Juliet Watson – young women, homelessness & intimate relations

Year awarded: 2014

Abstract: This thesis critically examines the intersection of homelessness and gender in post-industrial capitalist society through young women’s experiences of intimate relationships. By way of this investigation I theoretically conceptualise how gendered subjectivities are produced and performed through these experiences. The focus on young women puts gender at the centre of analysis which disrupts conventional thinking and suggests that traditional frameworks that measure homelessness need to be contested so that alternative experiences are recognised.

The marginalisation faced by young women experiencing homelessness demands that they are exposed to situations in which survival can be impeded or assisted by playing out specific gender roles. The poverty, gendered violence and social exclusion of homelessness require the accrual of resources in order to survive and for young women this can involve the employment of their femininity through heteronormative intimate relationships. When intimate relationships are associated with material support this practice is usually referred to as survival sex. However, a narrow definition of survival sex which only includes the material aspects fails to recognise the multiple and complex intimate relationship being undertaken by young women within the context of homelessness. The ways in which young women experience and understand their intimate relationships reveal that homelessness is not a gender neutral phenomenon and that there are gender specific processes and practices involved.

In charting the dimensions of survival sex and intimate relationships I undertook face-to-face interviews in Melbourne, Australia with fifteen young women who had experienced homelessness. Central to the interpretation of the data are discourse and narrative analyses. The conclusions of this research indicate that young women experiencing homelessness have multiple and co-existing motivations for engaging in intimate relationships. The reasons identified here include material support, physical protection, as well as for a sense of stability and belonging. Dominant neoliberal societal discourses such as those associated with youth transitions, individualisation and postfeminism, in addition to romantic tropes, are drawn upon by young women to frame their experiences of homelessness and intimate relationships, and the embedding of these discourses is crucial in shaping gendered subjectivities.

Thesis supervisors: Professor Johanna Wyn and Dr Ani Weirenga

Institution at which thesis was completed: University of Melbourne

Key words: Homelessness; young women; survival sex; relationships; individualisation

Link: https://minerva-access.unimelb.edu.au/handle/11343/40983

Email contact: juliet.watson@rmit.edu.au

Photo: “Blond long-haired young lady woman girl watching the surfers at Morro Bay, CA” by Mike Baird is licensed under CC BY 2.0