Survival Sex: A Violent, Dangerous Game

Nonprofit media organizations, Ending global inequality, legalizing sex work, England, sex worker rights in UK, violence against sex workers, drug use among sex workers, Sweden, Nordic Model, prostitution in Germany

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At the fringes of the sex industry in the north of England, men and women are selling sex to survive.

Any local pizza parlor, on any given day. Bright lights, cheap plastic, the smell of frying grease. Men hanging around the cramped tables, coddling beer bottles, chatting. The owner lets a woman take a client into the back room to sell herself to him for some cash and warm food, as he waits for his order.

This is not, as you may have imagined, Eastern Europe in the unhinged 1990s. This is today’s Great Britain, where a generational cycle of poverty, violence and addiction drives both men and (mostly) women to the lowest rung of the sex industry: survival sex.

In 2014, the Office of National Statistics’ (ONS) inclusion of the shadow economy in calculating the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) added an estimated £5 billion from prostitution alone. Many have pointed to the problematic nature of such valuations, questioning the suggested 61,000 sex workers in the United Kingdom charging an average of £67 per client. Given the off-the-books nature of the sex industry, we will never know the exact numbers of people involved in it.

What is much more important is that there exists a stratum of this population that does not fit the ONS “miscellaneous goods and services” definition—an indeterminate number of men and women who rely on sex for the bare bones of survival. As Laura Seebohm, director of Women’s Services at the charity Changing Lives, writes: “The link between sex work and poverty [is] palpable—selling sex for a roof over your head, for laundry, tiny amounts of money, a packet of cigarettes, a bottle of cider.”

How do you fund your addiction?

“At the time sex work just wasn’t talked about, so there was a sense that unless you have a red light district, it’s not going on. But that’s not what the women were saying to us,” Laura tells me. Ten years ago, she left her job as probation officer in Newcastle to set up a weekly drop-in for women involved in sex work locally to talk about what their needs and wants actually were.

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This engagement with the women themselves became the Girls Are Proud (GAP) project, which employed former sex workers to both conduct research among and provide support for those still working in the area. “As opposed to the traditional systems that we have—the homelessness, the drugs and alcohol, probation, social services—where the way we work actually suits the services rather than the clients, the needs of the clients.”

“You could drop in on a Friday, and you wouldn’t be judged,” says Becca (not her real name), a former client and now a GAP employee.

“When I was a heroin addict I used to do sex work to fund my addiction,” she tells me. “There was no support out there for anyone. We were just basically left to our own devices to do what we want and no one asked, ‘How do you fund your addiction?’”

Becca’s story is painfully similar to that of hundreds of other GAP clients over the years. Sexually abused at the age of 10 by her friend’s grandfather, she started to take her anger and trauma out through violence, which resulted in a conviction for assault at the age of 16. “And then when I came out of prison, I couldn’t deal with the things that was going on, the thoughts that was going through me [sic] head, and I used heroin as a way of coping,” she explains.

“A lot of the women we work with would have either been in care or have been involved in the care system—you see family breakdown, witnessing domestic abuse, and often sexual and physical abuse themselves,” Laura paints an all-too familiar picture. Recent reports brought out by GAP on areas around Newcastle in 2013 and Durham in 2015 read like an endless cycle of poverty, abuse, trauma and addiction, which only leads to more abuse, more trauma, more drugs and more poverty.

Half of the women who answered the question in 2013 became involved in sex work before the age of 17, while almost all experienced problematic drug use and domestic violence; for two of the women it was with their current partner. In the majority of cases, drug addiction necessitated sex work, like for Becca, which then induced heavier drug use as a coping mechanism.

A 2004 report by the Home Office put problematic drug use among women involved in street prostitution at 95%, with a similarly high percentage dependent on heroin and/or crack cocaine. Many of the women GAP works with spent up to £300 a day on drugs, which was the sum Becca wasted on heroin daily. “I could have bought a house!” she laughs now.

But the nature of drugs has changed. Alcohol has become much cheaper, and as many women were undergoing drug replacement therapies but still searched for a relief, alcohol became a major problem, according to Laura, as have legal highs.

