Supporting sex workers

Minna Huovinen - Pro-tukipisteen Helsingin yksikön johtaja.

Minna Huovinen, the unit manager of Pro-tukipiste Ry – Helsinki unit

Rights of people living in vulnerable positions must be protected. Everyone must have a right to be treated equally and the self-determination rights of the sex workers must be respected and improved. Work of Pro-tukipiste organization is based on these principles.


Pro-tukipiste is a Finnish non-governmental organization which supports the position and rights of the people working in the field of sex work. The work of the organization is done with a low-threshold principle for the easy access of the sex workers to their services. Pro-tukipiste is funded mainly by RAY (Slot Machine Association in Finland.)


The support center was founded in 1990 in Helsinki by the Deaconess Institute. Those days their work constituted a supporting-hotline phone service for sex workers. In 1997 Pro-tukipiste organization separated from Deaconess Institute and got registered as an organization providing social and health care, outreach work as well as their support-hotline phone service.


In 2007 they started a project called IRIS which focused solely against human trafficking. The name IRIS comes from Finnish words meaning human rights, equal treatment, humanity and protection. The idea was to offer confidential services and consulting for those acquainted with human trafficking. Eventually Pro-tukipiste organization expanded to two other major cities in Finland; Tampere and Turku.


Pro-tukipiste informs, gives statements and educates actively in Finland, working together with many similar European organisations. According to statistics made in -2014 the customer base of the organization consists of 92% female 6% of male and 2% of transgender -current or former sex workers. At the centres the customers are offered support as well as peer support in the issues connected to the field of sex work. Centre´s customers are also offered support in the possible education and work related issues. The services are free and anonymous and they are offered in Finnish, Estonian, Russian, Thai and English.


Minna Huovinen, the unit manager of Pro-tukipiste Ry – Helsinki unit, has worked in the unit for 20 years. She looks at their work from a very humanitarian point of view where people are the same regardless of the field they are working in. Everyone has their worries, challenges and basic needs. The challenges of sex work are many times glorified and heavily stigmatized by the mainstream. According to Minna, reducing the stigmatization is actually the main problem Pro-tukipiste wants to focus on.


– So much negative stuff, victimizing, different forms of control. And because of these things their humanity and personalities are not seen anymore. They are not different, better or worse than us. The burden of the stigma is often really heavy. People are in a way forced to hide themselves and what they do for living. Many times they have to live a double life so they would not hurt the people close to them or they would not lose their kids or they could stay in the country. The stigma is the problem number one.


The common characteristics which often develops over time in field of sex work are strength and capability to adapt.


– People have huge amount of of resources within themselves. Especially when we focus of the foreigners who come to Finland to work in the sex work field through many countries. Who have unbelievable amount of hard experiences in various unknown “grey” territories. They have to be brave to face the dangers of such a world. Of course not everyone is not able to develop these qualities. In the same way that not every journalist is curious, but most of them at least start with curiosity. We have to be careful not to generalize too much. There is so many different reasons to start working in this field.


Pro-tukipiste Ry supports decriminalization of sex work. But by all means, they are against of all sorts of human trafficking. Now between sex work based on consent and human trafficking there is a huge amount of variables. Nevertheless, human trafficking is a crime that has been clearly defined by the criminal law. The amount of contacts per year Pro-tukipiste Ry is about 10 000. In the past 10 years, there has been 60 identified cases of human trafficking.


– The case has to contain certain elements to make it human trafficking. There has to be a clear purpose of taking advantage of other human and make use of his or hers vulnerability. Whenever there is violence or the threat of it, it is always a crime. The stages of possibilities to do choices varies from an individual case to another. We should consider how free most of our choices have actually been in our own lives. How free is your choice if you’re living in conditions and environment that forces you to make some kind of decisions? Most of our service users are working in the field of sex work because they have decided to do so.


The field of sex work of Finland has evolved drastically in the past 20 years. When Minna started the work, most of the migrant service users came from the area of former Soviet Union. Only after the great depression in -92, erotic dancing and strip-club scene started to thrive in Finland. The change has happened constantly throughout the years. Not just with the field of sex work but with the growth of possibilities in marketing and communications.


– 20 years ago there was no internet. Now most sex work happens through internet. During those days the immigrancy was very much a smaller phenomena and people didn’t migrate as much as now. When we started it didn’t even occur to us, that people from third world countries would come to work in Finnish field of sex work.


When asked what could be the next step to support the conditions of sex workers, Minna brings out immediately a certain sect in the Finnish immigration law.


– We have a law that permits the deportation of third world immigrants if they are even suspected of selling sex services here. In practice this means that people won’t step up or speak about the misconducts they suffer. They are afraid of any contact with officials because of the fear of being deported and getting permanently banned from the country. Besides that we should upgrade various laws in order to make them benefit and protect the people who live constantly in vulnerable positions. Now there is so much control around this whole phenomena that it keeps the situation very vague actually. People don’t really know what they can and cannot do.


According to Huovinen, the solution for common folks concerned in this phenomena is to get informed from various perspectives. Before that, meddling with the subject might not bring positive results.


– Meeting people from different social positions and statuses than you are used to. The field of sex work holds so many perspectives within. It’s not just the one picture in your head about child prostitutes in Thailand or Indian women living in slum brothels or western drug addicts. It’s so much more. The place to start helping is your own attitude towards the phenomena. Addition to this, one easy thing you can do is to donate money to organisations which do their best to improve sex workers conditions and raise this awareness. Funds donated to pro-tukipiste go directly to the customers who are in vulnerable positions, in the form of work what we consider to be the most effective.


Service users of Pro-tukipiste Ry come from large variety of different cultures and backgrounds. Pro-tukipiste Ry has two weekly drop-ins where anyone who is

interested can come and familiarise herself or himself in their work. Every Monday and Thursday there is about 40-60 visitors visiting the centre. The idea is that visitors don’t necessarily have to have any sort of problem at all. Anyone can just come in to have a coffee, get free condoms and lubricants, talk with people who work in the same field or just use the internet.


– Many people come here just for the possibility of being honest and openly themselves two times a week. Here you don’t have to hide anything. People can come here anonymously without sharing any information of themselves. But still some people are afraid to come, so we do outreach work as well. The main purpose of this work is to provide information about whatever our customers want to know.


The goal of outreach work of Pro-tukipiste Ry is to take their services as close to sex workers as possible.


– Many folks might need social or health services, but they are marginalised to the rest of the society. So we try to take these services directly to where our customers are. Our staff go to locations where it is probable to find potential customers and inform them about our services. Even in such meetings on the field, our services are sometimes provided in a form of information about whatever workers need or a sense of direction of support if that is what they need. We work wherever sex workers are active.


One of the guiding ideas  in the work of Pro-tukipiste Ry is not to force their services to anybody or to make anybody their customer. Not everyone wants their support. But the ones who have a contact with them, usually get the service tailored to their needs. Because the foundation of Pro-tukipiste Ry is to listen carefully what the people doing the sex work actually have to say.