Why isn’t everyone a sex worker?

I was laughing with my support worker, asking her why wasn’t she a sex worker when after all, it is better pay and she knows the support, safety, laws and everything else like the back of her hand. After years of supporting sex workers, why did she never make the jump after saying it has crossed her mind? As someone who put my thoughts into actions, I often wondered why more people didn’t. At uni, I would often listen to my mates talk about becoming a sex worker or sugar daddying for money, but very few, if any of them, make the jump and put their words into a reality. In recovery groups, I listened to people talk about being in absolute destitution, that they had no money, were desperate, rattling and were close to being homeless. Some would speak about becoming a sex worker, but again, they never made did it, but why?

Sex work can be enticing, and if it wasn’t, nobody would be a sex worker. Perhaps I jumped into it with a lot of naivety.

Stigma

Listening to my friend talking about how desperate she was, I was thinking in the back of my mind that sex work could cure her ills she was talking to me about. However, I didn’t mention it, because I didn’t wish to plant the seed. Sex work is work, but I would never be the person to encourage others, especially when I know someone is feeling desperate. It just doesn’t sit well with me. A week later, she rung me up saying she was thinking of becoming a sex worker (she didn’t know I was one). I offered safety advice, resources and charities to contact, but out of nowhere, she said ‘No, I could never be that desperate to actually become a dirty prozzie, there must be another way’. I was taken back, and everything in me wanting to unleash a barrage of information about stigma and stereotypes, and tell her I was a sex worker – but I didn’t. There are times to pick your battles, and that wasn’t the time. The last thing she needed was me ripping her throat out to add to her troubles.

Survival sex work is very much a thing, but even the most desperate still reject becoming a sex worker. I don’t blame them, it’s a personal choice. It’s not for everyone and I respect everyone’s decision not to. However, I can’t deny that social stigma is one reason for rejecting it. As demonstrated by my friend, the thought of becoming a ‘dirty prozzie’ was too much. Although I reject what she said, there is no denying that by becoming a sex worker, you take on these stigma and stereotypes, whether you like it or not. This was a line too far for her and she didn’t wish to be branded as a ‘prozzie’ which she associated with as being ‘dirty’. It upset me that she thought that, and I did eventually tell her I was a sex worker and she didn’t take it very well. Social stigma runs deep in sex work, despite knowing someone as a friend, sex work it too much of a barrier to overcome. Children are rejected by their family, friends turn their back on each other and loved ones shame you.

I describe stigma like a weight you have to drag around with you at all times. You can’t get rid of it, and depending on what country you’re in, the weight is heavier. I’d see it as a weight that surrounds your entire body, because you’re constantly having to deflect and it is integral to you. Why would anyone want that? My support worker knows well how badly stigma impacts you, much more than I did before I started working. I didn’t realise it would lock me out of services; be refused mental health support; have people assume I’m dirty or full of STIs; nor did I anticipate people expecting I was sexually abused as a child, or something went wrong in life ‘to end up’ as a sex worker. Stigma runs deep personally also and is reflected in how I present myself, how I act and how I feel about myself. I can’t deny I try to present better than how I feel in fear of being judged for being a sex worker. I carry the social stigma myself, and is a heavy burden on my mental health. Every once in a while, the heavy weight collapses in on me.

Violence

I later reflected on the conversation I had with my support worker and realised that although she knows sex work perhaps better than I do, there are reasons she never became a sex worker. Many of the reasons are possibly personal, but I also realise that she sees the bad side of sex work a lot more than me. I have my own personal experiences, but her entire role is supporting sex workers who have experienced sexual violence and are going through reporting to court. Unlike me, she would enter the sex industry with all the knowledge in mind – I can’t imagine that’s easy. I think ignorance can be bliss sometimes, because I did not have the same experiences before entering, and was quite naive. Although we always offer safety advice, we don’t tell people horror stories of awful attacks on sex workers (rightly so), but it can be a reality for some.

In fact, the idea of violence is a core reason people don’t become sex workers. For some, they almost see sex work as synonymous with sexual violence, and deem that it is inevitable. I reject this idea too, but again, we can’t deny violence does happen in sex work, whether that be rape, robbery, exploitation or any other form of abuse. The blame lies with the perpetrator, not with sex work itself however. It is a hard reality to swallow that these things do happen, and it is something people need to think of when becoming a sex worker. Violence is the core reason sex worker orgs push safety information, because it does happen. It’s the reason why we screen clients, have Ugly Mugs to warn other sex workers and why working with a friend is integral, even if it is considered illegal due to brothel-keeping laws. For those such as my support worker, they know this all too well. Even the small risk of this happening isn’t worth it, and I completely empathise and understand that.

I’m quite open about my bad experiences in sex work. Although I don’t reveal everything, I think it is important for people to realise that there is bad amongst the good, and sex work isn’t all what it is marketed to be. I will always be critical of those who try to silence those who have had bad experiences, in fear of abolitionists weaponising it. Let them, it should demonstrate why we need safety and decriminalisation more than ever. We can’t keep up the marketing facade when we are offering safety advice, or when someone is thinking about becoming a sex worker. We have to be realistic about what can be the realities of it, even if it hasn’t happened to you personally. Yes, you may earn lots of money in a short time span, but you could also be raped, robbed, abandoned on street, or ultimately killed. It’s why sex work is high reward, because it’s high risk.