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It is hardly surprising, then, that a large proportion of sex workers GAP supports have been to prison, a vast majority more than once. In an altruistic twist, turning to sex to fund the drug habit was, for many, a way to avoid committing crime. For most victims of sexual abuse, self-worth and self-esteem are non-existent, so the easiest thing is to turn to what they know best: hurting themselves. “I didn’t want to go out and commit crime anymore to fund my addiction, so I did what I felt was normal at the time: abuse myself.” Becca’s statement echoes so many in the reports.

Many of the women that the GAP team works with would have dropped out of school as early as 12 or 14, and few have any qualifications, while some have problems with numeracy and literacy. Coupled with homelessness and addiction, a desperate pricing system takes effect. “I’ve worked with women in the past where it was, ‘I just need a bottle of cider,’” Laura tells me. “The compulsion to drink is such that they will do what they need to do. In the most recent peer research, the respondents said that it was as little as £10. I can’t say this is how much it is all the time, but that’s what has come out of the respondents.”

While opportunistic sex workers were able to get £150 for full sex, those involved in survival sex averaged around £40-60, with some being offered as little as £5 when they were coming off drugs. “You had to undercut to stay in the game,” Becca explains. A violent, dangerous game.

A Violent, Dangerous Game

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), up to 60% of women across the world will experience physical and/or sexual violence in their lifetime. Unlike men, who experience violence from strangers—gang violence, armed robberies, street fights—the most common perpetrator of violence against women is someone close to them. At least a third of all women who have ever been in a relationship have experienced what is known as male-perpetrated intimate partner violence, or IPV.

The numbers increase exponentially when it comes to sex workers. According to a grim compilation by Alison Phipps at Sussex University, 81% of street workers across three UK cities had experienced violence in 2001; a 2004 study of 125 street workers in five cities found that three-quarters had experienced physical violence. She cites a further study of 71 street workers conducted in Bristol in 2004 which found that rape and physical violence, including weapons such as guns, machetes and chainsaws, had been experienced by 73%. These numbers are in keeping with the global trend.


“I don’t think we work with any women who haven’t experienced violence through sex work,” Laura tells me. “I’ve had many times when somebody says, ‘Yeah, I was raped last week,’ as if it’s the most normal thing in the world.”


A 1999 study of street workers in West London, after assessing the high incidence of violence, drug abuse and sexually transmitted disease, concluded that the death rate among sex workers was 12 times higher than the general population. A more recent study in the United States found that active sex workers were 18 times more likely to be murdered than women in the general population. Changing Lives echoes these findings among survival-sex workers, with two-thirds of women reporting violent encounters with clients.

There is an extra element of danger to this type of sex work is the vulnerability of women working on the street—“a historical, cultural endurance of intolerance and hostility towards street workers fostered by a general culture of distaste and disrespect towards women who sell sex” outside the regulated environment with safety measures in place.

Hillary Kinnel, in her book, Violence and Sex Work in Britain, places emphasis on poverty as a risk factor for women. Citing Home Office figures from 2007 for England and Wales, she stresses that sex worker homicides constitute only 2% of all female murders, in stark comparison of the 40% claimed by domestic violence. But murder is strongly correlated with poverty, with those in poor neighborhoods being six times more likely to be killed than those living in prosperous areas.

It is perhaps unsurprising that two-thirds of sex workers in South Africa, the US, Thailand, Zambia and Turkey met the criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Compounding this data and adding together the disadvantages of being a woman, poor and a sex worker perpetrates a cycle of violence and trauma that spans generations.

Getting through life

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Luckily, Becca never got hurt at the hands of a client, like many of her friends have. But still, violence hung in the air like ripe fruit. “You never knew what situation you were going into. You could go to a house and there could be someone sitting there with a knife, you could be kidnapped—a lot of violence,” she says. This constant weariness and fear were a part of the job, “the good with the bad” as she puts it.

When I ask her why she kept up with it despite the danger, her answer is simple and direct: “You had to do what you had to do. To get through life.”

Many of the women have similarly normalized rape and physical assault. “I don’t think we work with any women who haven’t experienced violence through sex work,” Laura tells me. “I’ve had many times when somebody says, ‘Yeah, I was raped last week,’ as if it’s the most normal thing in the world.”

