‘Social workers can learn from women’s stories of sexual exploitation and sex work’

Former social worker Dr Jane Dodsworth reflects on the process of researching one of society’s most sensitive subjects

Picture (posed by model): Cultura/Rex Shutterstock

By Dr Jane Dodsworth

As a former social worker I worked with sexually exploited young people. I understand their reluctance to engage with ‘authority figures.’ So I knew it could be difficult to engage with an equally wary ‘hidden population’ of adult women when I began research into sexual exploitation and sex work.

I felt that using the skills and values of social work practice might enable me to gain their trust. Social workers understand issues of power and aim to achieve equality, fairness and balance in their working relationships and this had resonance for me in gaining interviewees’ trust.

To facilitate the sharing of often very personal and sometimes painful stories it was crucial to ensure that my interviewees felt valued and respected as individuals, selling sex being just one aspect of their lives. They are also daughters, sisters, mothers, partners and friends.

Identifying risk and protective factors

My study explored the stories of 24 sex workers. The aim is to identify risk and protective factors influencing involvement in sexual exploitation and sex work. The women interviewed described childhood histories of abuse, neglect, rejection and disadvantage. Half were under 18 when they were first sexually exploited, 18 were substance misusers and most had experienced abusive relationships. Of those who were parents, most had lost their children.

The emotional investment involved in hearing often traumatic a violent experiences was not easy to plan for. I often had to remind myself that I was a researcher not a social worker and I was there to listen not to help. I had to learn to absorb emotions and to go away. Nonetheless, I was grateful for my social work training and experience, and the opportunity to share with colleagues some of the anonymised experiences I had listened to.

Overwhelming pain

However, some stories were so overwhelming in terms of the levels of pain and despair experienced that it is impossible not to feel a deep sense of sadness, anger and frustration for those whose lives are lived in such painful ways.

For example, ‘Cindy’, described a childhood of domestic abuse, trauma and loss. Her stepfather sexually abused her when her mother was in a psychiatric hospital. She recalled a childhood “full of anger and fear.” She blamed her stepfather for her subsequent drug taking and ambivalent feelings about sexual relationships but also recalled feeling no love from her mother. It was impossible not to feel sadness for her pain, confusion and sense of being alone.

Another interviewee ‘Izzie’ recalled her mother physically and emotionally abusing her:

“I can’t remember why they didn’t want me; it ruined my life. Mum told me she wished I wasn’t born and that if I had any contact with the family she’d stab me.”

‘Izzie’ went on to have five children all of whom were adopted following abuse by her violent partner. ‘Izzie’ felt that she somehow “deserved this”. Some women’s memories of childhood rejection, or the loss of their own children were so sad that I sometimes found it impossible not to cry with them. Whilst this is not a professional response, it was the only response possible and felt totally appropriate to me at that time.

Humour and resilience

At other times women spoke of feeling helped by sharing painful memories with someone who was not involved either personally or professionally in their lives. In this way there was a sense of reciprocity which made me feel less that I was taking something from them, but that they were sharing something with me. An overriding positive was the humour, resilience and friendly approachability of many of the women I interviewed. Thank you to them all.

Analysis of the women’s stories indicates that those who are likely to be most vulnerable and those most likely to manage life experiences is determined by the accumulation of risk factors, particularly those experienced in early childhood, the individual, familial and wider ecological resources available to individuals, and the meaning attached by them to early experiences of adversity. This suggests the need to take a holistic, strengths-based approach to policy and practice with those involved – whatever their age.

Be there for people

What was clear the women’s stories is that what they valued most from early childhood to adulthood was for someone to ‘be there’ for them, to listen and not to judge. These are skills that we as social workers already have and can build on to support young people and adults at risk of or involved in sexual exploitation and sex work.

As one interviewee, ‘Amy, said:

“Be there for people. They’re just normal human beings. They’ll only tell you things they want you to hear if they want you to hear them. The only way to find out anything is if you stop putting people in boxes and start looking at them as human beings and talk to them”.

Dr Jane Dodsworth is a lecturer in social work at the University of East Anglia and the author of ‘Pathways into Sexual Exploitation and Sex Work’ published by Palgrave MacMillan

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2 Responses to ‘Social workers can learn from women’s stories of sexual exploitation and sex work’

  1. Norma Howes psychotherapist, UK August 26, 2015 at 1:58 pm #

    Thank you for this very useful article. It does bother me when either children’s or adults’ accounts of what has happened to them are referred to as ‘stories’. This has also bothered the folks I would with who feel this reinforces their belief they would not be believed and subliminally could reinforce this thought for other people not prepared to take what they are saying seriously.

  2. Soupy August 26, 2015 at 10:50 pm #

    Thank you for undertaking what must have been an emotionally mamoth piece of research – interestingly it makes no reference to social workers’ wilful neglect – is your research going to be extended? Your work could be invaluable for standing up for our profession in the current climate – I think Mr Cameron should educate himself about the factors influencing our young people today.