Seen and Heard: Listening to Women Who Have Experienced Sexual Exploitation - My CMS

Have you ever had an experience where you weren’t listened to or believed? Have you ever been through a horrendous time in your life but nobody seemed to care and just looked away?

This is what so many women tell us happens when they have experienced grooming and sexual exploitation. Even if they previously received safeguarding support as children, this drops off when they turn 18. If they report to police, their case is often dropped due to ‘lack of evidence’ (i.e. their word is not enough and they are not seen as a credible witness due to the very things that are often the result of exploitation such as addiction or previous convictions). If they need housing support because their experience of homelessness makes them vulnerable to further abuse and exploitation, they are not seen as a priority.

Today the STAGE partnership is hosting an online event to make sure that these women are seen and heard. Chaired by the Victims’ Commissioner, Dame Vera Baird, and featuring MPs, Peers and other key experts, this event will call on government to recognise sexual exploitation of adult women in policy and practice. The root of so many of the challenges that women who have been groomed and exploited face is the fact that exploitation of adults is not clearly defined or understood. Whilst there is a statutory definition of child sexual exploitation, there isn’t one for adults – this needs to change. The government had a chance to address adult sexual exploitation through the Home Office’s Violence Against Women and Girls Strategy but it is barely referenced – so we need a national strategy specifically to tackle sexual exploitation of adults.

The STAGE partnership is made up of charities Changing Lives, GROW, A Way Out, Together Women, Basis and WomenCentre who provide trauma-informed support for women who have been groomed for sexual exploitation across the North East and Yorkshire alongside building a body of evidence around the barriers that these women face to accessing justice, housing, healthcare and safeguarding support. Some of what we have learned so far includes:

  • Perceptions of adult women differ to perceptions of children who are sexually exploited, and this affects how they are treated by services whether that’s safeguarding teams, police of healthcare. Adult women are more likely to be viewed as responsible for their circumstances, rather than as people who are vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.
  • Women who have experienced sexual exploitation are not getting justice. There are a whole range of reasons for this, but perpetrators will often target women that they know are less likely to be believed (e.g. women who sell sex; women experiencing homelessness, addiction or poor mental health; women with experience in the criminal justice system; women with learning disabilities).
  • Women who have experienced sexual exploitation face multiple barriers to healthcare which are not being adequately addressed. The majority of women supported by STAGE are at risk of poor health outcomes both from the physical and mental impact of the exploitation and abuse itself and because our overstretched healthcare services are often not set up to support people who have experienced trauma.
  • Racially minoritised women in particular are less likely to have their needs understood and addressed. Our response to sexual exploitation needs to take into account the different cultural backgrounds of both perpetrators and survivors.

For more information about the work of the STAGE partnership, you can access our policy briefings and toolkit for practitioners here.

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