The reality of sex work

One of the reasons I don’t talk about sex work is because I don’t like to encourage people. If I start talking about the money you can potentially earn, you quickly find people salivating at the mouth at the thought of the idea of a quick fix. They become so blindsided by the thought of earning a lot of money in a short space of time, they forget the actual reality of sex work. I am speaking from experience; I confided in a friend that I earned money from sex work and I didn’t realise just how interested she was. I didn’t brag or glorify it, but I forget how enticing it must seem to others. I sometimes feel I have to quickly balance this out by reminding people if they aren’t ready emotionally and physically ready to be a sex worker, as well as the challenges that comes with it, then don’t take it on if you can avoid it. She became a sex worker without telling anyone, and she hated it. When telling me about this later, she felt that it burst her bubble of what she thought sex work would be. She quickly stopped working.

The truth is, sex work isn’t what the marketing makes it out to be. There is a reason I love following anonymous or shit-posting sex workers on Twitter, because they’re generally the ones I relate to the most. They’re anti-client and talk about the crapness of sex work in general. In fact, there are times where sex work can really shit or take a toll on your mental health, and it has mine. Sometimes, a client can make my skin crawl, or I have a panic attack when they do certain things or I feel generally uncomfortable with them. As mentioned above, I swallow the stigma and stereotypes myself and I feel the internalised whorearchy too. All of which have an impact on how I act, respond or feel about myself. Also, sex can be very personal to some people, and they don’t like the thought of sharing something they feel is so personal with others. There is nothing wrong with this either.

Sex work can also be quite boring, lonely and stressful. There are long periods of time when you may not get work, and you don’t see anyone other than other clients; resulting in you feeling isolated and stressed about money. If you work from home, you may find this difficult to separate work and personal life, which is a challenge for me at times. The reality of sex work is that it can be as dull as any other job, except you deal with clients who message ‘hi’, which they wouldn’t do to any other service provider. Sitting in your lingerie in a hotel room all day on your own, trying to weed out the time wasters is not as fun or glamorous as it perhaps looks.

You need some guts

It isn’t easy being a sex worker, especially when you first start out. I remember one of my first jobs, and I was extremely nervous. I told myself not to go but couldn’t afford not to. It was a sex worker’s worst nightmare. Client arrived and he was about 6’6 and a hefty guy, he told me was schizophrenic and sometimes snaps, that his wife is bipolar and due to their mental illnesses, she pays for him to see escorts four times a year. What a brilliant opening job, but I didn’t feel as nervous as this scenario sounds. I must have hidden my inner thoughts and worries that he might ‘snap’ as he described it because he left me a good review. I wasn’t really deterred by this, and kept going without too much worry. When I recount this to others, they are horrified and can’t believe I didn’t run for the door due to his height, size or mental health disclosures. To be honest, I’m glad he told me, although like I said earlier, sometimes ignorance is bliss.

Let’s be honest, it can take some real guts to be a sex worker. You are meeting complete strangers, sometimes inviting them into your home, to have sex with them. There is a lot to manage such as the conversation, expectations, firm boundaries, getting rid of them at the end and safety. When you’re a sex worker, or have been for a while, you do these things naturally without thinking. When you first get into it, it’s a lot to manage especially if you’re anxious. Even when I stopped working and restarted, I still got nervous again and the butterflies in my stomach came back as I arranged my first booking. The job isn’t for the faint hearted because once you’ve handed out your postcode or full address, that’s it, you have to deal with whatever comes after. You are also balancing stigma, potential assault and not knowing what to do if something goes wrong – the police aren’t your friends, and a local sex work charity is a postcode lottery.

Street sex work takes a lot of courage or desperation, often both. It is not uncommon for street workers to smoke crack (if they are drug users) before they start working because it gives them more confidence to do the job. You get a lot more shit off punters and passers by when working street, and it really is not an easy place. Unlike indoor, you are completely exposed both to clients, the abusive passerby and the elements. You can’t hide your face, and discretion isn’t your best friend in this situation, even worse if the police are following you when you get into a car. Street workers often risk getting a criminal record, or slapped with a fine. Not to mention the higher dangers and stigma that comes with it. I don’t believe anybody walks down to the local street sex work areas for the first time without questioning their guts to do it. I used to deliberately distract myself or listen to music so I didn’t have to think of the practicality and reality of it – they’re not nice thoughts.

Losing your job

This one is quite simply explained in the title. Being a sex worker means you can risk losing your ‘civvie’ job. Although I would argue this is discrimination, many sex workers who have been fired from their jobs do not feel comfortable tackling it with their employer, and I understand why. I empathise with that because it’s not easy to bring up sex work at an employment tribunal and have your whole life scrutinised. Even worse is when they say you have brought the company into disrepute due to being a sex worker – how disgusting. Morality clauses are the enemy of sex workers, and this is largely due to stigma.

I know a street sex worker who left sex work, she got a regular job but was recognised by a client, who then subsequently told her employer. She was fired on the spot for something she did years ago. Despite having spent years building her life back up from drugs and sex work, she found herself back at square one and even more entrenched in sex work. It ruined her entire life, and she was so proud of her little job. It gave her a life and stability she craved. Firing employees for sex working only pushes them further into sex work. You are forcing them to rely on it even more so as it becomes their sole income. You are not helping anyone in this situation. You can’t either support sex workers, or want to rescue them, if you fire them.

Many fear that a small time in their lives will come back to bite them. Almost like revenge porn. Where for a few months of your life you sold nudes, videos or was an escort, but years down the line, it comes out. Suddenly, you’re sacked from your professional job, been humiliated in front of your colleagues who you’ve worked with for years and hide yourself in shame. Once again, this only fuels the cycle of sex work further. This is also true if you have a job alongside escorting and is the main reason people cover their faces in pictures, or online. It has serious financial and mental consequences. It can truly flip your life upside down. This is even worse if you are a porn performer and it is uploaded to a popular porn site.

