Sexual exploitation: Women’s experiences of support

26 February 2018

Kathryn HodgesKathryn Hodges

Improving access to and the quality of services for women is essential. For women involved in prostitution the decision to leave or not return to services frequently puts them at a disadvantage, increasing the risk to their personal safety and wellbeing (Hodges, 2018; Matthews et al, 2014).  

I was keen to understand how services could be improved for women experiencing multiple and intersecting needs, by finding out what informed their decisions to go to a helping service in the first place and then keep returning. It is arguable that the experiences of women involved in prostitution are intersecting and complex, arising from severe and multiple disadvantage. Therefore I met with a number of women who accessed a centre supporting women involved in prostitution. The women talked about their children, experiences of childhood and mothers, and the difficulties of getting access to safe and secure accommodation, relationships, the rape and violence they had been subjected to, drug and alcohol use, mental health, immigration concerns and the various aspects of making, taking and managing money.  

The overall findings of the study were nuanced and detailed, amongst which there are a number of key areas that need to be considered and addressed when thinking about how we can improve services for women. Before any decision to seek help and support women have to know they have a need, that they are entitled to get support with this need, and then know where to access this help. However, women involved in this study did not refer to their circumstances or experiences as needs, rather they talked about the things that had happened to them. The challenge therefore is that in order to access the help and support available, it is necessary to know that their experiences are framed as needs, and then to know that there is support available for this need. Need is a slippery concept to define in the first place (Godfrey and Callaghan, 2000), and if women’s experiences are not viewed as needs in legislation and policy they will be left without access to help.

Many practical and environmental concerns prevented those involved in this study attending services, such as having to attend multiple appointments across a city, returning to geographical areas where they didn’t want to go, or to places where they didn’t want to meet certain people. However, women also made it clear that they made decisions and choices about the services they accessed because of the way they were met and spoken to. Women referred to an ability to ‘read people’, frequently stemming from previously being let down and it informed them whether they would trust people to help them. One of the women talked about the welcome she received when going to a service for the first time, she said she wanted to be put at ease, ‘because at most times when you go and get help you’re nervous already cause of your situation, and you’re scared because of the situation.’  

According to McCluskey (2005) this stance to approaching help and support originates in infancy where caregiving and careseeking experiences are developed. For many of us the impact of being a recipient of ineffective caregiving can be mitigated by other factors, such as support networks, financial circumstances, or access to education, but for some this is not the case, meaning that further careseeking is experienced within the context of this history (McCluskey, 2005). All social care is undertaken within and through relationships (Ruch, 2005) and it is imperative to consider the impact of trauma experienced by women when developing helping services. Covington (2008) asserts that treatment models are likely to be unsuccessful without fully understanding women’s experiences and appreciating that these frequently include violence and other abuse. 

Finding a place of safety was important for the women involved in this study, and the behaviour of staff and management of the environment was significant, leading women to make judgements of how safe they felt. They were alert to staff who did not pay attention to what was happening in a service, when workers appeared to be in a rush and failed to give time to listen attentively, or where they felt unable to speak honestly as there was potential for a negative response. One woman explained that a safe place was where ‘people that will listen to you and do what they say they are going to do’.  According to Elliot et al (2005), the symptoms of trauma arise from violence and abuse experienced in the past because there has been an ‘absence of a safe environment’. It is clear that creating a place of safety for women experiencing multiple and intersecting needs is a priority. Not only to ensure better outcomes and quality of support, but also because creating a place of safety has an impact on the decisions and choices women make when seeking help and support.

About the author

Kathryn Hodges (@kathrynesme) has recently completed her doctoral research and is a visiting Research Fellow at the Centre for the Study of Modern Slavery at St. Mary’s University. A registered social worker, with a background managing drug and alcohol services, more recently she was involved in the delivery of undergraduate and postgraduate social work education as a senior lecturer in social work, and latterly as Head of Department of Social Care at Anglia Ruskin University. Kathryn is also the Chair of Trustees at Women@theWell

Related resources

Kathryn Hodges is speaking at the upcoming Research in Practice for Adults Exploitation of adults: Partnership Conference on the 22 March, in Birmingham. She will be discussing the findings of her recent research, considering the experiences of women who have been sexually exploited when they seek help and support and why it is important to pay attention to the silences.


Covington S (2008) 'Women and Addiction: A Trauma-Informed Approach' Journal of Psychoactive Drugs SARC supplement (5) 377–85.

Elliott D.E, Bjelajac P, Fallot R.D, Markoff L.S and Reed B.G (2005) 'Trauma-informed or trauma-denied: Principles and implementation of trauma-informed services for women' Journal of Community Psychology 33 (4) 461–477.

Godfrey M and Callaghan G (2000) Exploring unmet need: the challenge of a user-centered response. York: York Pub. Services for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

Hodges K (2018) 'An exploration of decision making by women experiencing multiple and complex needs' Anglia Ruskin University.

Matthews R, Bindel J, Young L and Easton H (2014) Exiting prostitution: a study in female desistance. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

McCluskey U (2005) To be met as a person: The dynamics of attachment in professional encounters. London: Karnac.

Ruch G (2005) 'Relationship-based practice and reflective practice: holistic approaches to contemporary child care social work' Child and Family Social Work, 10 (2) 111–123.

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