Social-work projects fail sex workers despite helping-hands image

Social work, whether voluntary or paid, rests on an assumption that people with problems can be helped by outsiders who provide services that facilitate solutions. Hands predominate in icons used on social-work websites: holding hands, piles of hands, hands of different shapes and colours. I suppose these are meant to signify working together – mutuality – non-hierarchy – equality. But how many social-work situations involving a sex worker reflect those values? Take this news item from Los Angeles:

Getting tough on underage prostitution

LA County calls on legislators to toughen laws, while those who work with young prostitutes grapple with how to get them off the streets. “Children cannot give consent by definition,” said Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas. McSweeney said there are times when deputies pick up an underage girl and take her to county social services. Often, he said, that girl will end up in a group home, flee the next day, and be back on the street that night. It’s a revolving door, he said, and the system could use some tweaking.

Rejection of help is widely known amongst people who sell sex of all ages, yet to question ideas about helping is frowned upon. It is said people who are at least trying to do good deserve credit. Do they have to be perfect? At any rate, they are not employed as soldiers or bankers, they are socially involved, at least they care. But for most social workers, the job is just a job. They don’t imagine themselves to be saints but do appreciate the security and respect associated with it. They would probably prefer to think their work is relevant and appreciated. Consider a news item from Texas:

Child sex trafficking seminar in Paris educates first responders

“You would think that if you ran across a child that was being used for sex trafficking that they would stand up and say help me and that’s not the case,” said Paris Regional Medical Emergency Director Doug LaMendola. “They are so mentally reprogrammed into submissiveness that they won’t speak up.”

It must be frustrating when help is rejected, but inventing psychological reasons is a dodge to avoid wondering if the projects could be improved. Some psy excuses used with women who sell sex are brainwashingStockholm Syndrome and acting out. Now consider a news item from Chicago:

Who’s A Victim Of Human Sex Trafficking?

One recent Friday morning in a stuffy, crowded classroom at the Cook County jail in Chicago, a few women shared stories at a meeting of a group called Prostitution Anonymous. If they agree to get help, the women usually are not charged with prostitution in Cook County, though they may face other charges, from drug use to disorderly conduct.

Coercing people to participate in programmes is where social work touches bottom.

The idea that it’s impossible to change the lives of those in need unless they want them changed reveals a key assumption: that those in helping positions by definition already know what everyone needs. What happens if the person to be helped doesn’t accede to the helper’s proposition? Help fails, as it so often does in the oldest and commonest attempts worldwide to help women who sell sex, known as Exit Strategies, Diversion Programs and Rehabilitation. Consider recent news from Oklahoma:

Teen prostitute leaves shelter to return to street life

“She was in protective custody and doesn’t want any help,” he said. “There is no indication of a drug history. That’s the life she preferred. There is no telling how much money she was making.”
Woodward said the teenager comes from a rough family in the Tulsa area. “She doesn’t like her family, and she didn’t want us to contact her family,” he said.

Most women and young people who sell sex are simply not attracted by the alternative occupations or ‘homes’ offered that provide no flexibility, no autonomy, no street life, no way to have fun and pitiful money. Social workers can always point to people they know who appreciated some such project, but mainstream media provide examples of failure every week. The significant refusal here is on the social-work side, where not believing what people say they need guarantees that the situation for sex workers stays the same, despite endless hand-wringing and rhetoric about the need to help them.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

14 thoughts on “Social-work projects fail sex workers despite helping-hands image

  1. Peter Dworkin

    I am an LMSW who believes that sex workers have the same inherent dignity and rights as anyone else. I don’t feel they must be rescued, or re-educated, or examined for pathology, but I do believe that everyone, regardless of profession can suffer from depression, anxiety or phobias that can interfere with the enjoyment of life, and that my training makes me unusually suitable to assist people with these problems. If you demonize all social workers vis-a-vis sex workers, to whom will they turn when they need quotidian psychological assistance?

    1. Laura Agustín

      To criticise the foundation of many social-work projects is not to ‘demonise all social workers’. The focus of this article is on news items that reveal concrete cases that did not find help useful, and as someone engaged for 20 years in both NGO and activist movements in the field I know these cases are common. This does not mean that individual sex workers are never helped or that individual social workers are not, like you, empathetic and respectful. That psychology can sometimes help does not negate how many use it to avoid self-criticism. It is rare for social-work projects to be critiqued in public but important in the field I work in. Thank you for reading.

