How to help female sex workers: do not call them prostitutes
Olívia Strelková (25) works for the civic association Odysseus, which aims to help people who inject drugs and sex workers. She studied law, and today she is the coordinator of Red umbrella program under which the project "End of violence, time for rights" operates. She tries to improve the lives and work of women employed in the sex industry. Photo N - Tomas Benedikovič
In Slovakia there is no legislation about people doing sex work. What does this mean?
In this area we have a legal vacuum. When a woman decides to provide sexual services without pressure from someone and after a voluntary agreement with the customer, it is not illegal. However, a lot of people do not know this fact. Sex work is stereotyped as being something illegal and people often do not understand, why we are trying to help these women.
Where do these women have the worst working conditions?
Everywhere, where the people are punished for giving or accepting sexual services for money. Criminalization of sex work was also rejected by the World Health Organization. For example, in Sweden it is a customer who is punished for searching for sexual services and receiving them, while those who offer them are, on the contrary, perceived as victims who cannot make decisions by themselves and have no idea what job to choose. Sex workers often disagree with such a model though.
Sweden states that sex work miraculously disappeared from the streets, and that the number of people who work in it was greatly reduced. These statistics, however, are often challenged by those who work in this field. They argue that sex work has not disappeared, it has just moved elsewhere from the streets, the sex workers hide themsleves in flats and in private spaces. When women have to hide with their customers, there is greater risk of violence. Any criminalization of sex work, moreover, makes it difficult for people to access health care, increases the risk of sexually transmitted infections such as HIV and supports discrimination.
Which conditions would be ideal?
Decriminalization of sex work. It is recommended by the World Health Organisation. It works, for example, in New Zealand. They are open to new scientific knowledge and reflect it. Sex work is accepted as work there.
It would be better if the conditions reflected the needs of these people, especially in equal access to health care, availability of condoms and voluntary testing for sexually transmitted infections, development of cooperation with the police and prevention of violence. In Slovakia, there is no safe space, center or clinic for sex workers, where they could seek for help or just meet. Outreach work for them operates in four cities, but only as a part of injection syringes change. This situation is unsatisfactory. We need comprehensive solutions, so that we can protect not only the health and lives of sex workers, but also public health. Such solutions are often cheaper than criminalization of sex work.
Do Slovak women have a favourite country where they would like to go to work?
It is very individual. One person can have a great experience with Germany, another one can have completely the opposite. It's the same as when one travels to England after her/his friends, who found there a great job, but she/he fails to find one. Rather, I feel that the sex workers I am working with do not want that much. A lot of female sex workers are happy in Slovakia, because they rarely deal with the problem of human trafficking unlike abroad.
So some "pimps", as we know from the movies, do not exist in our country?
We do not have experience with them in Bratislava
Some people consider the word “prostitute” one of the best fitting names for a female sex worker. But you are not using it, why?
Because this word reflects involuntariness. According to the World Health Organization and UNAIDS, prostitution is defined as involuntary provision of sex services, and child prostitution is also included in this term. According to these two organizations, sex work is considered a voluntary provision of sex services by mutual consent between two adult people.
People from Odyseus can be also recognized by the car. They distribute, e.g., lubricating gels, condoms and brochures to sex workers. Photo N - Tomas Benedikovič
Actually, does this word really offend sex workers? Isn't it just an artificial concept from organizations?
It is true that we have brought this name during the outreach work [in Slovakia]. Very quickly they got used to it, though. Abroad this name has already been used by both sex workers and the public. Before, there were a lot of names used. Even this helps to increase self-confidence of sex workers. Often, they are also stigmatizing themselves, as they already got used to misunderstanding, prejudice and discrimination from others.
You say that you would like to empower women with your activities. What position do feminists take regarding sex work?
Feminism has a lot of branches, but the radical branch perceives sale of body as a disaster. They consider women victims, and they do not believe that anyone can voluntarily choose to earn money this way. They have a problem accepting free choice of women who chose sex work as their job.
One of the biggest issues of your clients is violence. This is the main topic of the campaign. Is there any way how to recognize a violent customer?
Those who are violent to sex workers are not the real customers. These are only pretending to be customers. Real customer knows what he wants, knows what kind of service he wants and he will pay for it. This it how it works. Violence is not coming only from the customers but also from the institutions which should be protecting and helping them.
