Survival sex

Survival sex: what is it and why are so many women being forced into it?

With domestic abuse becoming a “shadow pandemic” in lockdown, Stylist shares the stories of two women who have had to rely on survival sex.

Please be aware this article discusses domestic and sexual abuse.

The pandemic is having a disproportionate effect on women. Juggling childcare with working from home and being 1.8 times more at risk of losing their jobs than men are just a couple of examples. And at the darkest side of the scale, the rise in domestic abuse is being called a “shadow pandemic” by the United Nations, with more than 40,000 calls made to the National Domestic Abuse Helpline during the first three months of lockdown in 2020. A charity has now found that this crisis, in turn, has seen an increasing number of women forced to turn to what’s known as ‘survival sex’. 

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The first thing to be clear on is that so-called survival sex isn’t sex work. According to West Yorkshire-based homelessness charity, Simon On The Streets, survival sex is is “undertaken to meet immediate needs, financial or otherwise. This could include accommodation or somewhere to sleep, food, tobacco, drugs or alcohol. Survival sex is often undertaken due to poverty and not being able to meet immediate survival needs”. 

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Take Abi*, for example, a woman who left her hometown, friends and family with nothing but the clothes she was wearing when she made the decision to escape domestic abuse in August. Her ex-partner had control of her finances, so arriving in a new city completely alone with no money, she undertook survival sex in order to secure a bed for the night.

After making some acquaintances, she was sometimes able to stay on other people’s floors or sofas, but the places she stayed were often small, overcrowded and lacked any privacy. She described her experience as “soul destroying”.

Distressed woman in the pandemic
The pandemic is having a disproportionate effect on women, with an increasing number turning to 'survival sex'.

Simon On The Streets also met Bridget*, who was sleeping rough in a bus station, vulnerable, alone and desperate for help. Bridget had fled her childhood home a while ago after experiencing abuse from a young age. She didn’t have a bank account, was not registered at a GP and had no identification as her passport had been stolen. She had previously been told she was ineligible for housing support as she is an EU migrant. 

She had struggled to find somewhere safe to sleep, and ended up sleeping in derelict buildings, squats and even bins. She had undertaken survival sex several times to gain shelter for the night: men would approach her and, after she told them about her situation, they would offer a bed for the night. However, when she went back to theirs, they would expect her to engage in sexual activity in exchange for shelter. She says she was being deceived and coerced. One man gave Bridget a false sense of security, offering her a job as a receptionist and “paying” her with an office floor to sleep on instead of money. He also required sex in this exchange. 

She has since been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress, anxiety, and bipolar disorder.  

In response to these women’s stories, women and domestic abuse lead for housing charity St Mungo’s, Jillian Thursby, tells Stylist: “This research, which although it only involves a relatively small number of women, certainly reflects things that we know from our own clients and own research.

“St Mungo’s commissioned a report in 2018 specifically focusing on the challenges women who are sleeping rough face, which confirms they tend to rely on informal, hidden arrangements with family, friends or acquaintances and may alternate between hidden homelessness and rough sleeping.

“The coronavirus pandemic has changed rough sleeping, and in many cases increased the danger as many day centres, night shelters, and other resources have closed. We expect that this will have forced some women into even more precarious hidden homelessness situations, which may well involve survival sex and be seen as the ‘safest’ option, among many risky situations.

“This is why it is so key to really understand the causes that lead to women’s homelessness, and offer support that responds to the specific needs of women, which is what we at St Mungo’s aim to do.”

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Housing and homelessness charity Shelter has also expressed concern over women being forced to exchange sex for somewhere to live. Chief executive Polly Neate tells Stylist: “Since the pandemic struck, our research shows approximately 30,000 women have suffered sexual harassment from their landlord, demanding sex in exchange for a place to live. Our housing crisis has created the perfect conditions for this disgusting crime to occur. Expensive rents, poor rights for renters, and a lack of social housing mean that many people simply can’t afford a safe home.

“So-called ‘sex for rent’ arrangements have no place in our society and perpetrators must be punished. But much more needs to be done to end these gross abuses of power. To mend the broken housing system that means women are vulnerable to this exploitation, the government must invest in many more decent and genuinely affordable social homes.”

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It’s incredibly hard to hear these stories, especially as we know how easy it is to end up in a vulnerable financial or emotional position in the pandemic. But there are ways we can help. Charities such as Simon On The Streets, Refuge and Women’s Aid are a lifeline to people who rely on their services, and you can support them through donations, by sharing their great work and by taking up volunteering. Ultimately, we’re all in this together.

If you need information and advice about anything discussed in this article, please reach out to the following charities:

You can also call the National Domestic Abuse Helpline on 0808 2000 247

The printing company Awesome Merchandise has launched a campaign to raise £50k to support Simon on the Streets, after hearing about the vital work the charity is doing to keep vulnerable people in the city safe. Help reach its £50k target by visiting the Keep Leeds Warm online shop.

*Names have been changed to protect case studies’ anonymity

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