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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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Gender Matters

Accounts of female offenders’ journeys into the criminal justice system are often silenced or marginalized.

Featuring a Foreword from Pat Carlen and inspired by her seminal book ‘Criminal Women’, this collection uses participatory, inclusive and narrative methodologies to highlight the lived experiences of women involved with the criminal justice system. It presents studies focused on drug use and supply, sex work, sexual exploitation and experiences of imprisonment.

Bringing together cutting-edge feminist research, this book exposes the intersecting oppressions and social control often central to women’s experiences of the justice system and offers invaluable insights for developing penal policies that account for the needs of women.

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The origins of this book lie in collaborative discussions with a group of feminist criminologists, sociologists and psychologists: the Criminal Women Voice, Justice and Recognition Network (CWVJR) who came together to develop research and scholarship which aims to centre women’s voices and lived experiences. This book draws on each co-author’s body of research in their field of expertise and on a range of research projects, practice and activities. As such the aim of this book is to bring together a body of feminist research on ‘criminal women’ that critically examines women’s reasons for engaging in ‘criminal’ activity and the challenges they face in ‘attempting to become women of their own making’ (Carlen et al, 1985: 1).

The authors were inspired by Pat Carlen’s 1985 landmark book made up of four biographical accounts written with four women – Chris Tchaikovsky, Diana Christina, Jenny Hicks and Josie O’Dwyer. ‘Criminal Women tells the stories of four women who, in attempting to become women of their own making, became deeply involved in crime’ (Carlen et al, 1985: 1). Using the narrative/biographical accounts by the four women, Carlen challenged both the ‘othering’ of women who commit crimes and explanations that suggest women should adapt themselves better to social norms. Following the work of Heidensohn (1968) and Smart (1978), Carlen analysed women’s experiences, paying attention to ‘the complex and concealed forms of oppression and social control to which women are subject’ (Smart, 1978, cited in Carlen et al, 1985: 6) and explores the possible options and responses for women in the context of a ‘class riven and deeply sexist society’ (Smart, 1978, cited in Carlen et al, 1985: 6).

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