Hidden for Survival – Peer Research into the lives of sex workers

Blog post written by Laura Seebohm, Director of Women and Criminal Justice Services at Changing Lives, Gateshead and on the Women’s Breakout Board of Trustees

What Changing Lives found out about sex work in the UK by using Peer Research

shameWhen we think about sex work what images enter our head?

A women leaning into a car on a street or Billie Piper or a window in Amsterdam? Similarly, our imagery around sexual exploitation is probably informed by recent high profile media cases such as Rotherham, Oxford and Rochdale.

When Changing Lives started the Girls Are Proud (GAP) service back in 2006 to support women involved in sex work we had very little idea what it ‘looked like’ in Tyne and Wear. There is no typical ‘red light district’ and most authorities and professionals were unaware of its existence. All we knew was the account of three young women, who each talked candidly about their experiences, describing a world which was hidden from view.

Our task back then was to work out how we were going to reach out to these women. Our first step was to start up a weekly ‘drop-in’ in a church hall in central Newcastle, with the three women we did know and asked them to bring others who might be interested. They did and fairly soon we had a regular group of ten coming along on a Friday afternoon.

We learnt a lot in those early days. These women did not fit in with any regular stereotypes of sex workers. They were women with a range of complex needs and vulnerabilities. They were known to many professionals – social workers, homeless agencies, police, drugs and alcohol workers – but did not disclose their lives in relation to sex work to anyone.

Their common experiences of violence and exploitation were unreported and unacknowledged. It appeared that the hidden nature of sex work exacerbated the stigma and shame associated with this element of their lives. We also understood that there were many more young women across the area with similar vulnerabilities engaged in sex work and exposed to sexual exploitation.

At this time there were very few professionals who listened openly to what we had to say. Maybe there was a reluctance to open this can or lift this stone. There was scepticism about the nature and extent of sex work and sexual exploitation that we were describing. So we decided we needed to demonstrate what we were talking by finding a way to allow the women’s voices to be heard.

Peer Research

In 2007 we carried out our first piece of Peer Research – a methodology where those with lived experience interview peers as a means to gain unique access and rich data. Given the level of stigma and difficulties gaining access to this group, we knew that neither professionals nor academics would be able to gain the trust needed to interview this group.

We trained a group of five women and one man in basic research techniques. Each of them came with their own experiences of sex work. We supported them to devise a questionnaire and this group of peer researchers then went out and interviewed 86 individuals across Tyne and Wear. The findings from this research, named ‘Hidden for Survival’, was hard hitting, touching and, in parts, shocking.

The Findings

The link between sex work and poverty was palpable – selling sex for a roof over your head, for laundry, tiny amounts of money, a packet of cigarettes, a bottle of cider. The level of violence experienced through the course of their work was terrifying; as was the negative experiences of police responses when this was reported. It was of no surprise that so many said they would never report it:

‘There’s no way on planet earth they’d listen to a word a junkies got to say over the word of a business man they’d think I was lying. Plus the fact I would have been proper done in off him and his mates’; ‘I would have got no sympathy I didn’t want to talk about it and it would have been turned around. I deserved it. I choose to do this job, not them’

The level of money spent on drugs each and every day by many respondents was extortionate and this was a clear route into sex work: ‘It just happened I got 500 tick (credit) off [dealers name] and then he said that was it and I had to work or I was going to be done in, that was that and I’ve worked for him for two years and I’m still in debt’. ‘I had no choice it was working or done in or killed and I mean that’.

‘I went out one night as rattling me arse off, some bloke asked if I was doing business, I did it, I cried all the way through and was so desperate to get away I forgot the money, it was the drugs not really me, it’s as simple as that’.

Sex work took place in a range of locations, but fast food outlets featured again and again:

‘The lads in the pizza shop are no bother, if you’re starving they give you a pizza and if you need a client they always find them for you’; ‘I give the owner £20 a night and he lets me see punters in the back room while they waiting for their scran (food)’

The importance of this methodology was clear when we look at the findings in relation to such personal areas of life such as sexual health. Women were saying repeatedly how they get paid more if they do not use a condom:

‘It depends on the price, if they want to pay more for without well, I don’t know, I need the money it can be the difference in having to see one punter or two’.

However, most poignant was the sense of lost childhoods and lost opportunities for happiness:

‘I used to go into dancing competitions and I used to love it, I can’t do it anymore cause I’ve got track marks up my neck and I’m completely ashamed of myself’.

Sharing the Findings

The dissemination of the findings from ‘Hidden for Survival’ had a significant impact for us on many levels. The immediate acceptance and support we received from Northumbria Police was unexpected; as has been their ongoing pragmatic approach to support women as victims of sexual exploitation rather than criminalise them. Of course the odd individual Police Officer has continued to treat women abysmally but this is the exception rather than the rule.

The response of some Local Authorities did not reflect that of the Police. A few of the six authorities across the Tyne and Wear area were concerned about the negative impact our findings may have around sexual exploitation. The tendency to push under the carpet rather than explore further appears to be widespread in relation to this issue.

The Peer Researchers presented their work across the country as there was considerable interest in this methodology. This was a fantastic experience – we travelled to Glasgow, Manchester and London and we saw genuine horizons broadening and routes out to exit sex work. It also exposed them to the polemic academic discourse which continues to exist in relation to sex work, as either a legitimate form of work and choice or as exploited individuals. Neither of these descriptions resonated with the reality of lives for our researchers and we had a responsibility to ensure they were not negatively impacted by these often vicious debates.

The research impacted on the GAP project as we were able to demonstrate a need for a service. Our funding moved from charitable grants to mainstream Local Authority and our links with health and criminal justice improved.

We were funded to deliver multi-agency training across the region, raising awareness across a range of professions including GPs, midwives, health visitors, sexual health, probation service, prison officers, police and drug/alcohol services.

Moving Forward

In 2012, we repeated the peer research project. The findings were similar, however the sense of isolation and stigma of women was lessened – the peer research had served to increase understanding and, we hope enhanced empathy for a group of women so often seen as ‘mad, sad or bad’. The impact was even greater, including:

  • Northumbria Police strategic response to sex work includes the deployment of Police Officers as ‘Dedicated Liaison Officers’ linking with GAP with particular responsibility for sex work and sexual exploitation;
  • The involvement of GAP staff in a multi-agency hub with Police and Social Workers to directly respond to concerns around young people and sexual exploitation.

More recently we have used this same technique to explore the extent and nature of sex work across Durham and Darlington. Our report reflects a similar account, in an area where little has been known or acknowledged, into sex work and sexual exploitation. We started a drop-in with the few women we knew; trained them in basic research techniques and they then went and interviewed their peers.

Findings are similar, however, there is one additional finding – respondents for this study described past experiences of child sexual exploitation similar to the stories we hear from recent high profile cases, and they themselves link these experiences into a progression into adult sex work. We ask ourselves whether the line between exploitation and consent occurs at midnight on a seventeenth birthday.

We hope that this model to explore the reality and diversity of experiences of those exposed to sex work and sexual exploitation may be replicated in other areas by other organisations.


The text from this blog post first appeared in Standard Issue Magazine http://standardissuemagazine.com/misc/changing-lives-hidden-for-survival/

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