Which institutions are you talking about?
For example, police. If sex workers come to the police to report that they have been abused, most of the times they are being ignored. Police do not care. It’s the same in cases when women came to report rape cases. They are being asked: How you could be raped if you are doing what you are doing? They are facing humiliation, mistrust or even further physical violence. These women can help police: if they report the rapists, the latter can be easily caught. But if those women will remain unheard and ignored, rapists will continue raping others.
Where else do they face rejection?
They face rejection by the doctors who are refusing to examine them. Most of them are complaining on low capacities. It’s similar to a people living with HIV, who should have the same access to the public healthcare as anybody else but they don’t.
What about public? Are we more tolerant?
That’s another problem. If sex workers are standing by and waiting for the customers, people passing by will start to abuse them or start to throw various things at them. At a market or at a restaurant they won’t be served. For me it’s absolutely incomprehensible that person will not get the service he/she wants just because of the prejudice and discrimination. Women, who are standing on the Slovnaft Street, are known by people from the nearby shops and stores, and these people are familiar with the way they make the money. Those shops are not luxury places. You can also meet workers in dirty overalls there. The shop employees have no problem with this kind of people unlike with nice and clean female sex workers. Because of this we have taken women inside the shops where they had faced rejection.
How did it look like?
I think it was interesting for the personal that was able to see them as really normal girls and they represent no danger to them. We were drinking coffee and talking not only about sex work but also about usual women things. We brought them news from the world on sex work, and they exchanged their experiences.
You named too many problems. Why do women stay in such a dangerous job?
Money is the answer. They do sex work, as this is the way for them to get money on the table for themselves and their families. On the other side, I do not agree it is a dangerous job. Yes, there are some risks, but other jobs have them as well. We shouldn’t be seeing violence as something natural with regards to the work of these women.
What is more dangerous for women? Working in the street, at home or at a rented place?
There is no simple answer to this. Every option has its risks. In the street a woman can scream and there is chance somebody will hear her. At home or at a rented place she can have a false feeling of safety. But if a man who pretends to be a customer is a violent person, it doesn’t matter where it happens.
Is there something women can do to avoid violence?
There are many tips and tricks in the brochure that we distribute to sex workers during the fieldwork. We are advising them on how to dress, but not in the way that most people would think about. We are not transmitting responsibility for violence from a rapist to a woman. These are more practical pieces of advice. For example, not to wear high heels as they can’t run with them. Not to wear necklaces because it can turn against them.
What kind of help do you provide to sex worker apart from the mentioned above?
During the outreach work we are distributing lubricant gels, condoms; we are making workshops about safer sex. We are talking with them about safety at the workplace, about their rights; we are accompanying them to employment offices, doctors…
Are there any women who refuse your help?
Not really. We have the advantage thanks to one of our team members who is a woman from community, and who has been doing sex work for 20 years. Her experience is invaluable. When she is with us, she knows how to communicate with other sex workers on a different level. They are taking her advice more easily.
As a civil association you are working with media. Are the journalists able to work with topic of sex work?
If media publish article which is not correct we are trying to inform them. Sex work topic is very interesting for the media. Sometimes the idea the journalists have behind the article is not bad, but it might not be written objectively. Others tend to stick with their truth. If such mistakes keep on repeating often, people will start to think that all those women are drug abusers, they transmit STIs and their appearance is different from their actions. Such an interpretation to the public deepens further prejudices of society against these women. A woman doing sex work is not different from any other woman. She might look and dress differently, and she can be of a different age.
Do the women working in the street have another job beside sex work?
Some of them do sex work only; others do it next to their other job. When a sex worker wants to try another option, we are trying to help her. When we are going to the field we are also bringing the list of open positions from social office.
A short stand-up of performer Evelyn is also a part of your campaign. In the beggining she is making fun of female sex workers, but later on she starts enumerating their problems. Have people accepted that?
Most of them expected that it would be only about fun, as it was a stand up comedy. In the video we have clearly shown that when the woman starts talking about her problems she is not being heard, people do not care about her words and about what she has to say. So, the people were not sure what was the message we want to spread, and they have asked: "Are you supporting women to be active in sex work?" But we just wanted to make people think that we have also this group of people that has problems with violence. It cannot be taken as granted that those women will be facing violence as part of their job. It shouldn’t be like this in both sex work and in any other kind of work.