Giving a damn

This article originally appeared in T&S Issue 38, Winter 1998/99.

Many agencies providing advice and support to women in prostitution do not begin with a clear political analysis of the women’s real situation. This situation, argue Patricia Holmes and Val King, is one in which violence is so pervasive that it is often described by women as if it were a matter of routine. But taking this matter-of-fact presentation at face value risks colluding with women’s abusers and failing to provide women themselves with what they need. FRANKI, a radical feminist organisation based in Greater Manchester, has been trying to develop a different approach.

Violence against prostitutes is endemic in their lives: from pimps, clients, partners, and sometimes each other. Many women have experienced violence from an early age from parents, carers and residential care staff; so much so that the telling of the abuse makes it seem routine and unremarkable.

Institutions stigmatise and criminalise prostitutes, and this in turn disenfranchises them from the resources most of us take for granted. Women who are labelled ‘common prostitute’ are effectively barred from access to other paid work, from having custody of their children, from access to housing. Girls, some as young as nine or ten, and young women who run away from home or leave residential care and work on the streets, are denied their right to protection as vulnerable and abused young women. Criminal­isation, child abuse, lack of provision and care for these women translates as a lack of power to effect change. There is clearly a need for support work, campaigning and action against male violence towards women in the sex industry, in order to develop a cohesive strategy which empowers women and works towards changing policy.


FRANKI is a small registered charity, formed initially to work around issues of sexual violence with women in prison and women who work as prostitutes. The name FRANKI is not an acronym; the organisation was named after Franki Raffles, one of the founders of the Zero Tolerance campaign, who has since tragically died. It originated from a Manchester Rape Crisis project working with young women, sexual abuse and homelessness. From this work, we learned important lessons: rather than the traditional way of working, it was necessary to find new ways of reaching women who could not use Rape Crisis but who nevertheless experienced sexual violence. This developed into an attempt to deconstruct the concept of ‘counselling’ through a radical feminist approach, using proactive work with women on the streets, in prison and at a drop-in group which was established in 1993 in conjunction with Greater Manchester probation service.

The women’s drop-in was the focal point for working with women in prostitution. It was situated in the middle of the red light district and was a place women were already familiar with. It was a women-only space where women could sit with a cup of tea (and a sandwich or a scone) and talk about their lives in an informal support setting. It was never intended to give practical advice, hand out condoms or provide structured, issue-based sessions. But as a group we talked about many issues: sexual abuse, domestic violence, children, motherhood, loss, parents, and many other difficult areas, often introduced by discussion of a soap opera. At the women’s request we invited other agencies in to address specific issues, such as when women complained about the way the police treated their complaints of violence. We also discussed ways women could work more safely: for instance there was an ‘ugly mug’ book in which women wrote descriptions of violent punters and car numbers for other women to access.

In 1998 FRANKI could no longer maintain worker input on a face-to-face basis and it was decided resources should be used in other ways. Although the Manchester group still exists, unfortunately its emphasis has shifted towards a more traditional interventionist approach. FRANKI is now developing a multi-agency approach, working with projects nationwide (e.g. in Bradford, London and Leeds). The aim is to provide guidance on good practice, training resources, workshops, conference papers, information and advice.

Changing the way we work

The usual forms of feminist support do not necessarily provide prostituted women with what they need. The difficulties sexual violence generates are no different for women in the sex industry than for women leading more privileged lives, who visit counsellors or phone helplines or who have strong familial and friendship networks. They all share feelings of shame and guilt, of not being worth anything, of having no control over their lives, of somehow having done something to deserve the abuse they experience. All of us have experienced some level of self harm or self injury: which of us has never overworked, had a couple of glasses too many at the weekend, snatched or missed meals, and generally failed to look after ourselves? But for women working on the streets, the extent of self abuse and harm is much greater. Their exclusion from what most of us take for granted—friends, loving partners, family, a relatively stable environment—just exacerbates the problems. So there are common­alities with other women, but more importantly, there are differences; and it is the differences that isolate women and prevent them from accessing help.

We would argue that it is the recognition of these differences, of the violence, drug use and abuse which are endemic to the work, that should be the focus for work with prostitutes. However, this is not to suggest that the focus should be only on issue-based work. All too often, workers view self-harming behaviour as ‘the problem’ or as a ‘symptom’, whereas it may well be a coping strategy that women develop in order to survive.

