Consent and Choice in Survival Sex Work

I write this blog because these are the two most used words I perhaps hear from sex workers, radical feminists, abolitionists and Nordic Model supporters. I am constantly trying to tell people that the two are not the same, particularly in survival sex work.

‘Is sex work a choice if you’re poor?’

What a loaded question that is geared towards the intention of you to say no, it isn’t a choice, so then someone can scream sex work must be rape if you haven’t got a choice. It is true that the poorer you are in sex work, the less choice you have over clients. Despite this being so obvious, people still continue to support the Nordic Model. This is quite ironic considering they are the ones who say we need more choices, but then actively cut our income, making us poorer and thus, having less choices over clients. Meaning we are less able to say no, because we need the money. Even if that includes bareback, drunk or dangerous clients.

Sex work is a choice, even when the circumstances are dire. I met many poverty stricken drug users who never became sex workers. Why? because they chose other options such as shoplifting, theft, burglary, begging or fraud. If I robbed your nan then burgled your mum, you wouldn’t be decrying that I had no choice, you’d be calling a scumbag and calling to throw down the gavel and throw away the key. I’m not arguing in these situations that sex work is the best choice, but it is a choice and sometimes the lesser of the two evils. I would rather have sex for money than get a criminal record and be barred from most jobs, or education.

I support greater choices other than sex work for people are drug users or who feel pushed by the desperate hand of poverty, of course I do. However, I chose to get into a client’s car, and I then chose to the ring the dealer.

Sex work is paid rape

Despite antagonists arguing that choice is the key tenet of rape as mentioned above, that same argument is not used outside of sex work discourse. No, rape is all about consent, or more correctly, power. Choices and consent are used whenever it seems to suit the narrative, but the two are not the same here.

It’s important to make the distinction between ‘I had no choice’ and ‘I had limited choices’. I am not including people in this who were forced by a third party, because that is outright exploitation and therefore abuse, and not consensual sex work.

Consent however, is about what happens and what I agree to. My limited choices may have led me to this decision, but it doesn’t give anyone the right to mistreat me whilst I’m here. I chose to get into a client’s car, but I did not consent to unprotected sex for example. This is where consent and choice are not the same, because I didn’t choose for him to hurt me, because I didn’t have the options, even limited ones.

One of the key reasons I have an issue with the ‘paid rape’ attitude is because it conflates genuine abuse with consensual sex work. When you blur these lines and I am genuinely raped, people will just view it as normal sex work, if they think it’s all the same. It reminds me of the attitudes when people say ‘well what did you expect to happen, you’re a sex worker?’ as if it just all merges into one thing.

The issue with radical feminism is that they can no see the difference between consensual sex work and abuse, which causes issues between consensual workers who do experience abuse and those who are abused outright. Rape and given consent do not go hand in hand, and neither does consensual sex work and abuse.

People say sex work is rape, but nobody ever says rape is sex work.

Socioeconomic resources

The less you have, the less you can acquire, the less you can invest for the future. When you have less, you are living for the moment. Not in a cute Tumblr way, but in survival way. You are not thinking 6 months ahead; you are not making investments; you are not even thinking about next month’s rent, because you haven’t even got this months, or last months. The bills are stacking up in the ‘forget reality’ drawer.

When you did not finish your GCSEs, was a heroin addict, or perhaps have a criminal conviction, your choices are now suddenly infinitely narrowed; you may not even be able to move country, or get into further education. Right about now, you should be getting the impression that you are skint, are financially stressed to the eyeballs and worst of all, you have little choice to decide what happens next. You sit down and job search for months but to no avail, or you may not be able to work at all because you’re an addict.

Now, you are on the edge of homelessness, your bills are insurmountable, you can’t find a job and worst of all, your children are going back to school soon and need new uniform. This pressure is IMMENSE. You have no one to turn to for financial help, your Universal Credit isn’t stretching and nobody is getting back to you about a job. So you become a sex worker. Why? The money is quick with no barriers to entry, but it is certainly not easy.

