Using appropriate language is an essential step in supporting women involved in prostitution, says Marcus Roberts.
I was in the House of Lords on 3 July for the launch of DrugScope and AVA’s report The challenge of change on improving services for women involved in prostitution and substance misuse. The findings and recommendations of the report are covered in this issue, but I wanted to add a couple of general reflections.
The Drug strategy 2010 talks about ‘recovery’ as an ‘individual, person-centred journey’, but is largely silent on matters of difference and identity. I was surprised to find, for example, that there are no direct references to ‘women’ or ‘girls’ in the strategy. There is a lack of intermediate space between abstract generalisations like ‘treatment’ and ‘recovery’ and invocation of the specific needs of particular individuals. I suspect this encourages a tendency to think and plan in terms of adult males as a ‘default setting’ unless gender is highlighted.
Evidence and experience suggest that gender is vital for engagement, treatment and reintegration. St Mungo’s Rebuilding Shattered Lives campaign is highlighting the extent to which recovery is ‘gendered’, with women tending to place a greater focus on rebuilding relationships, including with children. Most obviously, women’s involvement in substance misuse (and supply) is often framed by abusive and exploitative relationships with men, including domestic and sexual abuse. Local approaches therefore need to link up drug and alcohol strategies with violence against women and girls initiatives, for example.
Conversely, I wonder if thinking about some women with drug or alcohol problems as ‘sex workers’ or ‘prostitutes’ can obscure the extent to which this group shares needs, aspirations and characteristics with other people in treatment (that’s why we were very careful about language in our report, incidentally, opting after much discussion for ‘women involved in prostitution’). For example, the women we spoke to valued the harm reduction services that were targeted at them (needle exchange, condoms and ‘scripts’) but equally they spoke about their aspirations for a decent place to live, a ‘normal’ job and a future for their children, and felt services sold them short when it came to reintegration and recovery. It is also striking how often the women we spoke with fitted the profile we associate with ‘multiple needs’ (including homelessness, recent imprisonment and mental health issues), and yet how marginal they have been to the recent evolution of – and investment in – this agenda.
The terminology of ‘prostitution’ can bring so much cultural baggage – and such a weight of stigma – that the risk is, as it were, that, paradoxically, we only see the particularities and miss the generalisations. While attention to the former is absolutely vital to providing good services, ignoring the latter risks selling women involved in prostitution short.
The ‘challenge of change’ is at www.drugscope.org.uk/POLICY+TOPICS/Prostitution+and+substance+use.htm
DrugScope/LDAN has also produced a report on domestic violence and at www.ldan.org.uk/PDFs/DVReport.pdf
Marcus Roberts is director of policy and membership at DrugScope, the national membership organisation for the drugs field, www.drugscope.org.uk