Holmes, Catherine and McRae-Williams, Eva (2012) 'Captains' and 'Selly-welly': Indigenous Women and the Role of Transactional Sex in Homelessness. Batchelor Institute of Indigenous Tertiary Education, Batchelor, Northern Territory, Australia. ISBN 978-1-74131-274-4
PDF ('Captains' & 'Selly Welly' Monograph)
Aligned with the national homeless research agenda, this exploratory study aimed to contribute to the collective understanding of homelessness. Specifically, this research explored the relationship between transactional sex and the drivers of homelessness and the role that this exchange played in determining the risks to homeless Indigenous women in Darwin.
Informed by ethnographic approaches, in-depth interviews were undertaken between November, 2010 and March, 2011, with 89 participants, twenty five (25) of whom were key informants during the interview process. Participants were generally women, adult, Indigenous and were regarded homeless, as defined by the Australian government, that is, they were living rough without shelter, known locally as staying in the Long Grass. Findings revealed a high level of social organisation among homeless populations in Darwin and that engaging in transactional sex was a common occurrence for most homeless Indigenous women who participated in this study.
Transactional sex occurred within an everyday life pattern that was influenced by a range of factors including: alcohol consumption; Aboriginal spirituality; the criminal justice system; surveillance; social dysfunction; grief, loss and trauma; violence; social exclusion; poor mental and physical health; and forced mobility. The women engaging in the transaction, or ‘selly-welly’, were known as the ‘captain’. As the title implies, the captain assumed power, influence and control over a group, even if a transitory experience, while resources were distributed as she regaled the group with stories of her recent encounter.
The most significant finding to emerge about the women’s lives was the prevalence of sexual assault and rape and the extent to which these atrocities shaped their worlds. Yet rape and sexual assault were not linked by women to transactional sex. Rather, these violations resulted from women being vulnerable to predators, referred to as ‘cheeky cunts’, through homelessness (sleeping in public places) together with being highly intoxicated.
For the Indigenous women in this study, transactional sex was an historical and established mechanism for basic survival during periods without shelter in Darwin; a practice that has also been observed worldwide among various populations of women throughout history during periods of difficulty, such as war and conflict, famine and poverty.
Transactional sex cannot be viewed in isolation as simply immoral behaviour, but as one part of a larger complex narrative that is an expression of women’s agency and conversely a symbol of continuing racial oppression, gender inequality and disempowerment. This study concludes that transactional sex is a product of homelessness and an expression of the continuum of colonisation with its social, cultural, political and economic challenges for Indigenous families and communities in the Northern Territory.
The study found that taking punitive measures to prevent transactional sex would serve only to further criminalise and marginalise Indigenous women living without shelter, compounding the hardships of homelessness. Instead, what is needed is a combination of programs, practices and policy supports that provide alternative life opportunities for the women involved. Such supports need to be coordinated to redress the deeply embedded social, racial and gender inequalities endured by the participants of this study.
The need to focus on policy and interventions that can help prevent the ongoing rape and sexual assault of homeless Indigenous women when they are in Darwin is paramount. To bring about immediate improvement to women’s health, safety and wellbeing, it is logical that women will be afforded access to safe places to inhabit. This need is consistent with the headline goal of the Commonwealth Government’s national homelessness policy (agreed to by the Northern Territory Government) which states that all rough sleepers will be offered shelter if they need it by 2020.
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