UK Sex Worker Groups Have Reservations about a New Retraining Scheme

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Europe Regional News Correspondent
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In the UK, a new programme has begun offering sex workers retraining for different forms of employment. Run by the HIV and sexual health charity, Terrence Higgins Trust, the Sex Workers and New Ambitions Project (SNAP) offers “support and training to achieve your employment goals alongside or outside of sex working”. Participants receive one-to-one mentoring, professional skills coaching, CV and job search advice and, if they want, support into volunteering and work experience.

The programme is sponsored by Barclays bank and is run by the trust’s SWISH (Sex Workers into Sexual Health) project, which runs two sexual health clinics in London that provide services for sex workers.

SWISH was launched in 1985 with the aim of offering support, advice and care to young men selling or exchanging sex. It became part of Terrence Higgins Trust in 2007, and, since then, has expanded its services to also support female and transgender sex workers.

In a statement, Dr Rosemary Gillespie, Terrence Higgins Trust’s chief executive made it clear that the idea behind the project was not to “save” sex workers.

“Our entire philosophy at Terrence Higgins Trust is that we are non-judgmental about sex work,” Gillespie said. “People engage in sex 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.”

A former SWISH client – who is now a youth worker – told the Guardian he was pleased with the results of the scheme, saying that he had always had problems explaining gaps on his CV to employers.

“Trying to put sex 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.

But some sex workers had a more cautious take. NSWP member group the English Collective of Prostitutes told Gay Star News the programme does not fully address other issues.

“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 sex 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.”

NSWP member group Sex Worker Open University 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 sex.

“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.”