I have recently become involved with the Vice Versa project as a Street Outreach Volunteer which delivers first contact support to women involved in prostitution in targeted areas throughout Dundee. Vice Versa reach out to women with practical support operating on the principles of harm reduction, a non-judgemental approach that ensures women are kept safe as far as possible. Vice Versa provide free safety kits, including condoms, panic alarms, lubricant and further signposting onto other support services including 1-1 counselling and drop-in groups which are all run in partnership with WRASAC (Women’s Rape and Sexual Abuse Centre).
With this new experience, I have been exposed to language which I had been unfamiliar with both in my personal and professional life. I have been encouraged to refer to the women we support as women involved in prostitution as opposed to sex workers or those engaged in the sex trade. Despite our careful selection of words, there has been a real acknowledgement from professionals and women who engage with the support services available, who argue that the terms, although used with the best of intentions, dehumanise women and do not adequately portray the reality of life for those who have been, or are currently engaged in prostitution.
As part of my training, I was given the opportunity to attend a networking and information event hosted by the Emcompass Network. There was a real disparity between the language used by Dr. Alison Scott who was responsible for setting up a number of women’s clinics in partnership with NHS Lothian and the honest first-hand account of survivor and campaigning activist, Rachel Moran. Dr. Scott acknowledged that although she was not comfortable using the term sex worker she felt as though this was the language she must use in order to get people to engage in discussion without alienating those not involved in frontline work. Both speakers agreed that although this issue is regularly discussed rarely does this come from the perspective of real lived experience. Rachel Moran describes the term sex-worker as dated, coined by documentary filmmaker Carol Leigh in the 1970s, she informs us that this is a term which she finds deeply offensive as it is not considered to be sex or work for the woman who has been impacted by years of trauma, but rather sex abuse. Rachel Moran adds that we cannot begin to heal this trauma until we have learned to properly identify and name what it is that has caused it.
I have witnessed how language can give out a powerful message that either offers the support or condemnation of people who have been ‘othered’ by society. A community forum which took place in Dundee recently, and was reported on by the press, sent a clear message that this was not something the local community wanted to see on the streets of Dundee, this has served to drive the women indoors and to other parts of the city where we do not have the resources to support them.
Hearing both women speak at the event hosted by the Encompass Network made me realise that whilst we need forums for awareness raising and debate, a safe place must also be created for women to share their experiences and to be listened to as this is where the real capacity for change lies. As both speakers acknowledged, although it is often those with the loudest voices which are heard first, talking about an issue makes it visible. although progress might be slow as long as we listen to what these women have to say and as long as we make a conscious effort to properly name and address prostitution as the mass commercial exploitation and sex abuse of women, can we begin to create an environment more conducive to healing for those effected by prostitution.
Please check out Vice Versa Dundee, https://www.facebook.com/ViceVersaDundee/