The forgotten women of Sheffield; a night on the ‘Johnny Van’

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By Olivia Hoffman

When I was asked to spend some time volunteering with the Sheffield Working Women’s Opportunities Project, or ‘SWWOP’, as part of my training with the University of Sheffield Medical School, what immediately sprang to mind was everyone’s favourite rom-com, Pretty Woman. We’ve all seen it; the beloved Julia Roberts meets the rich and charming Richard Gere, who falls madly in love with her, unable to preserve that cold detachment and bridge that divides the polarised worlds of a ‘woman of the night’ and a businessman loaded with cash. This fragile love story ends sweetly; rich man climbs up fire escape with flowers to adoringly rescue prostitute. We are all fully aware that this is a rose-tinted illustration of a cruel reality, and although mindful that this fable is worlds away from the red light district of Sheffield, I could not help but instinctively envisage leggy blondes garbed in leopard print, red lipstick and thigh-high boots, swaggering the red-bricked alleyways of Kelham Island amid the bustling craft ale pubs and sparkling wine bars with steamed-up windows.

Fancy cars with men in suits (OK, maybe not quite Richard Gere look-a-likes but rich men in suits nonetheless) silently preying the streets like panthers. And of course, Sheffield’s own Arctic Monkey’s are singing “‘cause they said it changes when the sun goes down” in the background of my vision. Undoubtedly the dark tale of Alex Turner’s lyrics (which were written about the prostitution he witnessed near the band’s rehearsal rooms in Neepsend Sheffield) are rawer and more honest than that of Pretty Woman. However, no film or song lyric could have prepared me for the harsh, dirty and gritty reality that was Sheffield’s most deprived and desperate streets at night. These prostitutes are not going to be rescued by any Richard Gere’s, and that is why they need your help.

“Do you have somewhere to live at the moment, Kath?” asked Annette, delicately. It is a cold Friday night in November and I am in SWWOP’s very own ‘Johnny Van’ on a dark and empty road somewhere in Kehlam Island. Annette is one of three Specialist Crisis Support workers employed by SWWOP who drive around the red-light district or ‘beat’ of Neepsend, Pitsmoor and Kehlam Island three evenings a week, providing support to sex workers on the streets. Tonight, I am joining her. The van is unremarkable from the outside, just a white van, but the inside feels warm and safe; the walls are covered in a soft black lining, there are two benches with comfy blue cushioning and a small kitchen cabinet consisting of a sink, kettle, and a couple of plastic tubs filled with teabags and coffee. There is a large pile of food on the side; packets of crisps and nuts, pot noodles, energy bars, small freezer bags filled with flapjacks and sandwiches with small handwritten labels; “cheese and pickle” or “just cheese”.

We have been driving for no more than ten minutes before a young woman stood alone on the roadside, shoulders hunched and shivering from the cold, waves us down. Kath, who looks no older than thirty, hops onto the back of the van confidently. After remarking on how cold it is outside Kath soon makes it known that she is ‘starving’. I gesture to the pile of food and she fills her handbag appreciatively, taking almost half of what is available. She looks pale and thin. Kath explains to Annette how she has no home and is living at a man’s house who is making her ‘do weird things’ in return for letting her live there; “I don’t want to sound ungrateful” she says, “I’m thankful to him that I have somewhere to live”. My stomach churns. Annette asks no more questions about this, but instead invites Kath to SWWOP’s office next Thursday to discuss her options about housing arrangements and support. I make Kath an extra-chocolaty hot chocolate.

Kath was given more than just a hot drink and a handbag filled with food, as well as the opportunity to seek advice about housing support. This young woman who was alone and lost, was given a small amount of time, even if it was just five minutes, in a safe environment with someone who cared. Annette listened with warmth and acceptance, giving Kath a moment away from the darkness and evilness that was the beat on a Friday night.

“I started [sex work] when I was about 16. I started drugs when I was about 13”

We continue on into the night, picking up more women and girls and welcoming them onto the van. Gemma and Annie, both twenty-something, are keen to escape the cold. Gemma asks if she can have a pot noodle and as I fill the kettle, she explains how her last client had insisted on ejaculating in her mouth despite her protests. She shows me the pepper spray and small sharp metal object in her trouser pocket, hardly a weapon of self-defence but evidently better than nothing. “It works well” she states with a grin. Gemma is keen to chat with us and for a moment I forget the circumstance for which we are all here; she compliments my trainers and I say I like her jeans – it just feels like a group of women chatting over a cuppa. I am swiftly snapped back to reality however when I take a look at Annie, who is quiet. She is young and looks gaunt, she seems detached from herself and appears restless. She is wearing a bralette and is half covered by only a small leather jacket. She asks for some foil. Annette directs me to a cabinet of draws that have individual locks and keys. In each is a clinical display of needles neatly organised into sizes and types, sheets of sterile foil and small metal pots, vitamin C patches and other drug paraphernalia. I give Annie some foil, she thanks me and leaves the van stepping out into the night. I feel an overwhelming urge to pull this young girl back, to stop her from selling her fragile and vulnerable body in her fragile and vulnerable state of mind. Why is she doing this to herself, I think. Annette later explains to me that Annie was sexually abused by a family member as a child, and after being relocated by social services to a hostel, she was groomed by an older man there, who introduced her to crack cocaine and heroin and forced her to sell sex on the street. She was fifteen.

