The Value of Support Services

Let’s rewind 10 years and I would have never imagined myself accessing a ‘service’. This word wasn’t in my vocabulary and I thought charities were for the really poor children in countries I had never visited, or for the badly bruised and beaten children I couldn’t relate to on tele. I thought you had to be at your lowest and most desperate ebb in life for someone to help you. In fact, it wasn’t until I met a counsellor when I was 21 did she tell me about services because she had worked in them, and still, I was hesitant to access them. I was so reluctant in fact, when I saw the outreach workers, I would hide and specifically work hours when they couldn’t see me. I should add, the counselling service was the first time I had ever used a service in my entire life. I thought life was a free-for-all, and then you die.

This is perhaps why I was, and remain, very reluctant to accept and ask for help. I was stubborn to admit that I needed help, because I never thought it existed in the first place or wasn’t for people like me. By admitting I need help meant that I was at the most desperate ebb in my life, and who likes to say that about themselves? I ended up within a short space of time, accessing several services, largely out of force; I was told I had to seek help, or I would be booted off my course or likely be dead. It wasn’t smooth sailing and I had no idea what to do, and asked people to make the arrangements for me because I didn’t know where to start. Within a year, I was having around 4-5 appointments a week with a variety of services, attending drop-ins and taking courses around DV, sexual violence and self-care.

Starting out

I remember making my first contact with the local sex work project and I completely lied to the outreach worker, in fear of giving away who I really was and what I was doing. She later admitted she could see straight through it and was the reason why she gave me her contact details, and asked me to email her. For the first time in my life, I had someone who actually asked me about my life and wanted to help me, and I never had this before. Suddenly, they were asking about how I’m living, how am I, whats my mental health like, what’s troubling me, what do I need help with? I didn’t know what to do, say or handle it. I remember going to drop in for the first time, nobody knew me and someone made a cup of tea and I couldn’t believe it. It was the scariest thing I ever did, and my counsellor couldn’t believe I had done it when we spoke next.

Next, I met my drug worker and in my first appointment, I sat there crying and she asked if I wanted a hug and I told her to fuck off, similar situation happened the following week. A few weeks later, I asked to leave the service because I was angry at their mishandling of my treatment, but agreed to continue working with just my worker. I went to groups for the first time, and remember the facilitators asking me if I had ever done anything like this before and I cried as I said no in front of a room of strangers. I admire the determination of these workers because they saved my life, and I have a lot of time and respect for all of them now. By the time I had left service, I wrote a thank you note to my drug worker that got sent to the CEO.

Barriers to service

These words come out my mouth all the time, it’s almost on brand for me. It is something that frustrates me more than anything, because it helps people going on in life like I did – sink or swim. As a sex worker, I’ve faced a lot of shit when accessing services; I even had a homeless charity tell me that ‘best be careful’ who they house me with, because *wink wink* – I never went back. In fact, there is another sex work charity that I struggle to access due to their preconceived notions, and the ethos of some of those who work there. Which is a real shame, because they have a lot to offer, and do a lot of good work. I once opened up a bank account, told the lady I was a sex worker and was bombarded with questions, and told ‘no offence, but I’d be distraught if my partner slept with a prostitute, because no offence yeah, he might catch something’. I hope he does hun x

Barriers to service are preventable, and completely unnecessary but it often comes down to the attitudes of those you can encounter. You have no idea of the worker you will be allocated, and you certainly haven’t a clue what they think about sex work until you discuss it with them – this is never more so true for women’s charities who have a strong divide between radical feminists, who are rescue based and intersectional feminists, who are rights and autonomy based. Sex workers historically have a relationship fraught with conflict with core women’s services such as Rape Crisis, Refuge and Women’s Aid. I couldn’t access Refuge due to being a sex worker, they said I might be a danger to other women, bring men back and harm children. What a presumption, they’d never met me. I can’t access the service like other women – I am not the perfect victim.

I’ve watched friends with children, who are also sex workers, refuse to tell anyone they are a sex worker in fear of having their child removed from them. It is oxymoronic because they work to feed their children, and give them things they couldn’t have themselves. Many sex workers are mothers, it really isn’t uncommon and are incredible, strong and resilient women, working hard for their children in sometimes difficult circumstances, or as a single parent. I’ve seen migrant sex workers completely hide from services in fear of being conflated with a sex trafficking victim, and being deported from the UK. As a result, they lose access to essential services like sexual health, housing and even the police if they need them. This makes them more vulnerable.

There are multiple reasons as to why someone may struggle to access a service – whether it be transport, being in a domestic violence relationship, being transgender, the views of the service, historical conflicts, or whatever else. If you truly wish to help the most vulnerable and marginalised in society, you should try yourself to overcome these barriers, and not expect us to. Take your service to the sex worker, provide outreach or make yourself openly known as a sex worker friendly service. You haven’t got to slap it on your front-page but have specifically trained staff or have a red umbrella up in service, or put an olive branch out to the local sex work service and make yourself known.

