Earlier this month a spate of headlines appeared, spouting messages like: " Cash-strapped women are selling 'survival sex' for as little as £10". They were reminiscent of a similar flurry in February, which included: " UK sex workers selling themselves for as little as £5". Selling themselves. Their very souls perhaps.
It turns out that the same charity – Changing Lives – is behind both reports. Based in the North East, Changing Lives is the operating name of The Cyrenians, a Christian charity working with "people experiencing homelessness, addiction and a range of other problems". Changing Lives isn't new to controversy and was behind Newcastle's " No Need to Beg" campaign, which encouraged people not to give money directly to beggars.
The charity is a financial success, generating £15.1 million income in the tax year ending 2015 and owning tangible assets worth £12.6 million. "I suppose we're probably more commercial than other charities," chief executive Stephen Bell has said. "We know the bottom line of every scheme we operate."
Changing Lives' latest piece of research looked at the sex industry in Darlington and Durham, and was commissioned by the Durham Police and Crime Commissioner. The strong point of the report is that its interviews were carried out by sex workers, recruited via local sheltered accommodation. The study involved 20 women. Thirteen women had experienced domestic or sexual violence; five had been sexually abused by family members or ex-partners; two-thirds of the "survival" sex workers had been violently attacked or raped by punters; one woman had been kidnapped, gang raped, severely beaten, tortured and then "left for dead".
Of the lower paid "survival" workers, £150 was the most money charged, while one woman – who made the headline – said she's charged as little as £10, in "desperate times when she has needed to secure a fix quickly".
Crucially, 11 of the 20 women interviewed live in supported accommodation and others have lived in this type of housing in the past.
The report is heart-breaking, highlighting lives of abuse and deprivation. However, this is a niche demographic, reflecting some of the most deeply vulnerable people in our society. Desperately in need of resources, yes, but widely representative of the entire sex industry, absolutely not.
The report highlights the pathways of poverty and abuse that leave women with few options. However, painting sex workers as an entirely separate population, whose lives, needs and desires are distinct from everyone else, will ultimately change none of this.
"Over half of the women noted that it's the 'normal' things in life that make them happy," reads the Changing Lives report. The "normal things" – almost like they're normal people, huh? It should be obvious, but it's also the "normal things" that sex workers need to outright survive. Things like housing, childcare, food, healthcare, accessible social services, humane immigration policy, a safe place in society.
Most current debate around sex work is focused on the pros and cons of various legal models: complete decriminalisation vs. the Nordic Model, which criminalises the sex buyer rather than the sex worker. While Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and nearly all sex worker-led organisations worldwide agree that the full decriminalisation of sex work is the best way to ensure the health and safety of sex workers, Laura Seebohm, the woman behind Changing Lives' women's services favours the Nordic Model, a stance that seems to conflict with her own research.
The report reveals a significant number of women engaging in "survival sex work", defined as the "exchange of sex to meet survival needs, monetary or otherwise". Alternative currencies include somewhere to sleep, alcohol, drugs, food and tobacco.
This is a huge grey area, in which abusive relationships, casual transactional liaisons and what's commonly understood as "sex work" overlap. The Nordic Model would do nothing to protect women who decide they need to exchange sex for a place to stay that night. The point is, they shouldn't be in this situation to begin with.
For those who see sex work unequivocally as violence against women, of course, the logic is different. Consent is meaningless and sex workers who claim otherwise are delusional puppets of the patriarchy. Changing Lives falls into this camp. In its report, the charity says, "Northumbria Police have reported positive impacts when police officers have engaged in [the charity's] 'sex work and sexual exploitation' training." Confusingly, though, when I contact Changing Lives, it tells me the only training they offer is on child sexual exploitation.
Reports like this force sex work arguments to the peripheries, leaving unexamined the vast mainstream of the industry. It can feel like a red flag and polarises debate. With so many lurid headlines, no wonder some sex workers have been eager to claim "But I'm empowered! I'm educated! This is my choice!"
In reality, most of us – sex workers or otherwise – make choices that are constrained; by money, by health, by class and race and gender and all the other things which confer advantage or disadvantage. Most sex work exists between the dramatic mountains of joy or coercion, on the less colourful plains of ordinary flats, parlours and budget hotel rooms, offering unexciting sex to unexciting men, not for pennies but not for great riches either. Things probably swing between being good and boring and horrible and sometimes scary, perhaps because of clients, perhaps because of the police.
It's time for sex work to be discussed as part of the larger mess our society is in; as one of many strategies for coping with this and not as an exotic aberration. Though the headlines will be less juicy.
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