Leaving Care Loathing Self

Maddy Coy is a domestic violence services manager for
Eaves Housing for Women. Her interest in care leavers’ experience
of prostitution arose from her employment in a residential unit for
young women. The research was conducted while she was working for
an outreach service for women in the sex industry. She hopes to
complete her PhD at Staffordshire University this year.

The links between young women living in or leaving council care and
involvement in prostitution or at risk of sexual exploitation are
well known. Studies of women selling sex consistently find a
disproportionate number of street sex workers with backgrounds in
the care system.

My research on the links between experiences of council care and
ways into prostitution involved interviewing 14 young women aged
between 17 and 33 with diverse experiences of local authority care
and the sex industry. All had formally left care or disappeared
from professional monitoring and were selling sex on the streets by
16. Seven were actively involved in prostitution while still living
in care (one young woman from the age of 11).

Before going into care the women experienced many abuses and
losses. But it is impossible to say that if they had not entered
into care, the women would not have entered prostitution. Is the
care system equipped to protect these young women and offer them a
better future than the abusive environment from which they were

Jackie, 19, says: “Social services don’t give you enough help. I
never got no income when I left care, I had to live on nothing,
that’s why I went on the game, and I’ve been on the game since
then…It’s four years I’ve been doing this now.”

The most obvious way in which the women wanted the care system
improved to prevent others drifting into prostitution was to feel
that staff cared about them. The lack of adequate aftercare support
– practical, emotional and economic – was emphasised by all women
as exacerbating their vulnerability.

Hannah, 21, says: “All the girls on the beat, it’s like you can go
down there and just know there will be someone you know there…
it’s like the family I never had. I felt like that about secure
[accommodation] and prison too.”

Four young women began to sell sex when they could not support
themselves financially. Three were pimped through the grooming
process, although all continued to be involved in prostitution when
they later escaped their abusers. Five young women drifted into
prostitution through the introduction of friends or older sisters
already selling sex.

The most common theme the women talked about was the psychological
and emotional aspects of being in care. They identified themselves
as sex objects. Their attempts to establish a sense of self took
place when they were having multiple and frequent placement moves –
three could count more than 40 changes of carer. All the young
women spoke of never feeling settled or valued. This dislocation
leads to an inability to form and sustain relationships.
Professionals intervened and gave them attention mainly as a
response to their sexualised behaviour. This made the women define
themselves by this behaviour, reinforcing the message of themselves
as sex objects.

Says Sarah, 19: “I was about 10 when I first went into a children’s
home. Then I went to a lot of different places, at first I was in
foster placements, they said they were only supposed to last two
weeks, so it was like two weeks here, two weeks there, then I went
into another children’s home… I got pregnant when I was 13 and
they told me I had to have an abortion. After that I just kept
running away… Eventually I just ran away for good and started

None of the women were convinced they had control over their own
bodies. Instead they were accustomed to being used by others for
pleasure or violence or both. Sexual and physical abuse, physical
restraint and containment further undermined any sense of control
over their bodies.

The almost universal self-harm that the young women displayed, as
well as risk-taking behaviour and the self-neglect associated with
drug use, reflects this lack of control. Dissociation from the body
in this way is often reported by women who sell sex, and
psychologically prepared young women for their entry into

Hannah, 21, says: “I hate everything about my body, it’s nothing
special anymore…not since everyone got their fingers on it. It’s
like it doesn’t belong to me anymore.”

All the young women described their social identity as being linked
with feeling different from the “norm” because they were in care
and gave meanings of “otherness” and stigma to the care settings
(particularly residential care) and the young people they mixed
with in care.

Young people leaving the care system are over-represented among
people who have experienced social exclusion, poverty,
homelessness, prison, low educational achievement, substance misuse
and teenage motherhood.(1) These are all issues that also make
young people vulnerable to predatory men and sexual exploitation.
Yet there remains a lack of knowledge about young women’s lives in
care and ways into prostitution from care, and this raises
questions about young women’s self-conceptions and ownership of
their bodies.(2)

My professional experience in a residential unit for vulnerable
young women led me to believe that poverty and coercion through
targeting by pimps were only part of a more complex picture where
young women’s histories, identities and futures were shaped by
their experiences of care.(3) The destabilising events of their
lives before care disrupt their abilities to care for themselves,
and their experiences of the care system can sabotage attempts to
restore these abilities.

It should be no surprise that young women who are unsure of their
own self, looking for an identity, and feeling stigmatised from
mainstream society are drawn to a lifestyle that offers a perceived
“glamorous” identity by using the body for profit.

The women who participated were keen to influence practice and
services so that other young women would not follow them into
prostitution. Two wanted to see systems where older female care
leavers would be mentors. The message they all wanted to give
professionals was for them to show that they valued the young
women, then they could learn to value themselves.

Becky, 17, says: “I looked around at everyone else, and I just
wanted to be like them. I wanted to come home and know I’d got a
safe home to go home to, where everybody loved me. But I went out
looking for love, that’s how I got on drugs and with [my

Research into the routes into prostitution from local
authority care, recently conducted using life story interviews with
young women, reveals all were selling sex by the age of 16. They
describe feeling abandoned and neglected by their “corporate
parents”. Being in care reinforced their emotional disconnection
from their senses of self which then precipitated their entry into

(1) B Broad, Young People Leaving Care: Life after the
Children Act 1989, Jessica Kingsley Press, 1999
(2) M O’Neill, Prostitution and Feminism: Towards a Politics of
Feeling, Policy Press, 2001
(3) M O’Neill, “Juvenile prostitution: the experience of young
women in residential care”, Childright, no 113, December 1995


  • M Coy, Between the Self and the Other: young women’s
    experiences of the links between local authority care and
    prostitution, paper presented at the British Sociological
    Association Annual Conference, 2003
  • T O’Neil, Children in Secure Accommodation: a gendered
    exploration of locked institutional care for children in trouble,
    Jessica Kingsley Press, 2001
  • J Pearce, C Galvin, M Williams, It’s someone taking a part of
    you: a study of young women and sexual exploitation, Joseph
    Rowntree Foundation, 2003
  • G Schofield, K Brown, “Being there: a family centre worker’s
    role as a secure base for adolescent girls in crisis”, Child and
    Family Social Work 4,1999, p21-31

Email: madeleine.jane.coy@eaveshousing.co.uk or call 07789

More from Community Care

Comments are closed.