Street women need love and understanding
Best-selling Norwich author Maria Landon issues a personal plea for understanding and love for the women who work in the sex industry.
As the dust settles after the news of another three women murdered in Bradford, for many people they will soon become just a vague memory, just as the 5 women murdered in Ipswich in 2006. However for family and friends of these precious women their loss will always be a painful memory, not least of all haunted by the circumstances surrounding their deaths.
It is no secret that all these women worked in the sex industry. In 2006 the nation was in shock after the brutal murders in Ipswich and it is true that society has adopted a kinder attitude toward these women especially with the recent televised documentary ‘Five Daughters’ and outspoken parents who challenged the press that continuously referred to their loved ones as ‘prostitutes.’ Thankfully we are gradually moving away from this archaic and derogatory label, although one has to constantly remind the press that these women’s dignity is far more important than a shocking headline with the only motive to make money.
The sex industry in this country is estimated at £1 billion per year and ranges from high class escort agencies to the undercover trade in human trafficking. Many areas are difficult to access and become involved with but it is the women we can see every day and night that I believe we can reach out to. We don’t have to look far to find them.
• An estimated 80,000 people work in the prostitution in the UK.
• 52% of women selling sex on our streets were under 18 when they first sold sex.
• Three quarters of women in street work report being physically abused by their partners.
• 37% of women in street work have spent time in care. 22% of women were homeless or living in temporary accommodation when they first sold sex.
• 74% of women in indoor sex work, and 28% of those in street work cite household expenses and supporting their children financially as their primary motivation.
• 69% of women working in indoor sex work, and 93% of women in street work use illegal drugs.
• 62.7% of women working in street sex work report that they are doing so to fund an illegal drug habit.
• 81% of women working in street work and 48% of women in indoor work have experienced client violence.
• A qualitative study found that 27% of women in street sex work and 8% of women in indoor work reported being raped in the past six months.
• Only one third of women in street work report client violence to the police.
• Reasons for this include concerns about anonymity and disbelief that the criminal justice system will be effective in prosecuting perpetrators.
Every few years it would seem, we are shocked into a world we know little about, a world that saddens us and makes us feel uncomfortable and helpless. It is easy to walk away, to convince ourselves that all we can do is pray for these women and hand it over to God. Or we can leave it to those fantastic agencies that work tirelessly to help and support these women whose problems involve alcoholism, drug abuse, self harming issues, criminal records, mental health problems, homelessness and far too frequently, death. Children’s services and courts are involved with some children being taken into care or adopted and some are kept with their families only to grow up with the same problems and addictions. There are many stories of daughters following in their mothers’ and grandmothers’ footsteps, their career paths becoming just as predictable to them as the children of doctors and lawyers who follow in their family professions. So the cycle continues and for many women it is a world they will never escape.
For many that mange to, they are left with the emotional and mental scars such as shame and disgrace that haunt them and prevent them from reaching their ‘true identity’, the wonderful people God created them to be. As one lady said, ‘it isn’t enough to give them a flat, £50 a week in benefits to live on and keep them stable on anti-depressants and sleeping pills; what they need is their lives back’. Yes, indeed they do, they need to discover the life God created them to have, the person he created them to be. The agencies do their best and there are some wonderful success stories of women reclaiming their identity and choosing healthier lifestyles. Yet the problem continues with children as young as 11 years old selling their bodies on our streets late at night as we sleep safely in our beds.
Having spent most of my 43 years doing everything I could to escape from that world, I now find myself continuously drawn back into it. Since writing my books and becoming a Christian 18 months ago I have become passionate about reaching out to these precious women. My heart breaks for them as I know that just as Jesus healed me into wholeness, He can do the same for them. I truly believe only Jesus can restore what the enemy has stolen from them and what is more, He is desperate to do so. We live in a world now where we can no longer pretend not to notice such things as incest, childhood abuse, the sex industry, drug abuse, alcoholism and homelessness in our world.
