Lockdown stories: Women who sell sex

In July last year I was on a call with a group of local
church and charity leaders. Each told the story of how the pandemic was hitting
the most vulnerable in their community. Important and all too familiar
experiences that were the core of the Gleanings research into
poverty under lockdown we published last year. One story, told by a Deacon who was
linked with what she called a “sex-worker support project”, was however unfamiliar
and very troubling. After talking to churches linked to similar projects it
became clear this was an important story that churches and not many others were
in a position to hear.

Working with the fantastic organisation Beyond the Streets, which links up projects that support women who sell sex or are sexually exploited[1], we did some research to try to understand how the women they work with were impacted by the pandemic.

Looking through the lens of poverty

JPIT has done a lot of work around poverty, hunger, and homelessness,
and at the start of this research we expected that these were the issues we
would be talking about most. We designed questionnaires and focus groups to
look at these things. We hoped that government initiatives at the start of the
pandemic like the £20 a week increase in Universal Credit and the “Everyone In”
programme which offered accommodation to those who were living on the streets would
have made a big difference in the womens’ lives. Perhaps naïvely we hoped that
these emergency measures would offer a blueprint for policies that improved lives
and expanded choices permanently.

After the first focus group we redesigned the questionnaires.
It was quite clear that the lockdowns had led to increasing problems with poverty,
debt and hunger, in the same way that we had seen in other disadvantaged
groups. It was also clear – and I am grateful for how patiently and gently it
was pointed out – that we were missing the point.

Looking through the lens of trauma

When we looked at the stories of women who sell sex or are
sexually exploited through the lens of poverty it was clear that poverty and even
extreme poverty was present. But it did not do justice to the particular
experiences these women had of lockdown.

When we looked through the lens of trauma – and what one of
our participants called “the retraumatising effect of lockdown” – it became
possible to understand the unique thread that ran through the women’s stories.

With the help of experts from Beyond the Streets and others
we began to understand how services could be effective for most people while
being completely inappropriate for these women.

Just one example is the “Everyone In” initiative to offer accommodation
to those without secure housing. It was known that mixed sex accommodation
presented difficulties, as did accommodation where women were isolated or felt
insecure. Despite the best efforts of many charities in carrying on contact and
providing support packages, many women were unable to stay in the accommodation
offered.

Perhaps most dishearteningly, we heard that leaving, or even
simply having difficulties in inappropriate accommodation, could be interpreted
as ‘bad behaviour’. Therefore, the failure to understand women’s needs and
provide suitable help ended up being seen as a failure of the women themselves

The report gives more examples of how once you understand
the effects of trauma, you can see why the support offered was often
ineffective. It also gives an insight as to why the stories of women who sell
sex or are sexually exploited where so distinctive from those of other groups
who experienced poverty through the lockdown.

Using this knowledge to improve policy

By the end of the research, it became clear that the vital services
such as housing, health care or benefits where often technically available to
these women, but in practice inaccessible. Changing that requires specialist
support to act as bridges, as well as greater awareness amongst frontline staff
of trauma and its effects.

The underlying problem – trauma and its effects – takes patient
long-term therapy to understand and manage. One of the most consistent findings
was that the lockdown led to deteriorating mental health and that mental health
support had become less accessible. Long term flourishing requires therapy and
other mental health services to be readily available.

Listening to stories

It is important to say that we can only speak to the experiences
of the women who were in contact with the projects we were working with. The
sex industry is huge and varied therefore we were only able to look at a small
piece of it. But the part we were able to look at was one where churches have quietly
been offering women support for some time.

In undertaking the research we aimed to answer a question about
how women who sell sex or are sexually exploited were affected by the lockdown.
Alongside that it has become clear is that when churches are at their best they
do as the Deacon I spoke to at the start of this process did – listen to people’s
stories with love and compassion, and allow them to change their view of the
world.

I’d invite you to read the report or visit the Beyond the Streets website to see if your preconceptions of the issues around sexual exploitation are challenged. Mine certainly were.

Read the Report


[1] We have used the rather clumsy term “women who sell sex or are sexually exploited”, as it conveys the broad range of experiences within the industry that the projects supported. The more common term “sex worker” underplays the level of exploitation some of the women supported are experiencing.

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