences of violence and exploitation were unreported and unacknowledged.”
In 2007 we carried out our first piece of peer research – a methodology where those with real-life experience interview peers as a means to gain unique access and insight.
We trained a group of five women and one man in basic research techniques. Each of them came with their own experiences of sex work. We supported them to devise a questionnaire and this group went out and interviewed 86 individuals across Tyne and Wear.
The findings from this research, named Hidden for Survival, were hard hitting, touching and, in parts, shocking. The link between sex work and poverty was palpable – selling sex for a roof over your head, for laundry, tiny amounts of money, a packet of cigarettes, a bottle of cider.
The level of violence experienced through the course of their work was terrifying; as was the negative experiences of police responses when this was reported. It was of no surprise that so many said they would never report it: “There’s no way on planet earth they’d listen to a word a junkie has got to say over the word of a businessman. They’d think I was lying. Plus the fact I would have been proper done in off him and his mates.”
The level of money spent on drugs each and every day by many respondents was extortionate and this was a clear route into sex work: “It just happened I got 500 tick [credit] off [dealer’s name] and then he said that was it and I had to work or I was going to be done in. I’ve worked for him for two years and I’m still in debt. I had no choice it was working or done in or killed and I mean that.”
Sex work took place in a range of locations, but fast food outlets featured again and again: “The lads in the pizza shop are no bother. If you’re starving they give you a pizza and if you need a client they always find them for you. I give the owner £20 a night and he lets me see punters in the back room while they’re waiting for their scran [food]”.
In relation to such personal areas of life as sexual health, it was frightening to hear women saying repeatedly how they get paid more if they do not use a condom.
Most poignant though, was the sense of lost childhoods and lost opportunities for happiness: “I used to go into dancing competitions and I loved it. I can’t do it anymore cause I’ve got track marks up my neck and I’m completely ashamed of myself.”
The dissemination of the findings from Hidden for Survival had a significant impact for Changing Lives on many levels. The immediate acceptance and support we received from the local force, Northumbria Police was unexpected; as has been their ongoing pragmatic approach to support women as victims of sexual exploitation rather than criminalise them.
However, the response of some local authorities did not reflect that of the police. The tendency to push under the carpet rather than explore further appeared to be widespread in relation to this issue. The Peer Researchers presented their work across the country, travelling to Glasgow, Manchester and London; we saw genuine horizons broadening and routes to exit sex work.
“These women did not fit in with any regular stereotypes of sex workers. They were women with a range of complex needs and vulnerabilities.”
The experience also exposed them to the polemic academic discourse which continues to exist in relation to sex work, as either a legitimate form of work and choice; or as a group of exploited individuals. Neither of these descriptions resonated with the reality of lives for our researchers and we had a responsibility to ensure they were not negatively impacted by these often vicious debates.
The 2007 research had a huge influence on the GAP project as we were able to demonstrate a need for a service. Our funding moved from charitable grants to mainstream local authority funding. Our links with health and criminal justice improved and we were able to set up MAP for men exposed to sexual exploitation.
We were funded to deliver multi-agency training across the north-east region, raising awareness across a range of professions including GPs, midwives, health visitors, sexual health, probation service, prison officers, police and drug/alcohol services.
In 2012, we repeated the peer research project. The findings were similar, however the women’s sense of isolation and stigma had lessened – the research had served to increase understanding and, we hope enhanced empathy for a group of women so often feel they’re seen as ‘mad, sad or bad’.
“The response of some local authorities did not reflect that of the police. The tendency to push under the carpet rather than explore further appears to be widespread in relation to this issue.”
More recently we have used this same technique to explore the extent and nature of sex work across County Durham. Our report, to be published imminently, reflects a similar account in an area where little has been known or acknowledged into sex work and sexual exploitation.
However, there is one additional finding – respondents for this study described past experiences of child sexual exploitation similar to the stories we hear from the recent high-profile cases, and themselves link these experiences to a progression into adult sex work.
Perhaps one of the important questions we should be asking is: Does an exploited teenager become a consensual sex worker when the clock strikes midnight on her last day as a 17-year-old?
Changing Lives is a north-east based, national charity which supports vulnerable people and families and helps them make positive and lasting changes towards a fulfilling life.
Every day their frontline staff deal with the homeless, addicts, the abused, sex workers and the unemployed who need help.
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