Bristol’s street sex trade: Sam and Karen’s stories

Two hands are pictured holding, the hand on the right has a wedding ring visible.

Sam* and Karen* share their experiences as service users and volunteers in services to support women involved in the street sex trade.

*Names have been changed

Sam’s story

I was involved in the street sex trade and suffered from a heroin addiction for many years and used dedicated services to support me through the other side.

For the past 17 years, since I recovered from my addiction and broke free from the street sex trade, I have been working as a volunteer, supporting other women involved in the street sex trade. I’m passionate about ensuring women like me get the right support. I know from my own personal experience just how vulnerable the women are and they are so often marginalised in the community.

During the 17 years as a lived experience volunteer and member of support groups, I’ve witnessed a decline in services available to support women going through the same things I did.  

There are plenty of groups that offer support with issues such as drug abuse, mental health and domestic violence but there is still more to do for women involved in the street sex trade. We need to change policies to improve the long-term outcomes and if nothing is done, it is like saying that a section of society is expendable. It pins the blame on women who are trapped in the street sex trade without recognising or addressing factors such as addiction and the other complex pathways into this.

Karen’s story

For me, I wasn’t lucky enough to find support whilst I was in the sex trade but, after suffering violence and abuse for many years, I got away in the end. I ended up volunteering supporting other women and I spent a lot of time around like-minded women and those who had similar experiences as me.

Being in the street sex trade is an isolated lifestyle, it feels like you’re the only one, so when women open up to me it creates such a connection. These women are intelligent, articulate, and shouldn’t be underestimated.

Lived experience is so important within services as we are the eyes and ears that see and hear what others can’t, because we have experienced it ourselves. There needs to be a safe space for women who have experienced different issues to feel safe to speak openly. Being able to speak to women who have similar experiences, really helps mentally.   

The services aren’t all sadness, as me and Sam know, we can even have a laugh as we all have so much in common. These are daughters, sisters, aunties, mothers, who are loved and they deserve support and you cannot put a price on a life. It doesn’t take millions of pounds – just a core group of passionate women who are specialised to support those who are often forgotten about.