CEASE is proud to present our new ‘Spotlight’ series, a series of interviews highlighting the fantastic work organisations and individuals around the world are doing to combat sexual exploitation of all kinds. As a non-partisan, non-religious human rights advocacy charity, we are proud to platform the work of different groups and organisations from across the spectrum who have a shared purpose: to end all forms of sexual exploitation.
This week, we had the opportunity to speak with ‘Yasha’, an outreach organisation based in Stoke-on-Trentt, UK, that supports women involved in street prostitution with a combination of street-outreach work, drop-in groups, and face-to-face support.
CEASE: Tell us about Yasha
Yasha: Yasha is an outreach for women in Stoke-on-Trent affected by prostitution. The word Yasha comes from the Bible – it’s a Hebrew word meaning to set free, to make safe, to establish or be established in a spacious place free from restriction. We’re a Christian organization, and our aim is to build safe relationships around women who are sexually exploited and offer practical, emotional and spiritual support to find routes out. Right now that means running a Friday night outreach on the streets and a Wednesday afternoon drop-in in a local church. We can also offer women private appointments. We only launched last October so we’re very new and learning the ropes, especially as we figure out how to keep moving forward with Covid-19 as a factor. There are lots of ways in which we’d like to grow and offer a more developed set of services. These are early days.
CEASE: How did you get involved in this sector/area of work?
Y: I completed an MA in Social Work in 2016 with no clear idea about what I would do next. We’d never talked about prostitution during our training. The only times we’d really considered sexual exploitation of any kind was either in the context of childhood sexual abuse or as a form of abuse that might affect adults with care and support needs (as an adult safeguarding issue within the framework of the Care Act).
After my training I started to feel a strong sense of calling to reach out to women involved in prostitution. It was really a vocation that came out of the blue and I can only describe it as God breaking my heart for women involved in street prostitution and Him sharing with me something of His own broken-heartedness for their suffering. I took it as a call to action.
As for my training, I now recognise there were massive holes in it in terms of how it addressed the topic of sexual exploitation. At a certain level that makes sense. The sex worker lobby has always tried to present ‘sex work’ as an empowered choice and a form of self-determination, and that’s an idea that plays well to the liberal humanistic approach that shapes a great deal of social work training.
And possibly more to the point, since there’s currently no statutory mandate for services that help people exit prostitution, why prepare people for something that the government doesn’t see a need to provide? But I think these things really need to change. Social work training needs to start grappling with some of the inconsistencies of the sex worker perspective and to start actively educating its students about the links between adverse childhood experiences and prostitution. And the government needs to move away from a harm minimisation approach and start offering proper funding and backing to services that are explicit about supporting women to exit prostitution.
CEASE: What is the landscape of sexual exploitation like in your immediate geographical region?
Y: We have a red light district which is well known locally, and a number of massage parlours. There are also doubtless many women involved in other lone-working and agency arrangements (in-calls, out-calls, webcamming, etc) but so far we have been focused on women engaged in street prostitution.
CEASE: What are some of the challenges you have faced/are facing in recent months (Covid-19 related or otherwise).
Y: The local newspaper’s reporting of women involved in street prostitution tends to adopt a shaming and stigmatizing narrative. A headline from some months ago read: Prostitutes, drug addicts and strewn rubbish: The shocking state of Stoke-on-Trent’s ‘unadopted’ alleyways. You could spend hours dissecting that choice of language and lifting out the latent messaging.
At the same time the newspaper talks of other forms of prostitution as if they’re exciting and entrepreneurial ventures. Earlier this week there was an item under the entertainment section highlighting a local woman’s ability to attract new clients for her webcamming business during the pandemic. It mentions the significant six-figure income ‘girls’ like her can earn from the ‘comfort’ of their own homes, and the agency she works for is included in the newspaper’s online version with a web link. Again, what’s the messaging? It speaks of wealth, luxury and freedom. This drip, drip effect by the media significantly shapes public opinion of prostitution, locally and nationally. It’s contradictory and hypocritical, but it’s also seriously toxic. In both instances above, the women concerned are objectified, and in both cases the harms of prostitution are totally ignored.
What this means is that part of our task is just to try to challenge these narratives in the first place so that we can do an effective job of motivating people to volunteer with us. Recruitment has been slow. Even those who wish us well are generally doing it from the sidelines, cheering us on but not necessarily getting stuck in.
In terms of engagement with the women themselves, two main difficulties have come to the fore so far. The first is building trust and overcoming women’s fear of judgement. A couple of women have expressed anxiety about coming to our drop-in, and one was quite honest that she felt unworthy because it’s held in a church building (even though no other groups meet there at the same time so it’s very discreet). We’re not precious about needing to meet in a church – it’s just where we are right now pending different or better options, but we’re very sorry and saddened to think that it could be a barrier, especially since our express purpose is to provide a welcome that starts to dismantle shame and exclusion.
The second is the realization that exiting prostitution is ‘not one event but many’ as one piece of research phrased it. We realise it can be a very slow process with lots of to-ing and fro-ing, and lots of interacting layers. It takes phenomenal courage to break free when it’s all you’ve known for a long time and when it means letting go of so many things that have enabled you to survive but have also kept you bound – whether that’s certain relationships, or alcohol and drugs, or psychological coping mechanisms like dissociation and repression. Some of the research we’ve read indicates that sustained freedom and recovery can require a considerable amount of time and highly structured support. There seem so few places to refer to for that kind of intensive help and we can’t offer it ourselves right now.
CEASE: What do you hope to achieve in the future, and do you have a “call to action” for the coming months?
Y: We’re glad to be building good partnerships with other agencies in the city. One of our volunteers will be working with a homeless outreach from September to build relationships with vulnerable women. There are some other collaborative ideas in the pipeline and we’re excited about seeing which ones develop.
One thing we really want to move towards in the coming months is becoming a charitable incorporated organisation. Charitable status should open up new opportunities to us, particularly with regards to funding. We have a couple of people lined up to become trustees but are looking for more. There’s a lot still to do, and there are so many ways in which we’d like to grow and become more effective, but when I see how far we’ve travelled in just a couple of years, I’m very thankful. I also love our culture and values, and the commitment and quality of our small team. We have some excellent foundations to build on.