So what can we do as Christians, what can the church do? Well I believe we can do a great deal. Ever since I heard the news of the deaths of the women in Bradford, my thoughts constantly think of ways to reach out to them. In a song we sing at our church the lyrics say ‘break your heart for what breaks mine’. I believe God wants us to be as upset as He is about these women and He wants us to care, just as He does. I believe the church has the opportunity to show these women how much God loves them, how God can heal them into wholeness.
The church is not a building with a system and a rule book that meets on a Sunday for a select few. The church is these women’s family and no matter what their appearance or their behaviour might show on the outside, they need their family desperately. Of course they will not believe, they will not trust, they will do everything to push us away and sometimes that is what we must do for a while. But what we must never do is give up on these women. They do not belong out there on our streets or in early graves; they belong in our hearts, our lives and our churches.
I do believe prayer is a powerful way to help and it is fantastic to know that we have so many people praying for them and the people out there trying to support them. However, I do believe that there a few key points that could help us to encourage these precious women into our churches and to a God that is desperate to welcome them home.
For people who have had no experience of what may seem a sordid and dangerous world it can be hard to understand how these women can get themselves caught in a place where they are forced to sell their bodies for drugs or for pimps who beat them and violate them. These women’s lives are quite literally at risk so one may well ask; how did they get there and why do they do it? Well I don’t really think it is necessary to know the whys and wherefores except to say that as the above statistics show, a high percentage of these women will have been abused and mistreated in one way or another for most of their lives and a high percentage will have drug and alcohol addictions or mental health problems. Their problems are diverse and complex but what we as Christians must remember is that it is up to us to look beyond our fear and all of those issues and see them as Jesus would see them. A broken hearted and injured human being is in the same amount of pain whether that pain is inflicted upon them or we consider that pain to be self inflicted.
Do not judge or condemn them
Judgement and condemnation will only push these women away, you don’t need to tell them how sinful they are, they already know this and we must remember, we are all sinners, we all fall far short of perfection. If you live in Christ you will live in His righteousness yet these women do not know what this means. If they knew how precious and adored they were they would have the requisite self worth, self respect and value on their lives and would not be in such life-threatening situations. If you try to tell these women what sinners they are, their natural ‘fight or flight’ instinct will kick in and they will either run away in shame or they will lash out in anger. So we must remember that we now live by grace and not by the law. It is important that every encounter with them will be through an act of unconditional love and we must show them that there is no ‘them and us’ in God’s house; that we are all equal and that God has no favourites.
Acts 10:34 Then Peter began to speak: "I now realize how true it is that God does not show favouritism. (NIV)
Meet them where they are
It is not up to us to decide how these women should be living their lives or where we want them to be, but we can show them that they have other choices in life. Sometimes they are not ready to come to church but we can still befriend them and actively show them Jesus’ love. In John 4: 1-7 we read how Jesus made a decision to go back to Galilee and went out at a certain time of the day to find the Samaritan woman at the well. We can also do the same. There are local organisations that go out late at night on outreach actively searching for these women to make contact and show love and support.
This is a role that many people will not feel able to take on but outreach is not just about going out in the evening; there are many other ways to get involved even if it is just a friendly phone call once a week. We could meet them for coffee, pop a ‘thinking of you’ card in the post, give them a lift, bake them a cake or maybe when the friendship is more solid and we are more confident, a lift to hospital, company and support in court cases or even prison visits and of course an invite to church. The list is endless, it is not difficult to offer friendship and no matter how small the gesture might seem when their needs are so great, it is the act of love that counts. It may take time but that small act of kindness could quite possibly be the seed that is planted and will bring that person into relationship with their saviour.
Be The Family
Many of these women will have been abused, rejected and abandoned by their families. It is not unusual to hear of women whose birthdays pass by without a card and many women will never have had a birthday cake or a party. It is these acts of kindness that make a person feel valued. With a little thought and imagination we could make these and many other things happen for these women. The church has the ideal opportunity to offer a warm, safe and loving environment where they can meet brothers and sisters in Christ, parental figures and elders in the church in whom they can trust and confide.
