Challenging assumptions about sex workers

Posted on: 20 May 2015

Margot Tudor, Bristol Hub‘s new International Development and Rights co-ordinator, writes about her experiences working with One25, a charity which works with sex workers, and how her team helped them to prove and disprove assumptions about their clients during the Hub’s Social Innovation Programme.

Taking part in the Social Innovation Programme (SIP) was more than just attending some training sessions, it was an opportunity to work with a local charity and to really make a difference. I was a member of a team that were all just as passionate about taking action in Bristol as I was which transformed what could have been a simple volunteering opportunity into a real challenge to provide for our charity the best report that we could produce.

Much like the other teams who took part in the SIP we were given a task that we genuinely felt was contributing to the charity and was not just a CV filler activity. The SIP really provided us with the opportunity to get as much out of the programme as we put into it and to work on a thought-provoking and motivating project.

Our charity was the well-respected One25 who specialise in working with women who are in, or are vulnerable to, street-based sex work in Bristol. It’s a fantastic charity and one that each member of our team highly respected. We were tasked with writing a report that critically challenged One25’s theory of change and assumptions that directed their methods of helping women exit sex work.

The assumptions themselves were logical and as non-experts from the beginning we were unsure of whether we would find anything to give One25 that would genuinely aid them in their working. They had already won awards for this theory of change; what could our student consultancy team possibly do to improve such an incredible charity?

150520 Bristol sex workers blog

The answer was more than we could ever imagine. Bristol Hubs held an event for us to meet our charity partners and Gill, the CEO of One25, was very clear in laying out how important our report would be to not only for gaining wider academic support for their assumption but also as a way of gaining funding.

We spent the few weeks using our analytical and research skills to gain an understanding of the various assumptions that One25 had been using as part of their theory of change. Due to the time constraints of the SIP to one term we decided to limit our research to four of the assumptions which included: housing, drug treatment, complex trauma and family & parenting.

Housing itself was a hugely important factor to begin our research with as we soon learned just how vital a safe, stable and secure home was for street-based sex workers to help them exit the job. Many sleep rough during the day and so are rarely counted as part of the number of Bristol’s homeless which means that they have little contact with the services and volunteers that others have. One25’s night bus is therefore imperative to ensure that the women have some contact with services who can help them with not only with giving out food and condoms but with providing knowledge of health services or housing that will accept sex workers.

Having established how important housing and ensuring a stable environment for the women to feel secure, it was a logical choice to then look into the ways drug treatment can help women exit sex work. There are academic debates over whether it is drug addictions that motivates a person to enter street sex work or whether it is coping with the trauma of street based sex work that motivates a person to begin a drug addiction. And so, drug use acts as part of the cycle and ensures that women are effectively trapped until they can successful get drug treatment. We establish in our report that drug abuse and street-based sex work are wholly intertwined and that holistic treatments should be implemented by One25.

Complex trauma was the section I had to write for the report – despite the fact we all did research for all the assumptions – and I found it the most interesting assumption. Complex trauma in itself defines a specific psychological condition but we also chose to broaden this definition to include PTSD diagnoses. It is well known that a large portion of women who work in street-based sex work have been affected by physical and sexual abuse but we were shocked by the psychological impacts of emotional abuse. It is only recently that childhood emotional abuse has been evaluated as a serious motivation for women to enter street-sex work as survival sex. Our research suggested One25 look more seriously for the affects and symptoms of emotional abuse in the women they meet as it is likely to seriously affect their social skills, self-esteem and decision making – which combined leads to a mentality that sees no other feasible lifestyle other than the one they are using to survive.

Finally, family and parenting largely combined all the research that we had completed on the previous topics and allowed us to show how important positive and strong family relationships could be to motivating a woman to exit street sex work. We also argued for a broader definition of family with intimate partners and friends also having a considerable role in the support network that women use to change their lifestyle. It is problematic to say only family can provide support networks for women as many of them have had to run away from abusive family homes. There are still friends and partners who can provide that positive support though, and our report emphasises the importance of these relationships to One25.

Overall, our report attempted to show how the stigma and misconceptions of street-based sex workers was a huge hurdle for One25 to jump. Many of the women have issues finding housing and getting proper healthcare because they lack a permanent address and One25 is trying to provide services such as counselling to help these women exit what is a vicious cycle of violence.

As a student consultancy team, it was an invaluable experience to not only learn more about the practical skills of writing a report but to also discover more about the injustices that street-based sex workers have experienced and continue to experience on a day-to-day basis. One25 does an incredible job of supporting these women and I am incredibly proud that I was able to contribute to a report that we all hope will provide some help to the charity in gaining some more funding.

The SIP truly allows you to feel like you have made a genuine difference and taken action in your local area whilst cultivating skills as a student consultant and team member at the same time. I would definitely recommend it.

Interested in Social Innovation Programme where you are? Find your Hub and get involved.

Margot Tudor

Margot is Bristol Hub's International Development and Human Rights co-ordinator for 2015/16, after getting involved in the Hub and taking part in the Social Innovation Programme in her second year. She loves putting on really relevant talks on current issues to engage students in the issues behind the news stories they see, and aspires to one day work for the UN. Get in touch with her at development@bristolhub.org

Tags: International Development, Student Voice


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