Personal reasons

I have met some of the fiercest sex worker allies tell me they could never be a sex worker for personal reasons. I respect all their reasons, but I challenge them to really consider how true that is if you have children at home, the bills are stacked high, you’re about to lose your house and your kids are hungry. I wonder how enticing sex work, which has no barrier to entry, would become their reality. In fact, single mothers are a large majority of sex workers. Many of which work in the margins because they have the most to lose, as they fear losing their children due to their job.

Ultimately, sex work is up to you, and whichever reason you feel is not worth it, that’s absolutely fine, and requires no justification. I would never encourage someone, nor would I bombard them with all the positives. I am a sex worker who made the jump of turning my thoughts into my job, but that doesn’t mean I don’t respect those who don’t do the same. I wrote this blog post because I found it interesting to listen to people from the other side, who weren’t sex workers, or feel they could never become one. It also helped me reflect on sex work itself, and actually, how difficult it can be. Sex work, like all jobs, if you find the negatives outweighing the negatives, or it is having a detrimental impact on your life, stop if you can.

To other survival sex workers who feel they are unable to stop, I recommend speaking to other sex workers. Get it off your chest how you feel, rant about how fucking angry you are, how trapped you feel; how you’ve had enough; how much you dislike clients; how you feel money has a hold over you. Speak about your life, your experiences, what bothers you about sex work and be unrepentant when relaying how it makes you feel – either good or bad. Cry about it if you must, scream into a pillow or write it all out. I recommend putting on angry songs and singing as loud as you can – it ain’t easy! But I recommend Cranberries – Zombie.

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Living in a Complex Needs Hostel

Sitting in a meeting in my local sex work project, I burst out crying. Arguing back and forth with the support workers who I felt hadn’t supported me well enough, or had watched things slide from afar without offering a helping hand, I felt hopeless. Now, despite my many attempts at prevention and intervention, I found myself at a loose end with both my heart and pride shattered. They rang up the hostel who could not take me, instead offering me a safeguarding bed for the night which I refused because I knew I had somewhere to go, so I preferred it to go to someone else who didn’t. The next day, I went to the local council building to find the hostel manager who could do an assessment and she said that I should be placed in a complex needs hostel. After ringing around, she found a room for me, and told me to be there before 6pm so I could have a risk assessment done and move in.

*all names in this blog have been changed to protect their identity*

Moving in

Walking in and pressing the buzzer, I was preparing myself for the unknown. I was led through to an interview room, sat down and went straight into a risk assessment with a support worker who was the same age as me. It’s not her fault, but it felt like a stark reminder of the difference between us. To your left of the interview room was a pile of magazines from a bygone era, of planting, gardening and your holiday home, and to your right were several small boxes several boxes of lube, sanitary towels, condoms – a more present reminder of the sex workers in the hostel. We then proceeded to plough through what seemed like a never-ending amount of paper work; being asked 101 questions and all whilst feeling like a failure and utter shit. Next, was the tour of the hostel. As I walked up the office-looking staircase central to the building, it smelt lovely – like a nice plug in air freshener, and despite all the windows being open, it felt warm. As we reached the top and through another door, there was an open space with doors all around you with numbers on. To the far right, lodged between two bathrooms, was my room, number 6.

I didn’t know what to expect, I had never lived in a hostel before but my brother did, and I knew they weren’t nice places. My room was basic, but that was to be expected. The carpet floor had huge burn marks in, the fridge also had burns on the top due to previous occupant putting out fags on it. The tiny cupboard to your left had a shoe rack hanging in it, then immediately next to that was a basin. The single bed was prepared on my right with a blue duvet with white stars on it. I was handed the keys, given the house rules and wished good luck unpacking. I put a few things in the drawers next to my bed and sat on the wicker chair next to the drawers. It was quite cramped. Looking out the window to one of the most beautiful gardens I had ever seen, but it was never frequented by the occupants. Days later, the fridge and carpet were replaced, but it didn’t make much difference to the look of the room or how I felt about it either.

Within a few hours, a lady knocked on my door, introduced herself, and asked if I fancied going for a walk to the shop. I said yes, as I wanted to get out of this place. On our ‘walk’ she spoke about her life and what not. This walk seemed to be taking a long time and was in the direction of town, but I felt this wasn’t the right time to ask where we were heading. Before I knew it, she was buying crack from a man on a bike and then we walked back. I felt a bit pissed off, because I think she was using me incase something went wrong, and after all, she didn’t even know me. Yet, she was a lovely lady, and I wasn’t angry at her, I understood. It is too easy to be caught up about one thing but she had spent almost an hour pouring her heart out to me, I wasn’t going to write her off because she bought crack, even if she shouldn’t have taken me with her.

sitting on my bed, in view of a new fridge without fag burns

As we got back, I realised I hadn’t brought any of my clothes with me so I asked the staff for pyjamas. They gave me a nightie that came down past my knees and had a V-neck shape that drooped just above my belly button. I was 6st 7lbs and 5ft tall, it was clearly the wrong size. The next day, the same lady who took me for a walk knocked on my door to tell me she had stolen from pjs for me. My heart swelled, what a lovely thing to do! Although it may be perceived as immoral or criminal, I disagree. Her heart was in the right place, and she did the best she could within her means. To this day, it is perhaps one of the kindest and most considerate things someone has ever done for me. The next morning, I sat in the large living room with grand windows and met my new housemates. All but one were crack and/or heroin users but also street sex workers.