For many women who are seeking to escape from their old lives they may find themselves in a ‘nowhere land’ where they no longer belong to the old life but haven’t yet created the new. Loneliness could quite easily lead them back to unhealthy relationships and behaviours if there is nothing and no one else around. When we are in trouble or in need, when we want advice, comfort or love, we turn to our families. Yes, the service providers can provide practical support but the church can become the family that welcomes them home with warm and open arms. We can be there to encourage them to make new friends, solid, positive Christian friends who will love them and not abuse them.
Don’t give up on them
Many of these women lead chaotic lifestyles, sometimes losing track of times and days. Many will have been let down so many times in their lives they have no idea of how to trust or commit to appointments or indeed how to develop healthy relationships. They may arrange to meet for coffee, then cancel or not turn up. Do not take this personally, it is not because they don’t like you or have ‘given up on God.’ Just keep in touch as best you can. Obviously we do not want to get into harassing or stalking people but sometimes they will test you maybe consciously or subconsciously but remember, they are expecting you to let them down. Most people in their lives have, why would you be any different? But we must be different, we must show them that they are not here on this earth to be used, abused and violated but to be loved, valued and cherished.
Jesus is Here
The thing that hurts me most about these precious women’s lives is that as we learn of their shocking murders we turn to God in our confusion and despair, and of course He is there to help us through the grieving process. He can help us to understand the world these women live in but He can also help us to reach out to these women now. We must remember that He is with us all at every second of every day wherever we are and whatever we are doing. Some of us know this, some of us don’t. For us that know this Jesus commissions us to tell others. Mathew 28:19.
Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the father and of the son and of the Holy Spirit. Mathew 28:18-20
We can quite literally save people’s lives by doing so. My dream is to show these women His love when they need it, when we can do something, when they are still in our grasp, when they are still alive.
Quite simply love them
It may sound quite obvious or too simplistic, it might sound impossible, you might not know how, but as Christians we must try as Jesus instructs us to.
My command is this: ‘Love each other as I have loved you.’ John 15:11-13
Jesus does not expect us to do anything we are not capable of doing. Loving each other may sound easy but we may not know how or where to start. Yes, we can pray but there are also many practical ways of getting involved.
You could get together in church and discuss ways of reaching out. There are also two Christian charities in the Norwich area that work with these women. The Magdalene Project can be reached on 01603 610256 and STeP who can be reached by contacting myself on 07899 022082 or Sarah George on 07912 496051. STeP are also available to come to your church to discuss the work we do and how you can get involved and also offer guidance and training to individuals and groups.
Please be inspired by this message but do keep yourself safe. Do not go out tonight on a whim and a prayer to reach out to these women. Please seek advice and guidance from people who have experience of working in these areas or speak to your church leaders.
I do believe God wants to constantly challenge us and help us grow. People will be led in all sorts of ministry, this is the area God has put on my heart. Whatever your area of interest, let us be active Christians, let us be passionate, let us not leave it to others, let US make a difference. We all have gifts God has given us to use in different ways, each one equally as valuable.
I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth. Revelation 3: 15-16
As I stand firm in Jesus I know that He will transform my sadness and anger for these women into a passion for making a difference in their lives. Through His love you too could do the same. Whatever it is for you, I pray that you will stand firm in His word. Your heart may say yes but your mind may fill you full of doubt and insecurity. In this instance we must pray about it, God will strengthen and guide and help us. In my own strength I am shy, insecure, weak and pathetic, in His strength I am a warrior, constantly challenged yet obedient. I used to cry because He saved me, because He loved me enough to die for me, now I cry because He is so amazing and I love Him so much! Praise His almighty name as He loves you and seeks to save others through you.
Maria Landon has written two best-selling books about her own life spend escaping from a life on the streets. Click here to read more or visit www.marialandon.co.uk