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Helena Raymond-Hayling gives her thoughts on Things We Do Not Know, a new play tackling the issue of female street sex workers in Bristol, by Process Theatre in conjunction with charity One25 and playing at the People’s Republic of Stokes Croft.

Things We Do Not Know is a forthright exploration of female street sex workers in Bristol and asks how these women end up having to sell themselves for sex. It explores how society views them, and how they can get help. Spotlights have made this piece in collaboration with Bristol-based charity One25 which works to help get the women clean, safe and off the streets.

The tales are astonishing, and the hardship taken on by some of these women is truly harrowing.

The performance is held in the People’s Republic of Stokes Croft, where I find a seat with a blanket and a small slip of paper reading: ‘What are you worth?’, which I quickly realise I have to fill in myself. After much deliberation, I decide that I am worth ‘my salt’ (not as funny as I would have liked), and hand my slip to one of the cast members.

The bulk of the play is taken up with the retelling of true stories from sex workers in Bristol, both retold by the cast and some in audio interviews. The tales are astonishing, and the hardship taken on by some of these women is truly harrowing. Abuse, drugs, prison sentences, suicide, death and rape are common themes sewing these accounts together, often from before the age of twelve.

In the second year in which Things We Do Not Know has been put on, it is tragically as relevant. 

Terror and sorrow ring true in the women’s words: ‘You suffer mentally and then you suffer physically’; ‘You have to be desparate to do this’; ‘You put your life in someone else’s hands all for £25’—yet One25 offers them hope. The charity helps by providing help on and off the beat, with housing, addiction, healthcare and victim support.

Opinions expressed by individuals outside of sex work are also shared, often showing the stigma and shame attached to sex work.

One of the voices expresses her gratitude for the ‘warmth, safety and comfort’ provided by the One25 outreach teams who go out on the streets providing nutritious food, first aid, warm clothing, condoms, and safety alarms.

a lot of work needs to be done to keep vulnerable women safe and protected from mistreatment

Bravery and resourcefulness are too tools of the trade for sex workers. One recounts an abusive partner knocking out her front teeth, only to walk past him in Brunswick Square weeks later with his own teeth too knocked out in a scuffle. ‘That’s what I call poetic justice’, she declares, brazen and broken.

Opinions expressed by individuals outside of sex work are also shared, often showing the stigma and shame attached to sex work. A dramatisation of a Reddit thread discusses an investment banker’s addiction to prostitutes as though it is an achievement and a man asks ‘why don’t [sex workers] go out and get a real job like the rest of us’. They are answered with, ‘they have a job—they’re sex workers’. It is clear that a lot of work needs to be done to keep vulnerable women safe and protected from mistreatment in their profession and beyond.

All those involved deserve tremendous credit for what they have produced

The show concludes with the cast reading out the slips handed in at the start and exploring what the audience members believed they are worth: ‘enough’, ‘more than others think’, ‘the sun and the stars’, ‘as much as everyone else’, ‘more than I give myself credit for’. Naturally, the top comedian in the room believes their self worth extends to ‘a Sainsbury’s meal deal’.

Director Kate Wyver and her team have excelled in the face of the difficulty and intensity of Things We Do Not Know. The show and the slips give me food for thought on the matter of self respect and self worth, how it applies to sex workers.

★★★★

All proceeds from the show went to One25.


What were your thoughts on Things We Do Not Know? Let us know in the comments below or on Twitter @EpigramArts

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