Sex work is a blessing or a curse, and sometimes both. The alleviation of poverty is a blessing, but always knowing it remains an option for yourself may be a curse, if, like me, you dislike sex working. It is a psychological crux that I can not switch off, and it drives me up the wall. The feeling of survival, even when it is no longer needed, hangs over your head like a horrible reminder of how quickly your life can change. It is this drive that keeps me accepting the next job, because I fear another might not come, because I worry about needing enough money just in case my life uproot itself again, or I find myself back in a hostel. I got into sex work for the wrong reasons. Even when I know I don’t want to do it, I always know the consequences are worse if I don’t.
Like all jobs, I get on with it, taking the good with the bad and accepting things as they are. But the lows are so low in sex work, and this hit me hard in January. The cold bites hard, I’m wearing tights under my leggings, my thickest socks, a rape alarm in my coat and hand warmers in my gloves. I am not happy, and I cry my heart out on the outreach bus for 2 hours. I felt too cold to carry on and went home. The next day I was assaulted, and signed myself off sex work forever. I announced online I had quit, wasn’t going to do it anymore and simply couldn’t cope. I have to ask myself, do all those around me want to be here either? No, no they didn’t. Who really wants to be doing this? I’m sick of lack of choice being batted around as a justification of sex work being rape, when the choice was removed due to poverty or addiction, not the client. If you handed me money and told my energy provider to fuck off, I wouldn’t be there. Also, choice and consent are not the same – choice is in the context of socioeconomic resources available to me.
Of course we all know there reasons that led us here that need resolving; Universal Credit, multi agency support with DV, drug and alcohol services, harm reduction and whatever else we may need. But the reality is, sex work felt shit, especially on the street. I can’t paint a good picture of it, I can’t sit there and say we are happy hookers, that we are empowered, that we are all proud to be sex worker either, because we don’t feel that way. In fact, I have gone home crying because of people driving round, shouting and spitting at me, throwing stuff at me, pretending to puke, and generally harassing me. Internal shame, stigma and general feelings of worthless plague me too. You feel extremely exposed on street too – there is no protections against this stuff, and I worry about things like whether they will mount the pavement and run me over.
Working indoors gives me less relief from the crappy thoughts and feelings. I dislike the job even then, and perhaps more so because the emotional labour is higher. At least with street, there is less expectation and I would argue, it is less personal. It’s been a while since I was sex working regularly and I started against recently, and it made me realise more than ever just how much I dislike it. My mind sometimes reels with clients asking me to do things I didn’t want to, only to be met with ‘well I’ve paid so you sort of have to’ and it wasn’t anything particularly bad they asked for, just something I was uncomfortable with. It’s easy to say to me ‘just say no’ but it really isn’t that easy, I am not that confident, and I’m constantly weighing up the punters temperament and assessing if it’s easier to just get on with it or risk him flying off the handle or maybe rob me.
Above all, I have moments where I have existential crisis moments; where I sit there and think what the fuck am I doing? There are times where I sit there and really think about the dynamics of a client asking me about his daughter problems, a daughter who I am younger than. When I started working again, all I could think about was what am I doing as the client was clutching me closer – my senses heightened, my skin crawled, my face couldn’t hide how much I disliked the smell of his aftershave, a smell which rubbed off and lingered on me all day. My mind can’t cope, sometimes I can feel a lump in my throat because I am on the verge of crying as I feel like shit. Not just that, I’ve got my own mental heath to be dealing with and the high emotional labour is extremely taxing on my own. I can leave a booking feeling emotionally exhausted, wanting to crawl up on the sofa, watch tele and not talk to anyone for a few days.
Sex work is work, it is a job, but we can’t deny that it is an extremely personal job. One that can sometimes leave you wanting to peel your skin off; scrub it with bleach; not want to sit in your own bedroom because you worked there; scream because you can’t relate to anyone else around you, feeling isolated. When I went to the Sex/Work strike, I felt out of place because nobody around me looked like the people I worked with, it felt like a place of empowerment, one that I didn’t belong to. I feel very out of place in sex worker circles talking about how crap it is, how it was driven by survival, how there are times when I am really fed up with it. In fact, I sat and cried to my counsellor on Monday, telling her I wanted to leave but felt I couldn’t financially, and the drive for survival overrides that of anything I feel. She didn’t know what much to say – she is a pro sex worker counsellor, and she doesn’t suggest to leave or quit, but it still feels frustrating to be having the same conversations.
On Twitter, there is so much baiting and back/forth with SWERFs and sex workers themselves. I can get so caught up in it that I forget about the job itself. I don’t give a flying fuck what Bindel or Glinner are thinking about, tweeting from the solace of their homes when I’m working. I think people don’t appreciate how much your mind is fixed on sex work. In fact, I discovered Twitter long after becoming a sex worker and didn’t know nothing about the politics behind sex work. There are many times where I wish I didn’t because it’s just another layer of things to take on, and sex work politics itself can be a very hostile environment – I don’t regret it, but there are downfalls, and ignorance is bliss. Whether its because it’s been your lifestyle for years, one that you have heavily invested in both emotionally and financially, and that extends to debates, activism, policy making etc. It becomes so integral to your every being, and sometimes, I would give everything to get rid of it. I hate the fact sex work has become a bigger part of me than I ever wanted. I feel exposed and rubber stamped.
