Barclays is sponsoring a scheme that will give 35 s.x workers in London the chance to retrain for a different job.
The S.x Workers and New Ambitions Project (Snap), which is run by the Terrence Higgins Trust, offers “support and training to achieve your employment goals alongside or outside of sex working”.
Successful applicants will get one-to-one mentoring, professional skills coaching, CV and job search advice and, if they want, support into volunteering and work experience. Barclays is funding the project, which will focus on what is best for the applicants, according to a spokesman.
The hope is that they will go away with better skills in budgeting, presentation and communications, up-to-date references and workplace IT skills that will help them explore alternative opportunities for work.
Dr Rosemary Gillespie, the trust’s chief executive, said sex workers have a number of transferable skills. “It’s a cliché, but they have great people skills,” she said, pointing out that they have to bond with different people every day – no matter their age or physical appearance.
“Also sex workers are very, very confident. You can’t be a s.x worker and be shy in a public setting because your client won’t be comfortable and you won’t be able to get the job done. That’s the thing we find with all our clients: they are amazing people and we are just helping them with the skills and attributes they already have.”
The programme is run by the trust’s Swish (S.x Workers into Se.ual Health) project, which runs two s.xual health clinics in London that gear services towards s.x workers’ needs. It follows the charity’s successful Work Positive programme, which helps people with HIV who are long-term unemployed return to work.
But Gillespie stressed the idea behind the project was not to “save” s.x workers. And s.x workers’ rights groups reject the suggestion they are all victims.
“Our entire philosophy at Terrence Higgins Trust is that we are non-judgmental about sex work,” Gillespie said. “People engage in s.x work for a whole variety of different reasons and it is vital we continue to provide services that reflect the different needs of our clients.”
One former Swish client, Dan – who is now a youth worker – said he was delighted with the scheme. Even though he’d continued in conventional jobs while selling s.x, he said he was always anxious about explaining gaps on his CV to employers.
“Trying to put s.x work on a CV is a challenge even for the most confident and proud sex worker. But I was still able to draw upon my experiences of sex work in a positive way,” he said.
“S.x work requires the ultimate people skills. You have to instantly bond with a client, even if you can’t stand them. I recall telling an educated woman about my past and she assumed it was ‘easier’ for male sex workers to perform than female s.x workers.
“I told her ‘try maintaining an erection with a man in his early eighties who has false teeth, greasy hair and a false hip’ – I shall let you decide which is easier.”
Anna, another former Swish client, said it was easy to lose touch with the world of regular work while earning a living from s.x work.
“The reality of s.x work is you can spend long hours of the day waiting for the phone to ring,” she said. “It can be isolating and you can lose touch with the outside world. Being able to keep your employment skills up is very important.
“And even though I have found s.x work a very enjoyable experience, I’ve had to keep my wits about me. Some of my friends who worked on the streets have been attacked, robbed, even killed, that’s why I never wanted to do that type of work.”
But some s.x workers responded to the initiative with caution. The English Collective of Prostitutes, which campaigns for the liberalisation of prostitution, told Gay Star News the scheme may merely skirt the problems some s.x workers face.
“Many of us are mothers supporting families. If we want to leave prostitution, jobs are few, wages too low, or we are blocked from them by our ‘criminal record’ or our immigration status,” a spokesperson said.
“If THT wants to support s.x workers, they can back our call for decriminalisation so we can work more safely, and back our demand for a living wage for all workers, including mothers and other carers.”
And a spokeswoman for the S.x Worker Open University, which runs professional development workshops for s.x workers, said: “Schemes like these benefit only a tiny handful of us, so they only form part of what’s needed to improve the lives of people selling s.x.
“For many, leaving the industry is out of the question because of a severe lack of options – that might be due to things like poverty, disability or immigration status. While that’s the case, any measures that are designed to help us must also include support for decriminalisation, so that those who don’t benefit from schemes such as these can be safe in their work.”
This article was written by Damien Gayle, for theguardian.com on Saturday 30th May 2015 13.02 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010