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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Switching off Survival Mode

In a recovery group, we recently covered the topic of motivation. The group worker asked us what motivates us, and immediately I said fear. It wasn’t fear from someone else, or fear of not being perfect but rather, fear that things will collapse if I don’t keep going. I explained that if I don’t do my job, the world around me will cave in and the thought of that is too much to bear. I’m not sure this resonated as much with the group, who met my negative response to motivation with blank stares. This isn’t fear of losing material items, but my home. Similarly, I told my GP that I didn’t care what happened to me, as long as my rent was paid then anything else in life is simply extra. She had to remind me that food, clothing and utilities are not extras, but are in fact, essential.

These feelings aren’t new to me. Growing up, I remember my mum always making sure rent was paid, and any other bills were secondary. Drilled into our mind from an early age was that provided there is a roof over your head, the rest can be sorted after, and that rent should always be paid first. For most people, they likely include their utilities and food bill in this ‘essential’ category, and anything left after is for yourself. This isn’t the case when you are living precariously and you know starving and having no food is not as important as having nowhere to sleep, there is no extra for yourself. These attitudes were reflected in my conversation to the GP, because going hungry doesn’t matter provided you are warm and protected. It’s difficult to get across to people just how ingrained in my mind this is. I would happily eat ice cubes to soothe hunger pains knowing full well my rent is paid.

Motivation

As the recovery group continued discussing motivation, we spoke about positive and negative motivation. Positive motivation is when you do something because you believe there is reward from it, or perhaps by doing something it will make you feel good, such as volunteering. Negative motivation on the other hand, describes when you are motivated because you fear the loss of something, or to run away from the pain by not doing something. This is where survival sex work comes in, why you can’t stop, even if you want to. I have never said I am a happy sex worker and it is these awful attitudes that have kept me chugging along. It is why I cry about how much I wish to leave, but wipe the tears away and get on with it, because I know if I don’t, I will fall back again. I told my support worker this week that I would rather kill myself than go back into the hostel. So, for me, it feels like keep working, or kill yourself. This is of course too simplistic, but I’m running from the fear of the hostel, of killing myself, of being homeless and being without.

People often talk about surviving vs thriving, and it can sometimes feel like a clich√© style of phrase. However, it is very accurate. Maslow’s infamous Hierarchy of Needs demonstrates that physiological needs are core, and these include shelter, clothing, water and food. However, if you are constantly chasing the basic necessities, or you simply don’t have them, how do you ever climb the hierarchy? The thought of even considering things such as friendship, self-esteem, or self-actualisation are not even a thing because they don’t matter. I have lost significant respect, status, sense of belonging and relationships at the expensive of trying to sustain the bare minimum. It makes me sound really brutal, but the top of the pyramid can all be sacrificed when you’re desperate. I would argue it’s why addicts steal from their loved ones – it’s not because they hate them or wish them harm, but it’s because their basic needs aren’t being met. Despite the shame they may end up feeling, it doesn’t matter because survival is number one.

I hope you are never in the position but I can assure you, you will hurt you loved ones if you are withdrawing from drugs, or you are so financially desperate to the point your water is cut off and you can’t cook, bathe or even drink.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

I have spent years in this awful cycle of survival. I realised that I have never had the opportunity to pursue positive motivations because I have been too busy running away, keeping my head afloat. Most people go to University for positive motivation, because they believe it will get them a good job and they can see the long-term benefits. For me, I went simply to get away from home. I chose the University the furthest away from home that would accept me and vowed never to return to my hometown, no matter what happened in life. I endured any difficulty because I could not return to what I had left. This is exactly what negative motivation is. I don’t actually care about my degree, and I never did because it was the distance I craved, not the prospects at the end.