What workers must acknowledge and validate is that although women talk in a matter-of-fact way about horrendous abuse, the reality is that they are damaged, hurt; sometimes they are maimed and killed. The anecdotal style of telling about abuse is often a coping strategy—an attempt to minimise the emotional impact for themselves. Women may clearly identify as their reality a ‘hierarchy of violence’: a slap from a boyfriend is ‘acceptable’, a slap from a punter is ‘unacceptable’. But although this argument does not sit comfortably with notions of ‘nonjudg­mental’ working, we feel that if workers buy into the concept that there are hierarchies of violence then they collude with abusers. Sometimes it is argued that women dissociate from their experience of violence, but while that may be true in some cases, our experience is that women associate with it on a daily basis, and deal with it by quantifying it, and fitting it into some part of their life.

Working with prostitutes around these issues has compelled us to re-examine our working methods. For example, empowerment work with young women in prostitution must be recognised as being fundamentally different from work with young women in schools. Transposing methods established in other contexts into the context of work with prostitutes effectively disenfranchises these women even further, by detaching them from their support networks, their culture, their income and, importantly, their coping strategies. For instance:

Support networks: if empowerment work encourages women to leave prostitution without appropriate emotional support, they will quickly return to ‘safe’ ground—a place where the label ‘prostitute’ doesn’t only apply to them.

Culture: in our experience the majority of prostitutes are drug users, are controlled by pimps/boyfriends and have an ‘outsider’ lifestyle. Although this is clearly neither safe nor healthy, it is often the only lifestyle they have access to.

Coping strategies: raising women’s expectations through an unachievable version of ‘empowerment’ risks destroying the fragile structure of their worldview. Prostitutes’ coping strategies, such as drug and alcohol abuse, self-injury/harm, are often viewed negatively by agencies. Attention is given to addressing these problematic ‘symptoms’ rather than seeing them as ways of coping.

No such thing as a free lunch

It is important that work is done where the women are, on their own territory. The majority of women are addicted to drugs: their lives are spent in a constant effort to get drugs, pay for drugs and use drugs. As one young woman said: ‘the trouble with being on gear is that you never get a lie-in’. Women like her are not going to come into a centre to be counselled.

Women will unfold the details of their lives with surprising and chilling ease. How many times have they trotted out their stories? How many times have they had the details of their abuse noted in their files, by social workers, residential homes, the police, probation service, housing departments, drug projects? When one young women came to the group for the first time and saw us all sitting around having a cup of tea, she sat down, poured out a cup, and said: ‘Right, what do I have to tell you, is this tea free?’. She clearly believed there was no such thing as a free lunch. Although space was made at the group for women to tell their stories, no emphasis was placed on when and how they should tell them.

Although most of the women told their stories easily, having given the details of their abuse they then frequently showed a determination not to talk about it again. This can make things difficult for support workers who want to work on specific issues in a structured way, relating to power and control for example or whatever work is on the agenda. But it is the actual telling of the story, how a woman talks about abuse and how she reacts to it that is important. A woman’s story clearly contextu­alises her life on a personal and institutional level in a society that structurally subordinates women and further discriminates against them on the basis of categories like age, ethnicity and sexuality. FRANKI’s way of working recognises that when women talk about the minutiae of their lives, and react to incidents in their lives, they are not only talking about the here and now but implicitly expressing what has gone before.

Challenging heterosexual ‘normality’ and ‘choice’

A fundamental part of a woman’s reality is her sexuality and the way she is defined by it, as every woman is to a greater or lesser extent—whether it is temperament, behaviour, identity or emotion it is seen as an essential characteristic. Prostitutes are wholly defined by this aspect of their lives, sexuality—and theirs is seen as a ‘deviant’ sexuality. A power hierarchy is in place, set up in terms of women and men who conform to the ‘norm’, whose sexuality is seen as unproblematic, and ‘others’ who are defined as problems because they deviate from the norm. Men who have many sexual partners are seen as studs, sowing wild oats, but for women this is translated as ‘slags’, ‘second-hand’, usable. If as workers we view sexuality in moral terms, or treat prostitution as an occupation—selling sex—then women who are prostitutes are either defined as deviant and immoral, or else they are seen as a discrete group of working women, which means that prostitution is normalised and sanitised. If workers assume women who are prostitutes necessarily make a choice to be prostitutes, they are failing to question the reality of ‘choice’. This serves to render the abuse of women and the sexual exploitation of children invisible.

