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Red Umbrella Day At The Pier

Dorset is determined to provide support for prostitutes and eliminate the perception that the vulnerable group do not deserve help.

For the International Day to End Violence against Sex Workers on 17th December, Bournemouth Pier was lit up in red to look like, by no coincidence, a red light district. It is also known as the Red Umbrella Day, as the umbrella is a key symbol to represent sex worker’s rights.

A small crowd gathered, made up of support groups while prostitutes and representatives from the police also attended, all to deliver the message that sex workers are victims rather than perpetrators and they have the support they need.

In 2012, a report produced by LINKs and BADSUF revealed that 82% of prostitutes in Dorset were heroin users, all of who would have gone to Residential Rehabilitation if it was available, highlighting the desperation of an incredibly vulnerable group for help.

Due to the negative image associated with them, the public is not going to be very likely to donate to a charity for prostitutes.

Yet while it is easy to assume how individuals reached their given situations, the circumstances prostitutes find themselves in have been revealed to be very complex.

Two videos were shown on the night of the event, one featuring Emily, an ex-prostitute given an alias to protect her identity, who opened up about the destructive cycle she was trapped in with drugs and prostitution.

She discussed how a client breached her rules, raping her and giving her a STD; the start to what would be a routine she could not escape because it was all she could do to feed her drug addiction.

Like prostitutes, addictions are very complex and little regard is given to those with self-inflicted drug problems.

Nonetheless, despite how they achieved their circumstances, the true severity of what it means to be an addict is often severely underestimated.

SWRAC case worker, Joanna Caine, who works on an outreach programme with sex workers helping them to exit their work, illustrated the severity of an addiction.

“For these women it’s not about using drugs so that they can feel good or high or excited, it’s just about being normal and well and not being very very ill,” she said.

Whilst prostitution is often approached as a quick and easy way to fund drug addictions, it is not the only way women get involved in the cycle of sex work that can so easily consume a person.

Pimping, although illegal, and being forced into the work via abusive partners are prominent but a future in the industry can be destined premature to that.

“A lot of people who enter prostitution will have come from backgrounds where they have been abused sexually as children,” Joanna said, “what that does is depersonalises sex whereas perhaps for someone not abused, sex is seen as more special and to be shared with someone that you want to be intimate with”.

Esmeralda, the ex-prostitute from the second video, had such circumstances, growing up in what was deemed a safe household but raped by a friend who the family trusted, causing intercourse to be no more than a procedure for her.

In her video, she had left the sex work she was involved in 12 years prior, expressing her relief and amazement of how much help there is now available.

The Dorset Working Women’s Project (DWWP), Sex Workers Risk Assessment Conference (SWRAC) and Dorset Police are all dedicated to helping prostitutes improve their lifestyles and were all in attendance of the event run by the National Ugly Mugs.

The DWWP, funded by NHS Foundation Trust, provides condoms and transport to sexual health check-ups and treatment while SWRAC provide regular outreach programs conferring with prostitutes about what help they need.

Many of the problems have stemmed from the poor relationship between prostitutes and the police.

Because of this, sex workers were unlikely to report offences committed against them, feeling they had no right, meaning punters would continue the abuse knowing they were unlikely to be caught.

However, Detective Inspector Joe Williams made it very clear, “just because the punters pay, it does not mean they can do what they want”.

Now both women from the videos have exited prostitution, are free of drugs and Emily has a fiancée, able to lead a normal life thanks to the support they received.

But the flashbacks will never go away and there will always be women, for whatever reason, who find themselves in such complex circumstances but it is important they have support.