I agree that sex work isn’t the best solution, but it is the best solution for some, especially in times of survival. Again, the choices are narrowed, but it isn’t rape.

Nordic Model

Although there are many safety implications of the Nordic Model, I am here to talk about consent and choice. Despite radical feminists arguing that both are essential to feminism, and I agree, the NM does not help this.

If like me, you are a sex worker, your income is solely dependent upon such. You may have spent years gaining regular clients which keeps you safer due to more trust and knowing a lot of information about them, which you can use if something goes wrong and you need to report them. Now, suddenly, the Nordic Model comes in, but your outgoings are still there and perhaps your drug dealer needs paying. Regardless, you will still withdraw and rattle from drugs and that isn’t going away either. Your good clients have gone because they don’t wanna get arrested.

Now, your choices are limited again as you spiral further and further into poverty because you have just chopped off my income. Financial independence gives freedom, the two are best friends. With little choice, it leaves me with little resistance towards those who do not respect consent, or perhaps I have to lower what I am comfortable with. Why? Because I have less choice over clients I can see, and therefore, even if he doesn’t respect my boundaries, I have little choice but to deal with it because I need the income. If I have little income then I’m not going to be able to get out of poverty either, it’s a lose-lose situation.

To all the ‘rescuers’ of these women who say they need a job that isn’t sex work, brilliant, I agree with you to an extent because it is a cycle that is hard to break. However, nobody will hire heroin addicts, and nobody is going to pay their bills for them either. Above all, nobody is going to pay for their housing. If you think Universal Credit is the answer, then you need to reconsider because UC is a key reason why people become sex workers to begin with.

If you want to rescue them, I suggest you have them working for your organisation directly because that is the only way you will have some success. If you are unwilling to employ homeless drug addicts, or pay their entire living costs, then I suggest you don’t chop off their limited way of surviving.

Children

I only include this section because sadly, child trafficking and sexual abuse are dragged into the sex work debate. No sex worker supporters either of these things – it is absolutely vile. In fact, some of us have experienced it ourselves so of course we don’t support it. A child can not be a sex worker either. Children cannot consent to sex, and they most certainly do not have choice in the matter either.

I remember when children were called prostitutes when in fact, they were victims of CSE. This is why conflation of consensual sex work, exploitation and trafficking is harmful because people end up merging them into one. Teenagers were written off as ‘common prostitutes’ because people thought it’s the same, when it absolutely isn’t.

Poverty

There is absolutely a conversation to be had for those who do have limited options, who do feel forced into sex work due to poverty. I absolutely believe there is space to discuss this, and this includes exited sex workers who support the Nordic Model who felt as though it was rape due to the reasons mentioned above. People think I disagree with exited sex workers because of their experiences, but that is not true. I dislike the conclusions they reached and their rejection of active sex worker voices, and then accuse us of having Stockholm Syndrome. However, I can’t tell someone how to think and feel about their life.

It is important to note that poverty was the key reason I became a sex worker and I begrudged it, and still do. I hate that I can’t leave as easy as what I would like to, and am still in sex work for economic reasons. However, I am angry at the reasons which led me here, not sex work itself. I dislike poverty, austerity, Universal Credit, inequality, cycles of poverty, capitalism, wealth accumulation, inherited wealth and many other things that have structurally resulted in me being here. This is even more so if you are a group that are faced with systemic racism and discrimination, further reducing your choices and exacerbating poverty. Sometimes, you are pissing against the wind.

I’m not even going to sit here and argue that decriminalisation is the answer here, because there is more to it than that. It is immigration and economic policy, propaganda and attitudes towards the poor, the current government, the overriding system of neoliberal economics, chronic underfunding of drug and alcohol services, as well as youth services, child benefit and tax amongst many other things. You will not eliminate prostitution, even when poverty has been eradicated, but you will significantly reduce or abolish those who feel forced for economic reasons. At least, you would give them greater options.

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