I really dislike the term ‘complex needs’ and it is something services use a lot to describe service users, particularly sex workers. A term that assumes that a person is too difficult, has too much going on or is perhaps too much in general. All circumstances are complex, our needs aren’t. All of us wish to be happy, healthy and stable but it is the barriers that prevent that which are complex, not the need itself. It assumes that we are asking too much because we’re under that umbrella. For many services, being a sex worker is enough to be considered complex needs. I also feel it puts the burden of responsibility on the person as opposed to the struggles they’re facing. Wanting to flee domestic abuse isn’t a complex need, wanting to get free from drugs is a difficult process, but isn’t a complex need. It’s a basic and human need. Being described as complex needs makes me feel what I’m asking for in life is too much of a burden, that I’m asking too much of my support workers, that I’m not like everyone else. My needs are as basic and human as everyone else, they’re not complex.

Relationships in the hostel

Hostels are unlike any other environment you will be in. You are thrown into a massive house, with very little privacy. You are on camera in communal areas and you have to lock your door when you go for a piss during the night, in fear of someone robbing your stuff. Everyone is living differently, and there are different people on the safeguarding bed in the living room each night. Nobody has money, and everyone around you is in the same boat but for different reasons. We are all generally at our lowest points of our lives, but we don’t let on and put on a hard front with each other. Despite this, you have little choice but to make friends with each other because you can not escape them, and unlike family, arguing and making up doesn’t quite cut it. To add to the stress, support workers are constantly there downstairs, and the threat of eviction hangs over your head should you fuck up too much.

Relationships become intense, quite quickly. Suddenly, the people around you are your support network; they are the people you see every day and the same people you’re putting a hard face on for. Sitting in the living room one evening, a girl who called herself China would be blind drunk, talking to me about some of the most extensive trauma anyone could imagine experiencing. Walking in the room, people join in the discussions and before you know it, everyone is talking about being raped, beaten, having their hair ripped out, being stabbed or tortured, and this is general conversation. There are no tears, but it is reeled off as a ‘matter of fact’ manner. I know this is a coping mechanism and I am guilty of it too, but equally, I don’t patronise them and try to hug and tell them I’m sorry to hear of their difficult life, or try to explain their feelings to them. It’s not my place. As I walk away from the room, I walk away with some of the deepest secrets of those I now live with. It takes a toll on my own mental health too.

Despite the closeness you have, there are clear and strong boundaries that you have to maintain otherwise things can go wrong. One girl, I will call Emily for the sake of anonymity would knock on my door, smoke fags in my room, offer me stolen goods to make me feel guilty if I said she couldn’t come in. Once in, she would offer me heroin, start drawing up, ask me to go street working with her and hide behind my door when night staff did their patrol. I realised I was being taken advantage of. I helped her originally; giving her a skirt and make-up, thick tights to go working and generally being amicable but I knew I had to put my foot down and make enemies. I did exactly that, and to this day, she dislikes me. I am okay with that though, because I know if it had kept carrying on, she would have asked more and more of me, continued to take advantage and would continue nodding off on my shoulder, asking me to Facebook her now distant family. Despite our differences, my heart understands and I hold no anger, but I had to draw the line.

You are walking a tight rope in hostels, keeping strong boundaries which piss people off but equally, being caring or considerate to those around you. This isn’t always possible however. One evening, China punched her wardrobe for 7 hours throughout the night, without stopping. Nobody knew until the morning but the noise was frustrating and annoying, but it wasn’t the time to bang on her door and scream at her. It was not the time in the morning either. You have to pick your battles, and pick them wisely; picking too many battles makes you enemies, making it hard for you to live there but if you don’t pick them, you can quickly find yourself working to catch up. For example, one evening, I found myself cornered in the living room after being asked for money from Emily who was withdrawing badly. I said no and she cornered me. This may be a perfect time to pick your battle, but I was surrounded. The next day however, when she asked again, I put my foot down and she never asked again. Neither did anyone else.

Jessica

Being in the hostel felt like being a therapist. I was constantly trying to stop the women talking bad about themselves, trying to remind them that they are more than their circumstances. As I walked down to the Managed Zone one evening with Jessica, I listened to her entire life story, one that was riddled with childhood abuse, suicide attempts, troubles with addiction and her reeling off stories of being stabbed at work and continuing working. Jessica, on the surface, would be written off by society – she was a heroin and crack addict, she was in an extremely abusive relationship, she kept falling out of support services due to chaotic lifestyle and was a street sex worker. However, she was doing well on her methadone script, she was recognising that her relationship was abusive and for the first time, she was talking to me about things she had never disclosed before, and was determined to get her ADHD medication sorted, taking it daily. Not just that, but Jessica is an extremely lovely and loyal person, she just has an extremely hard front but is a soft soul underneath. A soul which has been hardened by others, but not by her.

Jessica perhaps presents as difficult, but once you get past the initial front, you will see someone who works very hard in the best of her capacity to seek help and support. What some people would perceive as small achievements are big achievements for Jessica, and rightfully so. Jessica would explain often how proud she was of me, how much she enjoyed being around me, talking to me, how much she wanted better of her life. I helped her move to indoor sex work, and she did it! Jessica is not complex, although she may seem that way, she needs people to stop giving up with her. Jessica needs help, support, therapy, someone who is a consistent in her life and someone she can find comfort and confide in. Instead, she is bounced around services because she is considered too complex, and nobody knows what to do. It is no wonder I woke up one morning to her screaming down the hostel, arguing with the manager. Once calmer, she explained herself better and had a fair point, but felt nobody was listening to her. Jessica needs someone who is in her corner and actually gives a shit about her as a person, not just as a tick box of issues they have resolved.

