Over the last eight months, a lot has changed for sex workers in Norwich. Back in February Concrete discussed Norwich as a ‘pure’ and ‘untainted’ city you wouldn’t assume housed a community of sex workers. But with the closure of the Norwich-based Matrix Project following the withdrawal of NHS funding the workers’ support system has radically changed.
From 1 April 2018, the Matrix Project stopped delivering its specialised health screenings, contraception and emotional support services as well as substance abuse advice that it had previously provided to sex workers within the Norfolk and Norwich area. Instead, the Matrix website refers them to ‘Change, Grow, Live’ (CGL) for advice on substance abuse and states that any sexual health information will be delivered by ICASH. The closure occurred as part of the £125m worth of cuts Norfolk County Council has to make between 2017-2020. But further still, NHS funding for important sexual health services, in general, has also been cut.
ICASH is a service that I have been aware of since sixth form and I know a lot of young people use for their own personal contraceptive and general sexual health matters. However, upon researching the ICASH website, it states from 1 August 2018, they will no longer be providing routine screening for sexual health as the service is no longer available as in the Oak Street Clinic. ICASH attempt to claim that free at-home test kits for over 16s will provide easier access to testing with no need to visit the clinic. But it is clear that this is another area of sexual health experiencing a drop in funding.
As much as there are alternative ways in which sex workers can receive contraception and sexual health screening, the ability to walk in and discuss any questions they might have with a professional is limited as all sexual health tests are to be conducted by yourself and in your own home. It is beginning to feel as though it is only a matter of time before these at-home kits are no longer available on the NHS.
Most importantly, with The Matrix Project no longer receiving funding means that sex workers in Norwich no longer have their specific service tailored for them.
On a positive note, The Magdalene Group is still providing drop-in sessions for empowering women and addressing individual sex workers needs in regards to isolation, mental health, offending, substance abuse and homelessness. And ‘Change, Grow, Live’ opened a service in April 2018, when The Matrix group closed, providing free support on drug and alcohol behavioural changes. However, this does not provide the same sexual health support that sex workers so desperately need and is their primary concern.
Ultimately, harsh austerity cuts to the NHS and specifically sexual health services have not only impacted sex workers as they no longer have their own clinics but also general sexual health services are not getting the funding they need. STI testing at ICASH itself is an essential service as a high proportion of the current population do benefit from being able to simply walk in and be tested in a clinic specifically designed for sexual health alone. This is true, especially amongst Norwich students. Clearly, this issue shows how sex work and worryingly even sex itself continues to be a taboo and forgotten about the subject and this desperately needs to be changed.