No work of charity can be more productive of good to society than the careful instruction of women. – Catherine McAuley
My column of January 10th contrasted the religious views of prostitutes with the views of the religious toward prostitutes, and related the story of a priest who avoided dealing with a group of streetwalkers until chance (or perhaps God) forced him to see one of them as a real person. Not all clergy need to be so pushed; in my column of last February 12th I introduced Reverend Paul Turp, who spoke out against attempts by the Hackney council to put local strippers out of work by closing down their clubs, and in the comments for that January 10th column The Dudes are Emerging pointed out two stories about another member of the London clergy who feels called to reach out to sex workers, Sister Lynda Dearlove.
As Dudes remembered, I have great respect for nuns; in one of my earliest columns I wrote:
Like many Catholic girls…from south Louisiana, I attended an all-girl Catholic high school run by nuns. And though my path is quite different from theirs and would undoubtedly horrify most of those good ladies, I have nothing but respect for them as a group…the education they gave me has served me well, and despite our different philosophies and spiritual beliefs we have in common a decision to pursue a life different from that of most women in modern society…one of my [favorite] teachers…[was a nun who] first exposed [me] to the idea that there are many paths to God, and we are called upon to follow the one which our hearts tell us is right despite what others might think.
I imagine that Sister Lynda, profiled in this article from the Guardian of January 5th, would agree:
…Sister Lynda [is] a nun [dedicated] …to working with sex workers in one of London’s most notorious red-light districts, King’s Cross. And just like the convent, the “safe house” [she] has set up is women-only. “Women operate differently, and it helps street prostitutes – just as it helps nuns – to have a space that they know will only have women in it,” she says. Women at the Well – the project’s name comes from a gospel story in which Jesus meets a woman at a well who is living in an “irregular” relationship, and refuses to judge her for it – looks like just another anonymous hotel [on the outside]…But…inside… there are bright, cheerful paintings on the walls, a cafe and a clothes store, a computer room and lots of [showers] with body lotion and fluffy towels. “The women who come here can have counselling, and help with finding accommodation, but we also offer massages and manicures and the chance to get your hair done,” explains [Sister] Lynda. “Most of these women have never had…any pampering in their life; what we’re doing is helping them see that they matter too, that they have permission to care about themselves. The thing most of them most want is simply a long, hot shower…”
Most of the women who come here…have had desperately disadvantaged lives. “Typically they’re in their 30s through 50s, and they’ve been involved in prostitution since they were teenagers. Many have mental-health problems; the majority didn’t finish school, and almost none of them grew up in stable families. I’m not saying there’s only one sort of background for prostitution – you do see women who come from much more advantaged backgrounds, but that’s far less usual…” What Women at the Well aims to provide…is something most of its clients…have…no experience of…the sense of being part of a family. “That’s what we’re trying to do that’s different from the other services the women might access,” she says. “Ours is a very holistic service, and we aim to give the women a place where they feel genuinely valued, looked after and cared about.”
…women using the centre are [also] offered sexual health advice. This is a treading-on-eggshells issue for a project run by a Catholic nun – but it’s clear that [Sister] Lynda operates as close to the wire as she possibly can without invoking the ire of the Catholic hierarchy. “We enable women to have contact with sexual health services because they’re in a high-risk occupation,” she says. “It’s important to deal with it effectively, just as we aim to deal effectively with their mental and physical health…[I was] heartened by the Pope’s recognition that within the context of prostitution, using a condom is primarily about the intention to reduce the risk of infection and an assumption of responsibility”…For some years she ran a shelter for homeless people: but gradually she realised there was one group of clients the shelter wasn’t [caring] for. “Those women were street prostitutes, and they were the most disadvantaged group of all – and in a shelter that was dominated by men and their needs, the women simply weren’t being heard,” she says. What angered her on these women’s behalf was that as disadvantaged children they had been seen as “deserving” – whereas once they were effectively forced into prostitution, society ceased to care. “One minute they’re ‘children in need’ and we’re trying to help them, the next minute they’ve turned 18, we’ve failed to help, and suddenly it’s all their own fault.”
Women at the Well is funded from a variety of sources, including the Sisters of Mercy [Sister Lynda's order]. “My fellow sisters were happy to back me – they believed, as I believe, that this is the work our order’s founder, an 18th-century Irishwoman called Catherine McAuley, set us up to do…She worked with women in extreme need, just as I do.” Other funding comes from grants and individual donors, with around a fifth coming from central government…Over the last three years Sister Lynda has become increasingly respected among those who champion the rights of sex workers – in 2010 she was awarded the MBE, and last year she was nominated for an International Women of Courage award…
The reporter can’t quite resist some subtle editorialization and injecting an Olympics angle which, though not directly stated, implies a “human trafficking” connection. But Sister Lynda herself doesn’t buy into propaganda, as demonstrated by this two-year-old article from the Islington Tribune:
…the streets of King’s Cross are a safer place for all thanks to…Sister Lynda Dearlove…[a] 51-year-old [Roman Catholic nun] who was awarded an MBE in the New Year Honours List…she has witnessed first-hand the problems the women face during regular night patrols around the area…[Sister Lynda said,] “There is no religious judgment. We just aim to improve the quality of people’s lives and to break down the barriers for these women…We offer training but also help to empower women by raising their personal confidence. A lot of time they just need someone to treat them with respect – many of them have been looked down on by everyone they have met.”
…The drop-in centre provides a range of support and employment advice services for more than 150 prostitutes each year…Sister Lynda said crack cocaine is a “massive problem” for prostitutes in King’s Cross and backed [government] proposals…to open a…drug clinic in the south of the borough. She said: “Of most of the women we meet on the street, very few are working with pimps. It is not organised at all and…many of these women are self-medicating with crack, which is a psychological addiction – it means their mental health becomes an issue.
“I am absolutely for decriminalisation of prostitution. One of the main problems for prostitutes is that they become locked in a cycle and much of that has to do with these women going in and out of prison. [Anti-Social Behaviour Orders (ASBOs)], which are used to police prostitution, are a big issue. We have a positive relationship with the police, but ASBOs are easily breached and often women find themselves in custody…Then there are CRB [Criminal Record Bureau] checks. If a prostitute comes to us and she applies for a job, for example as a cleaner in a hospital, she will be CRB checked and not even given an interview. For many it feels like there is no escape, but there are ways out and we can show them that…”
Perhaps one day some members of the American clergy will develop the courage necessary to follow the example of people like Sister Lynda and Reverend Turp, both in reaching out to sex workers and in speaking up against the evil propaganda which supports the continued criminalization of sex work, and thereby makes the lives of all sex workers (especially those at the subsistence level) far more difficult and dangerous than a more just society would tolerate.
One Year Ago Today
“January Updates” reports on the death of a German porn star, Marriott’s announcement that its hotels will no longer offer in-room porn, and British police tricking female activists into sex in order to bust them.