Walking home through town one evening, a van pulled over, telling us to get in for a lift. I said no, but she dragged me into the front of the van, and told me to stop being boring. In the van, I told her I wanted to go home, and getting in a car with a stranger isn’t normal. However, who was I to tell her what to do and secondly, we both get into cars with strangers for money!? I didn’t have a leg to stand on. The guy seemed young, friendly and just wanted a joint and a chat. However, my back was up because he said he was from the area, but got lost when driving me back and had no idea where he was. I told Jessica to come in with me, but she refused and said she wanted to smoke a joint. I immediately went in and wrote the number plate down. At 3am, I heard a soft knock on my door and Jessica came in, she had spent 4 hours being raped by him in the back of his van. After 10 minutes crying and giving her a hug, reminding her it’s not her fault, I said I had his number plate should she ever want to report it. She sat up, left my bedroom wiping her tears, and within 30 seconds, she was screaming at the top of her head at China about an argument over crack. That was that, she never spoke about it again.

I spent a few months with Jessica, but she made a huge impact on my life and I think I did on her. One evening, she tried dragging me into a punter’s car and I said no because he said he needed to go to the bank first. I explained that he’s been driving round for ages, there is a reason he hasn’t gone to the bank beforehand, or during the time driving around. She agreed, and promised she would never get into a car if someone said the same. Equally, Jessica taught me a lot about life in general, how to work safely, and she always reminded me how proud she was of me. One evening, someone shouted her name whilst when we were out together, so we quickly rushed home. She handed me a knife just in case we were attacked. Despite this situation, I didn’t feel at scared, but more protected – not by the knife, but by Jessica, because I knew her loyalty had no bounds. There were many qualities I loved and respected about her, ones I hope to harness myself. Jessica always expressed her mind, and that included compliments too. She wears her heart on her sleeve, is self-reflective and had a true love for her sister, whom she fiercely protects and loves.

Jessica is one of many women who find themselves in and out of hostels, services and pass through our lives. She must never be forgotten, written off or left without support. Stop throwing away the lives of others because they feel so far removed from ours. There is no reason why Jessicas don’t deserve as much help, love and support as anyone else.

The dynamics of the hostel

Due to the changing nature of the hostel, the dynamics also change. There is little trust and generally speaking, people side and make friends with the kingpin of the hostel. This sounds really silly to describe them as a ‘kingpin’ but it’s true, a new girl enters and lays the law and the rest follow, including me. This happened all the time, girls moved in and out of the hostel every few weeks and if a new kingpin moved in and disliked the current one, she was quickly knocked off her spot.

This is also shown not just by arguments but by actions. For example, the lady who took me for a walk when I moved in was the kingpin at first. She loved cleanliness and as a result, would scream the house down if people didn’t clean up after themselves and she generally ruled the roost. The behaviours which followed meant that everyone was scared to be untidy, not flush the chain, to drop crumbs on the floor etc. When Jessica moved in, she did what she wanted and said fuck off to her, upsetting her and she now rarely returned. As a result, the hostel became untidy, people no longer gave a shit about tidying up, and if she dared speak up, Jessica would use her speaking up as an excuse to shoot her down. In the end, she rarely bothered to come home. Cleanliness still bothered her, but she tidied without making a sound instead.

I never attempted to become the kingpin, and in the small microcosm of anarchy, I was neutral. I tried to befriend all, not make any enemies and was not keen on baiting. However, everyone around me was addicted to crack or heroin as I moved away from it and siding with the kingpin made sense, because they have the most say. Scoring drugs was a hostel activity. Jessica demanded that everyone share if they scored, and they did. However, it caused the most arguments. Few arguments did not involve drugs, and it was usually around how many or how much was shared. Despite the dynamics, whoever had the most drugs or had scored recently, for a small moment in time, ruled the roost. I sat in the background, listened to people and tried to make my own judgements, but equally, I never put my foot in it or said anything to the contrary of the person ruling the roost. I’ll be honest, I didn’t need the hassle and it was easier to nod and sit back, whether right or wrong, and sometimes, it was too hard to rationalise with people in a frenzy.

Due to the intense nature of the relationships you make in the hostel, these small dynamics are really important. They mean so much to people and you have to remember, everyone is in a low place, leaning on each other for support. These actions have serious consequences and upset people. Small arguments can really hurt, can make you feel betrayed and it’s magnified because you live there all the time, having to deal with it. You can feel quite isolated or hated in your own home. It is a home for some, a lovely lady I met there had been in and out of hostels for 20 years – never having a permanent place of her own. These dynamics were her whole life, one that she had know almost as long as I have been alive. I suppose I am lucky, because I knew I would leave this place eventually so I knew I could swallow the anger or bite my tongue, for others, they were more entrenched in the system. Also, if you’re the enemy of the kingpin and don’t want to come home anymore, it can hurt your own stability.

Mental health

Hostels are not good for mental health. It is exhausting being a therapist, it is exhausting living with people you feel you’re supporting because you don’t switch off. Whether it’s 3am knocks on your door or dealing with your new neighbour breaking down her wardrobe for 7 hours. Of course, it is not the fault of others but it is undeniable that their mental health can impact your own. Whether directly or indirectly, I never realised how much my health had been impacted by living there, and it was only when moving away did I realise just how uptight I had become or much I was aware of privacy and safety.

