Exit Services for Sex Workers

This is something I hear the Nordic Model parade bang on about all the time. I agree, exit services should be readily available and free at the point of access. They should be offered to everyone who wants to leave sex work. Doesn’t this sound brilliant? It’s something I have always wanted myself; a programme wrapped up in a neat package, so that when I enter, I get from A to B and then that’s it, I’ll stop being a sex worker forever! If this was a thing, I’d be travelling the country promoting it and perhaps offering it myself if I could. Sex work is crap and awful at times, the right to leave sex work should be an option. Wouldn’t it be nice if it came with a gift-wrapped bowtie too?

Exit is a difficult term within itself because you can not measure if someone has exited sex work. If you try and count like a revolving door then you will skew the numbers of those exited if I leave each week and then return. Also, if I tell you I’ve left and you’re guilting me into staying away from sex work, I will not tell you I’ve returned so you can’t accurately measure it. What if I stopped sex working 5 days a week and only did it near Christmas, or reduced to 1 day every 2 weeks, what then? What if I hang up the lingerie for 6 months and then an unexpected bill comes in and I work one afternoon – am I still a sex worker?

Why isn’t it so easy: Money

I have often said sex work feels like a trap because once you’re in, it’s extremely difficult to get out again. The allure of the money keeps you coming back and if you’re a drug user, the never ending cycle of money keeps you funding your habit without having to shoplift. Money makes the world go round; it’s what keeps us clothed, fed, housed and ensures basic survival. Basically, we can’t be without it. Once you become a sex worker, particularly a street sex worker, you become dependent both physically due to withdrawal and financially upon the money. When I worked indoors, I lost concept of money because the money I spent didn’t matter. I would tell myself ‘oh I can just earn that money back’. In your normal job, you budget ahead and get paid once a month, in sex work, every day is payday if you want it to be.

This isn’t simply just a financial problem, but your whole life may have been lived this way. You may never have worked in a 9-5 job or have spent decades living this way. You can’t just snap out of it overnight. My local sex work project runs groups on budgeting for basic things such as food shopping and your bills because this mindset runs deep. If like me, you’ve spent years worried about being skint or for others, living close to the breadline then the thought of being skint is what drives the urge to sex work to begin with. Even if you remove the financial need for sex work by replacing heroin with a methadone prescription, you have not removed the need for housing, water, gas, electric, food, clothing, furniture, transport etc. All of which have been previously resolved by sex work.

Unless you remove poverty, you will not remove the financial drive behind sex work. Giving up sex work is useless if you’re then going to live your life in abject poverty. It is usually that same abject poverty which resulted in becoming a sex worker to begin with. Why would you voluntarily walk into a life of hardship with harder solutions? Sex work isn’t the solution, but it is a solution. What is an exit service going to do? Removing a sex worker and providing them with basic housing and plonking them on Universal Credit won’t stop them sex working. How do I know this? Because this is the exact scenario of the majority of street sex workers and is one I found myself in. I was on UC and living in a hostel, but I was still working street.

Why isn’t it so easy: Drugs

Sex workers take significantly longer to enter and exit a drug service than other service users. Sometimes, this can take over a decade if not longer. Drug using sex workers also have some of the highest drug tolerances I have ever seen, and this is reflected in their methadone prescriptions. It is high because they can afford to pay for it and so the cycle continues. You quickly lose the buzz of heroin and you begin using simply just to feel normal and to function. In the end, you simply use heroin or crack just to stop yourself from becoming unwell; muscle cramps, projectile vomiting, diarrhoea, sweating through your sheets, unable to sleep, restless legs. Sounds awful doesn’t it? Heroin stops that from happening, and I assure you, you would take it too.

Sex work is caked with stigma, but even more so if you’re a drug using sex worker, you’re considered the lowest of the low by society, by your fellow sex workers and by your peers sometimes. However, as I wrote in a previous post, exiting sex work when you’re a drug user is incredibly difficult because it is that very same stigma that forces you to make close relationships with your fellow sex workers. You have no one else but each other when nobody else cares about you; when services refuse you help; or when you have nowhere to sleep that night. The stigma is so strong, you find acceptance within each other. Leaving sex work as a drug user isn’t just leaving drugs – it’s leaving your support network, your friendships, your sense of community and solidarity.

Everyone who knows a drug user or supports them will tell you that you can not force someone to quit drugs. You may beg, plead, force them into rehab or punish them but unless they want to quit for themselves, they won’t. Drugs still occur in prison, in hospitals, and have notoriously torn families apart as the addict beg, borrows, steals and does what they need to get by. People have had their children removed, split their families apart, neglected their children, damaged their own health and whatever else in the pursuit of drugs. They aren’t selfish, they’re addicted. However, unless they sit down and say right, it’s time to quit, they won’t. The motivation needs to be internal. Therefore, you can snatch a woman away from sex work but unless she wants to quit drugs, she won’t. You will however, end up snatching away her income, driving her further into poverty and desperation.

