3: Sex Work, Criminalisation and Stigma: Towards a Feminist Criminological Imagination

Selling or swapping sex for economic need was a theme in the lives of the women Carlen interviewed. It was often taken for granted as an ‘expectation’ and a form of survival. There are no official records on the number of women in prison who have sold sex (Ahearne, 2016) and indeed no official records on the numbers of women selling sex more generally in society. In this chapter, we draw upon interviews with women from one participatory research project we conducted in the UK. We explore their life trajectories and find that their narratives are ‘vivid chronicles of the times’ in which they live, including experiences of the criminal justice system (CJS) and leaving prison (Carlen et al, 1985). We argue that women’s narratives can point to future possible trajectories and modes of doing justice with women, working against the grain of what Hudson (2006) calls ‘white man’s justice’. The participatory research that underpins this chapter is, for us, an example of biographical research as ‘criminological imagination’ (Carlen, 2010) that enables us ‘to grasp history and biography and the relations between the two within society’ (Mills, 2000). In Criminal Women (1985: 162), the prison regime is described as being based around the will to ‘discipline, infantalize, feminize, medicalize and domesticate’ and in the final part of the chapter we reflect on the extent to which this relates to women who sell sex and their experiences of the CJS.

In what follows, we outline what we mean by a criminological imagination and we present women’s stories of selling or swapping sex as told to us and/or to their peers.

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