What happens in Leeds?

I am very lucky to live in Leeds; there are services galore and many specifically set up to help sex workers. Many of these services actively break down the barriers to service and come to us, this includes coming to our house to do sexual health screening, or having the local council’s housing options team on the outreach van at 10pm. We are provided with needle exchange, access to emergency accommodation, sexual health, drug workers or whatever we may need at the time. The support workers spend most of their time ringing up services, helping us with benefit claims, making appointments, taking us there, ensuring that no matter what, we access what we need. Housing options also come to our drop ins to help us find temporary or permanent accommodation.

Currently, I am with a GP practice that specialises in inclusion health, meaning they only work with sex workers, vulnerably housed, homeless, refugees or asylum seekers. They have many specialist workers who are trained in substance misuse and again, bring the service to us. On Thursdays, the GPs go out on an outreach van to see sex workers, wherever they are at the time. They also go to the support services. I can’t even begin to tell you how amazing this is, and so bloody needed. Many sex workers have other health conditions such as COPD, DVTs, poor circulation, abcesses from injecting and whatever else. It is really hard to access healthcare when you’re a sex worker because it is laden with prejudice and discrimination. I moved to this GP surgery after my previous GP said something exceptionally victim-blamey with regards to sex work. Many find you too complex and difficult and simply don’t want to treat you.

They are also familiar and not scared to tackle issues like sex work, mental health, domestic violence and the difficult realities of desperation and poverty. It is such a weight off my chest when I walk into my GP appointment, and they already know I am a sex worker, and whatever baggage that comes with me and they both accept it, happy to tackle these topics and don’t give me shit for it either. Today, I told my GP about my existential crisis as I stared up a ginger man’s hairy asscrack with his balls on my chin, wondering why am I here, what is the meaning of life? I openly talk about the mental health impact of sex work, and she doesn’t tell me to quit or try and rescue me. Instead, we have open and honest discussions about topics that most GPs do a bee-line for. Previously at my former GP, I turned up to apt after being assaulted and the GP who saw me didn’t even ask me what was wrong as I cried throughout the whole appointment, (dangerously) prescribed me Zopiclone and then told me to leave.

Sexual health attends drop in once a week, we have a red umbrella scheme set up where we show a debit sized card in the clinic with the umbrella on, and you get an appointment with a doctor ASAP – usually within a few hours. There are also specific sex worker slots that you can ring up and book in advance, but you won’t have to wait long for an appointment and they’re usually an hour long. There are specific sex worker outreach nurses who attend our support services to take all our swabs, provide contraception and whatever else. They go to your home or set up outreach clinics to access if you’re unable to, and they’re also very lovely women! I have laughed and cried my heart out to them, and I love having a natter with them and putting the world to rights each week. I have all their phone numbers, and someone is generally always available to help me with something, set up an appointment or ring me.

Our local drug service has specific recovery workers who work only with sex workers across the hubs around the city, and one located in the GP practice too. As a result, we all get to know each other, and it breaks down all the crappy stigma. Again, I have laughed and cried my heart out to my drug worker, laughed about and slagged off my clients. They see you as a whole, not as a drug using sex worker and also advocate on issues such as housing, health, inclusion etc. and you’ll also find, they work hard helping you access other services. In your assessment, you are directly asked if you are a sex worker so they can appropriately match you with a trained, experienced drug worker who isn’t going to shame you, or ask you to rehash traumatic experiences and then rescue you.

Finally, we have the only Sex Worker Liaison Officer in the entire UK. Her entire role is working with sex workers – she is not just a sex worker trained police officer. We can report any offences directly to her, and again, she will not drag you down the police suite but instead, come to your house, your place of work or meet you at a support service. She doesn’t come wearing her police uniform, has no interest in arresting you, works collaboratively with local services but for your interests. Her main role is to ensure sex worker’s safety, be available to us should we report to the police and also be an advocate for us. I have reported several times to her, because I would never report to the normal police, because I know they don’t give a shit, won’t believe me or come into the meeting with prejudices, stereotypes and like discriminate against me. It took her a LONG time to gain the trust of sex workers by attending drop-ins, working to support us and advocating.

The impact it has

For the first time in my life, I felt like people gave a shit and that people cared about wanting to help me. It was an alien feeling for me, and something I’ve never experienced before but at the ripe age of 23, I am finally talking about things I’ve buried for so long because others have gained their trust with me, had those difficult conversations and above all, supported me unconditionally. I am less stubborn to ask for help, and more likely to accept than ever before. I no longer feel so alone in facing the world, or feeling as if I have to sink or swim all the time. This domino effect has been immense, and has helped me a lot in terms of my mental health – I really appreciate people being honest with me, even if it is difficult at times.

I never heard of the word autonomy until I was 21, and had to ask the counsellor what she had spent 10 minutes talking about. It was something that was never spoken about, or had been respected. I realised that I do have a say in my life, and how it should go and being told what to do all the time is counterintuitive. It changed how I think and thought about myself, and that I have a say in my own life rather than waiting to be told what to do, and then getting upset when others criticised me. I had a hardened exterior because I feared ever letting on that I was struggling or needed help, whereas now, I feel more comfortable talking about these things and allowing myself to be vulnerable. I am still working on this, however.

