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POW: Empowering Nottingham’s Sex Working Community Since 1990

You may not have heard about POW Nottingham, a local charity based in Radford, but we’ve been here for 30 years. The charity emerged as a response to research into the HIV/AIDS crisis of the 1980’s and a need to support sex workers in the city in a radical way to stay safe. Over the years POW has evolved from a grassroots organisation run in a living room to now operating from a building off Alfreton Road adjacent to Nottingham’s red-light district. 

Many of us know that working in certain industries can be dangerous but little thought is usually given to people working in different strands of sex work. The rates of violence against sex workers are staggering, with regular violence inflicted upon those who are sometimes unseen and most vulnerable in society. At POW Nottingham, we try to give a voice and advocate on behalf of those who are left behind, who often face barriers to accessing mainstream services. Even when these are overcome, the shame and judgement they face is unbearable. About half of the people we work with at POW are vulnerable in some way, whilst the other half need less support and are stable in their work and life. 

So what do we do to help marginalised people? POW is a one stop shop for anyone in or affected by sex work, a safe space where people can come and be received without judgement or an agenda. Our aim is to empower people who access our services in a person-centred way, being guided by their wishes and respecting their autonomy and choices. People can come to us in crisis with immediate needs, or just for a cup of tea to talk with people they feel comfortable with.

On a practical level, POW operates a drop-in service and assertive outreach. Our daytime drop-in helps to distribute food, clothing, harm minimisation and do casework for people who need our help to contact agencies or resolve issues in their life. This can be anything from homelessness, seeking refuge away from domestic abuse or to access drug treatment. POW runs specialist clinics from our drop-in including a drugs clinic, sexual health clinic and we also have an amazing volunteer physiotherapist who comes in once a month to help with aches and pains. Our outreach sessions run 3 nights a week, starting at 8pm. We go out in our renovated van full of supplies to go and see anybody out working on the streets. We are always there to provide food, warm clothing, safe sex supplies and we also take reports around violent individuals so that we can share this information nationally through the National Ugly Mugs scheme. In outreach sessions we hear firsthand about the experiences of street workers. Sadly, this can sometimes mean hearing disclosures from people about violence and abuse inflicted on them by members of society. We do our best to help and facilitate people to make statements to the police if they want to go through the process. We also make sure to warn anyone else out working about any specific individual who may target them. 

Year round we work with over 300 people in Nottingham to maintain safety and to have a place they can talk about their work. We don’t just work with people who street sex work, we have specialist workers for all fields in the industry. About a sixth of the people we work with each year are from a migrant background, having come to the UK either to sex work or having come for another reason and started to sex work. Our specialist migrant worker speaks 5 different languages and supports people with all areas of their life, including family relationships, their right to remain, national insurance and tax, or learning to speak English and finding other employment. 

Our off-street specialist sees people working in any other venue. She visits people who work from home or from working venues like saunas or properties just used for work. This service offers remote sexual health screening, chats on safety, including where people may be stalking or harassing people and what to do in those situations. With a huge rise in online sex working, we also speak with people who sell services online, people who webcam or have online arrangements or sell content. This area can be fraught and emotionally draining, and staying safe is our number one priority for anyone who speaks with us around their work.

Where people want to find other employment, we have a progression worker who supports people with community inclusion, drug treatment, employability skills and access to education. This progression is tailor made to each person based on what they want out of life. 

Another strand to POW is our preventative interventions under the umbrella of the RAiSE project. This project works with young females aged 13-25 who are at high risk of, or being, sexually exploited. This project also runs workshops and training in schools and other venues around healthy relationships, consent, grooming and how to stay safe from exploitation.

The outbreak of COVID earlier this year was a hugely worrying event for POW, not for our sake but for the sake of everyone we work with. Would they be safe from COVID-19? What did this mean for our homeless population? What would the effects of lockdown be on people already impoverished? We didn’t have any answers so we kept on working. Most of our team worked remotely to begin with due to the risk and lockdown guidance. Some of the team carried on working remotely in the community, going out to see people and doing our best to continue with the services people would usually get. On the forefront of our mind was, as always, safety. We saw an increase in calls coming in about violent males visiting sex workers and refusing to pay, assaulting people and taking advantage of the situation many found themselves in. We were conscious that anyone still working needed to be supported to do this safely so we found creative ways of distributing safe sex supplies. We advocated for people to recieve Housing Aid and many were given accommodation in a hotel so they had a safe place to sleep. We never stopped. 

Now that we are out of lockdown, we are preparing for a cold winter, always a difficult time for many people sex working. People who work on the street need warm clothes, gloves, umbrellas, anything to make life easier while they stay out working. But this year’s Christmas activities will be different. While we’ll continue to collect presents for each person, we know that we won’t be celebrating as usual with a Christmas dinner as we head into the New Year. POW has been here for 30 years and isn’t going away. The need for a charity or service to support sex workers is still here and while it is, we will continue to work, bidding for funding pots to help us in the future. 

If you want to help POW Nottingham, follow us on social media to educate yourself around the issues facing sex workers, learn about the discrimination people in this industry face, and challenge stigma and prejudice. Not all sex workers are forced into this industry, many work out of choice or through limited choices. Many people have families and children they support. Sex work and human trafficking are not the same thing. While there may be grains of truth in all myths and some crossover, that isn’t the full story.

If you want to help us we accept donations and have ways of giving money if you have spare pennies. We’re also planning online events like quizzes’ to raise funds and we plan to deliver some training around sex work in the near future for professionals, agencies or people interested to learn more. Our Paypal is https://www.paypal.com/paypalme/POWNottingham and JustGiving is https://www.justgiving.com/pow-nottingham. Visit us on social media or our website, www.pow-advice.org.uk to learn more.

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