‘Just a piece of meat’: How homeless women have little choice but to use sex for survival, as the alternative can mean sleeping rough.
‘Just a piece of meat’: How homeless women have little choice but to use sex for survival, as the alternative can mean sleeping rough.

The women having sex to survive

"$1 ROOM available for young, quiet, shy lady in Glenroy. Have spare double bedroom for young quiet, shy lady, any nationality who keeps to herself, who is willing to have casual times with 55yo quiet straight guy."

That is just one of hundreds of advertisements listed on the notorious buy-and-sell site Craigslist - offering homeless woman a roof over their head, in return for sex.

It was posted on July 11, but has since been removed.

For many homeless women, survival sex is the only viable option to manage their homelessness, but not all "contracts" are obvious to women.

Jessie* had accepted accommodation on many occasions from men she met after becoming homeless at 16 in Melbourne.

But it wasn't until she would return home that it became obvious what was happening - there was an expectation of having sex with the men she shared accommodation with.

She had multiple experiences of this happening. She became acutely aware of the consequences had she not provided sex to these men, even if no explicit arrangement had been agreed upon.

"If a guy offers you a lift or a place to sleep, they're not being nice," Jessie said. "They're just doing it because they want to have sex with you and they can see that you're vulnerable …

"It'd be all right for a little while. Then when it came to bedtime, or close to bedtime, I'd start getting touched and get an icky feeling that something's wrong. … I said 'no' but still they didn't respect it, so I just had to put up with it."


The advertisement appeared on buy-and-sell site Craigslist but has since been removed.
The advertisement appeared on buy-and-sell site Craigslist but has since been removed.

Dr Juliet Watson, social worker and lecturer in Urban Housing and Homelessness at Melbourne's RMIT University, interviewed 15 homeless women aged 18 to 25 - including Jessie - about their experiences of managing homelessness in the city.

"Women's reliance on providing sex to manage homelessness makes them particularly vulnerable to exploitation. Although outsiders may consider that they are entering into a mutually beneficial contract, this wasn't the case for the women I interviewed," she said.

Dr Watson revealed that the most disturbing part of her research, part of her latest book "Youth Homelessness and Survival Sex", was how survival sex was being used as a way of managing the violence of homelessness.

Survival sex, commonly understood to be the exchange of sex for material support, is a practice that is associated with young homeless women.

"We know all homelessness is pretty dangerous, but for women there is an extra dimension of sexual violence," Dr Watson said.

She said some of the women she interviewed stayed in relationships in fear of being raped, saying without a partner they would have no accommodation.

"There was certainly a sense of 'relationships protect you', whether that was real or not," Dr Watson said.

Research shows homeless women, who comprise of 42 per cent of Australia's homeless population, experience violence - or feel vulnerable to it - in crisis accommodation, such as private rooming houses and motels.

"Housing services often refer them to these places due to the scarcity of more suitable alternatives," Dr Watson said. "A lot of the women don't feel safe there.

"Lack of money, welfare support and social capital meant, for some, their only resource was to exchange sex for somewhere to stay."

But there is also street-based violence which forced women into relationships.

Dr Watson said another woman she interviewed, Hayley*, described "hooking up" briefly with a man also experiencing homelessness, to provide her with a sense of comfort.

"Although he was unable to provide accommodation, Hayley stayed with him to feel safer from the violence of street-based homelessness," Dr Watson said.


Young homeless women have described their experiences of survival sex which have been documented in a new book.
Young homeless women have described their experiences of survival sex which have been documented in a new book.

Hayley said the bad part about being homeless was that "people think they can take advantage of you because you're going to do anything 'cause you're homeless."

Dr Watson said the 15 women described their experiences as "lonely" and "frightening", explaining that the only way forward was to provide homeless people, particularly women, safe and affordable accommodation.

However, she said that due to the hidden nature and often ill-defined boundaries of survival sex, "it is difficult to regulate and therefore almost impossible to offer protection for women".

"This places them in highly precarious situations. Until the structural issues in our housing market are addressed, this is unlikely to change," Dr Watson said.

"It's not going to fix everything, but if women have accommodation that is both safe and affordable, they're not going to be put in these situations where they have to exchange sex for a roof over their head for the night."

The number of homeless women in Australia has risen with nearly 7000 women experiencing homelessness, making them the fastest growing group of homeless people in the country.

Dr Watson interviewed 15 women aged 18-25 about their experiences of managing homelessness in Melbourne. The women described how the poverty, social exclusion and physical danger that accompany homelessness required them to manage their circumstances with very few resources.



Hayley said people felt able to take advantage of homeless women, believing they would do anything because they had nowhere else to go.

"Especially guys think, 'Yeah, she's out there on the streets, she'll f**k me, she'll do me.' The way they think (of you) - as just a piece of meat," Hayley said.

Alice* was looking for private rental accommodation while staying in a youth refuge. Her options were limited to what she could afford on Youth Allowance.

When she applied to sublet a room, she told Dr Watson: "The only place that I found was with this man who I sort of had doubts about the sort of person he was and basically he didn't want me there once he found out that I had a boyfriend."

Alice was never placed in a position where she needed to seriously consider the transaction of sex for accommodation because her boyfriend then obtained student accommodation and she stayed with him. They later got kicked out after the man found out she was sharing the room, with her boyfriend.

Another young woman said she was squatting with a group of men when the proprietor of the building came along. "She told me the men pushed her forward to have sex with the proprietor so he wouldn't call the police." Fortunately, that man said no.

Dr Watson's latest book Youth Homelessness and Survival Sex is now available.


* Names have been changed for confidentiality reasons.