If you’ve read to this point, you’re probably worrying that I have become a radical feminist conference speaker’s wet dream; that I am picking up the cuffs and pushing for the Nordic Model. It is this very attitude that prevents me from ever really talking about my feelings about sex work because the backlash I get from sex workers who say I’m fuelling abolitionists. I really don’t care, this is how I feel about sex work. It can be, and is shit, but that doesn’t mean you have to call for abolition or the Nordic Model; I am not that selfish and ready to throw my fellow hookers under the bus like that. You will not be catching me on a podium addressing a radical feminist conference anytime soon. But why not if I hate it so much? Well, no matter how I feel about it, no matter how much I hate it or that it makes my skin crawl, it doesn’t mean it didn’t solve a lot of other problems in my life, nor would it resolve what led me to become a sex worker. It certainly doesn’t mean I wish to stop it for everyone else because I had a bad time.
In the face of that, I also know criminalisation does not resolve any of the problems I mentioned above. Criminalising the client doesn’t remove my need for money, it doesn’t stop his aftershave making my skin crawl, it just means it will be a riskier client’s aftershave instead. Not just that, there are pros of sex work, primarily financial. I am forever grateful for sex work being an option when I needed it in my moment of need, a solution I would not wish to remove for anyone else. Whether it is right to wrong, or even how I personally feel isn’t relevant, because it will happen anyway. I can’t even begin to imagine the situations I would have ended up without sex work – I would likely have killed myself by now because I wouldn’t have been afforded the economic dependence I have now. There were reasons I left home, reasons why I refused to ask for help, why I decided to make it through life on my own. Without sex work, I know things would be worse. Why would I restrict someone else’s choices when I benefitted from these decisions myself?
Not just that, I have learned so much as a sex worker that I would not have anywhere else. In no other job have I learned so much about myself and others, the dynamics of relationships. In activism, I meet people whose courage I admire, whose passion for safety I hope to harness, and the knowledge sharing is immense – politics, society, (anti-)capitalism, economics, feminism, labour, states – all learned outside the textbook. Above all, I have forged friendships in true solidarity, ones that have come to save my ass when working, who have warned me about clients, and despite the whorearchy and at times, very spiteful sex workers, it really is a lovely community. I argue this is because we are used to mutual aid, relying on each other and supporting one another. Despite how abolitionists paint us, sex workers have been first in the line of people who have reached out their hand to help me, and I wouldn’t be here without them. Sex workers themselves were the first to step up when coronavirus devastated the incomes of their colleagues.
I admit, I sometimes struggle with myself when I see workers being so pro-empowerment and that’s not because they’re wrong, they can think and feel what they like, but it’s because I feel so far removed from that – it’s just not my experience. Regardless, I always support their right to work and be safe, and to tell people what being a sex worker is for them. It may not be mine, but it doesn’t mean it’s wrong. In fact, when someone first told me they just wanted to be a sex worker, I was really taken back because I always assumed people did it for a reason or circumstance just like me and my friends. However, this is a bigger reflection of my narrow minded thinking, and who am I to tell them what to do or be, it’s none of my business, it is a collective responsibility that they’re safe though!
Sometimes, I can’t help feel that sex work is a trap. It is high income, sometimes quick too depending on nature of how you work – even working outdoors can be high finance per hour (at great risk and cost). It is for this very reason why I will never be able to ever turn around and rule it out, and I hate that. I almost feel it has control over me, or perhaps my finances do. I know there is a lot to do mentally to tackle this feeling, and to tackle why I feel so strongly about working even when I don’t need to, because I am so scared of becoming poor again that I go into overdrive. It’s a horrible cycle really. Constantly living on edge is not a life to lead, living in fear of when you may run out, be without, even when you’re not and that no more jobs will come and you will be in a hostel again. On the flip side, I have done a lot of work on myself recently – counselling, self help & care, reading and general wellbeing which I know would not have been achieved slogging 40 hours a week. Something I’ve never been able to do before, and I am glad for.
Will I still cry when I listen to A Team by Ed Sheeran? Yes. Because it reminds me of so many of the women I grew to love, depend on, share life and laughter with, as well as the hardest times of my life. I think of them often, how they are and how sorry I am to have left, cut away from it all and moved away. It reminds me of the times I listened to it whilst getting ready, perhaps in self-punishment for how crap I was thinking and feeling. This feeling will unlikely ever leave me, as well as the awful thoughts that come with it, but I wouldn’t be without it. There is a lot of crap in sex work, and it’s these nuances that need to be appreciated. It’s okay to recognise this, be angry about it, upset about it and recognise it’s not what I want, but appreciating why it’s there, the need which led to it and the solutions it gave me.
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One thought on “Complicated Feelings About Sex Work”
Thank you. I may have said this before, but I really do think that your writing gets better every time. You started from a really high base ( and tbh I’m a little bit jealous of your fluency), but there seems more clarity; a striving to understand people who don’t come from your perspective – I’m not sure what it is but this was an exceptional piece. You are completely right to leave Twitter for a while for the sake of your mental health, but ‘nuance’ is in very short supply on Twitter and you are one of the few people who provide it.