I sell sex on the street, but I don’t need saving

The debate rages as to whether sex workers need rescuing from apparent abuse, or whether they deserve to be safe, or if the criminalisation of soliciting sex should continue. A rescue organisation is, generally, an anti-trafficking organisation which claims to save the victim from an abusive situation. This sounds brilliant, and I support this. Trafficking victims deserve support, providing it is done with full respect and autonomy of the victim themselves. However, most of these organisations target consensual sex workers. You usually find these organisations are anti prostitution entirely, not just anti-trafficking. The one thing I struggle with however, they do not target indoor sex workers as much, particularly those who work in their own homes. They do not rescue the dominatrix either, who has a chain around her client and her foot on his head. They instead, target the most vulnerable of us all, the street sex workers. However, despite being the very people they want to save, I don’t want their help.

I have been at the hands of a rescue organisation. In my post ‘Prostitution Facilitators’, I explained how when working one Sunday evening, I was approached by a Christian outreach group who grabbed my arm whilst working, said a prayer over me and left. Before I went home, I went on the van for a drink but was instead, bombarded with dogma. I was told I was better than this; given photos of the damage of a lady’s groin from injecting; she asked me what had happened in my life for me to have fallen so hard and be out here. If I wasn’t enraged enough, she then handed me a bible and told me to work on my relationship with Jesus. I later found out their aim is to sell Christian detox and therefore, they prey on vulnerable sex workers who are often excluded from communities, and looking for help. I felt so degraded, I vowed to stop sex working on Sundays.

Sex work ‘rescue’ charities

Beyond the Streets are an organisation who work with women in prostitution. However, you wouldn’t guess this by loading up their page. They boldly state they are a charity to support those who face sexual exploitation. Of course, I support their aims of helping women leave sex work, facing domestic violence and drug abuse. However, if I was searching for help online and I came across this website, I’d click off because as a sex worker, that does not mean I’m being sexually exploited so I wouldn’t relate to it, or assume the service is for people like me. I don’t agree with how they act on achieving their aims, or the language they use to describe us. Even more damaging in their website is the following quote:

Prostitution is commonly viewed as a choice that women have made, but many of these ‘choices’ were probably decided upon when they were under 18 .

Beyond the Streets

They are unable to recognise that there is no such thing as a child prostitution, therefore their use of the word choice here is irrelevant, because it is not a choice. Also, this charity is to support those currently engaged in prostitution, which means they are over the age of 18. Therefore, this quote only seeks to peddle stereotypes and stigma of sex work. You have to ask, what are they gaining from including this in their website? It is hard to shake the victimisation you face when you’re a sex worker, meaning people are more likely to act on your behalf, assuming you are unable to make decisions yourself. These types of quotes do not help.

This is another example I found on the website of A Way Out, another charity that works with sex workers. The language is degrading, the image is horrific, and a poor representation of sex workers. It assumes that it is awful, violent, and everything else in between. Using language like ‘sell her body’ is exactly the kind of thing sex workers themselves fight for people not to use, because it is inaccurate and fuels stigma. I would like to think sex worker charities have our best interest at heart, and shouldn’t use language that we don’t use ourselves, or have used against us.

The following story talks about Katie’s life and like most rescue orgs, uses the trauma of sex workers for their fundraising goals. We are not trauma machines where you can churn out our lives so you can tell everyone how awful it is for us. In addition, these are bold and wild statements. For example, being exposed to domestic violence does not mean you will also be exposed to paedophile. The language is bleak: ‘restore hope to the hopeless’ is vile, and along the lines of ‘I am a voice the for voiceless’. Just because we are sex workers, does not mean we have are hopeless, or voiceless. It is these kind of attitudes that society attach to us, we don’t need those who are trying to help say this also. Katie may need a friend, but she also doesn’t need judgemental, degrading comments either.

To make matters worse, they ask for donation and say it will provide access of support for women exploited through prostitution. Crikey.

A quote from Helena Croft from Streetlight UK

I could write a whole article about the damage quotes like these cause, particularly from Streetlight UK, a charity that works with sex workers. Again, it is something sex workers fight against. It ignores the lack socio-economic resources we have, or the fact the no little girl dreams of being of a HR manager or admin officer either. There is nothing wrong with these jobs, they’re just jobs that nobody expected to be doing when we were a little girl – I wanted to be a 100m olympic sprinter, I now couldn’t think of anything worse. I then wanted to be a translator, but would prefer to be a sex worker. These are quotes usually said by sex work abolitionists, who shouldn’t be using harmful language against us. Finally, why does it matter if sex work is a career? It is an income. I don’t want to climb the ladder and became a manager – I’d be arrested for being a pimp!

I would describe these charities as ‘wolves in sheep’s clothing’. This is biblical term, which ironically describes a lot Christian led ‘rescue’ charities. Of course, not all are like this, but a fair proportion are. There is a term called ‘co-production’ which involves actively engaging service users and their voices in the service development itself. By doing this, you adapt and change your focus depending on the most pressing needs of the service users. This is a brilliant example of working in cohesion and most importantly, for the service user themselves. Rescue orgs do not do this. The reason why they don’t is because they generally advocate policies which sex workers do not support, such as the Nordic Model. Services and workers should work to support us in the best way they can, but you can’t do this if you do not involve us, or listen to what we need or would find beneficial.

