Dear friends and colleagues,
It is with great sadness that I am announcing my decision to step down from the role as CEO of National Ugly Mugs (NUM) after five-years in post. It has been an honour and privilege to work with and learn from so many dedicated and passionate people, who have supported me since I was first appointed to lead a very small team (initially just two of us) in setting up the project from scratch, based on the amazing consultation work led by Rosie Campbell and Shelly Stoops.
The reason for my departure is that I have been presented with an opportunity to return to politics, doing some important work with a politician for whom I have a great deal of admiration. The chance to make a substantial impact at this time of uncertainty and division is too exciting an opportunity to miss but I will stay in a new advisory role with NUM for one day per week for an interim period to support a secure transition.
Georgina Perry, who has been at the heart of sex worker service development and advocacy in the UK for more than a decade, will step in as temporary CEO from 1st May for an interim period while the NUM Board reflects on our structure as an organisation and the reviews the CEO role. Georgina is thoroughly committed to NUM’s ethos and I can’t think of anyone better to take over for this interim period.
I'm proud of what we've managed to achieve with such limited resources and on a tiny budget. From the start, we were dedicated to achieving our goals: to build and deliver life-saving services while advocating for changes in policing, policy and legislation which would ultimately lessen the need for our organisation. Our motto is “Fighting Stigma, Saving Lives” because we believe the two go hand-in-hand and it’s not possible to do the latter without focusing on the former.
Our work was recognised as pioneering throughout the world and we have won virtually every award we were eligible for in the UK NGO sector. Recognition through winning awards is great for morale and raises awareness about sex worker rights throughout the third sector but is insignificant when compared to the real impact of our life saving work.
The danger faced by sex workers is very real. NUM receives daily reports of horrifying attacks. Knowing that our organisation prevented a single one would be a success but our most recent evaluation found that almost half of sex workers accessing our alerts avoided an offender as a result which means NUM has prevented tens of thousands of crimes. This makes our hard work and dedication worthwhile.
It was a great pleasure to have worked with organisations in other countries to establish services like ours to prevent violence against sex workers. In the early days, when it was just the two of us working long hours in our tiny office on the outskirts of Manchester, I never would have dreamed that our work could have had an international impact.
From the outset, it was clear to me that delivering services to sex workers brought with it the responsibility to advocate for the changes to law and policy that sex workers themselves feel would improve their safety and human rights. So I put advocacy and campaigning alongside sex workers at the heart of our work. In particular, I am incredibly proud of the work that we did with the Home Affairs Select Committee - which contributed, along with the work of others, to the most evidence based official report we’ve seen on this topic - and in supporting the development of National Police Guidelines that put sex worker safety at the heart of policing in this area.
One part I won’t miss is constant pressure to raise funds for what is undoubtedly, in third sector funding circles, seen as an unpopular cause. Being national, rights-based, rejecting ideological constructions of sex work as a form of violence, and providing services that are preventative rather than reactive means that we can’t even apply for funding from the vast majority of trusts and foundations in the UK. It is a tragedy that national agendas, based on ideology not evidence, make it more difficult for some of the most innovative and empowering services to secure funds.
NGOs are under tremendous pressure to chase funds and compromise on their ethos and principles to survive but by so doing they miss the opportunity to shape and influence funders and their services evolve into something funders want rather than something beneficiaries need. We have resisted this pressure, stuck to our principles and refused to compromise on our ethos to chase funding. Despite the challenges, and the fact that at the end of our pilot we lost 100% of our funding, we have managed to almost quadruple our income in five years and we now have a team of seven.
Funding aside, perhaps the most challenging part of my role has been striking the right balance between developing strong partnerships with police to improve practice and criticising them when they get it wrong. NUM has many crucial national police champions and the majority of experiences we have with police are positive. Most understand the complexities, resent having to pander to populist whims from national agencies and would prefer to focus on protecting the public. Yet, there are times when I’ve been confronted and criticised by senior police for speaking out. On this, I have no regrets. While we praise the positive, non-judgmental policing which puts sex worker safety first, on occasions when policing is driven more by moral panic than public protection, and it compromises the safety of the very people we exist to support, we cannot be silent. Sex workers would no longer trust us if we presented an inaccurate picture of our experiences with police. Moreover, if we work in partnership with police in an uncritical way, particularly when their actions put people at risk, we would be complicit. Independent services must resist the pressure to be co-opted into becoming enforcers of unjust regulation, either by active engagement or passive cooperation.
I am confident that this approach is deeply embedded in NUM’s consciousness and will continue beyond my departure. Our staff and our board are dedicated to fighting stigma and saving lives and are all committed to a rights-based approach. I have tried hard to create a team of gladiators who are resilient and when we get knocked down we pick ourselves up, dust ourselves down, stitch up our wounds and ready ourselves for the next fight, however difficult it may be. In this sector, particularly for sex workers but also for those delivering rights-based services, we have to be constantly vigilant in fighting the onslaught of evidence-denying, moralistic ideology which threatens to overwhelm us and can dominate policy discourses.
NUM will continue to speak truth to power and challenge the myths perpetuated by those on a moral crusade to eradicate sex work even if the policies they support are proven to harm the most marginalised sex workers. We will continue to listen to sex workers and put sex worker voices at the heart of our work. We will continue to develop our life-saving services to meet the needs of our members. And most of all, we will continue to make it clear that we exist not because sex work is inherently harmful or inherently violent but because UK legislation, stigma and inconsistent policing creates a context where offenders feel that they can target sex workers and get away with their crimes.
Setting up NUM and running it for five years has been the best time of my life and I have thrown my heart and soul into it. I will take sex worker rights with me wherever I go. I came to this role with some knowledge of harm reduction, some expertise in policy and a commitment to the human rights of the most marginalised people but no real understanding of the specific impacts of criminalisation on sex workers. After five years as one of the very few people at the forefront of both service delivery and policy on a national scale in this sector, I leave my role utterly convinced that criminalisation of any aspects of consenting sex work between adults - whether the purchase, the sale or other associated activities, as in the UK – undermines the safety and human rights of sex workers, public protection focused policing and the delivery of harm reduction services. The brunt of these harms falls heavily on the most marginalised sex workers.
It has been a pleasure working with you and learning from you all.
PS: I really want to put together a book to keep forever to remember my five years at NUM so I’d really appreciate it if anyone who had benefited from our work or worked with me or just wants to say something could send messages to me on firstname.lastname@example.org Thanks!