In February the Northern Rock Foundation* published two reports commissioned from Barefoot Research looking at Child Sexual Exploitation in the North East and Cumbria, and at Sex Work and Prostitution in the region. On the face of it, these may seem like very different areas of research, but part of the value of these reports lies in showing the linkages between the two.
Constrained choices around the sale of sex
In scoping out the prevalence of sold sexual activity, the researchers distinguish between ‘commercial sex’ and ‘survival sex’. This is a difficult distinction to draw, as both categories encompass a variety of activities, organisational arrangements, and the motivations, levels of control and vulnerability of those involved in the exchange of sex. The researchers draw the line between them largely on the basis of the formality of the sexual transaction: ‘commercial sex’ encompasses escort agencies, brothels, and other formal (if illegal or illegitimate) arrangements; ‘survival sex’ is more ad hoc, tends to be for smaller rewards, occurs in less institutional settings and meets immediate needs for accommodation, money, food or other resources. Such a distinction is largely one of degree; the researchers recognise that those engaged in commercial sex are subject to varying levels of control and constraint, and are often working as a way to sustain themselves. It does, however, bring into relief those at the lower end of the commercial sexual market, who are often visible only to the community organisations from whom they seek help.
The report estimates survival sex as representing about 45% of exchanged sex in the North East and Cumbria. Those involved are often trying to meet the demands of drug or alcohol addictions, and the needs of food, clothing and shelter which such addictions render secondary. Sex is exchanged either directly in return for such resources, or for (normally small sums of) money to procure such resources. Because of the often chaotic nature of their lives, those involved are particularly vulnerable to violence and abuse, and to poor dental, sexual, physical and mental health.
The connections between survival sex and child sexual exploitation
Reading this report alongside the companion piece on child sexual exploitation, two major linkages become apparent. The first is that the personal histories of those involved in survival sex often involve abuse or neglect. Violence and sexual violence can predispose individuals to survival sex both directly, by giving rise to drug- or alcohol-based coping strategies which impose financial costs while preventing access to the formal job-market, and indirectly, by allowing individuals to see themselves as somehow worthy of, or only good for, abuse. Child sexual exploitation, as a form of sexual abuse which involves establishing coercive and manipulative relationships with children, often based directly on exchanges of money or drugs, can be the first step in creating a lifestyle where sex is used as a means of survival.
This linkage has another aspect. In the same way that adults use sexual exchange as a deliberate tool to allow them to maintain themselves, so do those legally considered children. The reports make clear that there is not a neat and clean dividing line between those under 18 who are being abused and those over 18 who are consciously using sexual exchange as a survival mechanism. Survival sex as a tactic is more a function of vulnerability than of age, and understanding it in this way offers new ways to think about integrated, multi-agency responses.
* Full disclosure: TDI are proud to have been previously funded by the Northern Rock Foundation. Their commitment to unfashionable causes such as our work around sexual offending, their willingness to innovate and experiment, and their long-term commitment to the organisations they supported enabled us, and many other small charities, to do work that would otherwise have been impossible. The Foundation is currently being wound down, and its loss will be deeply felt.