Living in a hostel is a life where you live on edge. Whether it’s wondering if your door is locked because someone might steal it, preparing for who is in the hostel before you enter the living room to avoid arguments or having to deal with hostel politics. It chips away at you. The more practical things as well are equally gruelling. For example, people screaming at each other at 3am but you know it’s useless to tell them to shut the fuck up as it would cause more arguments and they’re wired on crack, so you lay there all night awake. You don’t bother mentioning it in the morning because there’s no point. Also, nobody ever cooks and when you do, you’re torn between cooking for yourself or for everyone who is suddenly around you asking for food. Or perhaps generally dealing with the emotional distress of constantly being in a high-stress environment.

me, just before I moved into the hostel at my lowest weight

In fact, during this period of my life, I was the most stressed out I had ever been. Not just because I was living in this environment but I also had other stuff and life to be dealing with at the same time. Like everyone else, there were circumstances that led us to being here in the first place that we were having to deal with. I was also juggling 101 appointments between services, trying to get out as much as possible and dealing with hostel dynamics at the same time. I was barely eating, I was unhappy and my weight had plunged to its lowest point.

Generally, I was unhappy and unhealthy. As much as my support workers tried to sort things out, they couldn’t cure everything. Each week you sit in-front of them, talking about your circumstances and having to score out of 10 how you are dealing with things with a chart to describe what stage you’re at for each number out of 10. It is really to fill in a check box for the support worker for the sake of admin. Of course, they all enter the job with their heart in the right place, but unfortunately, they too are assigned things to do for the sake of tick boxes. It is degrading and tiring having to keeping hashing your life out and scoring it, especially if you haven’t progressed. Worst of all, every few weeks your support worker keeps changing for reasons not explained to you, so you have to go through the whole story again and get them to the point of getting to know you a bit more than what they read.

Merry Christmas

I spent Christmas 2019 in the hostel. It was a very difficult time for everyone and a time of emotional turmoil. I was surrounded by women who were long estranged from their children, some had children who have passed away, some women had underlying arguments or hate for each other but were trying to be friendly for Christmas. Some had forgotten to pick up their methadone script before the pharmacists shut so they were rattling and it was incredibly difficult for them. The night before, I had 4 boxes placed in my bedroom from people who had donated stuff to the hostel. The boxes were all the same, they were gloves, socks, sanitary towels, shampoo, conditioner, soap, heating blankets, chocolates, and occasionally, we had mens items in there such as boxers and size 10 socks. My heart was full of people’s kindness but there were was only so many tubes of toothpaste I needed.

No matter how old I get, I still wake up with a special sort of feeling on Christmas day and did then, but it wasn’t quite the same. I even considered staying in bed, taking mirtazpeine and not go out, but realised I had to make peace with the day. I had no presents to open and knew I was walking into an emotional abyss. However, we tried our hardest to make the best out of a bad situation. The girls plaited my hair, nicked the tinsel off the tree and wrapped it in the plait. We took pictures, reminded each other how important we were to each other and awaited Christmas dinner. The support workers left boxes of cigarettes around the hostel as a treat, and at risk of their jobs! They made us Christmas dinner and some volunteers came in to sit with us. However, we had Christmas dinner in a conference room, the same room where most of us had arguments or had our life changed in the meetings held here. We all appreciated the effort that went into making our day special and the support workers who gave their day with their family to us, but there was always a reminder of where you were.

This reminder me hit me hard during a game of bingo. There was a big sack of presents and we played games most of the afternoon and I won a gift. There were slippers, chocolate boxes and what not. When I won, I picked out a present which was square shaped and felt incredibly heavy and I was really excited! As I ripped open the paper, it was a Soap and Glory box, I felt even more excited. However, the contents had been removed and replaced with tins of sardine, baked beans and general food items. I felt crushed. I wondered if Victorian children also awoke to a food parcel. I may sound ungrateful, but I didn’t like any of the food in the parcel, so I gave it away to the other girls. Of course, it’s nice to have a food parcel and I’ve accepted many, but it felt like more a sting on Christmas, and a bit deceptive too inside a Soap and Glory box. It was a stark reminder of where I was, or what I felt like I deserved. I felt very much the bottom of the pile of society.

christmas day dinner in the conference room

To anyone who reads this and donates at Christmas, first of all, thank you. These boxes were a lovely surprise to many of us and we enjoyed ravaging through the contents and swapping stuff. However, please donate other things than socks, knickers and toothpaste! I had so many, I ended up donating them myself 6 months later, all unopened. These things are still needed, just not in such quantity!

As Christmas Day turned into evening, we sat and watched films and many of the women got drunk, which soon turned into arguments or emotional turmoil, and I can’t blame them. It was incredibly difficult for many. Some awaited all day for a call from their family which never came, and the lovely lady who had been in and out of hostels for 20 years had given birth to a baby in a carpark on Christmas Eve night just a few years earlier. He was later adopted, and Christmas forever reminded her of this. There is the perception of women who have children taken from them, that they are nasty, bitter and awful women but in reality, they love their children just as much as anyone else. They equally bond with them at birth and have hopes, plans and dreams but unfortunately, they are not always given the same tools or capacity. Instead, they make the incredibly hard decision for their child to have a better life than one they can provide. But, their love and loss still lingers.

Moving into my own supported accommodation

The support workers realised just how much I was struggling being here. The environment didn’t suit me well and they could see I was quickly slipping into bad habits such as street sex work, coming home early hours of the morning and dealing with people using in my bedroom, or being cornered for money. A property came up that they owned that I could move into. It would be my own flat, I would have my own keys but I would keep my support workers. It’s a bit like a half-way house, where you’re out of the system, but not quite on your own into society. You also still live in the same block of flats with other women from the hostel so you quickly get roped into hostel dynamics.

