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

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

Photo: Getty
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Technology can change the world – provided we have a measure of democracy, too

You could say we need a technological revolution for the many, not the few. 

Over the last five decades, the American Consumer Technology Association’s annual jamboree has grown to become the world’s largest tech show: attracting over 190,000 visitors and 4000 companies, with 7,460 reporters filing 59,969 reports over the course of four days in Las Vegas. In the process, it has achieved an almost mythical status – from unveiling the first-ever home VCR (Philips 1970) to Bill Gates’ resignation from Microsoft in 2006, and has included cameo appearances by the likes of Jay-Z and Barack Obama.

As a fully qualified geek (Electrical Engineering degree, 20 years in tech – before it was cool) and the shadow minister for Industrial Strategy Science and Innovation, I couldn’t resist seizing the opportunity to venture to Las Vegas while on a family holiday to the US’ west coast; hoping, against all hope, to see the progressive future of a technology-enabled, more equal world.

If only.

But I did emerge with a renewed conviction that technology can solve our problems – if we use it to do so.

In some ways, the most remarkable thing about the International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) was the way it demonstrated how technology has taken over our entire world. CES was a car show in the middle of a health show, which happened to be around the corner from a home show, which was adjacent to a sports show that was next to an entertainment show. Just about every sector was represented.

Nissan had a huge stand for their new autonomous vehicle showcasing the ‘Brain-Vehicle Interface’, as did Philips for their new sleep enhancing devices, and Huawei for their connected home. In 2018, technology can be used as an enabling platform to aid just about everything. And in a world where near enough everything is politicised, technology is very political.

But this was not evident from CES: not from the stands, neither the keynotes, nor the participants. There were few speakers from civic society nor governments, and those politicians who attended – such as Donald Trump’s Transportation Secretary, Elaine Chao – talked only of their ‘excitement’ at the sunlit uplands technology could guide us to. The show existed in its own, largely self-sufficient world. While Ford created an entire street to show off its autonomous cars, there was no reference to who would pay for the road, pavements, lamp-posts and guttering if only robots worked.

And as a politician rather than an engineer, it is the societal impact that matters most to me. One realisation brought about by my visit is that I have greatly under-estimated the consequences of driverless vehicles: communications, parking, urban layout, and public transport are all likely to be deeply impacted. The automobile industry is working to position cars as your personal moving office-cum-front room-cum-hotel-cum-lecture theatre; where you can work, maintain personal and social relationships, unwind and learn – all while going from A to B. How will crowded, under-funded public transport compete?

At the show, Nissan launched its Brain-to-Vehicle technology, which reads the driver’s brainwaves to determine when the car’s intelligence should intervene. Although I'm personally unsure about the inclusion of brain surveillance in the driving experience, it may well be the next logical step as we increasingly give up our data in return for ‘free’ services. Certainly the anthropologists at Nissan argued that this was the very definition of assisted artificial intelligence.

Fortunately, autonomous vehicles are not the only way to get around. Improvements in battery technology mean that – between electric scooters capable of folding away into airplane carry on, and electric bikes with the power of motorcycles – personal mobility has become a market in its own right.

Personal health and sport were also big themes at the event. Philips has brought back the night cap, which not only looks far more fetching than the Victorian original, but is now also capable of lulling you gently into a slumber before monitoring the quality of your sleep. Orcam’s discrete camera-glasses for the visually impaired can read text and recognise people, whilst L’Oréal’s UV Sense is a sensor small enough to be worn comfortably on your fingernail that detects ultraviolet exposure.

One aspect of the show that has remained largely unchanged is its demographics. Whilst the glossy adverts on the walls depict women and BME people using technology, those actually designing it were, with a few exceptions, male and largely white. As always, there were no queues for the women’s loos and while there were not any ‘F1 girls’, the gender balance was improved largely by attractive women, who were not engineers, being employed to ‘explain’ technological advances.

Weeks later, the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos was also dominated by technology, which the Prime Minister used as a fig leaf to cover the absence of vision for Brexit. Lacking in both the CES and Davos, was any sense that the interests of the many had any significant stake in what was going on. We need a Labour government to help change that.

Chi Onwurah is the Labour MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central, and the shadow minister for industrial strategy.