Money, Coronavirus and Returning to Sex Work

It’s been 6 months since I was fully engaged with sex working. It was the end of January working on street. I had been assaulted, he removed the condom and by the next morning, I was in the hospital with sepsis and full blown adrenal crisis, with a temperature of 40.5 Celsius. The illness spread and I ended up needing a catheter due to unexplained urinary retention. My body was now under extreme stress, it was exhausted and I had lost weight I couldn’t afford to lose, lost all confidence and began really questioning my future in sex work. Since then, I have been bouncing between the idea of returning to sex work and trying to work out financial ways to support myself. Every other week, I meet with a support worker and set goals to move away from sex work, and money is the crux and the biggest issue – sometimes an awkward elephant in the room. It’s still my goal to transition away from sex work, but it feels unrealistic at the moment.

Returning home to the hostel flat after hospital, I felt deflated, stuck and the gas meter had run out. I had been discharged wearing skinny jeans which made the catheter painful, but I wanted a bath. My hair was thick with grease, my skin felt oily and overall, I felt dirty. Although when I returned home from working I had a run a bath, I felt exhausted and ended up asleep before I got in it. In hospital, I was too weak to stand up and shower, so I could only give myself a quick cloth wash. Torn between wanting to scrub my skin off or curl up in bed forever, I dragged myself to the shop to top up the meter and returned home to lay in the bath. As I stared at the catheter bag floating by my knees, feeling the slight tug as it tried to float away, but was fixed to an inflated water balloon in my bladder, I was feeling quite sorry for myself. I didn’t tell the doctors why this might have happened, fearing their judgemental response. Instead, I spent all week in hospital staring at the 4 white walls and mulling the events over and over in my mind.

I had wrote on Twitter that because of this, I was going to quit sex work. I felt this was too much, I couldn’t cope and things were getting on top of me. I had finally concluded that the financial reward, albeit low, was not worth that of my mental health, and especially my physical health, which was already on edge. Unfortunately, the lows of sex work are very low. Up to that point, it was something I was doing day in, day out, but now, I felt completely ready to hang up the lingerie, and the nights spent standing on the street in the cold nights for good. I took two months to recover, let my body heal and overcome sepsis as well the emotional distress, but I also felt myself overcome with a persistent heavy weight on my chest. This weight was financial; a thick heavy chain that wouldn’t budge no matter how much mindfulness or zopiclone I experimented with. It was something I couldn’t escape, carried with me everywhere and plagued my late night thoughts.

Most of us, at some point, have felt financial strain and stress. In fact, it is this very thick, sluggish and overwhelming feeling that leads people to become sex workers, myself included. People describe depression like a dark shadow that follows, and then ultimately consumes you, but that’s exactly how I feel about financial problems. There is no talking therapy, understanding friend, or medications for financial problems, only cold hard cash – earned with your hands or on your knees. I wasn’t in debt, I was not at the end of my overdraft, I still had £10 on the gas and electric and I knew the hostel wasn’t going to kick me out in the morning. So why was I feeling this?

Money worries have scared me for as long as I can remember. Growing up, I remember the financial strain my parents felt, one that was covered up with the facade of credit cards, finance and remortgage. I remember seeing overdraft bank statements laying around, my parents vowing to cut up credit cards. When they divorced and I lived with my Mum, I remember going around the house finding pennies, pounds or any form of currency between the sofa cushions or fallen adrift under the fridge. When we had exhausted our hunt, we would walk to the coinstar and buy dinner. I then moved in with my Dad, a taxi driver, when I was 16. Seeing cash and handling cash wasn’t uncommon and I recall the hours he spent counting it, handing it out, talking through his outgoings and how much he needed to earn to get through the week. Long story short, money has dominated my life and not for any good reason, but rather because growing up, I was always an unexpected bill away from crisis. These experiences have since stuck to me like unwelcome gum.

Worst of all, money and control of it, was often used in a manipulative way. My Dad never let my Mum work, in fear of her economic independence and enjoyment of control. He often would lend you money and then make you feel guilty, feel he had a greater say in your life; pass comments. For my Dad, unless he feels he is needed economically, he doesn’t feel wanted at all. Sadly, financial abuse can be just as cruel, emotionally taxing and was one of the main reasons for the divorce. The first thing my Mum did was get a job and enjoy having her own money, one that was not handed over with conditions, in a trickling budget or pleaded for. For me, economic stability and above all, independence, is fundamental and core to my needs and wants. I won’t compromise on it. Simply put, I would rather have sex with a stranger for money, and at great risk to myself, than to ask someone for financial help. Financial abuse is exactly that, abuse. I know I should learn to accept help, and I will, but the fear of it being used for control is stronger than the urge to ask. With no strings attached or people to justify my spending to, I can feel less guilt and only be held to account by myself; avoiding the scrutiny and shame of others.