This normalization of violence is something that Zoe Lodrick, a sexualized trauma specialist who consulted GAP on understanding cumulative impacts of abuse, describes as a systematization of threat in our neural passages. Young people, particularly those who do not have strong relationships and support networks and have experienced trauma previously, are at a greater risk of falling into a cyclical pattern of abuse. Borrowing an ice-skating metaphor from a colleague, Lodrick explains repeated trauma as grooves in the ice, where every repeated move along the same trajectory creates a deeper cut that slowly becomes the only available way to move forward.

What is of particular relevance to the women that GAP is working to help is the survival mechanism which ensures that during a perceived threat, people do not flee from danger but rather toward the familiar—what they think of as home, someone they know. “When confronted with a significant threat from someone depended upon, most people respond in a way that best ensures continued attachment to that person,” Lodrick writes. This trick of the mind is what helps explain what, to an outsider, often appears as a contradictory “going back for more” but, to a victim of physical or sexual abuse, represents the only known way to survive.

Becca, having grown up without her dad, relied on her mom for support after being abused. “But my mom has always used drugs. So I didn’t really have that support, and that’s why I turned to drugs because that [was] just a normal life to me,” she explains, confirming not only the generational nature of the problem, but also the failure of social services.

To legalize or not to legalize?

In a twist of morbid irony, this disproportionate violence is what put the dangers of sex work on the map and moved the debate about ways to mitigate it. “There’s been a lot of violent murders against sex workers in different areas and things, and I think people became more aware of the situation and more open,” Becca tells me, reflecting former Prime Minister David Cameron’s promise to review legislation after the murder of three women in Bradford in 2010.

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Paying for sex is legal in Britain, but the 2003 Sexual Offences Act prohibits curb crawling, solicitation, profiting from prostitution and, as of 2009, paying for services of someone subjected to force. The debate on sex-worker rights and safety focuses around the issue of decriminalization of the sex trade as actors attempt to define the notions of (sex) work, choice, exploitation and the free market.

To call this debate heated would be an understatement.

There are many dogs in this fight. There are sex worker rights organizations, who favor legalization and decriminalization, as were adopted in New Zealand. There are the survivor organizations that tend to be more cautious in their approach. There are the anti-trafficking groups, who think legalization fuels human trafficking. There is the academia, playing around with numbers and model projections, and the governments trying to gage public attitudes while not stepping on too many political landmines at once.

When Amnesty International officially announced its adoption of decriminalization policy in 2015, the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women accused it of siding “with the multi-billion dollar international sex trade” and widening “the door for human rights abuses against prostituted individuals on a global scale.”

Neither side has the truth firmly on its side. A recent study by a government agency in Sweden—where paying for sex is illegal, known widely as the Nordic Model—concluded that prostitution was more than halved since 1995. The idea behind this model is to criminalize the perpetrator and deter traffickers. As Thomas Ahlstrand, Gothenburg’s deputy chief prosecutor, told The New York Times: “The beauty of the Swedish system is that we criminalize the strong, the oppressors.”

A report in The Lancet, however, claims that no “evidence suggests that criminalisation of sex work (such as Sweden’s approach that criminalises the buying of and profiting from sex, and the renting of housing to sex workers) reduces sex work.” It goes further to state that “two evaluations reported that Sweden’s laws were a barrier to the prosecution of trafficking because clients who had previously assisted victims by alerting authorities now feared self-incrimination.”

A comprehensive study by the London School of Economics (LSE) applied economic models to the sex trade industry, concluding that according to the rules of the market, an increased demand following legalization will invariably increase supply. The study found that countries where prostitution is legal experience higher trafficking inflows—democracies are over 13% more likely to be recipients. But a comparison between Sweden and Denmark, where prostitution is legal, suggested “tentatively” that the proportion of trafficked persons was similar in both countries despite differences in legislation.


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What makes the Swedish example even more complicated is that there is no data on trafficked persons in the country prior to 1999, making any comparative study of effects of criminalization on trafficking meaningless. Data from Germany, where prostitution was legalized in 2002, shows that numbers of trafficked sex workers did increase following legalization, but remained proportionately similar to the Swedish statistics.

