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The biggest myths about street-based sex work

No, not all prostitutes get paid loads - and they're aren't all on drugs or from Eastern Europe. To make better policy around street-based sex work, we must first understand the reality of what it involves.

The welfare of sex workers themselves needs to be the prime concern. Photo: Getty
The welfare of sex workers themselves needs to be the prime concern. Photo: Getty

On a typical Monday night, a colleague and I drive around Brixton Hill in a van. We meet all kinds of people from all kinds of backgrounds – women who are back at work a week after having a baby, some who only work occasionally, and some for whom this has been a way of life since they were thirteen. We do outreach with south London’s street-based sex workers, offering a harm reduction and support service to any of them who need it.

The van has an ample supply of condoms, clean needles, food and drink. From 10pm until around 1.30am, we do outreach with the women involved in street-based sex work in the area. Spires, the Streatham centre that runs the service, recently won an award for innovation in homelessness intervention for this Streetlink project.

I work in central London in impact investing – so I am a volunteer just for Monday nights, but I do every shift alongside a Spires staff member. She knows most of the women we meet by name – she can probably tell you all about their children too. She knows who has disappeared, who has been stabbed by a punter, and who is on the verge of a mental health crisis. In the winter, she knows who needs the coat, scarf or gloves she has brought with her for the women who walk up and down the hill even in the snow.

While doing this work, violent threats – and even violence itself – it not uncommon. We have to leave the keys in the ignition and the engine running so we can get away quickly from the dangerous situations that arise – but none of these things surprise me anymore. What is surprising is that organisations like these so often struggle to find funding, that some people rage at us for the work we’re doing (for “enabling” prostitution), and the complete lack of understanding and empathy we hear so often when we talk about our outreach work.

So many people have an opinion on sex work, yet most of them will say they have never even spoken to a sex worker.  While those making decisions about policy, local planning, housing and funding, have no conception of what sex work, particularly street-based sex work, entails, there can be no significant change that can genuinely improve the situation – so that eventually, we hope, projects like Streetlink will not be needed. Similarly, while those of us who donate to, invest in or support charities and charitable work do not understand the challenges faced by sex workers, it puts centres like Spires or Eaves’ Beth Centre - which need constant funding to reach the most vulnerable – at risk.

I am not talking here about all sex work; it is a hugely diverse industry, with women and men working at all kinds of levels and in all kinds of ways – self-employed, in women-run co-operatives, or through escort services. We are concerned with street-based sex work, one of the most dangerous parts of the industry, where the women (all those in the area we work are women) are mostly homeless, and very often extremely vulnerable.

In an attempt to shed a little more light on a topic – where really what we need is for sex workers themselves to have a safe platform to talk about this – here are some of the statements we come up against time and again, that damage the debate because they feed into these misunderstandings about sex work on the street.

  1. All prostitutes get paid loads

This is probably the most common thing to hear within the first few minutes of mentioning sex work. People have always heard that story about someone who became a prostitute to pay off her student loan – or they’ve watched Secret Diary of a Call Girl and extrapolate one particular, glamourised portrayal of part of the industry to be reflective of every person who works in it. Some even sympathise that “it must be difficult to persuade them to get another kind of job when this one pays so well”.

In street-based sex work, this is so very far removed from the reality.

In this case, we are talking about payments that range not from £500-£1,000, but from £10 (with a condom – maybe they’ll pay an extra £10 to take it off) to £40 from a “generous” punter. It isn’t glamorous, it isn’t lucractive, and it isn’t safe – and it won’t be safe until there are radical changes in policy, and in the way society treats sex workers and those who are homeless.  

This misunderstanding matters because it means that people do not understand why sex workers need support or outreach, and funding streams suffer. It means when sex workers advocate for change, people are not willing to listen, and it means when people like Spires are looking for funding, so often the money is just not there.

  1. They are all on drugs

Another common misconception – and one that often demarcates women into those “deserving” of help (those who are not spending their money on drugs) and those who are “undeserving”. Yes, many women in street-based sex work are struggling with addiction, to drugs or alcohol. This may be the reason they are in such a vulnerable position, or it may be the result of it. Very few women we work with inject or smoke heroin, something people are surprised to hear – but it should not matter.  Assuming that all sex workers on the street take drugs, or that those who do are somehow less deserving, grossly oversimplifies an immensely complex issue.

