This joint blog between Davina James-Hanman, Director of Against Violence and Abuse (AVA), and Martin Barnes, Chief Executive of Drugscope, considers the challenges many women involved in street prostitution face, including homelessness, as they aim to rebuild their lives.
Women involved in street-based prostitution who misuse drugs and/or alcohol are one of the most marginalised and stigmatised groups in our society, and often experience violence, poverty and homelessness. Yet they are rarely discussed in these terms, and too often are absent from policy and practice addressing the needs of the most vulnerable. At a time when ‘sex work’ can be normalised, and even glamourised, the reality is that women involved in prostitution often use drugs and/or alcohol to cope with selling sex (and the violence and abuse in their lives) and often sell sex to support addiction. It is a vicious circle.
Housing is a major issue for this group of women. Almost half of those interviewed for AVA and Drugscope’s recent report, The Challenge of Change: Improving services for women involved in prostitution and substance use, mentioned either receiving or needing help with a housing issue, either short term or longer term. For example:
They’ve been fantastic. I’m really lucky to have had them around at some points or I wouldn’t have a roof over my head some nights. [WM-7]
The long term nature of the problem is illustrated by another interviewee who explained she wanted ’secure housing’ because she was in constant fear of her children being taken away from her if she lost her house. This can also have an impact on access to treatment:
I’ve got a friend who wants me to go into rehab because of my drinking … but I’m not sure it’d help … I’m just getting settled where I am and there are people I know and trust and … I feel at home and feel safe again. I don’t want to jeopardise that by going to a rehab and my landlord giving a place up to someone else because I’m not there. [WM-8]
Another issue raised in many interviews was the importance of developing a new social circle and an opportunity to move area. As one interviewee said:
… if I was still living with anyone who was using then I’d still be working, but I moved away from the area and I moved away from people I used to associate with, those I’d go out with, go work with, go buy drugs with – I cut everybody off and moved away. [WM-9]
We asked women for their preferred terminology and used that terminology throughout interviews. For the purpose of this blog, we have used ‘women involved in prostitution’ as a term that does not define women by the act of selling sex, but also recognises that selling sex is not a job like any other. We are aware that different agencies use different terminology and we welcome submissions from all regardless of preferred language.
Women involved in prostitution and substance use have complex, entrenched problems and the process of change and recovery is likely to take a long time. The availability of a range of support, from harm reduction and treatment services to services to help them exit prostitution and support their ongoing recovery, is therefore crucial. Employment support and stable housing are key factors in this.
We want to hear from women themselves about what support they think works; also from innovative services that are addressing women’s employment, accommodation, health and recovery needs.
We are keen to hear from a range of agencies including:
- Sexual health services
- Safety support
- Legal/advocacy advice
- Exiting prostitution support
- Employment and skills projects
- Housing/homelessness services
Please also submit any relevant research so we can gather this together to improve the support out there for women.
*All images used during this theme in emails and across www.rebuildingshatteredlives.org are stock images. The women photographed are not connected with the subject matter.