An estimated 18,000-20,000 individuals provide broadly understood paid sexual services in Poland. Some sources quote as many as 150,000-160,000, with the number of escort agencies approximating 15,000. Demand breeds supply.
“Yet stigmatisation is primarily the plight of the so-called sex workers rather than their clients. Sex workers are left to fend for themselves, and they find it difficult to apply for help,” says Robert Łukasik, President of the Union for People Living with HIV/AIDS Positive in Rainbow (Zjednoczenie Pozytywni w Tęczy).
Better Not to Provoke
While prostitution is legal in Poland, sex workers are wary when it comes to requesting psychological, legal, or medical assistance. Sometimes they believe that what they are doing is illegal – at other times they are simply ashamed of having fallen victim to theft, rape, or health problems. Often as not, due to unfortunate past experience, they prefer not to provoke any discussion or draw any attention to themselves. Every confrontation with a specialist leads to a string of questions. This is why they are left to fend for themselves, albeit exposed to a catalogue of hazards: physical violence, psychological and medical issues, exclusion, and stigmatisation.
– “In 2015, we hit the streets and the clubs in an attempt to help these people. We began knocking on escort agency doors. We offered help,” Łukasik explains.
This is when the Safety Net (Bezpiecznik) project initiated by the Rainbow Positives Union kicked off, with the purpose of engaging in streetworking and partyworking methodologies, and of reaching sex workers over the web. This was a pioneer project, given the vast array of multifaceted activities addressing sex workers. Furthermore, a dedicated centre was set up, allowing sex workers to seek relatively comprehensive support – from the use of bathroom and/or laundry facilities to psychological or legal assistance. Warsaw did not have such a institution before.
Excuse Me, Are You a Prostitute?
The Rainbow Positives began co-operating with PION, a Norwegian organisation with more than 20 years of experience in protecting and supporting sex workers. One-half of PION’s staff are past or present sexual service providers, and individuals somehow related to the industry – such as former male escort agency owners. This is of huge importance, as the organisation is manned by persons with hands-on experience and best knowledge of the community’s issues. PION representatives trained 12 individuals in outreach work. Future streetworkers and partyworkers learned how to discuss often as not immensely difficult subjects professionally and without undue emotion. They also developed skills of discussing sex and sexual behaviours, knowledge indispensable to the job. Sex workers tend to be very mistrustful. They avoid human contact. They often disbelieve gratuitous help offers. How does one reach them? How does one build trust?
“So, you approach such person, and then how do you begin? ‘Hi, how are you? Hey, I know you work in the streets, tell me about your problems?’ We had to learn how to earn their trust and how to discuss their work and safety,” says Robert Łukasik, President of the Rainbow Positives Union.
Furthermore, PION representatives shared their experience in working over the web. Such interaction allowed the Polish organisation to expand their activities to include sex service sites.
“You open an account, and contact a sex worker: ‘If you have problems you would like to discuss, we are here for you.’ Our site accounts were often taken down. We reopened them. It’s very difficult and strenuous work. It requires determination. We are happy to report that more than ten people actually came in to see us,” says Robert Łukasik.
This is how PION representative Morten Sortodden describes the Norwegian organisation’s early web days: “Sometimes six months went by without anyone responding, I had the impression that nobody needs my work and that I am all alone in the universe… the process was incredibly slow, but one day something clicked. Now, three years later, we are in touch with six hundred sex workers. A lot of water under the bridge before we formed any kind of relationship to speak of.”
Can We Do Anything for You?
The organisation’s success story is that the organisation managed to begin co-operating with ten agencies; fourteen months later, approximately one hundred agency sex workers remained in touch with the Union. Twice a week over the entire project term, Rainbow Positives employees visited clubbing venues and worked the streets. They tried to make contact and encourage sex workers to take advantage of assistance offered by the organisation. They discussed safe sex, and circumstances conducive to HIV and STD contracting. Sometimes they became the sex workers’ only confidants and interlocutors. Once the project had closed, Rainbow Positives have had to limit their activities for reasons of funding shortages.
“We let the women working at the agency know. They asked if they could do anything for us so that we could keep on visiting them, write a letter maybe? When saying our goodbyes, we heard ‘Our doors will always be open’,” Basia, a streetworker, recalls.
Project partners recapitulated their work during a press conference in April in Warsaw. “You sent out a signal to these people, you made them feel worthy again, they opened up to you… keep up the good work, because you have done a lot of good already,” said Marcella Loyova of HIV Norge, an organisation who declared their will to co-operate with the Union.
Furthermore, everyone concerned agreed that the project marks but the beginning of a long road to building relationships with sex workers, earning their trust, and developing an awareness of a place that was created to support and help them.
Project was implemented by People Living with HIV/AIDS Positive in Rainbow (Zjednoczenie Pozytywni w Tęczy), PION – Prostitutes interest organization in Norway and Psychology of Health Studio Foundation in the framework of the Citizens for Democracy program funded by EEA Funds.