All of my siblings had their route to escape home, and mine was education. Some of us got into relationships and moved out as quick as we could; some got a job and took on the burden of poverty by taking on rent we couldn’t afford; some spiralled into crime to earn money to get away. Home wasn’t safe, I was constantly trying to flee. It was this negative motivation that pushed me through my A Levels, which were undertaken during one of the most difficult times of my life. I cried my heart out on a bench on my own on results day because I made the grades to go to Uni. I cried because I knew I was finally free, not because I was overjoyed to reap the rewards of my hard work. I thought about pursuing a masters degree, but I am no longer fleeing so it’s a different motivation this time, and I don’t feel confident or equally motivated.

Sex work

Unfortunately, this survival mode is so entrenched that it naturally intertwined with my decision to become a sex worker. Money is a fundamental motivation in everyone’s life, it’s why we go to work. I was so swept away by the money I was earning at first that it felt like a cure the fears I had been harbouring for so long. I knew it would give me the financial security I could only dream of, so I kept going, even when I didn’t need to. However, as any sex worker will know, this soon came crashing down when I realised just how unreliable the income is. Instead of stopping and working out other streams of income, I kept going instead. My motivations kept changing – from survival, to thriving, to drugs and addiction, to housing security. Sex work has truly saved me from falling off the edge when I have been so close. However, it sometimes feel like a trap because I know I couldn’t now be without it.

It is argued that the term ‘survival sex work’ should be removed from the language of sex work. I disagree. It serves it’s purpose and describes well the differences between those who are scraping by, and the sex workers who have greater choices, financial stability, do not live chaotic lives or facing homelessness, drug use or other disadvantages. People argue that it causes division among sex workers. However, we can not be lumped into one group. The needs of certain sex workers are different, and this needs to be appreciated. If we remove the term, we are not doing justice to tackling the reasons why many felt they had to turn to sex work such as drugs and poverty. Otherwise, it assumes sex workers are a homogenous group who are all facing the same issues, we are not. You can argue that we are all surviving, but that isn’t the reality for those who are at the middle to top. All sex workers work for income to live, but not all are having sex for drugs or for ¬£10.

Above all, survival sex workers are at greater risk of sexual exploitation because they have less financial ability to say no, because they feel they can’t. We all know abusers exploit the most vulnerable or the most desperate. It’s also one of the core reasons why the Nordic Model does very little to help the people they say will benefit mostly from it, because removing income removes choices. When you remove or restrict people’s choices, they make desperate situations such as unprotected sex for more money. I know when working street, the other girls get angry at those who do unprotected sex, but there is also an unspoken understanding as to why, because they are rattling from drug withdrawal and we all empathise with that. Nobody holds a grudge. For me, financial freedom is fundamental to me. I am so scared that without it, I will find myself relying on abusive people again, because I crave security more than the fear of abuse.

As I wrote in a previous blog that financial abuse is my one of the main reasons why I keep shooting myself in the foot, doing things I don’t want to as the fear of being financially insecure is worse. Without financial freedom, you find yourself being controlled by the person you may find income from such as a partner, charity or even your children. When you ask a sex worker why they keep working when they don’t want to, don’t think it’s because we just love doing it. As a street sex worker, I’d get asked that all the time by clients and sometimes by services. It used to make me angry because they are making the presumption that I am deliberately making the worst decision for myself, assuming I am incapable of knowing myself, or acting in my own best-interest.

Switching off

I am housed, my biggest fear has been alleviated. Yet, the fear hasn’t. I still think someone is going to ring me up and tell me they made a mistake, telling me the flat isn’t mine and I have to leave. I still haven’t felt the homely feeling as I walk through the door, because I am too scared to get attached to the thought of having a home, just in case it is ripped away from me – emotionally protecting myself. Chasing money to find a place to stay has gone, the constant anxiety and weight on my chest has slightly lifted, although it’s not gone and I keep expecting it to drop back on me. It’s worse this time though, because now I know what to expect and remember how awful it was, whereas before, I was just making my way through a difficult time, and clinging onto hope that things would get better.

