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The Poppy Project and the empathy gap

by on April 26, 2011

“Our priority is to look after the needs of people and we gain nothing if we marginalise or distance ourselves from the very people we desire to serve.”

Salvation Army van ad

So spoke Major Phillip Maxwell of the Salvation Army following a short run-in with the sex workers’ organisation Scarlet Alliance. The occasion was the publication of an advertisement telling of the Sally Army’s rescuing of a boy after he left a message in one of its vans. But sex workers took offence, and the Salvation Army was savvy enough to respond.

“The potential was that [the advert] could seriously damage the relationship that we have in providing services,” Maxwell told ABC News. The ad was promptly pulled.

The incident, two years back, was not big news in Sydney, but to imagine such a speedy retraction and apology to sex workers by a ‘rescue’ organisation in the bear-pit of London’s gender politics today requires a vivid imagination indeed. The event is pertinent now as the Salvation Army takes over the UK Justice Department’s trafficking aftercare portfolio from radical feminist organisation Eaves/Poppy.

A posting last September by sex worker Jasmin, who blogs as indiandelightlondon, starts to illustrate the polarisation that exists between the ‘rescuers’ of the Poppy Project and those among the capital’s sex workers who seem highly resistant to compulsory victimhood.

Here she tells the story of her perhaps naive but nevertheless brave attempt to achieve more balance in Poppy’s research and reporting by agreeing to an interview with Helen Atkins:

…I had kept up to date with all the uproar on how almost all prostitutes are trafficked (it’s what Harriet Harman would have us believe anyway)….I felt it was important for my voice to be heard as I was speaking from the other side of the fence. The side where women are NOT trafficked and are VERY happy in the work we do.

I gave Helen a little peek into the lifestyle I have as an escort. How incredibly caring and protective of me you gentlemen are. How you spoil me rotten. All the holidays I have been on with you gents. All the lovely (sometimes very expensive) gifts I am constantly showered with. How my confidence has shot through the roof since I started working as an escort.

I told her I had no plans to leave this work. You see, the Poppy/Eaves project is all about helping women LEAVE prostitution by providing a safe path, advice, housing etc.

At the same time, Poppy/Eaves project have been campaigning hard for many years to make paying for sex illegal.

Why? Because prostitution does not sit right on their tongues? Is this why they will have you believe that almost all prostitutes/escorts are working against their will? I am one very strong individual. I do not get pushed into things. I’m stubborn …I knew exactly what I wanted out of this path I took and I have never lost sight of that.

I was asked lots of questions ie Had I ever taken drugs? Do I drink? Did I have a difficult childhood? etc etc. Of course my answers to everything was no. It came to a point where she said: “These questions are irrelevant to you because I know its going to be no.

Once the important stuff was over, she asked if she could make an audio recording of the next part. “Yes, sure.” I was in full mode, yapping away about my experiences with you boys. It was just general stuff. I can honestly say I did not have a single negative thing to say about escorting or the gentlemen I have met to date.

She adds in the comments:

Out of the 100 sexworkers they interviewed, only eleven of us were independents. The rest were streetworkers. Independents are simply not willing to talk to EAVES [Poppy].

Absolutely no way can a report be balanced based on the above. It will, however, be very interesting to see how the eleven of us are quoted.

Whether Jasmin’s very positive view of sex work life will survive Poppy’s notorious ‘editing’ process we will apparently discover in June, but the interim report’s here (PDF) and, would you believe, there’s not much sign of it.

Another publication in which the alienation between London’s sex workers and Poppy surfaced recently was in an excellent work by the capital’s x-talk project, which helps migrant sex workers with their English among other things, entitled Human Rights, Sex Work and the Problem of Trafficking (pdf), of which more anon. Referring to their study group of migrant sex workers, they state (page 30) that whereas such workers had never heard of support services:

….many maids interviewed had heard of the Poppy Project, and most were suspicious or disparaging of the service and claimed they would not refer anyone there. 

Meanwhile, Eaves/Poppy freely exchange hateful remarks with those attempting to represent the interests of UK sex workers – organisations like the IUSW and the ECP.

Therein lies the central dichotomy for Eaves/Poppy. How do you win trust among those whose way of life you are intent upon ‘eradicating’, whilst relying upon a subculture that could be criminalised as a result of referrals?

What was it the Salvation Army’s Major Maxwell said again? Oh yes:

“Our priority is to look after the needs of people and we gain nothing if we marginalise or distance ourselves from the very people we desire to serve.”


  1. Indian Delight Jasmin permalink

    @ pdf… Tables 1-6 should be an interesting read [ever hopeful of honest figures of course]

  2. Xena permalink

    Your Sally Ann has TAKEN OVER the radfems sex work prohibition campaign? I’m amazed that they pulled the ad. I’ve had run-ins with 3 dispicably corrupt Salvation Army shelters in Canada, 2 of them in the past month. Several American Salvation Army franchises have also earned some notoriety for their human rights abuses.

    Apparently, their definition of ‘salvation’ leaves much to be desired on BOTH sides of the pond.

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