The effect of Covid-19 on women who sell sex or are sexually exploited

In May 2021, the Joint Public Issues Team published research with the charity Beyond the Streets into the effect of Covid-19 on women who are sexually exploited or sell sex. The issue was brought up at a focus group with local churches and communities which JPIT ran around a year ago, when we were still getting to grips with the impacts of Covid-19. My colleague Paul has written about how we came to undertake this research in more depth here.

When I was asked to help out with researching the project
early on in my internship, I was confronted by my own ignorance – this wasn’t a
topic where I had prior knowledge or insight. As it turned out, that in itself
was telling. What became increasingly clear during our research period was that
this was a group of people who have been persistently forgotten – not just by
the public, but in policy responses by government as well. Littered throughout
our research was one word in particular: trauma.

Not all women who sell sex are dealing with past or
persistent trauma. But for the support agencies we talked to, many of whom work
primarily with women facing multiple disadvantage, trauma looms large as an
ongoing reality. Not only does trauma adversely affect mental health, but it
also makes it much more difficult for women to engage with and access support
services – including those which were introduced to alleviate the worst effects
of the pandemic.

Trauma doesn’t only make it harder for women to access
services, and it didn’t simply deepen the effect of problems caused by lockdown
and the pandemic. The pandemic in itself had what one respondent called a
‘re-traumatising effect’ – deepening the cycle of difficulty faced by some
women who sell sex or are sexually exploited.

One of the Joint Public Issues Team’s Six Hopes for Society
is for a just economy
that enables the flourishing of all life
. Another is for a society where the
poorest and most marginalised are at the centre
. At the heart of both of
these hopes is a belief in the dignity of all human life – a belief that God
cares for and loves all people, and that Jesus came so that we could have life
in all its fullness (John 10:10).

If people in our society are unable to access the services that they need to live a safe, healthy, and fulfilled life, then they are not experiencing life in all its fullness. If people in our society are homeless or in unstable housing, they are not experiencing life in all its fullness. And if people in our society are experiencing the re-traumatising effects of lockdown, then they are not experiencing life in all its fullness.

We pursued this work because, as churches, we believe that
the way our society is run can be better: more compassionate and more
Christ-like. It’s not right that the impacts of lockdown fell more squarely
onto the shoulders of people who were already struggling, including women who
sell sex or are sexually exploited, particularly those who have experienced
trauma.

We identified a set of issues which were specifically
affecting this group of women. Food insecurity, income loss, isolation and
housing problems, as well as decreased access to services, were all issues
which were flagged. We noted that many people in society were facing similar
problems – but for many of the women supported by the charities we spoke to,
the exacerbating factor of trauma amplified and deepened these problems. You
can read our
full findings
and a
summary of the report
here.

One of the issues which we encountered during this research
was that women who sell sex or are sexually exploited often needed more and
different support to access benefits, including Universal Credit. Churches have
long advocated for a more compassionate benefits system, which offers enough for
people to live in dignity and safety. This means more than simply increasing
the weekly payment to a liveable amount – although, of course, this is vital –
it’s also about ensuring that the benefits system accounts for differences in
circumstances. In this case, it might mean that the application process needs
to be more accommodating of acting through an intermediary charity like the
ones we spoke to as part of our research, and that trauma-informed approaches
need to be layered into the ways that the benefits system works. The report
shows that the benefits system disproportionately sanctions those with mental
health problems: the system fails to cope when presented with claimants who may
be experiencing multiple disadvantage or other complications.

Public services, including benefits like Universal Credit,
need to be available and truly accessible to all who might need them if they
are to be adequate and meaningful. To enable life in all its fullness, we must
cater for the most marginalised in our communities in the way that we relate to
one another and provide services as a society. If women who sell sex or are
sexually exploited are excluded from policy and understanding, we’ve failed to
open up our society and support systems to everyone who might need it.

Our report goes into more detail about the experiences which we heard about and the solutions which might begin to redress a historic failure to consider the impact of trauma when accessing services.

Read the report

My colleague Paul has written a blog summarising the research and explaining the process of writing the report. You can read it here:

Read Paul’s blog

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