04:26pm Friday 15 December 2017

Experiences of sex workers key to tackling exploitation

Research by Dr Jane Dodsworth suggests that those who are likely to be to be most vulnerable to sexual exploitation and those most likely to be able to manage their life experiences is determined by the accumulation of risk factors, particularly in early childhood, the individual, family and community resources available to them, and the meaning they give to early experiences of adversity.

Dr Dodsworth looked at whether it was possible to identify different risk factors (such as abuse and neglect), protective factors (such as supportive relatives or teachers) and ‘critical moments’ – a violent attack for example – that influence routes into, through and out of sexual exploitation and sex work, so that people at risk could be identified earlier and services improved.

“Individuals attach different meanings to the same sort of event and this has implications for their sense of self-esteem and self-worth,” said Dr Dodsworth.  “For example, a young person who has experienced violence in her childhood might view it, if experienced in a sexually abusive context, as something she deserves, whereas another young woman with similar childhood experiences might feel it is unacceptable and a violent attack might enable to her realise she deserves better and be a catalyst to stop.”

The findings are published in a new book, Pathways into Sexual Exploitation and Sex Work: The Experience of Victimhood and Agency, which explores the stories of 24 sex workers, half of whom were sexually exploited as young people. The study investigated factors influencing the women’s involvement in selling sex and aimed to gain an insight into the meaning for them of their experiences of childhood, adolescence, adulthood, parenting, relationships and their coping strategies.

Dr Dodsworth, Director of the BA in Social Work at UEA’s School of Social Work, is a former social worker with young people involved in sexual exploitation and previously developed and ran multi-agency forums and training on child sexual exploitation.

“While reasons for entry into sex work are well documented, reasons for leaving or continuing, particularly from those involved, are less clear,” said Dr Dodsworth. “The aim was to listen to these women’s stories, to understand the meaning of sex work for them, how it fits into their lives, how they define it and how it defines them.

“Prejudices and assumptions continue, but an understanding of the perspectives of sexually exploited young people and adult sex workers is crucial to the development of policy and intervention nationally and locally. Pathways into and choice, or lack of choice, about involvement in selling sex varies. Whatever the situation, support is more effectively delivered if we listen to what those involved have to say. My findings suggest the need for a person-centred, therapeutic approach to policy and practice with everyone, whatever their age.  The women I interviewed spoke of the importance of somebody ‘being there’, not only to talk about selling sex and its impact but to see them as a whole person.”

The women who took part in the study were aged between 18 and 65, with most describing disadvantaged backgrounds and childhood histories of abuse, neglect or rejection. Eighteen women described using and misusing drugs and/or alcohol. Most of the women had been in abusive and/or coercive relationships, and of the 17 who were parents, only seven had their children living with them or retained contact.

Age of first involvement in selling sex ranged from 14 to 31 years old. Half of the women were under 18 when they first became involved. At the time of the interviews 15 were involved in sex work, four were not but said they might return and five had left with no expressed intention of returning.

While all the participants were female, Dr Dodsworth suggests that many of the risk and protective factors identified are also relevant to male and transgender sex workers, who are likely to experience similar difficulty and vulnerability.

Dr Dodsworth said: “The aim of this book is to stay true to the stories told by the women; they are experts in their own lives. Different sex markets bring different risks, dilemmas and therefore different choices. Once involved some adult women felt strongly that they have a right to make a choice to continue selling sex as a means of funding their lives, and develop coping strategies to enable them to do so. Some have become enmeshed and can see no way out, others have left in order to survive. For young people at risk of sexual exploitation, acknowledgement of their sense of choice is equally important in finding ways to work with them to ensure that they are safeguarded.

“Services have to start from the beginning, supporting families because the problems start in early childhood. We can stop this at a much earlier stage, the earlier the better. These women were often wary of people in authority, such as the police and social workers, partly because of their background history. Where it really made a difference was when someone treated them like a human being.”

Dr Dodsworth identified three groups among the women interviewed:

Group one – ‘All I’ve got – for whom involvement of sex work has become almost all consuming. With negatives feelings of self-worth and often addicted to drugs, this group have a perception of having no choice but to stay involved in sex work.  This is no longer just work it has become who they feel they are.

Group two – ‘What I do’ – this group of women have a perception of choice about whether they remain involved or exit and a greater sense of self-esteem that the first group. For them sex work is seen as a job or work, a means to an end that does not define them. It is what they do not who they are.

Group three – ‘Not for me’ – these women feel they have no choice but to cease involvement in order that they are not consumed by sex work.

Pathways into Sexual Exploitation and Sex Work: The Experience of Victimhood and Agency, is published by Palgrave Macmillan.

University of East Anglia


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