The part of London I live in has an historically less-than-salubrious reputation. Of course that means that, now, it is full of £1m 'affordable' flats and coffees costing more than a chicken and chips. The burgeoning divides in the borough are usually discussed in terms of gentrification and inequality, but recently I've been thinking about them in terms of the what's (in)visible. Private and public spaces are zones of erasure for particular social groups, comforting crevices disguising uncomfortable and complex realities. In a highly diverse borough of London, it's surprisingly easy not to confront injustice. Especially if you're not looking, or - worse - don't want to.
I felt this strikingly last week while accompanying a street sex worker outreach night. The service running it values each client's individuality, adopting a holistic approach, and supports them in all aspects of their lives to help facilitate the best possible outcome. The outreach is a point of contact, offering immediate resources and support, as well as informing sex workers of the services available to them.
As we drove around the borough after dark - car stacked with Kit Kats, coffee and condoms - I wondered if I'd even met a sex worker. I've read a lot, sure, but my grasp of the visceral reality was, like most people's, minimal. And considering the severely skewed representations of sex workers in the media - often a dichotomy of 'hopeless victim or happy hooker', as the service manager put it - this distance from reality contributes to harmful stigma.
The outreach professionals, Laura and Anita, knew most of the women* we met, but the first woman, Sarah, was a new face. I got out of the car to offer her a hot drink. She was middle-aged and tall, thin but sturdy, and wore leopard print trousers, boots and a leather jacket. Her hair was pulled back tight, and the expression on her face was crushing. "I'd love a coffee please, thank you so much... I don't want to be doing this, believe me," she muttered, looking at the ground. I believed her. But the shame she expressed was devastating. I looked into her eyes, hoping she could see that I was looking up, not down. After ensuring Sarah knew where to come for support, we got back in the car.
After a few more circuits, we met a group of three women. They were worlds away from Sarah; assertive and open, but with a brusqueness beyond their years. We didn't know how these young migrant women got to this point, but they knew what they needed. As their English was almost non-existent, we communicated through single words, gestures and a telephone translator. "My friend... baby?" one girl mimed a pregnant stomach on her tiny frame. We booked a pregnancy test for the next day. Another girl took Anita aside, behind the car. She didn't want the others to hear. She had been injecting heroin, she said, and knew she needed a methadone prescription, fast. As the girls wrote down their dates of birth, I saw they were almost exactly my age.
Back in the car, I listened as Laura recounted story after story from her decades working with inspiring women. Though she said cycles of deprivation, neglect and violence were a recurring theme, especially for street workers; the achievements, resilience and potential of her clients were just as prominent.
I didn't anticipate being so moved by the outreach. I thought I knew enough to make me seem relatively unfazed at least, thus allowing me to meet the women with a robust kind of empathy and respect. But there is a big difference between knowing and seeing. Though I share streets with these women, I'd never faced their realities. Had I been doing exactly what I so loathed, choosing not to see what was right in front of me?
The women I met on the outreach are not 'representative' of sex workers, even street sex workers - no more than I am 'representative' of a journalist. Their stories are their own. So meeting these women was not about 'seeing what it's really like' - it was about facing the infinitely complex and varied truths of often invisible faces. Meeting people with lives apparently far removed from your own is critical for empathy. And empathy, not sympathy, is crucial for change. Change in this case doesn't mean everyone exiting the industry - many people choose it, and like it; it means lifting the painful shroud of stigma placed upon sex workers by seeing them, eye to eye. This means choosing to see our own streets in their entirety, but it also means challenging political invisibility and ensuring sex workers are visible in debates that determine their own safety and wellbeing.
* Their clients are largely cis-women, but they also work with cis-men and transgender people.
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