Reflection of my time with the Sheffield Working Women’s Opportunities Project
Hands. Face. Space. These are simple rules we follow during the pandemic that protect us. However, after spending some time with the most marginalised women in society, they no longer appear so simple. The women I have supported don’t readily have access to recent guidelines, meaning they don’t understand the need for social distancing; the use of masks or PPE is out of the question; and their place of work certainly doesn’t provide adequate hand washing facilities. These vulnerable women are at great risk of contracting the virus, but this invisible disease is the least of their concerns. Each day the lives of street sex workers are at risk, from abuse, rape and death. Each time they enter a client’s car, it could be their last.
The Sheffield Working Women’s Opportunities Project (SWWOP) is a charity that provides support to street sex workers. The support ranges from food parcels, clothes, support with benefit applications, to outreach work with the ‘Jonny Van’. A van that drives to the beat, the area where the women work, and provides food, hot drinks, clean underwear, condoms and clean needles. This service watches out for the women - they provide information about dangerous clients ‘dodgy punters’ that have stolen from, raped or attacked other women. This project provides an equally important friendly, non-judgemental space to talk.
I’ve had the opportunity to help with SWWOPs outreach work with the van during my placement. On a freezing Monday evening, I met Jill (name has been changed), an exit support worker, and set off towards the beat. A couple women were already out, they came towards the van as soon as they saw us. None wore masks and were keen for food, drinks and condoms. I didn’t expect the women to look so ordinary, no makeup, fishnet tights, short skirts or heels, just wearing regular hoodies and jeans, which still wasn’t adequate for the temperature that night. All the women were friendly and chatty, but in a hurry, as despite a national lockdown, the beat was busy with punters. I was surprised that punters drove new BMWs, Range rovers, Audis; not dirty white vans like I expected. Jill explained that the punters could be your husband, dad, or brother, that ordinary suburban men are capable of such violence and abuse. Throughout the shift Jill told me some of the women’s stories, most contained significant childhood trauma, leading to the use of drugs and then sex work. She explained the cycle of abuse experienced by the women, frequent rape, robbery, exploitation by partners and pimps, taking the women’s money to feed their own habits. It was overwhelming to begin with. This experience completely changed my perspective of street sex work in the UK. These women had no food or clothes, some were homeless. Their basic physiological and safety needs are not met. The services that SWWOP provides keeps some of these women alive.
As with many things, the global pandemic has affected so many aspects of society. SWWOP have had to adapt the way they provide support for the women, meaning they cannot have as much contact or resources as they are used to. As a result, the women feel frustrated, many don’t have internet, phones or television to access coronavirus updates. This lack of information and understanding leads to further isolation and mental health deterioration. Learning this, I felt guilty I’d complained about lockdown, when in fact it was a privilege to be able to protect myself, to isolate in a warm house. For these vulnerable women, they were out on the beat in the cold, their lives on the line, without choice.
Before this placement I was pro sex work, believing that we should be supportive of women making that choice, celebrating their body positivity and sexual empowerment. However this placement has made me realise that for street sex workers, it is no choice. They are at the bottom of the sex worker pyramid, there’s no glamour, no money, and exploitation is everywhere. This has led me to learn, that where there is sex work, women can be exploited.
I was able to speak to a woman who SWWOP have supported to exit street sex work. We spoke about her journey into sex work, and how she felt treated by others, in particular healthcare workers. She explained that she felt judged and disrespected by healthcare workers, they were rough when examining her and verbally insulting. This made her feel dehumanised and worthless. Appalled, this made me reflect on how I as a future clinician would treat this woman, and I believe that each individual should be treated with care, dignity and respect, without judgment.
Overall this placement has challenged my views, which will change the way I practice as a clinician. These women are marginalised, invisible to wider society, cyclically abused and exploited, going without basic needs with no choices. Having seen this, especially during the pandemic, makes me reflect on how I took my privileges for granted, how freely we access information and PPE, which aren’t available to the women. This placement has changed the way I view sex work, to see how society dehumanises these women. In my future professional practice I wish to support and fight for the fair treatment, equality and protection of these women, and to stand against any prejudices.