Respecting autonomy

A rescue charity argues that the sex worker needs rescuing because sex workers themselves are unaware of the abuse they are facing, thus, they need saving from themselves. This is white knight, damsel-in-distress type saving that I dislike the most. It assumes that we are dumb, unable to know the difference between consent and abuse, or unable to make our own decisions. You are stripping us of our autonomy, arguing that what we are doing is wrong and should do something you consider better. It is really infantilising to hear that just because I am a sex worker, I can’t make my own decisions because they are considered wrong or immoral, and I need to be told by someone else what they should be. I actually don’t care if you think I’m moral or not, rent is more of a pressing concern for me.

I am not stupid. I am aware of my vulnerabilities. I am more than aware of the danger I am or the risks I can face at work; I deal with it all the time, and it is me who deals with the impact of it. I don’t need a charity to come along and tell me about my own life, my job, how I live my life or dictate what is best for me. I did not become a street worker for no reason, it wasn’t something I woke up one day and decided, took myself to the Zone and started working. Like many other street sex workers, I don’t like working either, but I realise the barriers that prevent me from doing something else. Whatever reasons put me here, it was still my choice to become a sex worker, I could have done something else but likely would have been criminalised for my alternative options.

The reasons for sex work are diverse and sometimes complex, but the motivation is simple: money. A rescue charity is arguing that I am making the wrong decision in how I fund my drug habit or pay for my food and rent. In reality, this is based in judgement rather than support. Other sex work charities who advocate rights not rescue support the sex worker to tackle issues such as homelessness, Universal Credit, drug addiction, or whatever our reasons are. However, the big difference is, they also don’t judge us for sex working, because they recognise that although it may not be the best way, it is OUR best way. They respect my autonomy; my right to work or not to work, to quit or train as something else. Respect is fundamental because I’m not asking you to agree, I am asking for basic understanding.

I know what is best for me in the context of my own life, and my own situation. Although sometimes my choices are not ideal or what I want them to be, it doesn’t mean I’ve chosen the wrong option. Nor does it mean this option should no longer be available either.

Sexual exploitation and survival sex work

This was a tweet from a radical feminist, who did give time to listen to sex workers – to an extent anyway. When discussing that sex workers are not a homogenous group, and in fact, we don’t want safety too, they said this:

Conflating survival sex work with abuse and trafficking

I want to be forgiving and say they mean well, but they have not done a lot of work or research into sex work. However, I realised, most people by and large don’t in general, unless it’s a topic that interests them. Can I blame them for having these opinions, if after all, they’re repeating what they’ve been told? Well, yes, I can. I don’t make bold statements on topics I know nothing about or vulnerable groups to which I have little knowledge of. I may have an opinion but I recognise that it is important to listen to those who are the topic you are discussing, not talk for them. They also were evidently interested and, discussed it often but continued to conflate survival sex work with abuse and trafficking. Do not lump us all into one big group, we are individuals with different experiences.

The conversation needs to be turned on its head and instead of assuming survival sex work is abuse, ask by who are they being abused by? You will usually find it is not usually the client, but the systemic and structural failures that led them me to make this decision. This is why I do not advocate rescuing me, but instead, I wish for you to re-direct your efforts into tackling underfunding in drug and alcohol services; the chronic cuts in domestic violence services; the destruction of social security and Universal Credit, or how poorly sex workers are received by services, who pass comments which stop us from engaging further. There is no point telling me my life is awful, that I need to stop having sex for money to buy drugs or to feed myself when you’re not bothering tackling why I’m doing it. Don’t judge me for the solution I found, judge the reasons as to why I thought this was my solution.

Migrant sex workers work the street too, however, they are instantly assumed to have been trafficked. This results in migrant raids that are exceptionally distressful for the sex worker. They can be mishandled and as a result, they lose contact and trust with sex worker organisations who aim to support them. The devastating impacts of this can not be underestimated; migrants sex workers already face risk of being trafficked, but due to raids, they no longer wish to engage with the police. As the raid demonstrated, it did nothing to reduce migrant sex work, but it did make them more hidden and therefore, at greater risk. I work alongside migrant sex workers and they do the same job as I do. Being born in another country does not remove your ability to make decisions about your own autonomy.

Survival sex workers can not be separated into the category of sex workers who are abused. It is insulting. The risks are high working the streets, we already know this. Therefore, when we do report abuse or exploitation, it needs to be taken seriously. If you assume all survival sex work is abuse, how will I ever be believed? In fact, I had a recent example of this and I requested that the police be informed of the situation. By doing this, it allowed them to know me, what was and wasn’t okay for me, and when I needed help and when I didn’t.

Don’t save me

Please don’t insult me and assume that because I am a sex worker, I need a flurry of support workers, need to be taken away from my source of income, or that I need counselling for the abuse it supposedly causes. Listen to me instead and what I want and need.

I got the help I needed; not because I was rescued, but because services worked together holistically to support me, respected my wishes, reasons for working, offered harm reduction and appreciated that I knew what was best for me. After all, all my workers only saw me for a few hours a week, they only have a snapshot of my life. Telling me what is best for me makes me want to tell you to fuck off.

Don’t ignore the benefits of sex work either in your quest to save me, because it is these very benefits that are the reason I continue to work – I don’t do it for fun in my spare time. The money is what I need and removing my ability to make money puts me in a worse position.

Sex workers don’t need judgement, to be told we’re better than this or asked what awful trauma has led us to work. I will soon disengage with you, feel ashamed and it exacerbate existing drug and self-confidence problems. Work backwards by tackling the root causes and structural inequalities that result in street sex work. Rescuing us does little to alleviate these problems and nor solves issues going forward, and does not prevent me from ending back at square one.

Sex workers are some of the most resilient, resourceful and incredible people you will ever meet, don’t belittle me and assume I don’t know what’s best for me, or that I am unable to help myself.

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Thank you ❤