Fri, May 19, 2017 - Page 6 News List

FEATURE: Danish ‘sex ambulance’ protects sex workers

Thomson Reuters Foundation, COPENHAGEN

In a dark tunnel in Copenhagen’s red light district on a freezing night, Annika gasped for air as the stranger who agreed to pay her for sex started suffocating her with his bare hands.

A friend nearby heard her muffled cries and helped the 25-year-old Dane break free from the man’s grasp.

Annika, who declined to reveal her full name, said it was the fourth time in a year that she nearly died at the hands of her clients.

“If you don’t give them what they want, even though it is not what you agreed in the beginning, some just snap,” said Annika, who sold sex for nearly a year to pay for her drug addiction, but quit the industry eight months ago.

“People think less of girls who are prostitutes, but when you’re a street prostitute they think even less of you,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation on a street corner in Vesterbro, Copenhagen’s red light district.

Studies show that sex workers in Denmark are violated or threatened by customers about 31 percent of the time while working the streets, compared with only 3 percent in brothels, according to the Danish National Centre for Social Research.

For while prostitution is legal in Denmark, it is illegal to profit from other people selling sex, such as pimping, or to rent rooms to sex workers, which means prostitutes can end up having sex in places such as parks, alleyways, behind parked cars and telephone booths.

This can put sex workers in danger from some clients and passersby, according to rights groups, who are concerned that migrant or trafficked women are especially vulnerable as they are often afraid to report violence or assaults to the police.

A 2009 study by TAMPEP, the European Network for HIV/STI Prevention and Health Promotion among Migrant Sex Workers, estimated migrant workers make up about 65 percent of sex workers in a list of European nations, including Denmark, where there are high numbers from Nigeria and Thailand.

Annika said she reported her attack to the police, but they dropped the case because she had no visible marks on her body.

“It made me feel like I didn’t matter to anyone,” she said.

This level of violence compelled Danish social entrepreneur Michael Lodberg Olsen to convert an old ambulance into a mobile unit where prostitutes can work for no charge in a safe and clean environment, guarded by volunteers from a distance.

Olsen, who has worked on initiatives for vulnerable people since the early 1990s, previously started “Fixelance,” an ambulance converted into Denmark’s first safe drug injection facility, as well as a street magazine that drug addicts could sell for money instead of stealing or turning to prostitution.

After parking the “Sexelance” in the red light district one night, Olsen said he was in disbelief when he saw two young men hit a street sex worker for no reason before walking off.

“To be the witness of brutal violence to a sex worker is ... very shocking and we can’t allow that as a society,” said Olsen, who launched Sexelance in November last year and now runs the vehicle each Friday and Saturday night with plans to operate daily.

Olsen and his team worked with sex workers such as Annika to design the vehicle and its functions, such as its leopard print interiors and a light to indicate when it is in use.

He said Sexelance has been used about 64 times so far and he hopes to open a permanent space where street workers can bring their clients or take short breaks.

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