Although I was in the hostel, people were ringing me, asking me how I was, getting supplies to me. It was my support worker who came and visited my flat with me for the first time, and it was a really lovely time in my life that I will always remember. I am so grateful for her giving up her time, and want to view it with me because she wanted the best for me – I cried a lot that day because it meant so much to me. It felt like a celebration, but one in which I could share the happiness. I got excited sending her pictures when I bought furniture, painted the walls and turned it into my home. I was very touched when my sexual health nurse said she did a collection of donations from her friends when she heard I was moving.

I wouldn’t be where I am today without the help and support of the many people who were committed and determined in helping me. Without them, I can’t imagine the dire and difficult situations I would have ended up in, because as usual, I never would have told anyone and just dealt with it alone. In times, I did end up in bad situations, but I felt brave enough to tell them and knew they would try to help me. They bought me a cooker, a fridge, arranged my appointments, sat with me as I cried my heart out and shared in all my achievements, and were genuinely happy for me.

It may not sound like much, but as someone with very little self-worth, it feels odd when someone wants to help you, and it makes you feel that you are worth helping. I still feel uncomfortable with compliments. However, I live alone and have no support from elsewhere; estranged from my family so having someone tell you that they want the best for you, want to help you, enjoy talking to you and share life’s little achievements with you – it really means a lot.

When you are bombarded with shame and stigma, it is nice to have someone in your corner, remind you that you are worth it, not awful, immoral or to blame. Someone who is a genuine advocate, has your best interests at heart and ultimately, who you can trust. I met other people in the same if not similar situations to me and it made me feel less alone – there is nothing better than mutual aid or speaking to someone who ‘just gets it’ without having to explain yourself.

Going full circle

When I’m not being a whore, I work to improve services, work in them or criticise them. I spend a lot of my ‘professional’ life training services, meeting with sexual health commissioners, and challenging services on their attitudes. I openly call out CEOs who are too far detached from their service users, who shy away the complex women they can’t be bothered to deal with. I also recently took up a Trustee role in Rape Crisis to heal the wounds, and ensure sex workers are included in services and policy in my city.

I am currently working on a both a student toolkit and a stigma toolkit in the hope of scrutinising services for their poor attitudes, and hope to eventually empower sex workers so they can challenge this attitude themselves if they feel confident to. My next aim is to challenge professional bodies like the RNC and GMC who disallow student sex workers who are training to become nurses and doctors, as it is bringing ‘the profession into disrepute’. Although, they’re more than happy to fuck us, and treat us, but we can’t be them! Morality clauses are the bane of a sex worker’s life.

As I said, I’m very lucky to have the services I do, and hope to ensure others do too. It can be done, but people just can’t be bothered with whores, and they know it. I do a lot of work trying to break down stigma, shame and prejudices and even meeting with radical feminists to find middle ground, or get them to see a side that isn’t so one sided. Stigma kills, and this is for many reasons but one main reason is being locked out vital services and it is unnecessary, preventable and is not the fault of the sex worker. I aim to ensure all sex workers have access to a sex worker specific trained GP, drug worker, housing officer, sexual health nurse, and whatever else they need.

I like to think I put my money where my mouth is, and practice what I preach. Making yourself known as a sex worker comes at great risks, and a lot of abuse, but I hope it works out in the long run because I am fed up of having the same shitty conversations, and also hearing the same challenges from sex workers. People see as a homogeneous group when we are not, and also experience things like domestic violence and equally deserve help, appropriate support and equal access. My proudest moment was getting a national domestic violence charity to take down their page about prostitution, which was full of things saying most sex workers experienced child sexual abuse, and were teenage prostitutes. I’d like to say this shit doesn’t exist today, but it does. How is that relevant to helping us with domestic violence?

I’d like to bring people with me at every opportunity. I want to break down barriers for black, trans or migrant sex workers also, but I am not the person to talk on it, or speak over them. I am none of these things, but I welcome being pointed towards resources written by those with lived experience, or work collaboratively.

What can you do as a service?

  • don’t be a dickhead
  • bring your service to those who can’t access it
  • listen to sex workers, don’t speak for them
  • have a laugh with us, stop being so serious all the time
  • don’t rescue us
  • be guided by us, don’t treat us as one big group who all have the same needs
  • recognise the barriers, and respect them
  • don’t ask us intrusive questions, or ask to rehash traumatic experiences
  • respect boundaries!!!

Here is a more detailed blog post I wrote about working with sex workers in support services: https://street-hooker.com/2020/04/28/working-with-sex-workers-in-support-services/

I always keep blog posts free as breaking down stigma is my main goal, but if you wish to support me, please consider:

PayPal.me/gracesumner22

CashApp is £graceyswer
or

patreon.com/graceyswer

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