Why isn’t it so easy: Housing

Street sex workers notoriously have housing problems. In fact, when I was in the complex needs hostel, everyone was a sex worker. I met one lady who had been in and out of hostels for over 20 years. Simply put, when you are homeless, how the fuck are you supposed to progress? If you have no where safe to sleep, no where to call your own, to feel safe or plonk your ass at night and watch shit tele, what do you expect a sex worker to do but work for survival? Street sex workers in particular are vulnerable to exploitation by third parties who often offer shelter in exchange for money, who then may turn violent. Alternatively, they may live with an abusive partner and leaving them will leave them homeless.

Returning to exit services: are you going to house everyone? I hope you do, but even if you do, you still haven’t solved the issue. Landlords are notorious for kicking out sex workers and council associations are also hesitant. If we sex work from home, we are booted out for apparently running a business from our property. If someone makes a noise complaint and there are heroin needles in my bedroom, you’ll find me quickly back on the street again. Unable to afford private accommodation, you can easily find yourself weaving in and out of the system. Many sex workers say going to prison is a relief for them because it means they have a roof over their head, and that they are no longer chasing shelter each night.

I was shocked by those even with housing who would go out begging and sleep on the streets. I didn’t judge but tried to understand why they did this when they had somewhere to sleep. They told me that they felt safe on the street, it was where there friends and community are and they miss them. Although it’s not the life I live, it’s completely understandable that they feel a sense of belonging on the streets; a place they have called their home for several years perhaps. The issue isn’t them, it’s that society has made it so that they feel comfortable living this way, and it is preferable. Homeless people also deserve to have a sense of belonging and friendships too, even if they are unconventional.

Why isn’t it so easy: Services

Accessing services is notoriously difficult for sex workers. So difficult in fact, services have developed to bring themselves to the sex workers rather than the other way around. On outreach vans, sex workers access the needle exchange, support workers, sexual health, emergency housing and make appointments for services they need at 10pm at night, not 10am. There are many barriers to accessing services and one of the simplest ones is that sex workers work at night and sleep in the day, when services are open. Other barriers include simply not being able to afford the transport to get there or living too far away. At least with outreach, they’re in a concentrated area and guaranteed to access support.

Shame and internal whorearchy cuts deep in sex workers, myself included. Accessing a service and telling them I am a sex worker is difficult, and even harder when you say you are a street sex worker because you know what is running through their mind – you can see it on their face. I have been barraged with questions, accusations, asked if I was sexually abused as a child, what was the most traumatic thing that has happened to me and find myself defending my decisions. This isn’t what you need or want and can be quite a traumatic experience. Nobody should have to defend their existence when they seek help.

Fundamentally, the biggest issue is discrimination, prejudice and outright inaccessibility. Counselling and therapy services are well known for their distaste of sex workers; accusing them of having Stockholm Syndrome; told they’re re-enacting trauma; told to leave sex work or they can’t work with them any longer. A further barrier is drug use, counselling services do not see drug users, but particularly drug using sex workers. For many, we are simply considered too complex to work with. The result is that we are unable to access adequate support, help or the services that we both need and desperately deserve.

You can drag a sex worker to all the appropriate services you find would be beneficial in leaving sex work, but they will be refused at the door. The problem isn’t sex work, it’s the services. Some services outright exclude you such as Women’s Aid/Refuge on the grounds that you will apparently be a risk to women and children – where is the evidence?

Why isn’t it so easy: Employment

This one is self-explanatory but something people don’t think about. The longer you are a sex worker, the bigger the gap in your CV, the harder is it to explain away. Some people have never had a 9-5 job and have only been a sex worker and thus, they have no employment history at all. How do you ever get a job when you’re 40 and never worked, or haven’t in 15 years? It’s a vicious cycle because it leaves you relying more and more on sex work. There are sex workers who never finished school or left early. I know many sex workers who can’t read or write or read a clock, and they feel too dumb and embarrassed to try and put themselves back into education. If you are in this position, you are at a serious disadvantage when it comes to the job market, and takes many years to get to understand basic numeracy and literacy.

With the rise of online sex work, there has been an equal rise of sex workers being fired from their jobs due to ‘bringing their employer into disrepute’. Again, this leaves people relying more and more on sex work fuelling the cycle. Being sacked from your job has longer implications as it means you may be refused a job reference for future jobs that you apply for. I also know a sex worker who quit street sex work, got a job in a department store and a client recognised her. The client told her employer and she was sacked on the spot. Overnight, her life fell apart, she went back to street sex work and then using drugs again. Years of progress destroyed overnight. How are exit programmes going to resolve these issues?

