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26th October 2017

The new MASH Mobile

Editor-in-Chief Kirstie O’Mahony talks to the women at MASH who make the streets a safe and welcoming place for sex workers in Manchester

The streets around Piccadilly station during the day are bustling with business people, football fans, and people dragging suitcases. Come nightfall however, you’re more likely to find people selling sex.

Manchester’s streets are cold pretty much all year round, and when your job entails you patrolling the pavement for hours on end, in can become insufferable. Many women in the industry live in poverty, and may not be able to afford to restock their condoms mid-shift, or to buy some food when they get hungry.

This is where Manchester Action on Street Health (MASH) comes in. Since 1991 they’ve been providing support to women in Manchester who work in the sex industry. At that time their services provided women with “condoms and clean injecting equipment together with advice and information and referrals into other services.” They “operated in the heart of the beat and late at night.”

This much is still true, but in 2010 they opened their drop-in centre on Fairfield Street, right in the middle of Manchester’s busiest area for sex work. Helen Clayton, MASH’s Fundraising and Marketing Coordinator, told me that “it’s a fully holistic support service; women can come in and get support with whatever their needs are right there and then so be that housing, if they need help with an addiction or mental health issues, or if they need to talk to someone about debts, or they’re being coerced by somebody, or they just want to come in for a brew or something to eat and drink in a safe space.”

However, the area in which it resides is changing rapidly, in a way that Helen fears will push lots of the women away.

“[The area around Fairfield Street] is becoming much more gentrified… the women are dispersing.” Helen has told me in the past that new, more expensive flats and businesses in the area, and the redevelopment of the Mayfield depo, might intimidate the women and make them less likely to want to work there.

Also, at the moment the businesses in the area around the drop-in are ones that usually shut at around five or six, but there are plans underway for lots more restaurants to open up, which will mean people will be in the area until much later at night, further discouraging the women MASH work with from doing business there.

Caroline Leavy, MASH’s Homelessness and Outreach worker, told me that other factors have contributed to women in Manchester doing sex work further afield. She explained that after the tent camps erupted in Mancehster and homelessness reached epic proportions in the city, many sex workers started to mingle with them and then start begging themselves. Given that there are more people in the city centre to give them change, this will have contributed to women moving farther and farther away from Fairfield Street.

This spurred the introduction of the MASH Mobile Drop-In. What used to be tea served out the back of a red van is now a new and comfortable camper van with an oven, electric stove, and a comfortable sofa seating area for women to relax in if they’re ever in need of a “safe space.”

I chatted to Helen and Caroline inside the van itself, which was brand new and had a gorgeous interior. It was extremely homely, made more so by the hot chocolate I was offered (and graciously accepted).

Whilst I was there, two women actually came by (Helen told me later that they were expecting a busy night). They were more than happy to meet with me and chat to me about the service, but preferred to remain unnamed. The second woman I met got a hot chocolate, some condoms, and a rape alarm. Caroline double-checked to see if the torch was working on it, and the woman thanked her, adding “you really need it when you’re in the bushes.”

Photo: Kirstie O’Mahony

I asked her what she thought of the new MASH Mobile (pronounced in my mind similarly to the BatMobile) and she gushed at how comfortable it was. She went on to say that other sex workers she knows describe it as “a god-send”, and that it’s nice to know there’s someone “floating about” that’s there for you when you need them.

It’s not just English women that MASH come into contact with though: “the other reason why we think [the MASH Mobile] will make a big difference is that we’ve seen a big increase in the proportion of Eastern European women [that are sex working in Manchester]. They’re much more difficult for us to reach because there’s a cultural and language barrier.”

In order to tackle that barrier they now have an interpreter who travels with them on the MASH Mobile. They rise in Eastern European women sex working in Manchester has been reported on extensively by the Manchester Evening News, who found that often they work in pop-up brothels all over the city.

The demographics within the sex industry are many, and it might not surprise you that students are one of them. In 2015 an Liverpool University student wrote in The Tab of her experience as a student sex worker, first of all working for an agency whose manager once took her to practice shooting his AK47 in the woods, to opening her own online escorting business. It’s a tempting industry for those students who struggle daily to afford to study.

The Student Sex Worker Project found that 5 per cent of students they surveyed had partaken in some form of sex work. In 2016 the NUS conducted research that found that 67 per cent of student sex workers that responded went into the industry to cover living expenses (such as electricity bills and groceries) and 53 per cent did so in order to pay their rent.

I asked Helen what they can do to support Manchester-based students in the industry, and she pointed out that they don’t see many students on a day-to-day basis, either because “they don’t want to come to the area”, or because they simply don’t want to tell them that they’re a student.

She added that quite a lot of students would opt to do webcam or phone work rather than roam the streets at night, which would mean they’d be less likely to come to the drop-in for some of the usual services that other women may request. They wanted to make it abundantly clear however that their services stretch beyond street sex workers, and that if students need support “then we can go to them, and we don’t have to take this big van!”

Although, if you are a student sex worker, and you do want to ask MASH for support, I would highly recommend that you request they bring the van. It’s comfortable, safe, and most importantly, Caroline makes a mean hot chocolate. What more could you want?

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