Too much work with women is underpinned by the assumption of heterosexual normality and of the right to choose. Again, our saying this illustrates a paradox: feminist work is by definition women-centred, rights-based work, but an unquestioned assumption that women have the right to choose, or the ability to choose, colludes with men who abuse women. What woman would choose to be paid £10 to give a man oral sex, would risk being beaten or worse, if there were other choices? One ex-prostitute relating her experiences recalled: ‘after a day’s work I felt like a spittoon for semen’.

Agencies have consistently worked with prostitutes to get their lives ‘back to normal’, which often translates as heterosexuality, family, children, etc. This is problematic, particularly when working with women whose experience with men has been of violence and abuse. It is important that the work confronts women’s real experiences of men, rather than supposing that the ‘right’ man will provide a solution.

Women and girls have often been placed in residential care because of their perceived sexual promiscuity; they have been punished and stigmatised because of their sexual behaviour rather than protected because of their abuse. For too long, the prostitution of young women has not been seen as child abuse, and therefore as a child protection issue—though this is now beginning to be addressed.

Many women come to prostitution via the ‘care’ system. All these women have intensely sad backgrounds: they catalogue a history of physical and sexual abuse, family breakdowns, several different care placements, poverty. They have limited access to resources, either emotional (friends and family) or material (housing, employment, healthcare). Many are pimped into prostitution, coerced through what started out as a ‘romantic’ relationship, or through the need to feed a drug habit. Many women share common experiences of homelessness, poverty, addiction, loss of their children to local authority care and criminalisation. They suffer, as a matter of course, systematic abuse on a daily basis. It is so normalised that certain types of violence are accepted as an everyday occurrence. Women talk about rape, knifings, abduction, imprisonment and strangulation in matter-of-fact tones. What is totally unacceptable is treated as commonplace for the simple reason that in these women’s experience it is commonplace. This normalisation of extreme violence is what makes these women different.

Yet violence is not part of the public perception of prostitution. Consent, choice, the tabloid image of women dressed in high heels and fishnet tights, enjoying their work and sharing a sense of camaraderie—that is the idea in popular currency.

Prostitution is the result of abuse: not only violent sexual abuse but also abuse by and through the system. As workers, as activists, as academics, we try to bring the reality of working women’s lives to public attention and to challenge the stereotypes of prostitutes as ‘hot and sexy’, the myth that they are saving other women from rape, or ‘performing a service’. What other occupation demands an addiction to crack to be able to do it, or accepts that enduring physical assaults is part of the job description? Our inability to imagine the reality, of everyday violence and repetitive distasteful acts experienced by these women, means we must examine our own work methods, our attitudes and our political analysis, and translate this into action for change.

Systematic and structured

It is also important to recognise that male sexual violence is not only part of the lives of prostitutes, or even the lives of a minority of women. It is a systematic and structured violence which subordinates women to secure male dominance in a patriarchal, heterosexual social order. Our work should reflect a challenge to that. Therefore we argue for the importance of a radical feminist analysis of resources and support services, which puts women’s and children’s interests at the centre.

We need to explore the possibility of woman-centred inter-agency approaches to working with prostitutes. We need to develop appropriate multi-agency initiatives, rather than interventionist approaches which do not take into account the politics of male violence. This is a crucial contradiction facing feminists. While agencies have responded to criticisms of the way violence against women is dealt with, they have done so in a way that completely negates feminist definitions, feminist politics, feminist research and feminist support service provision. Women are heard in relation to agencies’ agendas rather than in their own right.

We argue that policies must be informed by women’s experience, and they must confront men’s right to abuse. Intervention should be political, and should not silence women or gloss over men’s behaviour. It should include continuous feminist support for women working as prostitutes, and the women who support them.

The work needs to be at a number of levels:

  • Routes into prostitution: for example, a radical review of the care system.
  • Support for women who remain in prostitution: custody of children, safety issues, etc.
  • Routes for exiting prostitution: employment, legal rights, housing, drug programmes and continuing support networks.

We need to work towards a strategy for supporting women who experience violence in a variety of situations. We need radical feminist work, which recognises the need for different and specific working methods, and which finds ways of confronting systematic abuse on both an individual and an institutional level.

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