Even if you get a sex worker into a job, it likely they will enter the job market on a minimum wage job. Although there is nothing wrong this with, it is an issue when you’re used to earning £400 a night – something that can be achieved working street quite easily on a busy night. I can’t imagine my friends going to work for £9 when they know they can earn £20 in a 5 minute blowjob. Also, they are so used to being their own boss; working when they want to; answering to nobody but themselves and telling people to fuck off who question them. I can understand why they will find it difficult to say the least to work 9-5 in a minimum wage job. Why should they?

The Government

When coronavirus hit, the government didn’t help out sex workers. Instead, we were left to sink and the Scottish government awarded local charities a meagre £61,000 which didn’t touch the sides. The funding also excluded essential sex worker orgs such as Umbrella Lane because they did not support the VAWG agenda of sex work, and were rights not rescue. What on earth makes you think the government cares enough to fund sex worker exit services, ones that will take years to produce results? They actively put in policies which harm the very sex workers who need their help by criminalising street solicitation. The Nordic Model doesn’t solve this as it will continue to criminalise other sex work related activities such as working from home and brothel-keeping.

It is the result of government policies that have resulted in the rise of survival sex work to begin with. It was the fact that Universal Credit pushed people into poverty layered with bedroom tax, cuts in child tax benefit coupled with funding cuts in the very services that sex workers need such as drug and alcohol services, domestic violence services, social housing, benefit system and things such as EMA or youth centres. These services are strapped and at max capacity, they need a huge injection of funding as it is, and even more so if they are to now take on exit programmes. The government has little concern on the impact of such on sex workers and outright denied that survival sex work was caused by their policies, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

Even if a socialist government comes in and suddenly decides exit programmes are a great idea and hugely funds these services, governments change and then so do priorities. Although, like I said earlier, you can fund all the services you like but if they exclude us or we’re not ready to access them, then it’s useless. I do not understand why are entrusting the lives of sex workers to the hands of the government when in reality, they are the cause of much of the harm we face. Do I truly believe Boris Johnson cares about me fucking a guy for £30 to pay my bills? No, he isn’t. He is more concerned that I didn’t do better in life to afford to pay the gas bill to begin with.

You can argue that exit services can be funded by charities but there is no way on this earth you can garner enough funds to house, adequately fund, feed and clothe sex workers whilst simultaneously creating and fully funding the essential services that we need, and then ensuring they will see us as service users.

There isn’t anything new

All the things needed to help leave sex work already exist, but they exist poorly. People do leave sex work all the time around the UK, many of whom dip in and out of the industry as of when they need to. It is increasingly difficult to leave sex work when your alternatives are continued poverty, lack of employment, reliance on Universal Credit, lack of training and education or continued housing problems. The Nordic Model or their supporters have not thought of anything new. There are structural issues that need resolving, not sex work. Sex work is the sometimes the solution to a desperate situation. My aim is to remove the desperation, not sex work.

There are already services out there such as my local sex work project that helps sex workers leave but they do so by tackling other issues in our lives such as mental health, housing, addiction and whatever else we present with. There is no point dragging a sex worker away from working but not resolving the issues that are surrounding them, otherwise they will simply fall back into it – not always by choice, but circumstances. Ensuring their life is stable means long-term success and less chance of going back to sex work as an option if there are sustainable alternatives. They work with sex workers day in, day out and listen to the troubles they have and what they want from the service.

It is naive to think there are exit programmes that are as easy as taking a re-education course at your local college. Sex work can consume your life, especially if you’re wrapped up in a drug, sex work cycle and facing multiple marginalisations. How do exit programmes tackle systemic issues, discrimination, inequality, lack of social mobility, austerity, poverty?

Have I exited?

Yes and no. I have left and restarted sex work many times. Every time an issue was solved in my life, I temporarily stopped sex work. When I was housed, I stopped working because it was one issue less to contend with. When I stopped drugs, I again stopped working because the financial need for that was less also. However, the financial need has never left me. I haven’t worked in a month and money is running low, and I know the return to sex work is inevitable at some point. I have applied for many ‘vanilla’ jobs but I am not hopeful. We are in a pandemic, a recession and there are many things in my life that are chaotic right now.

I never tell myself I have left sex work, only stopped. Once it has been an option once, it will always be an option. Even if I haven’t worked in 10 years, I may find myself skint one Christmas and quickly stepping back into sex work. Like I said, you can’t measure ‘exit’ so it is useless to try to. However, I won’t punish myself for it either, it is what it is. Ultimately, I know myself, my life, circumstances and what is best for me more than anyone else. If I decide to sex work again, that is because I know that is best for me at the time, even if it’s not what I may ideally want.

Survival mode still hasn’t switched off for me, and perhaps it never will and therefore, I will never ‘exit’ sex work. I panic before I am even close to my overdraft and that is more than enough to get me working again. Financial insecurity scares me more than anything in this world – I’d rather be punched or tackle my fear of heights. I won’t even allow myself to get close to £0 because I will have already gone into overdrive by then.

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