Some things are just plain hard to talk about. They’re hard to think about, let alone discuss in ‘polite’ company. But sometimes those are the things that need to be brought out into the open, because they thrive in silence, in isolation, in stigma.
That’s what the Hope Project is about. REACH created the Hope Project in 2002 to look at the intersection of domestic violence with mental health, substance use, and transactional sex. There’s a phrase you probably don’t hear every day. What do we mean by transactional sex? We use that term to refer to trading sex or sexual favors for something of value. So that could include money, but also might refer to food, housing, drugs, safety, or something else.
This might be the point where you’re tempted to stop reading or form a judgment, but please don’t.
Did you know that the average age of entry into prostitution in the United States is 11-13 years old? Or that the majority of youth who enter into prostitution in the US tend to be runaways?1 It’s important that we understand that whether we’re talking about someone engaged in what we typically think of as ‘sex work,’ or someone exchanging sex for the things mentioned above, that choice is often a spectrum, and sometimes involves deciding between options that, to many of us, might seem unthinkable.
This is relevant to our work because the dynamics of power and control that we talk about with domestic violence are often mirrored in situations involving transactional sex, and because all too often people experience both. Sometimes, the experience of transactional sex is forced or coerced by an abuser. In addition, substance use is often a coping skill associated with both domestic violence and transactional sex, in other words, a way to become numb or deal with the experience. You can imagine how someone who has experienced physical and emotional trauma, facing the power and control dynamics, silence, isolation, stigma and shame that are often associated with both transactional sex and substance abuse, would start to feel overwhelmed by the factors against them and their lack of choices.
The Hope Project is about providing a safe space to talk about those experiences without shame, in a one-on-one setting or in support groups with others who have had similar experiences. It’s a way for us to help survivors we work with, but it has also become a resource for other service providers, who might hesitate to talk about difficult things like this or be unsure how to help. Because we’ve been working on this for awhile now, REACH is able to help by sharing our own experiences and the things we’ve learned. We give workshops for other domestic violence, mental health, and substance abuse service providers to help them increase their sensitivity to the implications of sexual and domestic violence and to help them identify survivors who have histories of transactional sex and substance abuse. In short, it’s about asking the right questions, and being prepared to hear the answers.
It’s not a matter of having separate services for someone who discloses a history of these experiences, at least not in our context. Rather, we make sure not to assume that such a history doesn’t exist, and let survivors know that they can talk about it without feeling shamed. Our focus then becomes harm reduction – how to make safer choices, develop self-care and coping skills, and help reduce the incidence of violence in their lives.
Are you a service provider in need of some resources in this area? Contact us today at (781) 891-0724 ext. 111.
Are you a survivor in need of a safe space to process your experiences? Call our hotline at (800) 899-4000.