This is learned behaviour, I haven’t reached these conclusions by accident. It is because I have been constantly living on the edge, in a high-stress situation where my fundamental needs have not been met. Needs that are core and essential but I’ve been given no resources, instruction manual or tools to meet the need. How can I ever thrive, or expect myself to when I haven’t even got a foundation to fall back onto? I sound irrational ringing up my support worker and telling her that although I’ve paid my rent this month, I still need to find more money just in case something ever happens, and I have to up and leave and start again. She reminds me it’s not irrational and is to be expected given everything that has happened in the past few years, but I am angry that I can’t shut this nagging in my mind.

As I sit here, feeling relatively safe as it’s past 5pm so I know nobody from the council is going to ring me up tonight to tell me to leave, I ask myself what now, and how do I switch this off? I don’t want to punish myself by not doing so, because that’s counterproductive. I can’t expect myself to change my behaviour when history has shown me how engrained it has been over many years. However, sitting down and realising why I am this way is awful. It reminds me of every bad situation I endured because I was driven by an invisible fear in my mind; of every angry conversation I had with services because they didn’t understand why I was this way; how much I have neglected myself and my health in pursuit of stability; each time I questioned my own sanity because I didn’t understand why I kept doing something I hated.

Last week, I sat watching a documentary, and there was nothing in it that was particularly relevant to myself or my life, but I found myself in floods of tears randomly. I try to explain to people it’s like grief. One day, you are making dinner and you realise you don’t need to get a second plate out because they are no longer there. Before you know it, you’re on the floor in tears despite your loved one having passed months ago, and the sense of loss feels fresh and raw again. These things come out of nowhere, and catch you when you least expect it. Being chronically poor or having chronic instability takes its toll on you. I am forever torn between not wanting to seem ungrateful to have my flat and realising how bad things have been, and hating that I now have the time to sit back and reflect on it from a place of relative safety. When I was in constant fight and flight mode, I didn’t have time nor care to look back because I had to keep going forward or end up worse off.

Tackling your emotions can feel scary. I am sure anyone can relate to when you feel low or bad about yourself, suddenly everything you’ve felt bad about floods your mind, making you feel even lower. It’s why we avoid it. However, I implore people that if, like me, you find yourself crying as you’re walking to the shop because a random memory has popped into your mind, seek help. It’s one of the first signs that your mind is telling you something is wrong, and you need to deal with it. Therapists tell clients that it is only when you are safe does your mind also feel safe to revisit these memories and tackle them. If you keep pushing them down, either by locking them away or downing 2 bottles of wine a night, they’ll continue to eat you up inside. It’s what kept me in the cycle of addiction.

What now?

The truth is, I haven’t switched off survival mode and I don’t feel ready emotionally ready yet to say I have a home. It would be unrealistic of me to expect so much from myself so early on. However, I am recognising that I feel this way and learning why. I am also seeking mental health support, reading lots about c-PTSD and general self-help books. It’s not much, but I’m making an effort and realising that I am this way is half the battle. You can’t resolve something when you don’t recognise there is a problem.

I am no longer a survival sex worker in terms of working to reach the basics anymore. Although I still work to pay my bills, and buy basic furniture. I am no longer on the edge anymore, and I have a foundation. I am still not thriving however, I am stagnant. Although, many may argue this means I am still a survival sex worker. I continue to have the mind-set of a survival sex worker – the fears that come with it, the memories which keep you fuelling that cycle too. My support workers always remark on how little I live off, they encourage me to spend more on myself, to enjoy money and treat myself. However, I can’t, I keep feeling as though I need reserves because an unexpected bill will throw me into an awful spiral again.

There is a lot to be done, both mentally and physically, to get myself out of this mindset. I know I need to allow myself to relax, but rationally, history tells me it’s not okay to and therefore, I need proof first before I can relax. Although, I need to define what the proof is, otherwise I will keep justifying this feeling of survival. Once I have carpets, a sofa, and have lived here for 6+ months, got a job and put my roots down, or lived here long enough for condiments to expire, maybe then will I emotionally allow myself to call these walls my home.

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