Terrence Higgins Trust is launching a new report on the health needs of women sex workers in Coventry. The report investigates how drug use and housing conditions affect the risks they take with their sexual health. The year-long research study, supported by the Centre for Ethnicity and Health at the University of Central Lancashire, aims to examine the gaps in current services and suggest ways to address these.

The report, which questioned 37 women sex workers in Coventry was carried out by Terrence Higgins Trust’s SWISH project (Sex Workers Into Sexual Health). Highlights from the report include:

Nearly half (48%) of the women were aged between 18 and 24 when they started working in the sex industry
Economic need was the main factor in starting sex work
Crack and heroin were a major problem for street-based sex workers with all of them using drugs and three quarters using crack or heroin every day. But the figure for indoor sex workers was lower, only 30% still used drugs and most stated that their drug use was recreational (often ecstasy or cocaine).
Homelessness was another key issue. More than half of respondents (51%) and all street based workers, had been homeless at some point in their lives
More than a third (35%) of women had been in prison at some point in their lives. This was particularly true for street-based workers. Nearly half (46%) had received no support while in prison and less than a quarter had been supported when they left prison.
Key recommendations

Education and skills training are essential in supporting women to move on from sex work.
Use of ASBOS (anti-social behaviour orders) is likely to displace sex workers away from support services and lead to less safe working practices. Where such law enforcement tools are used they should be accompanied by support services. Particular care should be given to supporting women leaving prison.
More needs to be done to explore ways to support women who have children as many sex workers have children in care and many have been in the care system themselves.
Accommodation appropriate for women who sell sex is an urgent issue as many sex workers have problems maintaining tenancies. Women who are homeless are more likely to take sexual risks which place a higher burden on public health.
Women working in-doors are more likely to be in control of their personal and working lives.
Cathy Fitzsimons, Manager of the SWISH project said:

“This report has given us a far greater understanding of how women get involved with sex work, why they continue to work in the industry and what their health and social care needs are. It’s vital that we put this research to use to improve the support we and other agencies in Coventry provide and improve the sexual health of these women and their partners.”

Chloe, ex-sex worker from Coventry said:

“Women who start work in the sex industry are often in a very desperate situation, either because of drug addiction or because they are in abusive and unhealthy relationships. Having the right support from projects like SWISH can really help them to regain control over their lives.”

Comments from survey respondents included:

‘Prisons are crammed with crackheads and smackheads. You go to hostels and if you’re caught using drugs you’re thrown out. Out of prison on to the street, back into crime and on drugs’.

‘There wasn’t much help when I was released. No safety nets. No contact numbers, so nothing to help you out of the lifestyle’.

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