The Darker Side to St. Kilda: A true reality

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By: Sinead Dalton

Imagine if life was to change tomorrow. Your regular routine of work, commitments and family gone, replaced by an over whelming fear. A fear that captivates every segment of the body which pushes you to survive; constantly wondering what will the next day hold and even more -will I live to see another week? While it may seem hard to create in our minds, for many it is a hardcore reality.

St. Kilda may be seen as an upbeat and creative place but it also has a darker side many fail to understand. A trade that has been around since the beginning of time, it is one of the world’s oldest professions and in St. Kilda many have fallen into its trap. What was once an upper class area in the 19th Century soon became renowned for drugs and prostitution in the late 20th Century. By the 1970’s, while many enjoyed the artistic lifestyle and sandy shores of St. Kilda, it was the more secluded areas such as Grey Street people would stay away from.

It is on such streets we can see these sex workers (often women, but not always) and when we pass by them an aura of unease can be felt. Questions can cross our minds of what they do, why they do it or even our own ignorance can prevail. A lack of understanding that can make us blind to the underlining truth behind each person who walks the streets. So instead of writing an article criticising what sex workers do, I decided to go behind the scenes, talk to the people who work on the streets – who are they? I wish to grasp their story, thoughts and emotions.

To be honest, when sitting down to speak to one sex worker, a woman, I did not know what to expect. The typical Julia Roberts character of Pretty Women did flash through my mind. The stereotypical look of tight revealing clothes, long black boots with a sharp quick and piercing attitude; but yet reality soon proved me wrong. Mandy, a regular to the back streets, has worked St Kilda for the past twenty years and began this at the young age of fifteen.

“It was something I started doing as a bit of extra cash but unfortunately I started doing drugs. The money became addictive.” She works during the day as this seems to be a safer option but with this job there are always huge risks. She has been beaten, raped, put in hospital for two weeks and yet her need for survival still overcomes this. As Mandy informed me her attacker had claimed God had asked him to do this. Luckily she had caught his registration number, pressed charges only to find out that he had been released on bail for raping a young teenager.

Each year sex workers get younger and when drugs and alcohol are involved, the danger increases.  “You have got to be vigilant; you can’t let your guard down. I’ve been with guys who are the nicest in the car and when you are alone, they can turn into something different.” So how do these people deal with this job? Not only on an emotional but mental level? I’m told with time you begin to train your mind: “This is a business. I run it strictly as a business. It is a service. This is what I do for a living, my home life is my home life and I don’t discuss this with anyone. I switch on, I switch off. It is a coping method I have learned over the years.”

What seems to be more a problem is the stigma that is attached with this occupation. What people need to realise is that there is no simple exit out of this business.

So what resources are out there for sex workers? Gatehouse, located on Greeves Street, St. Kilda has been running for the last twenty years. It is a non-profit organisation and has become a safe haven for these people. It provides food and shelter and simply a place for sex worker’s to escape for a while, away from the streets. They rely on the help of bigger organisations such as the Salvation Army and they have recently started alcohol and drug counselling. Furthermore mentoring programmes are also a main priority but most of all they provide a friendly ear to listen; something that is always needed by everyone at some point in their life. Speaking with one of the key volunteers, Jim Panakos stated how the organisation “are not for sex workers or against them, it is just basically people we are trying to help.” Unfortunately, this organisation is a non- funded government operation and so they rely on the help of the community. With the average job we can take holidays, a time to relax, with addiction there are no holidays “once you have it, you have it.”

So before we begin to judge these people maybe we should think of what they go through. Jim hit the nail on the head: ‘You have to understand their issues. We all have problems, some are more controlling then others and that’s what [the public] have to understand, even understanding people’s background; a lot of them don’t have the resources or education that the general public have. If anything, they need help rather than condemnation.”

From Mandy’s experience, she believes most people look at sex workers all in the same way, hooked on drugs, off their heads and have no concept of reality. In many ways this is not the case. “It’s about getting through. Most of it is just a means to an end. Nobody comes into it thinking it’s a lifelong career.” In reality it is about staying alive.

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