The authors conclude that there is no “smoking gun” proving that “legalization of prostitution definitely increases inward trafficking flows. The problem here lies in the clandestine nature of both the prostitution and trafficking markets, making it difficult, perhaps impossible, to find hard evidence establishing this relationship.”

The question of choice

What it boils down to is the question of choice. The feminist assertion that each woman is free to decide how she earns her living favors decriminalization of sex work as a consensual exchange between adults, supported by the safety argument that treating sex work as legal employment increases access to health and police services, decreases crime and augments the civic rights of the sex worker.

Becca agrees: “If the police weren’t so judgmental, the women would speak out more about violent crime that happens to them. Even though it is not illegal to do it, it’s not spoken about, so people think it is illegal.”

Indeed, the peer research found that the majority of women do not report violent crimes to the police out of fear of persecution. A number of studies cited by Teela Sanders from the University of Leeds and Rosie Campbell from the UK Network of Sex Worker Projects have led them to conclude that with “state controlled or regulated sex markets there is evidence of less violence.”

But then again, what is choice? What is consent? If the vast majority of women enter sex work out of some form of necessity, often following a troubled childhood, sexual, physical and substance abuse, poverty and lack of education, is the transaction between a willing buyer and a willing seller really fair and equal?


A 6-year-old girl or a 5-year-old doesn’t dream, ‘I’m gonna be a sex worker when I grow up.’ They don’t.And that’s what people don’t understand—they think that girls choose to be like this. No, they don’t.


“Over the years I have really struggled with this, because as a service provider it’s not helpful for us to take a strong political stance because every time it just excludes groups of women you work with. It’s not really helpful,” Laura says. But, over the years, she has found more confidence to express her discomfort with the idea of legalization and leans toward the Nordic Model. “For me, it’s not like other types of employment, which might be exploitative through some other capitalist system—I get that.” For her, the crux of the matter is around the concept of consent, “because most of the women we work with started this path as young people, if not as children.”

Becca, too, is very clear about this idea of “choice.” “It’s not. It’s not a choice,” she says sternly. “When you are like 6 years old at school, everyone has an aspiration and a dream; my dream was to become a police officer. I didn’t dream to be a heroin addict or a sex worker or anything like that … A 6-year-old girl or a 5-year-old doesn’t dream, ‘I’m gonna be a sex worker when I grow up.’ They don’t. And that’s what people don’t understand—they think that girls choose to be like this. No, they don’t.”

There is no real way to argue about that. But this debate about meaningful consent has one fundamental weak point, a blind spot—and that is the fact that, despite all the calls for or against criminalization, sex trade will continue regardless and will continue to put women at risk.

“I don’t think the stigma is because it’s illegal, because most bits of sex works aren’t illegal. There’s something else around male attitudes to women which makes it a much more dangerous occupation,” says Laura.

And it is this idea of “male attitudes” that is the heart of the matter. Most violence in this world is perpetrated by men against women. Men will continue to pay for sex. Until there is a fundamental shift both in the way men see women and a legal framework that protects all women—especially the most vulnerable—against men who don’t quite see them as equally human, then violence, inequality and stigma will continue unabated.

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Like sex work, there are many jobs that women probably would not choose, were it an option—jobs where abuse is rife and the pay is low, and yet it is a job, a meal, a roof over your head. Just remember the blood-curling cruelty that immigrant maids experience in the Persian Gulf, or the plight of so many servant girls in India. These jobs are not illegal, and yet they are dangerous because of the power dynamics involved.

It falls on the shoulders of nongovernmental organizations such as Changing Lives to slowly turn the tide of social stigma and discrimination, and help sex workers—men and women—find a way out of a cycle of despair. This is why Becca continues to try her best every day: “If I could help one person, save one person’s life from a life of sex work and drugs, I have done my job.”

Robin Chaurasia of Kranti Mumbai, who works with children of sex workers in India, told me something in an interview a few years ago that is hard to shake: “The only way to end issues relating to sex work—if you actually want to end the industry—is for every girl in the world to have access to education, jobs, and money. That’s the only solution: every single girl. And when is that going to happen?”

*[This article was updated on November 22, 2016.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Photo Credit: Tanja_G

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