A non-story in the Sunday Times, 'Yorkshire Mesmac charity allows sex with clients',* opens with:
A charity for child abuse victims, sex workers and gay men given more than £2m by the government, councils and police has told its staff they are allowed to have "sexual relationships" with the often vulnerable people they meet through their work.
It then says the Leeds city child safeguarding board is investigating after the author "obtained a copy of its 'workers' conduct policy'" – it was on Yorkshire MESMAC's website! – and discovered that in addition to its very long-running work with bi and gay men, it has provided services for "over 4,000 boys in schools and youth groups in West Yorkshire".
The smear is obvious, odious, and obtuse – even if it adds that the disclaimer that the "charity says that sex with children is unacceptable", the article can't even get their name right. MESMAC was the acronym for a 1990s government pilot project, 'MEn who have Sex with Men – Action in the Community', and is all in capitals.
Overall, I've little doubt that everyone else in the sector is thinking 'What bigot wrote this?!?' and is glad that it wasn't about them. Why?
When I worked at a charity dealing with young gay and bi men and trans people who came to us for the services on offer, there was a very simple policy: no sex with the service users. Although all of the latter were at least 18 at the time, amongst everything else it would have severely damaged the reputation of the charity if staff broke it. How could one of the service users trust the advice they were given if there was any suspicion that it was designed to get them to have sex with the person giving it?
The policy worked worked nicely. The staff were able to give a better service and the service users could trust it. Some of them even used the existence of the policy to choose to flirt outrageously with the staff, knowing that nothing was going to happen.
When you're doing outreach on the 'scene', things become different. For one thing, even if you just set up a stall in a bar / club / public sex environment (PSE – such as a cruising space or 'sex on the premises' commercial venue), you've gone to other people, rather than them coming to you, and the power dynamic is very different.
It's also not always possible to tell if you're being sexual with someone you once gave some condoms or a leaflet to, even if you don't have a memory for names and faces like mine or the venue is better lit that most. This may come as a surprise to some people allowed to write for the Sunday Times, but there are spaces on the scene where it's quite possible to have sex that's so anonymous you have no idea who you're being sexual with because you don't see their face.
As people not familiar with the scene tend not to make a good outreach workers for it, for decades it has been seen as entirely normal for outreach staff to be allowed to use the same scene that they're working in for personal sexual reasons. (If you tried to ban them doing so, it would either be ignored or you wouldn't get many good staff.)
What's not ok is mixing the two too closely and one rule I remember workers for another charity having is that they couldn't use any space for personal sexual reasons for at least an hour after they'd been doing outreach work there.** I'd be surprised if anyone doing such work well didn't have similar such guidelines. Speaking of which…
What's the fuss about here?
A document, 'WORKERS CONDUCT POLICY (to be read in conjunction with PSE Outreach Guidelines)' that is very clearly – even for the ignorant, the clue's in the parentheses – for people doing such outreach work.
After it saying that it "recognises that many of its staff will come from, live within, and/or socialise in the communities that we work in" – yet another clue that this isn't talking about going into schools and youth clubs to have sex with children – and it "respects staff's right to a personal life outside of work", it says that as "a representative of Yorkshire MESMAC, workers have a responsibility to conduct themselves with the utmost professionalism in work relationships and work situations."
So for example, "workers should aim to meet the needs of service users to the best of their ability while at work" and if "a working relationship becomes impossible" then they should be referred to another worker/agency. Similarly, there's an anti-discrimination paragraph that's clear it's not exhaustive and the insistence that "workers must not impose any standards, values or beliefs upon service users. Nor should they promote a course of action which is harmful to the service user or others." (Yet another clue!)
The manufactured fuss is about the first third of the middle paragraph of these next bits (emphasis mine):
It is not acceptable for workers to use work time to further relationships they may wish to pursue in their own time, for example by exchanging telephone numbers or other personal contact information.
Sexual relationships are acceptable with service users initially met during work time, but this would be inappropriate if the service user has entered into an 1-2-1 or ongoing support relationship with the worker.
If there is a potential for a conflict of interest or breach of professional boundaries, then workers should seek guidance from their line manager prior to the conflict/breach becoming an issue, and definitely prior to the commencement of any personal relationship.
So immediately after saying 'no cruising at work', it says what has been extremely and uncontroversially clear to an entire sector of work with bi and gay men for over thirty years, adds that it doesn't apply if the work contact is more than the usual transient one that outreach involves, and then says if you're in any doubt, speak to your line manager "definitely" before the start of "any personal relationship".
Where are my pearls? I need to clutch them!
One actually interesting aspect is the response of other newspapers in their coverage of this 'scoop'.
The Guardian gives two paragraphs at the end to Yorkshire MESMAC's chief executive, Tom Doyle, including:
"For clarity, the scenario that it attempts to address is, for example, in our adult sexual health services, where a worker is giving out condoms in pubs, clubs, etc. Technically at that point everyone they give a condom to is a service user. If they then meet that person in another setting, say at a party, and both are attracted to each other, then we think it is acceptable for them to develop a relationship. What is unacceptable is to use work time or their position in MESMAC to further that in any way."
All sensible stuff and even the Daily Mail's website includes this:
Chief executive, Tom Doyle, explained that MESMAC's work can include giving out free condoms at pub or clubs and anyone who receives a condom is therefore 'technically' a service user.
He then went on to say, if the two people then meet again at another setting, 'we think it is acceptable for them to develop a relationship'.
The Sunday Times disgracefully does not include any such thing.
The opening paragraph of the policy finishes by saying that the need for 'utmost professionalism' "applies when dealing with other agencies including the press". Sadly, this is another example of the press being unprofessional.
When even the loathsome Mail Online is fairer to an LGBT charity doing sexual health work with what it calls "gay men, prostitutes and victims of child sex abuse" than the author of a Sunday Times article, you have to say that this is what biphobia (and homophobia) looks like.
* I'd link to it, but it's behind a paywall so they can get lost.
** To give an indication of how common that sort of thing is, I can't even remember which London-based HIV organisation I first saw it at. It was probably GMFA, but it could have been THT or London East or…