People speak often of the woes of sex work, that nobody should have to have sex for £5. What we really should be asking and critiquing is why someone felt that desperate to begin with, demanding regulation of debt, loan and finance companies, who by their very nature, economically thrive from poverty. After all, it is only the poor who need to pay in installments, who feel so far pushed to the edge that they kill themselves because the financial crunch is too much – and I can empathise with that. Above that, we should be questioning why wages aren’t enough to live on, that people are unable to save, unable to buy outright for their sofa, phone, carpet, basic furniture. Debt is endemic – it’s in all communities. People have jobs because of it, their bosses buy outright and not on finance because of it. I took out a credit card in November, but I have yet to activate it and asked for a lower limit than what they offered me. I thought it would be a Plan B sort of thing, but I realise I’m too scared to even bringing myself to the point of Plan B.

Debt scares me, frightens me and drains everything out of me. It is a mountain you will never overcome without it getting bigger before your eyes first. A hill that gets steeper for years until its eventually vertical and you can’t hold on anymore. It is, for this reason, why the moment the catheter was removed, I went straight back to sex work on street again. My body wasn’t ready, coronavirus was in the news but only social distancing encouraged, I was still reeling from the assault, and bleeding from the catheter removal. I did a job, a regular thank goodness and went home. After that, when I went back a few days later, the police took me home in their van and said the Zone was closed due to lockdown. I haven’t worked since. 1 job in 6 months. I have been quite glad of it actually, because there were lots of negatives of sex work that I haven’t missed and have enjoyed not having to worry about. I admire people who, first of all, are courageous enough to take on debt, recognising their circumstances, and secondly, tackle it and pay it off. It isn’t easy to tackle a problem head on.

As I think about sex work as a whole, I realise there will never be a time where I can say I’ve left for good. I may quit, do different jobs, live a different life and move away from the sex work identity, but it will always be an option. This is what I try to stress to people that once you have been a sex worker, the option will forever be there, because you know it works – you’ve done it before and you can do it again. It’s just whether you decide to make that choice again, and whether your circumstances support it. I may have children of my own and my finances not stretch to their needs, so I will find another way to ensure they do. I may find myself one Christmas up to my eyeballs in debt but within a week, find myself working for presents under the tree. Sex work has no barriers to entry. You can wake up to the morning post, grasping an eviction notice, and by mid-day you can be in a client’s house exchanging sex for money. You need a phone, internet, safety advice and above all, the guts to do it. For all the sex workers who take that step, there are many more who think about it, consider it, and then decide it isn’t for them.

I have been exceptionally lucky and grateful to the many people who have helped me out, supported my blogs or bought items from my wishlist. I wouldn’t be where I am without that help, I wouldn’t be sitting on my bed writing this blog in fact. Such help has allowed me greater freedom over my choices, allowed me to financially plan ahead, to set realistic goals towards leaving sex work and allowed me not to throw myself into the depths of desperation once again. The truth is, without the help and support of others, I would have worked when I still had my catheter in because I would have had little choice otherwise. I would have continued working on street at risk to myself, my health and further instability. I have a rare medical condition and in the shielding group. Although I’ve been teetering along, it has been enough, and that is good enough for me.

Above all, it has afforded me better mental health. I have been able to give myself time to work on myself more than ever; to buy a journal, to buy self-help books, to feel excited about buying things for my flat. I feel giddy when a package arrives or I find myself in Home Sense debating which curtains to buy – it makes me happy to have these home interior problems. I am grateful for every furniture instruction manual that doesn’t seem to be accurate, or each time I realise I’ve screwed the panel on back to front. There is no happiness in a house without it being a home. I still have a long way to go, and over the past few weeks as life has calmed down and I have settled more, the impact of the past has been creeping up on me mentally. So, although I have a long way to go, I am grateful that I have a head start.

Next week, I have a booking in the pipeline and I will go back to sex work. I actually feel quite nervous because it has been what feels like a long time. I feel I’ve lost my confidence, not in myself, but in the job. The Managed Zone remains shut so working the street again is off the cards still, and I expect it to be that way for some time. I don’t wish to work from home either, especially as you have to walk through the living room to get to my bedroom and it just feels too personal. I still feel worried about coronavirus, my health and everything else going in the background but equally, money overrules. I can be unhappy in my decision, but ultimately, that decision will be the thing that buys me carpet, a sofa and whatever else I need for the foreseeable future, at least until I am able to get my feet firmly on the ground, sort out my CV and try to find a job in the worst recession mankind has ever experienced.

I am not going to give myself a hard time though, sex work is a job. It may not be one that I particularly like, but it is a job and despite the lows, it can give rewards I would otherwise not be afforded. And for that, I am grateful.

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