    2. A Former Sexworker

      Peter, just very quietly let me point out that you are teetering, perhaps unintentionally, on asserting the fallacy that when you have a problem Social Workers have no solution for, one for which they *do* have a solution will be allocated to you instead.

      Let me show you my own case in point:

      My old memoir also provides quite a lot of incidental insight into the negative effectiveness of social workers down the years:

      There are a LOT of problems for which social workers have no real, effective help to offer. In addition, this years “quotidian psychological assistance” has a terrible tendency to morph into next years “dangerous crackpot theory” with alarming regularity.

      With a surprisingly open mind, in 40 years I have, so far, failed to find anyone at all (and I am really wracking my brains for an exception too) who had a problem for which a social worker could be found to provide an appropriate, effective, solution…

      Now that is, obviously, skewed by the focus of my own attention, and the people and situations I relate to best, but still…it is pretty significant.

      I am accessible through my blog I will offer a challenge, very sincerely, to you or anyone. to find me just *ONE* person categorised as a “social worker” who can give me real, effective and appropriate help of any kind, let alone “quotidian psychological assistance”.

  2. rjhjr

    The International Federation of Social Workers gives their code of ethics on their website. In the section marked “Principles”, the first principle given is

    Respecting the right to self-determination – Social workers should respect and promote people’s right to make their own choices and decisions, irrespective of their values and life choices, provided this does not threaten the rights and legitimate interests of others.

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  4. Fworld

    I think there are sex workers that are working and it’s their own decision and there others that are working because they are being forced. The ones that are being forced should be rescued, educated but the ones that are doing it due to their own choice should be left alone..plain and simple.

  5. John welch

    Yeah, ‘they have to want to change,’ and ‘they’re not ready,’. It’s the same language that plagues the interface between ‘drug users’ and ‘helping professionals.’ At least it’s not, ‘lock them up;They are a danger to themselves’ but it still assumes that the professional social worker knows what’s best for others and it’s their role to evaluate the validity of others’ decisions. I also think we are fools if we think people are acting in their own best interests or making simple cost-benefit decisions most of the time. My own decision to involve myself in others lives and struggles through being a social worker was guided by all kinds of internal fantasies and beliefs I am only slightly aware of now as a middle aged person–so yeah, psychology is always a factor in decisions for all of us, I’d say. That’s what is interesting about people. No one is trying to rescue me from the vicarious trauma and soul crushing frustration with systems that my irrational choice to ‘help people’ or (worse) ’empower’ people has lead to. Sometimes my therapist pushes me on this stuff, but that is my contract with him–that’s what I want from him, even if I don’t always like it. If a person doing sex work wants you to take this kind of role in his/her life, great! You get to do your quotidian psychology stuff, and, if not, great!–you get to be supportive in whatever way they want, or you get to be a well-wisher or just leave them alone entirely and offer yourself to another person who might be interested. I work with youth a lot and I feel an obligation to keep trying, but that should be through making what I offer (my conversation, my program services or design) more attractive/more what they might want, not by pushing harder. When people are in deep trouble, as some in sex work are, I have to really actively remind myself–it’s not my role to rescue (in any sense)

  6. Kerwin Kaye

    Whereas social work organizations previously held self-determination as one of their key values as they addressed clients, there has been debate over the past two decades concerning the value of coerced therapies. I have seen this most directly in relation to social workers who work with coerced clients who use drugs, but obviously it’s an issue in relation to sex work as well. The current statement of ethics from the (US-based) NASW reads:

    Social workers respect and promote the right of clients to self­determination and assist clients in their efforts to identify and clarify their goals. Social workers may limit clients’ right to self­determination when, in the social workers’ professional judgment, clients’ actions or potential actions pose a serious, foreseeable, and imminent risk to themselves or others.

    In other words, we will respect your right to self-determination until we won’t, and we’ll use the language of “harm” to justify our decision.

    My own scholarly work looks at court-ordered drug treatment in the US, and I have seen lots of practices that I would say constitute abuse justified through this logic. The same applies to similar programs designed for sex workers. Just behind the rhetoric of “self-determination” that social workers use come many threats: you can languish in jail, we’ll take away your kids, etc.

    Not to be too pointed about this, but: Peter, you are reacting negatively to a small amount of criticism on a blog. What about the people subjected to these threats from your colleagues? That seems the more significant issue, no?

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