Content warning: strong language, sexual violence and rape.
In writing Blis-ta, Sonya Hale drew from her own experience of her life on the streets to create the story of Kat and Cherry, two young women on an adventure for survival.
This week’s blog comes from National Ugly Mugs. National Ugly Mugs is an organisation working UK-wide to prevent violence and offer victim support for people in adult industries. They offered us this blog as a response to our release of Blis-ta; to add to the conversation and the depiction of sex work in the play. At Clean Break we place a high value on lived experience and sharing the often marginalised stories of women. The writer, Grace in the the street and homeless sex worker lead at NUM. She is an Outreach Worker with lived experience and in the following blog has shared her experiences of street sex work and the need for women to tell their own stories.
Waking Up and Surviving Everyday: Reflections from a NUM Outreach Worker
I am told I am everything, but I am not. I am told I am vulnerable, a victim and that I am raped. I am told I am a sex worker, a prostitute, a working girl and a whore. Nobody thinks to ask, what do I think? How do I feel? As I stood cold waiting for a client, I didn’t think of the political sphere I found myself in, nor did I know the ideological debates that were going on over my very existence. No, I was just trying to survive.
Sex workers are spoken over, spoken for, and told we are the voiceless. We are not voiceless, we are simply unheard and ignored. We shout in the streets, but renounced by our peers as our unpalatable language and experiences are uncomfortable to hear, because it is easier for society for us to be unseen; we are the women you joke about and the victims of the murders you read about on your daily commute.
We say nothing about us, without us, but when it comes to sex workers, we find it easier to see them as vulnerable victims who are simply caught up in the spirals of addiction, abuse, homelessness and need rescuing. Instead, I see incredibly strong and resilient women, who wake up and survive every day. I see women who can and do speak for themselves, but are knocked back by those around them. I see people and services exclude us, and privileged women speak over us.
We must recognise the marginalisation of sex workers and listen to their voices and experiences. This is exactly what I do at National Ugly Mugs. In my role, I work with homeless and street based sex workers to empower them to report violent clients directly to us and break down the barriers, as well as offering support, food vouchers and community. Instead of sitting around the table to ask what can be done to improve services for homeless sex workers, I ensure that we ask them directly.
The experts on sex work are sex workers themselves. Sex workers say that criminalisation of any form doesn’t work, we say that it puts us at greater risk, forces us to work in riskier areas to avoid the police and leaves us with clients willing to break the law. Violence against sex workers isn’t just driven by misogyny or violent clients, but by the state. We are oppressed, excluded and victims of police violence, excluded from housing and refused equal access to healthcare.
Homeless and street based sex workers are often facing multiple disadvantages but sadly, despite being the people who need higher concentration of resources, they are often refused or face high levels of discrimination and stigma. I listen to sex workers refused housing, barred from domestic violence services, and drug using sex workers denied mental health support. We are forced to survive within our own communities because society has forced us to.
Sex work is political, but whilst we remember the ideological debates that are going on, we must not forget the sex workers who are surviving every day. I did not care about criminalisation or feminism, I cared about getting through the day. We must not do unto them, but with them and for them. I hope to work with more organisations that have contact with sex workers to improve safety for all sex workers.
National Ugly Mugs (NUM) is a UK-wide violence prevention and victim support charity for people in adult industries. They run a national reporting and alerting system, host screening tools, provide direct support to sex workers through their case work team, comprised of Independent Sexual Violence Advisors and sex industry experts. They have mental health resources and continue to develop and deliver services and engage in advocacy by, with and for sex industry workers. They aim to end all forms of violence against sex workers and eliminate the conditions that lead to survival sex.
For more about NUM and how to support them please visit www.uglymugs.org