When Josephine Knowles moved to London in the early ‘90s as a teenager, she fell into a profession she didn’t expect – helping sex workers, prostitutes and even exploited children off the streets. Back then, the infrastructure for rehabilitating these people – mostly women – was pretty poor, and so she listened to what they wanted, and tried to build a system that catered for their needs. Sometimes that meant helping them with an addiction, or coming up with an exit strategy, or finding a way for them to escape an abusive situation. One thing remained consistent though: letting the women decide what they want.
In the 20 years that Josephine has been doing the job, she’s seen a lot of changes in the industry. One is the rise of technology, which has meant a lot of business has moved off the streets and onto the web – something that has its pros and cons when it comes to the safety of the people actually selling sex. Another is a change in social attitudes – while some stigma has been eroded, she says, a conversation around sex positivity at times obscured some of the dangers these women can face.
Below, we talk to Josephine about her job, about the sex industry, and about the work her current organisation Beyond The Streets does with women who are being exploited or decide they don’t want to be selling sex.
Hi Josephine, so to start with, how did you get into the job?
I came to London from a small village in Wiltshire at 18 or 19 and worked a year apprenticeship at a community development project in east London. There, I got to know a woman selling sex on the streets of London, who asked for some help, and it just grew. I was very young and naïve and learnt everything from the women themselves. They said ‘there’s nothing for us’ – so we started something called The Door of Hope project in 1995.
As that grew, we thought ‘there must be other projects like this’, and so we started a network for them in 2004 – that’s Beyond The Streets, and now we work with about 30 organisations nationally. So we have two functions – we’re a network for organisations working with on-street or off-street prostitution. And we offer direct support to women – like phone service and outreach. They can access training with us, resources, good practice guides, and other people to network up with who get it.
When you were doing outreach 20 years ago, how did you approach women?
We’d be out on the streets dressed like Michelin women because it was freezing, with tea and coffee and with condoms. We’d chat to women: ‘What’s your name? How are you?’ We’d strike up a conversation and give her a number in case she wanted to follow up. I’ve only had one woman say ‘piss off’ in 20 years. Some say ‘no thanks, I’m working’, but that’s their right. We’re only there as an offer. We step forwards, see if they want to engage; if not, we walk off. We don’t want to interrupt. But sometimes they would keep us there chatting because we were the only person who’d asked them about their day in a while.
What happened if a woman followed up?
We’d meet with her, treat her like a person, talk. Our outreach then was in Tower Hamlets, where a lot of women selling sex were and still are Class A drug users, or prone to violence both from customers or residents doing things like throwing urine at them. We treated the women as experts on their own lives and asked what they wanted and tried to build around that. Our support is not conditional on whether they want a change or not, it’s just there. We know the barriers they face and we don’t want to be another barrier for them.
Did your job ever upset you?
I think back then, before I’d had proper training or study, a lot of things upset me about the injustice and lack of opportunities women faced: abuse, failing at school, people stigmatising them. It was particularly upsetting when women had kids, if they were taken away from her, or if she was out at Christmas to get an extra Christmas present. And another time, I remember going on outreach in the ‘90s and ringing the police about a 15-year-old girl selling sex on the streets because we thought she was in danger, and we got such a shocking response, they said ‘it’s not our problem’.
With the Rotherham cases for example, kids are still seen as choosing it rather than being sexually exploited, I think that concept has to change. I think a better understanding of trafficking has changed things a bit, although that can be unhelpful and problematic too – the idea that someone has been kidnapped as a sex slave. It’s much more complex how people get into this – society, poverty and lack of options for women aren’t always considered.
We often see the empowered sex worker on the one hand, and the trafficked on the other. Would it be fair to say you work with women in the grey area in between?
Exactly. We’d say she’s made a decision to survive within a lack of choices and options. That’s not a great space for women to have to occupy. Women who’ve chosen sex work after law degrees or medical degrees are a minority – good on you, but those women can overshadow other women, and laws get made around those who are more empowered. I don’t think there needs to be a split, we can hold those things in tension, but society needs to make sure they support a route out in case women do feel trapped.
It serves public conscience to think, ‘she’s chosen it, so we don’t need to do anything’. But if we’re saying, ‘she’s harmed, raped, beaten, exploited,’ suddenly, as a society, we have to do something about that. The fact that we have very few specific services for women in the sex industry is indicative of that. It’s a postcode lottery – where you live affects what kind of help you get, and for me that’s not good enough. If you’re caught up as a young kid and you’re selling sex as a result of that, the response seems very biased towards choices rather than options.
How has technology changed the industry? Is it safer for women to work online or off?
There’s a massive world we don’t know much about online. Women put their profiles up on AdultWork and sell sex through that medium. It’s tricky to say which is safer. Being on the street is really dangerous; no safety mechanisms, strangers, back alleys, cars. Women are murdered having sex on the streets. Likewise, in a brothel or a flat, who’s going to see if anything goes wrong? And if you do go to police, they might not believe you unless they’re part of UglyMugs and have been specially trained.
Many people say off the streets is safer but I don’t think the evidence is there. There’s an exchange; when men pay for something they expect something in return. A sense of entitlement comes in and if they don’t get what they want in return, that’s where violence comes in.
Do we know how many people are selling sex in the UK? Is it more or less than when you started 20 years ago?
Most people quote the 1999 stat, rounded up to 80,000 individuals, and they found that out by asking how many support projects there were, how many clients they had and added it up. I think it’s nowhere near what it needs to be. I don’t think we even know the lengths or breadths. It depends how you define it – is it those who “choose” it and those who don’t? It’s hard to define because it becomes so political. Our point to the Home Affairs Select Committee was ‘Why can’t we even estimate?’ Surely they should have a more current number. But there’s no political will, the projects are polarised – either pro sex work, or see it as harmful or are abolitionist. I don’t think that helps the women themselves.
How does Beyond The Streets help women today?
Most women find us online themselves through a Google search – women ready for a counselling referral, or similar. It’s developed in response to the changing nature of technology, so we offer our services online and over the phone, if women want them. We’re not there to drag you into a drop-in, we’re there on your terms, with everyday phone support and email support. If women are safe doing what they want, what’s the problem; but where they’re being hurt, harmed, coerced, exploited, that’s our bag.
One thing we say as we finish a call is ‘What can you do for yourself that’s nice?’ and they say, ‘Have a cup of tea or a bath’. They’re often not used to looking after themselves, they expect abuse, so they don’t think about their bodies – women tell us stories where they’ve had fags put on them, their hair pulled, it’s not glamorous – they say 'This is my lot, this is it, it’s OK'. But that doesn’t have to be it.
If you are looking for support or to look how to get out of the sex industry then email email@example.com or call 0800 1337870