  1. But where are they from?

This one we know very well. When I say that most of the women we work with are British, people raise their eyebrows, lower their voices and say, “Yes, but where are they from?”. People usually assume these are migrant women, from eastern Europe, from Asia and sometimes from Africa. It is part of this idea that sex workers are not really “like us” – they are different, and to be different they must be from somewhere else as well. It also helps to absolve us a little; if there are vulnerable women working in such unsafe conditions, it must be because they’re illegal immigrants, or because they have been exploited or trafficked – not because of our policies that make sex work unsafe and sex workers vulnerable, or because of the benefit cuts that have forced them onto the street. Some of those we work with are migrant women – many of them are not.  

  1. It’s just pimps and gangs behind it all

Yes, some of the women we work with are being exploited by an individual or by a gang. But for many of them, it’s the usual every day inequality behind it – women who are or have been in abusive relationships, women who cannot afford their housing, or who do not have the support they need to sustain a job. Some women have severe mental health support needs that are not being met and do not have an alternative. While these inequalities persist, women will continue to work on the streets, where they are exposed and at-risk. Blaming it on gangs, pimps or “minders” obscures the complexity of the support needed by sex workers, undermines their agency and the choices they make, and ensures it remains only a question of crime, rather than a question of inequality, policy or labour rights.  

  1. They need saving (from themselves)

The moral question about sex work so often obscures the needs of those who are working. Very often the question is about how to help people choose a better life, how to show them that it’s wrong to sell their bodies.

Outreach work is not “saving” anybody. It’s harm reduction and giving information about local services – we support the women’s basic needs and provide contraceptives, as well transport so that sometimes we can drive them away from a violent punter to a place of safety (perhaps a relative or friend’s house). We link them in to health, benefits, rehabilitation and housing services – through brilliant providers like St. Mungo’s – but we are not there to save anybody from sex work. 

We are delighted when we are able to work with women who eventually find an alternative to working on the street. For some of them, this might mean re-entering education or training, and for some of them it might mean getting back on their feet, able to continue working in the sex industry but on their terms and in a safe, supported environment. There are no quick wins, and this is so important to understand if services like Streetlink are to receive the support they need to continue. Simplistic narratives about “saving sex workers” can obscure the realities of the situation, and put practical services that support the workers themselves at risk.

The women we work with do not need a lecture, or somebody to tell them what they should be doing. They need access to clean needles and rehabilitation when they ask for it. They need safe contact with their children. They need supported housing and health check-ups. They need a social security system that they can actually use.  

  1. Prison offers them the chance to recover, and rethink their lives

Another thing that they need is to report violence without fear of repercussions. While sex workers are being arrested for soliciting, while they are in and out of the criminal justice system, it is virtually impossible to build up a strong, long-term relationship where they feel able to ask for support when they need it, and where they are able to report the violent crimes of punters. It is hugely frustrating to make strides with a client and have to start again from scratch when they come back from a three month stay in prison.

People often suggest that in fact prison will help these women, giving them breathing space, time to think and time to ‘get off’ drugs.

Funded rehabilitation services that can work around chaotic lives help people to deal with drug or alcohol dependency. Genuine training, opportunities and supported housing help people deal with addiction. Having them constantly arrested for solicitation does not; it undermines any progress they have made with support workers and mental health professionals, and creates a divide between police forces, support services and sex workers themselves, who should be working together to deal with the violent crimes of some punters and some partners – and the exploitation and trafficking that do exist in the industry.

With all of the discussion about bringing in the Nordic model in the UK, the welfare of sex workers themselves needs to be the prime concern – not the reduction in the size of the sex trade, or in the number of punters.

The Nordic model penalises the demand for commercial sex (criminalising the punter) while decriminalising the selling of sex. It provokes heated debate from all sides; many see the criminalising of punters as key to reducing demand, leading particularly to a reduction in human trafficking. One worry from a welfare perspective, however, is that it can push sex work further underground and lead to less safety for the sex workers themselves. For many women, fewer clients might mean taking more risks; focusing on tackling the demand for sex work does not deal with the reasons some women are compelled to work on the street.

Certainly, though, there is a very positive side to the Nordic model; proper decriminalisation for sex workers is a key tenet – while “soliciting” is currently illegal in the UK. Decriminalisation would go some way towards creating a system that listens to the needs of sex workers and attempts to respond to them. It would mean that women could report violent attacks from punters without fear of repercussions and of being targeted for arrests when In the meantime, charities like Spires will continue to provide the practical services that sex workers need to stay safe on the street – I just hope one day they won’t be needed.

Clare Jones (@claremaryjones) works at ClearlySo and volunteers for the Spires Centre (@spireslondon), which supports homeless and disadvantaged people in south London