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Lost City

Supporting The Sex Worker Community with POW Nottingham

8 March 17 words: Bridie Squires

Prostitution. What connotations does that word throw up for you? The media have helped develop various collective viewpoints about sex workers, and it ain’t all pretty. Real as they come, POW Nottingham is just one organisation aiming to maintain dignity and safety for people working in the industry, through both creative projects and practical schemes. With International Women’s Day coming up on Wednesday 8 March, we got down to POW’s premises to talk to CEO Daniela Scotece…

illustration: Laura-Jay Doohan

I buzzed and waited. Even before being let in, I felt some serenity. Maybe it’s the purple paint, the garden plant pots, the composed picnic benches. Solid and safe. It wasn’t long before a brew was thrust into my hand and I was welcomed in to a creative arts and crafts space, a break-out area, a kitchen with a washing machine and a fridge full of food, a computer room, a clothes bank being sifted through.

“When they first opened in 1989, the organisation was named POW, for Prostitute Outreach Workers,” says Daniela. “The preferred term is now sex worker – it gives validation, and it gives people a choice. People may also use pseudonyms in sex work – it’s about keeping those two lives separate. Still, some people feel like they have it written across their forehead, ‘How can I go out for dinner? What will they say?’

“If you ask someone to describe a sex worker, invariably you’ll get fishnet tights, long boots, miniskirt. A lot of people may say ‘Somebody who is exploited.’ People don’t necessarily think people want to be involved in sex work. We think victim, poverty, working-class – but that’s not what we deal with on a day-to-day basis. We deal with people from all socioeconomic backgrounds. Let’s treat people as individuals. No story’s the same.”

Saturday 17 December 2016 saw the International Day to End Violence against Sex Workers, or Red Umbrella Day, and over the course of a month, POW – together with the Nottingham Red Project – hosted a series of films and Q&As, exploring how sex workers are portrayed on screen.

“I watch a lot of TV programmes to do with sex work,” says Daniela. “The films we screened had aged – one friend said she thought [sex workers] were portrayed as seedy. With documentaries, it’s always voyeuristic, ‘Ooh, let’s have a look at sex work, at Billy Piper, at escorts’. It’s glamorisation. Somebody said the other day, ‘When I saw Pretty Woman, I wanted to go into sex work to meet somebody rich.’ It’s not Pretty Woman, but some people do choose to be sex workers, and they do so successfully.”

What are some of the reasons people choose to become involved in sex work? “People say they like it, so they may as well get paid for it,” explains Daniela. “We get ‘I’m good at it’ or ‘I worked on reception, saw how easy it was, and gave it a go.’ We might get a pensioner who now has the financial freedom to care for her poorly son, or people who are coerced from a young age. There are some common themes – class A drug addiction, mental health problems, domestic violence, and over 70% were abused as children. The same number, if not more, entered into it at a young age.”

First and foremost, POW’s service users are treated as individuals who have various needs – culturally, practically, emotionally – that can often be complex. The primary ethos of POW is safety – safe sex, healthcare services, family planning and sexual health nurses, homelessness outreach workers, at-home visits, drug treatment facilities, and Ugly Mugs.

Ugly Mugs is a nationwide scheme in which working men and women can pass on information to other sex workers about dangerous individuals who have attacked them. It’s up to the individual whether they report a rapist to the police, and POW encourage survivors to provide non-intimate samples which can be stored with them, as DNA evidence. “The protocol, devised with Nottinghamshire Police, means someone can decide if they wish to pursue a complaint at a later date – it doesn’t have to be done there and then.”

Notts is lucky to have a police force that works closely with POW. After the introduction of the Modern Slavery Act 2015, there were brothel raids in London, leading to the arrests of migrant sex workers, who had little support. In October, around the time of Modern Slavery Awareness Day, a number of visits were also conducted in Nottingham.

We’ve got more of a support element,” says Daniela. “Neil Radford, head of the prostitution task force, works closely with POW and we’ve done joint visits together, ensuring that if people have identified as victims of trafficking, they’ve got the support network in place. People haven’t been criminalised, and we’ve ensured that there’s support and safety first. In other parts of the country, that hasn’t happened.”

Like many industries, sex work has changed over time. “Many years ago, it wasn’t uncommon for a pimp to control a number of people, who’d give them a percentage,” says Daniela. “The most common change there is the introduction of class A drugs – it’s kind of obliterated the pimp, ‘We’re not giving our money to a pimp.’”

There’s also been a decrease in so-called ‘street sex workers’, but not necessarily a decrease in sex work overall. This means less safety and support networks in the community. “On-street sex work creates visibility. Especially with the amount of CCTV these days,” says Daniela. “If someone’s working from a crack house or deserted place, they’re more vulnerable. It might make it more difficult for us, as outreach support workers, to actually engage with women.

“Nottingham used to give out a lot of ASBOs – nowadays, we work together with the police to offer more support. Currently, prostitution within the UK is not illegal, but many of the associated offences are. Soliciting for the purpose of prostitution is illegal, so someone can work as a sex worker from their flat, solo. If someone is working there as a maid, it’s illegal. But, surely, wouldn’t it be safer if they worked together? We’re advocators of more decriminalisation.”

Part of Daniela’s role as CEO is raising awareness throughout the wider community. As well as the film screenings’ success in provoking conversations and debate surrounding sex work, Daniela delivers lectures to universities and local community groups throughout the year. For me, it’s the creative elements of POW’s projects that really highlight the organisation as unique and innovative.

They’ve published an eye-opening poetry anthology Hello, I’m Here, and have even created an artistic crack den in a disused warehouse. “I loved our crack den,” says Daniela. “It was just like, ‘This is reality.’” POW Nottingham actively encourages creativity at the drop-in. There are chandeliers made from condoms, chalk boards with words scrawled all over them, papier-mâché figurines, paintings…

“Someone might be really upset with nowhere to live: ‘My son’s in prison and I’ve got to go out tonight and I’m living with this man that wants to have sex with me for £3 and he’s horrible,’” explains Daniela. “’Okay. Draw this picture…’ You see the sense of calm as they’re concentrating on the drawing. Peace. It’s therapeutic.”

POW do loads more for the sex worker community in Nottingham, and Daniela doesn’t seem to be stopping any time soon. “We cannot afford to rest on our laurels. We have to show evidence of our work’s impact. We’re now offering more support to migrant sex workers, as well as online sex workers. What we are hoping to do is more progression out of sex work – that’s what we’ve been funded to do over the next few years. It means equipping people with the skills they need to make positive lifestyle choices, to provide options.

“You look at somebody who’s worked as a sex worker, and they have a lot of transferable skills. ‘I’m a salesperson, I use my wits, I can talk, I have good negotiation and risk assessment skills. I can look, I can analyse. I can see.”

Donate clothes and funds to POW Nottingham, 16 Independent Street, NG7 3LN. 0115 924 9992

POW Nottingham website

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