You know, these days, women can do whatever it is they like with their bodies. We live in an age of feminism, freedom and choice; it’s a given in Australia, and in most western countries that women are free in this respect—but that is not the case for everyone. Each year, when things get tough, hundreds of women in Melbourne turn to the oldest profession for financial assistance: prostitution or, for a better term, sex work. Now this is just great if this is their ideal dream job with corresponding pay check; but many are turning to street sex work out of circumstances beyond their control: doing it out out of desperation or coercion, there’s nothing remotely feminist based about that choice—or lack of.
The issues that these women face are ones of abuse, addiction, homelessness, mental health, poverty and family breakdown. Add into this mix, the stigma, judgement and marginalization dealt out to them every single day by society, and just imagine how hard it would be to break the cycle?
St Kilda Gatehouse is an organisation based in St Kilda; it’s a special kind of place, for not only is it a drop in centre for the women and girls of St Kilda, but within their walls, staff are available who, thankfully, offer support in a myriad of ways. This, from their website:
St Kilda Gatehouse is a not for profit organisation which works alongside those involved in street sex work, who are often marginalised and have life controlling addictions. It is a place where individuals feel valued and important. For many who come from a background of abuse and poverty it is a source of dignity and hope – where they can find the support and care needed as they attempt to build a life off the streets and beyond drug addiction.
What exactly do they do?
St Kilda Gatehouse offer a place of belonging in a safe, welcoming, non-judgemental, home-like environment. The staff there, offer help to the women, enabling them to make lifestyle changes towards breaking away from street sex work, addiction and a life entrenched within turmoil; this is achieved by building trust, providing crisis care, emergency aid, food, clothing, toiletries, and the opportunity to form positive and meaningful relationships—and most importably, by having someone to listen to them.
By offering this opportunity to join in community life, the Gatehouse share, and celebrate special occasions; they help facilitate this by taking the necessary steps to reconnect people with their family members, friends and the wider community—but more importantly, and touchingly so, their children. In a world were these woman are judged harshly; in a world where many may say they don’t deserve to have children, there is a bright shining light showing these women that life—however, unfair, unjust, and sometimes desolate—doesn’t have to be so: They have the power to change their circumstances, and now, they have the support to nourish them in doing that! Staff can help organise access visits, parental resources, recreational and community activities (like their own netball games, and regular BBQs), and community meals. That bright shining light, illuminating up the future ahead? Why, that’s coming from the Gatehouse, of course!
So How Exactly Do They Help a Woman Get Off the Streets?
Navigating a pathway off of the streets could be a daunting task for a person with little or no life skills; especially when abuse has been a systematic part of their life: something they’ve become aligned with, and used to. There are qualities and life-habits, most of us have that we easily take for granted. Imagine having none of that to fall back on? No positive role models; only dysfunctional ones. No education, apart from one that’s eventuated from a life of chaos? How is a person supposed to succeed after living like that? Is there a map that shows us how this is done? And if there is, where is it?
Those attempting to leave street sex work are often trapped by the cycle of homelessness and drug addiction. (They don’t need our judgement.) The Gatehouse staff assist individuals in navigating the services and systems essential to breaking out of these traps. They do this by setting up appointments, advocating for them, assisting with transport, networking with other agencies and offering—all important—counselling.
St Kilda Gatehouse’s mission and purpose is to take a holistic approach, building on a person’s capacity and strengths. By offering training, support groups, assistance in job preparation, help in developing new skills, and even small business training. The Gatehouse staff work alongside those who wish to pursue these interests, helping them to attempt, and hopefully, succeed at blossoming within the joy of their unfulfilled dreams. And may they indeed bloom…
The Red Light Dark Room Project
In 2010, Gemma-Rose Turnbull was awarded an ‘Australia Council for the Arts Connections Residency’ to do a residency with non-profit organisation St Kilda Gatehouse to teach, photograph and interview street sex workers. From this, she produced, Redlight Dark Room: Sex, Lives and Stereotypes, a photo journal, which helped some of the women of St Kilda tell their own stories:
“St Kilda Gatehouse is distinctive in its ability to form strong relationships and build on the strengths of a particular marginalised community, who are often difficult to engage through mainstream means. Street sex work remains a contentious issue, creating a spectrum of opinions and beliefs in regards to the presence and legality of street sex workers. The publication does not aim to present a case for or against the legality of street sex work, but rather to show the human side and to tell the stories of a group of women involved in street sex work.”
If you’d like to help support these women, and the important work that the Gatehouse do, then you can purchase a copy of Gemma’s book here. It costs $50, and it’s way worth it. I have my copy. And it’s autographed! How about you? Would you like to help a worthy cause?
(Personal note from Miche: Warning: some of the images in Red Light Dark Room: Sex, Lives and Stereotypes are confronting: shocking-in-the-way-you-just-wish-you-hadn’t-of-looked kind of way. The images are searingly honest and captured in this way because the reality of life on the streets is not pretty. The qualities of youth and beauty (values held highly within our society) are juxtaposed against dark streets, scars of self-harm and broken dreams. The women, and some are just girls, bare their pain, raw for all to see. Self-harm and drug addiction are common themes in Red Light Dark Room. So are children and family. And then there are the women who have been out on the streets, dealing with our society’s undercurrent of misogynistic hatred and disrespect for people like them for too damn long. They need a break, a life-changing one! It’s not Underbelly. It’s not glamorous. But it is true. And in this age of freedom and feminism in Australia, their ‘reality’ just shouldn’t be. Only we have the power to help.)
Buy your copy today!
The Age: Tales from the Street
Melinda Tankard Reist: From the Margins to the Centre
Lucida Magazine: Essay/Red light Darkroom
MamaVegas WordPress: Disarming… RedLight DarkRoom @Brisbane Powerhouse
Freo’s View: Red Light Dark Room Big Heart