Trust takes time

An estimated 18,000-20,000 individuals provide paid sexual services in Poland. Some sources quote as many as 150,000-160,000, with the number of escort agencies approximating 15,000. People offering paid sexual services are susceptible to a number of hazards in every imaginable area of life: physical, psychological and social. In 2015, a project to assist sex workers commenced in Warsaw in cooperation with the Norwegian PION, Prostitutes Interest Organization.

Prior to the project launch, Warsaw had no centre offering comprehensive support: washing and laundry facilities as well as psychological and/or legal assistance. Initiated by the Union for People Living with HIV/AIDS, the Safety Net project targeted the development of a support and assistance system as well as streetworking-, partyworking-, and web-based activities. This was the first project for sex workers to include such a vast array of comprehensive activities.

PION, a Norwegian organisation with more than twenty years of experience, has been the project’s partner. More than one-half of PION’s staff are past or present sexual service providers, and individuals somehow related to the industry. The organisation focuses on the protection and promotion of sex workers’ interests and their rights, including health, law, and safety protection. Chief assumptions of co-operating with the Norwegian partner involved preparing the Polish organisation’s personnel for their own work, and offering an opportunity to take advantage of the many years of the partner organisation’s experience.

During a so-called “outreach worker” workshop, PION representatives trained a team of twelve people under the motto of Becoming a Better Streetworker. The training course comprised a total of 40 hours over five days. Future street- and partyworkers learned how to make contact with sex service providers, earn their trust, and talk about their work and related safety – how to discuss often as not hugely difficult subjects professionally and without undue emotion. Particular attention was paid to so-called intimate communication in terms of discussing sex and of sexual behaviour references.

PION representatives shared their experience in working over the web. Such interaction allowed the Polish organisation to expand their operations to include sex service sites. “Such work tends to be extremely difficult: it requires extraordinary regularity and persistence. We are happy to have managed to attract more than ten individuals to our site,” says Robert Łukasik, chairman of the Pozytywni w Tęczy association. PION representative Morten Sortodden described 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... three years later, we were in touch with six hundred sex workers. That much time had to pass for us to form any kind of relationship to speak of.”

in the course of their visit representatives of the Norwegian organisation observed streetworkers and partyworkers on duty, then proceeded to analyse all observations together with those concerned, offering continuous advice and assistance. The Polish organisation was tremendously successful in having managed to begin co-operating with ten escort agencies; over fourteen months, approximately one hundred escort agency sex workers remained in touch with the organisation’s staff. Twice a week over the entire project term, Pozytywni w Tęczy employees visited clubbing venues and worked the streets, distributing condoms, lubricants, moisturising wipes, and business cards. They also encouraged sex workers to take advantage of assistance offered by the association.

The bilateral co-operation format included two study visits with Norwegian organisations active in HIV/AIDS prevention, sexual education, and providing assistance to LGBT communities. Experience exchange apart, these visits yielded many valuable and robust relationships. HIV Norge declared their readiness to join forces with the Pozytywni w Tęczy association for purposes of future activities. HIV Norge representative Marcella Loyova declared, “We have a common objective – we have to work together and support each other”.

In April 2016, partners recapitulated all project works during a press conference 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 Loyova. All present 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 them.

Article provided by the Polish NGO program operator.

Read more about the NGO program in Poland here.

Read more about the EEA and Norway grants here.

Article published on 01 June 2016