In July last year I was on a call with a group of local church and charity leaders. Each told the story of how the pandemic was hitting the most vulnerable in their community. Important and all too familiar experiences that were the core of the Gleanings research into poverty under lockdown we published last year. One story, told by a Deacon who was linked with what she called a “sex-worker support project”, was however unfamiliar and very troubling. After talking to churches linked to similar projects it became clear this was an important story that churches and not many others were in a position to hear.
Working with the fantastic organisation Beyond the Streets, which links up projects that support women who sell sex or are sexually exploited , we did some research to try to understand how the women they work with were impacted by the pandemic.
Looking through the lens of poverty
JPIT has done a lot of work around poverty, hunger, and homelessness, and at the start of this research we expected that these were the issues we would be talking about most. We designed questionnaires and focus groups to look at these things. We hoped that government initiatives at the start of the pandemic like the £20 a week increase in Universal Credit and the “Everyone In” programme which offered accommodation to those who were living on the streets would have made a big difference in the womens’ lives. Perhaps naïvely we hoped that these emergency measures would offer a blueprint for policies that improved lives and expanded choices permanently.
After the first focus group we redesigned the questionnaires. It was quite clear that the lockdowns had led to increasing problems with poverty, debt and hunger, in the same way that we had seen in other disadvantaged groups. It was also clear – and I am grateful for how patiently and gently it was pointed out – that we were missing the point.
Looking through the lens of trauma
When we looked at the stories of women who sell sex or are sexually exploited through the lens of poverty it was clear that poverty and even extreme poverty was present. But it did not do justice to the particular experiences these women had of lockdown.
When we looked through the lens of trauma – and what one of our participants called “the retraumatising effect of lockdown” – it became possible to understand the unique thread that ran through the women’s stories.
With the help of experts from Beyond the Streets and others we began to understand how services could be effective for most people while being completely inappropriate for these women.
Just one example is the “Everyone In” initiative to offer accommodation to those without secure housing. It was known that mixed sex accommodation presented difficulties, as did accommodation where women were isolated or felt insecure. Despite the best efforts of many charities in carrying on contact and providing support packages, many women were unable to stay in the accommodation offered.
Perhaps most dishearteningly, we heard that leaving, or even simply having difficulties in inappropriate accommodation, could be interpreted as ‘bad behaviour’. Therefore, the failure to understand women’s needs and provide suitable help ended up being seen as a failure of the women themselves
The report gives more examples of how once you understand the effects of trauma, you can see why the support offered was often ineffective. It also gives an insight as to why the stories of women who sell sex or are sexually exploited where so distinctive from those of other groups who experienced poverty through the lockdown.
Using this knowledge to improve policy
By the end of the research, it became clear that the vital services such as housing, health care or benefits where often technically available to these women, but in practice inaccessible. Changing that requires specialist support to act as bridges, as well as greater awareness amongst frontline staff of trauma and its effects.
The underlying problem – trauma and its effects – takes patient long-term therapy to understand and manage. One of the most consistent findings was that the lockdown led to deteriorating mental health and that mental health support had become less accessible. Long term flourishing requires therapy and other mental health services to be readily available.
Listening to stories
It is important to say that we can only speak to the experiences of the women who were in contact with the projects we were working with. The sex industry is huge and varied therefore we were only able to look at a small piece of it. But the part we were able to look at was one where churches have quietly been offering women support for some time.
In undertaking the research we aimed to answer a question about how women who sell sex or are sexually exploited were affected by the lockdown. Alongside that it has become clear is that when churches are at their best they do as the Deacon I spoke to at the start of this process did – listen to people’s stories with love and compassion, and allow them to change their view of the world.
I’d invite you to read the report or visit the Beyond the Streets website to see if your preconceptions of the issues around sexual exploitation are challenged. Mine certainly were.
 We have used the rather clumsy term “women who sell sex or are sexually exploited”, as it conveys the broad range of experiences within the industry that the projects supported. The more common term “sex worker” underplays the level of exploitation some of the women supported are experiencing.