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29 Jan 2022

New report reveals reality of mental health toll among sex workers

New report unveils mental health toll on sex workers

The vast majority of these women are prostituted in brothels while the study found over half first entered prostitution between the ages of 16 and 24

A new report published by the Sexual Exploitation and Research Programme at UCD, has revealed that 94 per cent of those who access the Health Service Executive's (HSE) who are involved in prostitution are migrant women. 

The report, entitled, Confronting the Harm, states that the majority of these women speak very limited English, have an insecure immigration status or are undocumented.

The two-year study of 144 service users of the Women's Health Service says that for most, prostitution is "all consuming", dominating every aspect of women attending the service while data and interviews with users of the service shows women experience enduring or reoccurring sexual and reproductive health harms arising from their involvement in sex work.

This is the result of the frequency with which multiple buyers have sexual access to the women's bodies and their demands for risky and harmful practices resulting in women's mental health and well-being being negatively impacted with fear, stress and depression common features in the lives of these women.

The vast majority of these women are prostituted in brothels while the study found over half first entered prostitution between the ages of 16 and 24, with poverty and coercion being the main reasons why.

The women said the effect of having to deal with demands they find frightening and repellent have had a detrimental impact on their own sexual identity, intimate relationships and ability to trust along with feelings of isolation, loneliness and lack of support with many of them having no family in the country.

The report also revealed how women in this line of work often experience serious, physical and sexual violence at the hands of perpetrators such as pimps, traffickers and buyers, whilst those profiting reap the financial rewards. 71 per cent of the women that attended the service said they wanted to leave prostitution more than once but many remained trapped.

The report stated the need for a dedicated, specialist health service for women in prostitution provided by the HSE's Women's Health Service is clearly evident and should be extended beyond Dublin adding that sexual healthcare must be complemented by trauma-informed mental health and well-being supports. to counteract the severe mental health impacts of prostitution.

The report recommended holistic exiting supports adding improved identification and support is required for victims of trafficking.

Other forms of support, in particular peer support, is suggested to combat the overwhelming isolation felt by women in prostitution.

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