Common Misconceptions about Women Selling Sex

Jul 21, 2023

Stigma and misconceptions around selling sex can be a very real barrier to accessing services for women who sell, have sold, or are considering selling sex to make ends meet. We want to discuss some of the more common misconceptions, and celebrate women’s resilience in the face of this stigma.

Female fortitude and resilience has many faces.

When we talk about strong women, or female fortitude, we aren’t isolating those women who may have come through the darkest times to the heights of success, we’re celebrating all those who have gone through challenges, at whichever point they’re at in their journey.

We believe that every woman should be able to choose the path she is on, to not simply survive but to thrive in life, and we are committed to helping them achieve their goals.

We would like to see a world where women are free from violence, coercion, and abuse, a world where women aren’t compelled to sell sex. But while the women we work with continue to face these challenges we will continue to support them. We see first-hand the issues and gender specific struggles that they face on a daily basis, which they do with resilience and fortitude.

The persistence of toxic masculinity, stigma, misinformation, and misogyny makes for a challenging landscape to navigate as a woman, marginalised person, or someone with multiple disadvantages.

In this blog, we’re going to discuss some of these misconceptions, and ask you to join us in challenging attitudes that are based in stigma.

A key reason for challenging these attitudes, for us, is that women experience many barriers when accessing support, and some of these are connected to the perceptions that exist. If we can reduce stigma, we can work towards breaking down barriers to women accessing support.

Based on first-hand interactions, our Women’s Support Workers (in our Beyond Support Service) have encountered a number of worrying themes and misconceptions within the services sector:

‘It’s their choice.’

While there are women who opt to sell sex, and feel empowered to do so, it can be unhelpful to assume that all women have the same experience. The women we work with often encounter limited and challenging circumstances, and many have made a ‘decision to survive’ rather than being in the position to make a truly empowering choice. Women frequently talk to us about poverty or the need for money as the biggest driver of selling. Those that are experiencing multiple disadvantages are often not in a position to have their voices heard and to influence changes that would make the difference to their lives at a service and policy level.

‘They make bad mothers.’

When this assumption is made in instances where women have had their children removed, it is deeply traumatic for women and can be a real barrier to accessing any support. For some women, survival sex can feel like the only way to feed their family or keep a roof over their children’s heads. Better outcomes for women and their children can only come from engaging, understanding, and offering access to appropriate help.

Beyond Support offer a safe space with long-term, trauma informed help for women seeking to process their experiences or make life changes. Regardless of what a women’s short- and long-term goals are, our Women’s Support Worker’s help them to achieve their chosen paths; including via removing initial barriers to those journeys, like secure housing and processing past trauma.

‘You can’t rape a prostitute.’

Some people believe that women who sell sex can’t be raped; they’re wrong. There is no ‘threshold’ for the act of rape e.g. what a women is wearing, how much they’ve drunk, historical relationship with the perpetrator, unfortunately the list goes on. Nothing provides anyone with ‘permission’ to rape anyone.

This misconception is so widespread within our culture that the fear of not being believed, and in fact being shamed, when reporting rape is a very real fear and prevents women from reporting and accessing support. A recent example of this attitude was shockingly displayed by a Kent MP who tweeted ‘Likely a punter who didn’t pay’ in response to a police headline about a rape of a woman in Plumstead park in the early hours. This stigmatisation and blaming of the victim in this case is deeply concerning from a person representing their constituents, who would benefit from understanding that rape is rape.

‘Why are ‘prostitutes’ so hard to engage with?’

One of our Women’s Support Workers tells us:

“We think that treating her like a person rather than using a label (prostitute or sex worker) is crucial, while respecting and honouring women’s own terminology when referring to herself. As well as being aware of how trauma can impact engagement, trust is paramount – we all have to earn it. I do hear from professionals that ‘this is a difficult group to engage with’, completely ignoring that every journey is different, and every person is unique. This can come from a lack of understanding about why women are selling sex, sometimes allowing their own bias to create barriers and a lack of appropriate training on how to work in a trauma informed way. This can include the knowledge on how to ask the right questions and how to make women feel safe.” One reason that women may mistrust and therefore not access key services that they need is past experiences where engagement has resulted in experiences of discrimination, shame and judgement.

‘What’s the point they won’t change.’

From our experience, we’ve seen many women change what they have wanted to change. But change is rarely immediate. It’s helpful to understand that not all women are at point in life where they want to exit. Some women seek support to unpack trauma, some come to get help to change the way they make money. The journey to exit can take many years and is not simple or linear. We know this through 25 years working alongside women selling sex; and understand how it might not be known to some services.

This is why we put importance on trauma-informed training, specifically around working with women who sell sex. This includes advocating and educating on the connection between trauma and sporadic engagement, which can lead on to further marginalization. For example, lateness or missing a timed appointment can result in losing access to a service. We work to help services understand that there are times during the day that are more suitable to women, as they may have been up all night so are unable to make a 9am meeting.

At Beyond Support we often have professionals saying that a woman needs a specific service, although after speaking with her, we find that she wants something else. The unique thing about Beyond Support is that we are person centered, so we work with women’s own priorities and work at her pace. Listening and working at her pace is more helpful for sustained and long-term growth and trust building.

We are on a journey as a charity ourselves, regularly re-evaluating and challenging our own attitudes, language, and approach. When we say challenge attitudes; we hope to encourage you to join us on the continual learning journey and be open to new ways of thinking.