They deemed I was independent to live alone and off I went. However, I had to go silently and not tell anyone. Despite having good news to share, I had no one to share it with, because I wasn’t aloud to say anything. I hadn’t been there as long as some of the other girls and so to say something would be to annoy or upset them, because they also wanted to leave. In addition, a lady there called Ellie had become a bit obsessed with me in a short space of time. She had declared me her new best friend, wanted to be with me every minute of the day, asked me to manage her money and wouldn’t leave me alone. Ellie wasn’t a threat and she meant no harm, but I knew moving would upset her, or having her at my door every day. I packed up all my stuff and moved out by 2 cab drives on the quiet; having to move my stuff through without anyone seeing. Then, once I had gone, I also had to cut everyone off to prevent them finding out where I lived.

Ellie did get upset. She told everyone once I left that I had apparently been messaging her, calling her nasty names, saying I missed the hostel, missed her and thought I was above everyone else. It took everything in me not to bite back and retaliate but I left it, it wasn’t worth the hassle. She ended up moving into the street opposite me just a month later. A month after that, 2 girls had moved in and out of the flat below me and Emily, the girl I had to put boundaries in against moved in. It was fireworks from the start. Things had been calm and quiet for a few months I was living there but sadly, my safety was compromised due to other factors. However, it was made worse by Emily leaving the communal front door open when she went out because she couldn’t be bothered to find her keys, and I confronted her about it. I didn’t argue and I walked away. She spent months after that screaming at me when she saw me, calling me names etc. Even when I moved out, she was shouting at me from her bedroom whilst I was loading stuff into my support worker’s car.

Moving away for good

Now, I live in my own flat and can reflect on these memories, but for some, they are still living there. Many, like Ellie, Jessica and Emily, are still caught up in the system of temporary accommodation and I would be still, had my safety not been so compromised and the council were pressured to get me housed ASAP. Being away from it also means cutting yourself off from it too, and the people who shared the experiences with. Like I said in my last blog post, I can’t have my feet in both worlds anymore. It took a lot of stress, anxiety, sanity and general wellbeing to get to this point and I finally got here. The last thing I need is someone finding out where I live and sliding backwards. In addition, I don’t have the mental capacity to handle that life anymore, it’s too gruelling and exhausting.

I can easily look back and reflect on these times and sometimes laugh, but in the moments, they were very real and personal; they consumed my life. This blog post is a snapshot of the life I lived day in, day out – of the absolute wildness of situations that occurred, but it was considered average and spoken without so much as hesitation. For many, walking into the bathroom and finding a burnt windowpane with vinegar behind the toilet wouldn’t make sense but for me, it meant someone had been cooking up heroin and injecting. Sitting in a room listening to some of the most horrific traumatic situations you could imagine would be too much for some, but in these situations, it wasn’t an uncommon occurrence and occasionally led to competition as to who had been through the worst. You walk away and switch your mind off, otherwise you could mull over these disclosures all day.

I don’t miss living in the hostel at all, and as I handed the keys back, I felt almost like a sense of relief rush over me. I was free from the dreary interview room, still laden with magazines about gardening and the holiday homes from Spain – salt in the wound for the homeless. The hostel was still inhabited by some of the same occupants who I had left and generally, the place felt stagnant. It felt like nobody was moving anywhere, doing anything and the wallpaper would still be the same in 10 years time. Knowing what I know now, I would rather kill myself than have to do it all over again. My hat goes off to the lovely lady who spent 20 years doing this, because I don’t think I could cope or manage that type of stress again.

Don’t forget them

Above all, I think it’s important to remember that the people who live this life are very much human as much as anyone else. They are not the bottom of the pile, they are actually incredibly resilient, resourceful and strong women who, despite the odds, have made it through life, largely by their own strength of character, drive and fortitude. Although they may not have the same material goods or opportunities as others, I would choose them as loyal friends any day, and I admire their characteristics, their unruliness and how open and honest they are, even if it is critical of myself. I know many would not stand a chance given the same circumstances, but these women do it daily, and take it in their stride. Despite their hard fronts, they’re all kindhearted in their own way, and you would do well to get to know them or have them as a friend. Some may not have much to give, but they bring a lot to the relationship and show their appreciation in their own way, but it’s up to you to know them well enough to know how that’s expressed.

As I read back through this post, I feel emotional. I miss these women, I miss them mothering me in their own way. I get angry at how little they are helped by services who find them ‘complex needs’ and struggle to cope, or shun them as they walk through the door. I feel angry on behalf of these women who have been so often let down by society who have washed their hands with them. Despite being called a cunt by all of them at some point, I have and will always have the time for them – even Emily who cursed me all the way into the taxi as I left for the last time. Why? Because they aren’t horrible women, they’re reacting to how people have likely treated them their whole lives. Above all, when they’re calling you a cunt, you have no idea what has been going on in their day and only see a snapshot. It is easy to get angry and explode back, but it just leaves you both feeling like shit. I often see people’s behaviour to be a bigger reflection of how they are treated, as opposed to who they are.

In the sex worker world, we get caught up with SWERFs and the ideological debates behind sex work but the reality is, these debates are not on the minds of chaotic sex workers. That is not to disregard them, these are discussions that need to be had. However, is China, Jessica or Emily wondering what Bindel thinks about her? No. They are all busy surviving, doing what they need to do to get through to the next day, for the next hit, for the next meal, to get to the end of the week without falling off the edge. When we are out in the cold, wondering whether a punter has gone to the bank or wants to kidnap me, do I care that I disgust Dr Jessica Taylor? No, I don’t. She is not the one who is on the street corner with me, watching over me for safety. Always keep room in the sex worker debate for those with the most chaotic lives, the ones who are right on the edge of society, who really are shut out by their own communities, services and society. The sex workers that nobody wants to claim, to care for, to support.

