The reasons for sex work entry are vast and varied. Poverty, child abuse, living in state care, drug use and the influence of pimps and peer groups are definitely common themes. In most cases, economic necessity is by far the primary reason why a significantly large percentage of individuals began sex work. The majority of survival or, street-based sex workers have had negative experiences with mainstream social services and they feel judged and stigmatized when asking for financial aid.
If poverty or substance abuse remains as standing issues in their lives, the feeling of being “trapped” keeps them from making alternative choices. Sex workers who would not be classified as impoverished may benefit from the income, the relative independence, and the lifestyle but again may also be trapped due to the disassociation from the mainstream world.
It must be understood that exiting is a process, not an event. It is a culmination of experiences in a person’s life that contribute to their decision to exit. Therefore it will take a number of new experiences to help successfully facilitate it. Many sex workers leave the industry due to violence, reduced earning potential, drug dependence, or a desire for a better life. Many leave because they have had access to structured exiting supports and jobs that pay livable wages.
Exiting programs are aimed at expanding structural and relational supports and building capacities for change through the identification and mobilization of available assets and resources. Unfortunately, a successful exit from the sex trade is not solely dependent on individual traits such as a deep desire to leave. There are many “trapping” factors such as criminal records, the lack of resources for transition or the lack of available employment that undeniably plays a large role in sex worker exiting decisions and possibilities.
The process of exiting is typically fraught with starts and stops. On average, it can take 4-5 attempts before a sex worker feels sustainable in the mainstream world. This “yo-yoing” once again supports the need for strong relational factors and supports to encourage individual capacities and abilities for a successful exit. There may be an occurrence of a negative or a positive event that results in a sex worker desiring to exit such as a bad date or a potential healthy relationship. This reactionary mode may help the worker take steps in finding supports and reducing isolation. Some sex workers explore and weigh out alternatives to their current circumstance, an action that greatly contributes to accomplishing their goals in the “straight” world while others simply age-out where involvement in sex work comes to a natural end.
The stigma of the sex trade can brand the psyche of those in it and counselling, non-judgmental and experiential support are vital in helping former sex workers reclaim their lives.
Sex workers should be supported through the entire process of exiting, including instances where they have re-entered due to a lack of viable employment options. A holistic approach to programming is critical as it takes into account the interpersonal, social and structural factors that come onto play during transitioning. Much work is required with individuals and existing resources to create a continuum of services that support lasting change.
First and foremost, the stabilization of sex workers desiring to leave the trade is critical, especially in the area of substance abuse. Without drug maintenance and treatment, it is futile to strategize a long-term personal development plan for access into the mainstream world. Determining whether a sex worker works to support their habit or the habit has developed as a result of sex work proves challenging but it is undeniable that healthy choices cannot be made if a dependency takes precedent in their lives. It is clear that for the majority of street workers, sex work and substance use are mutually reinforcing.