This article originally appeared on VICE Denmark
All photos by Sarah Riisager
For several months after its launch, the Sexelance – a converted ambulance that aims to provide a safe working environment for street sex workers in Copenhagen's Vesterbro district – was struggling to attract both sex workers and their clients. But that's finally changing, mainly thanks to three simple additions to the van: a mirror, a radiator and a pillow to kneel on.
Founded by Michael Lodberg Olsen in November 2016, the Sexelance tries to alleviate the rampant violence and exploitation sex workers can face on the street. A report by the Danish National Centre for Social Research found that 41 percent of Danish street workers have been sexually assaulted by customers, compared to three percent of sex workers who operate indoors.
Despite Lodberg Olsen's idea receiving positive press, by February 2017 only one sex worker had used the van for its intended purpose. Feedback from sex workers was that the Sexelance wasn't a safe and comfortable enough environment to work in. Olsen and his team decided to re-think the Sexelance, following suggestions provided by the street sex workers in the area. "The more this van fits their needs," Olsen says, "the more they feel ownership of it."
As a result of the changes, the Sexelance became a lot more popular – with about 55 women using it in the past few months. Prior to the launch, Lodberg Olsen's team had only consulted the Danish Sex Workers' Organisation – a group of current and former sex workers, and a partner in the project – about what the van should look like. Susanne Møller, spokesperson for the organisation and a sex worker herself, says once street sex workers began to use the van, they became highly involved in its development. And their feedback gave some insights that no one but active users could have provided.
"Sex workers told us that kneeling on the floor to perform oral sex hurt their knees, so they wanted a knee pillow," Michael Lodberg Olsen explains. The next step was to hang a mirror next to the bed – a vital detail, because it allows the workers to monitor customers and ensure they keep their condoms on. In April, a study by the Columbia Journal of Gender and Law found a rise in the number of men who secretly remove condoms during sex without their partner's consent or knowledge. Furthermore, a European study recently found that the risk of men doing this is considerably higher for street-based sex workers.
Although Møller – who works indoors – hasn't used the van herself, she feels that aside from the practical stuff, it's as important to make the Sexelance look better.
"For street sex workers, it's important to work in comfortable surroundings," she tells me. "The van inherently represents safety, but making it look nice signals respect for the job – that it's not only about making the customer come, but also being good at your job and offering a welcoming space."
Initially, sex workers complained the Sexelance felt too clinical. To combat this, Lodberg Olsen's team introduced a cheetah print wall covering and installed a heater for cold nights. Sex workers had also commented on how difficult it was for clients to know when the van was available, so the team added a red emergency vehicle light that flashes when the Sexelance is operating and vacant.
"Before we had the light, customers had to stop and knock to see if it was free," Lodberg Olsen explains. "It didn't work. The process had to be much more fluid."
Møller notes these additions don't just make the Sexelance more comfortable, but that a nicer environment also makes the work safer. "Sex workers need to feel secure in that they are the ones inviting customers to their space and making the rules," she says. None of the sex workers I approached who have used the Sexelance wanted to tell me about their experiences, but studies agree with Møller that the element of control is essential in reducing the risk of abuse. One study published in the American National Library of Medicine found that sex workers who were more in control of their environment were less likely to be sexually assaulted.
"The key thing for sex workers using the Sexelance is that the men feel like guests there," adds Lodberg Olsen. "If they behave like guests, that reduces the risk of violence."
Although the Sexelance's recent focus on finally actually consulting sex workers seems successful so far, there is still plenty of work to be done. Lodberg Olsen says the women have asked for the Sexelance to be assigned a permanent, fixed spot in Vesterbro. This would allow Olsen's team to provide sex workers with medical resources in addition to a safe working environment, he thinks.
Susanne Møller agrees: "Generally, sex workers don't need help getting health services, but the situation is different for street sex workers," she says. "Most of them are not Danish citizens, making it more difficult for them to access health services," increasing the risks of workers contracting STIs.
Helping to find solutions to these kinds of problems is the reason the Sexelance was created – to make it a bit easier for one of the most marginalised groups in society to work. Astrid Graugaard Jepsen, a volunteer for the Sexelance, feels it also adds a significant voice to the debate surrounding sex work: "We focus on providing down-to-earth, logical tools you wouldn't think of coming from outside the community. Through the Sexelance, we're addressing issues that simply haven't been addressed before in the ethical debate around sex work in Denmark," she says. "No matter how that debate goes, sex work still exists. With that in mind, we try to make it safer. It's very straightforward."