I try very hard to include street sex workers in the community, have their voices heard in services and for people to realise the barriers for us, but I am not the only one, so always be ready to reach out a hand to bring others with you when you can. This is a blog post of just one experience of mine, that is personal to just me and does not represent everyone. However, don’t forget, these scenarios and these women exist up and down the UK, largely out of sight and out of mind of society.

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A Team – Ed Sheeran

I was getting ready to go out to work in Holbeck one evening, putting on my make-up, doing my hair and listening to Ed Sheeran’s album +.  I love this album, it always made me feel happy and nostalgic. It broke into the charts whilst I was at school and felt like a soundtrack of a happy time of my life. It’s also quite calming, which is exactly what you need when you’re trying not to think about the risks of working the streets. Breaking the stereotypes, I put on on my gloves, scarf and hat and when searching for my keys, A Team started playing. It piqued my interest after hearing ‘long nights, strange men’. As the song progressed, I sat on my bed, listened to the lyrics and cried my heart out as each line seemed to tragically hit closer and closer to home. 

For context, I didn’t work outdoor street too often then. I predominately worked indoor but was working to fund a drug habit which seemed to be spiralling out of control. When I had no indoor work, I would find myself out on the streets late in the hope nobody would see me, including outreach support, to get my money and go home. At the time, I didn’t trust sex work services, I thought they were there to tell me off or tell me to leave. They didn’t, but as a sex worker, it’s not easy to trust and access a service; especially when you have already faced a lot of stigma or prejudice by other professionals.

Sitting on my bed, I imagined this was what people on the outside looking in must think of me, and sadly, it was all true. This was perhaps the first time I took a back seat and reflected on my life as a whole, instead of juggling each difficult element with my eyes closed. I spent months listening to drug and support workers preach about the holistic approach but it didn’t quite get through to me like Ed Sheeran’s lyrics. I had heard this song 100s of times but never quite in the scenario I was in. Like everyone else, I would have it on in the background, sing along and think nothing more of it. In that moment however, it was all consuming.

I no longer sex work to fund a habit, but to keep myself financially afloat. However, I work alongside those who do and the lyrics of A Team remain close to my heart. In fact, more so, because I am now that person on the outside looking in, and it feels over-relatable. People have throw fireworks and spat at them, and they are my friends. They have saved me from dangerous situations, given me invaluable advice, help, and support during some of the worst times of my life. Some of them are my best friends who I trust, talk to about anything and love. I know they don’t judge me and I hope everyone has that type of relationship with their friends. They do drugs, but it does not remove their ability to care or to love.

In the sex work community, we try bring to light the many reasons why women are sex workers and for the most part, it is poverty, and not drug addiction that is the biggest push and pull factor. Some strive to fight the stigma that prostitution is affiliated with drugs, but for some, this is the reality, and we must not forget them. It is not right to push them aside because we don’t enjoy the associations they bring to sex work because for them, that is their experience with sex work. We must remember street sex workers, especially those who are caught up in addiction – they are dealing with the highest risks and the lowest reward, are the greatest effected by sex work policy, confronted with the most police violence, penalties and criminal records. Above all, our voices are lost in the sex work movement because of the shame that still exists, even amongst sex workers.

As I was fixing up my makeup that night, I couldn’t help but think of the drug users I knew who had overdosed, of the sex workers who had been working for decades, caught up in this cycle, wondering if they had the same thoughts as me. I feared I would become another newspaper headline about a sex worker who was killed, and remembered as nothing else but a prostitute. I thought everyone saw me as this poor, vulnerable sex worker but I saw myself as a thick skinned, hard faced woman whom nobody would be able to love. I wasn’t either of those things, I did not need to be rescued but I wasn’t eloquently coping either. Nor was I this heartless woman, but I can’t expend that emotional labour at work, it is too exhausting.

I was often the youngest working, and the women took to me like a flock of mothers watching over me when I wasn’t capable of doing so myself, inundating me with safety advice. They discouraged me from being there, told me I was too young to be facing prostitution and they are right, but they never judged. There is a mutual respect and understanding as to why we are there. Despite the stereotypes that we are fighting each other over a ‘spot’ or pushing women out the way to give a man a blowjob, it’s not true – we are actually laughing about things the customers tell us over a cup of hot chocolate, just like you and your colleagues in your office.

As a sex worker, I don’t reflect on my own vulnerability, if I did, I don’t think i’d be brave enough to confront it due to the dangers of the job. I have to be strong in my job, I can not let Dave or Richard know that i’m scared or that i’m willing to take his crap. So, when you do, it’s like telling yourself off and also feeling the shame of being told off at once. However, when I heard the lyric ‘the worst things in life come free to us’ I couldn’t help but feel defeated, wondering if I would ever leave this life and realising just how true it was. For some, they hate this song because it is the stereotypical depiction of sex work, but for some of us, it’s too close for comfort. 

People perceive drug using, street working sex workers as fierce, nasty, the lowest in the sex worker pile. Services treat us as hopeless causes, people who are simply too complex to work with. We get bashed between professionals who frantically email each other wondering how to manage us, but remember we are people too beneath our chaotic lifestyles. There is no evidence to suggest that we don’t feel, love and become upset by the same hurtful actions or words as you do. It is worth remembering, how we treat you is a reflection by how you treat us, that includes society in general. If you keep telling me I’m worthless and hopeless, I will feel like I am, and act accordingly.

A Team – Ed Sheeran: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UAWcs5H-qgQ


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