THE BIG INTERVIEW: Offering hope to Swindon's sex workers
Updated 11:19am Monday 4th August 2014 in By Barrie Hudson
Sue Lee, 49, is a recently-appointed street sex worker outreach worker based at the Isis Women’s Centre in Victoria Road. The centre is run by a charity, the Nelson Trust. Sue lives in Swindon with husband Andy.
SUE Lee readily admits that her title is a little cumbersome, but her message to sex workers or those fearing they’ll be forced into sex work is clear enough.
“There is always hope. The reason we’re out there is to consistently offer interventions.
“So if she’s sitting there saying, ‘I haven’t got anywhere to live, my life’s rubbish, I’ve got a raging drug problem,’ we’re saying, ‘We’re out here tonight and we’ll meet you tomorrow. We can come and pick you up and we can take you to the housing people, we can take you to the benefits office and get your benefits sorted, we can get you to the local drug and alcohol agency.’ “It’s just consistently sending out that message of hope. Many sex workers have recovered and moved on to lead really productive lives.
“It’s all about the ‘exit’ sign. You’re stuck in this horrible life of sex work – no woman wants to have sex with strangers.
“We’ll support you all the way to that illuminated sign.
“I’m what they call a proactive outreach worker who offers street interventions to sex working women in Swindon.
“I’m aiming to have two outreach nights per week and maybe weekends – going out at nine o’clock tonight with my outreach van and two other workers from different agencies.
“The people are volunteering their time. We’ll get into that van at nine o’clock and we’ll head off to the Broadgreen area and we’ll drive.
“We’ll drive around the area and we’ll look out for names and faces that we recognise. We’re a very visible presence in our van and we get looked at by all sorts of people that are in the area. Some look at us a bit suspiciously, some smile at us.
“When we spot somebody we recognise we pull over and we invite them to come and have a chat with us. Some women just want to chat through the window – our aim, really is to invite them into the back of the van, which is all kitted out as a safe space, and just see what’s going on with them at that moment in time.”
Sex workers are invited to share their problems, given information about drug and alcohol issues and – when possible – be warned if a dangerous ‘punter’ is thought to be in the area.
Sue rejects the word ‘prostitute’ as dehumanising.
Originally from Penhill, she is the sixth and youngest child of a Pressed Steel worker father and a lecturer in textiles.
School was followed by college at North Star, by which time the young woman had long since decided to become a nurse.
“Fundamentally,” she said, “I like people, I like talking to people and I just care.”
“I’ve got a generally friendly, outgoing nature, so it suited me down to the ground.
“I think you get a different perspective on people when you visit them at home. If I were to look after people on a nursing ward only I wouldn’t get to see the full, holistic family dynamics, how they live, who they live with – I wouldn’t get any of that. You get to see how people really function.”
Sue later moved to Suffolk with her first husband and was a community nurse in Norwich. On returning to Swindon she spent four years as a social work assistant with the local mental health team. She has always had jobs involving helping others; later posts included stints at the Davis House Salvation Army hostel, the Swindon Foyer for vulnerable young people, a young people’s residential rehabilitation centre in Marlborough and at Dartmoor prison, where she worked for two years, helping inmates to overcome addictions.
“It was the most fantastic, interesting environment to work in,” she recalled of the prison.
“It was bleak on the outside but it had a real warmth on the inside. At that time it was Category B, so there were some very dangerous prisoners in there, some notorious names, but I don’t think I ever felt unsafe in there.”
Later roles included working with Druglink, becoming an arrest referral worker at police stations in Swindon and Slough, several years as a council drugs worker helping vulnerable people at all stages of their passage through the judicial system, and work with addiction recovery charities.
Sue took a pay cut for her current role, but couldn’t be happier or more determined.
There are perhaps 20 street sex workers in Swindon at any given time, and according to Sue they come into the business because of trauma and are left traumatised by it. They are in danger of violence from pimps, clients, partners, and sometimes rival sex workers. She rejects the claims of some commentators that women choose sex work. “I don’t think it’s a career choice for any woman. Any unwanted intimacy comes at a price, where the act violates the dignity and/or the safety of the individual. She will experience feelings of fear, helplessness, guilt and shame. It is a traumatic experience. We work with trauma here, at this centre.
“Sexual trauma leads to physical and psychological problems such as anxiety, depression and self-hatred.”
In an ideal world, Sue would be successful enough at her job to render it obsolete, but she is under no illusions about sex work.
“I don’t think it will ever go away. It’s centuries old. What I’d like to see is less ignorance from society around why the women are out there – less judgement about why they’re there and more empathy around their recoveries.”
The Nelson Trust’s website is nelsontrust.com
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