“I’m back on the drugs too” Gemma sighs. Annette masterfully disguises her concern and asks gently what the trigger was. Gemma mentions something about losing her two children before her voice trails off and I cannot catch what she has said. She finishes her pot noodle, thanks us both and leaves the van. We see her again later as she is getting into a car, I presume this is her next client. I catch eyes with the man as we drive passed, a man who is buying the rights to Gemma’s body for what could be as little as five pounds. I expect him to look shady and guilty, but instead I see a perfectly ‘normal’ looking man as relaxed as someone who has just nipped to a Starbuck’s drive thru. He is the powerful one in this situation after all.

A lot of people come to the conclusion that sex workers such as Kath, Gemma and Annie are choosing to lead this lifestyle. Why do they need our help if it is their choice to sell sex and take drugs? After just one night on the SWWOP van it is so clear to me that these women are not doing what they do out of choice; they are puppets on a string manipulated by a hopeless fate, a dark history of abuse and a population of horny men hungry for dominance; willing to take advantage of emotionally vulnerable and physically defenceless women.

“I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for SWWOP”
SWWOP’s ‘Johnny Van’ does more than hand out condoms. The Specialist Crisis Support workers like Annette, alongside several other outreach volunteers, are there on the van ready to listen and smile, as well as give out food, sterile needles and other drug paraphernalia to keep the women safe. Most importantly, the team invite the women to the charity’s Thursday afternoon drop-in sessions where sex workers are welcome to join the SWWOP team in activities such as crafts, bingo, bowling or just a chat and a cup of tea in a loving and non-judgemental environment. I had the pleasure of joining the women in one of their sessions and discussed with them how SWWOP has supported them. One woman, for whom SWWOP has helped exit sex work, summarised this for me;

“I wouldn’t be here without SWWOP, I was going down a really slippery slope slowly killing myself, in fact two months after I got off the beat, two people I knew, no three, had died in the space of a month. It was hard. It’s bad…If it weren’t for SWWOP I wouldn’t have had the guts to go to therapy. It wouldn’t have happened. It worked by just pointing me in the right direction, by letting me be ready. You can’t force someone to get out if they’re not ready to get out.”

SWWOP continues to support women even after they have exited sex work;

“I came to SWWOP one day, I’d hit my rock bottom and I said ‘get me out of this one and I’ll get clean’…and I’ve been clean since…[the drop-in sessions] remind me never to go back…I am never going down on that beat again.”

One woman commented on the danger of the beat and how SWWOP allows them to feel safe;

“…it becomes all you know it’s a routine. A vicious cycle. We haven’t got friends outside the beat. And that’s why a lot of us come [to SWWOP] because it does become a real little family… [we want] a nice safe place and not in a man’s bed who’s abusing us and using us like a piece of meat and getting slapped about and beaten up and [stuff] like that. We want safety.”

The SWWOP team also provide mental health support;

“I’ve got PTSD. I’ve also got other mental health issues and I eventually hit the drink…and when I quit, SWWOP helped me get into one of my choirs, which is a mental health choir”

This wonderful charity needs your help

SWWOP supports over one hundred women working on the streets in South Yorkshire. Sali, the charity’s manager who has many years’ experience working with vulnerable women, including work for Women’s Aid, does the most astonishing job driving the charity’s focus. Not only does she have an extraordinary amount of compassion, but she could certainly teach us all an invaluable lesson of forgiveness. One of the women that SWWOP supports broke into the charity’s office and stole some money. Once this woman had served her time in prison, Sali did not turn her away from the SWWOP family. Instead the woman was welcomed back, and SWWOP continued to show her the care and kindness that radiates from everyone working for this charity. A kindness and humanity that we need more of in today’s world.

SWWOP rely on funding to pay for their outreach workers, food parcels (one per week for each woman), outreach sessions and upkeep of the van, as well as the crisis intervention, activities and therapy that is provided at the weekly drop-in sessions. Please, I implore you to donate to this life changing project. Help Sali and her team provide women, women who have hardly been given a chance in life, women who are socially isolated and whose lives are falling apart, the love that they have been deprived of