Sex Work and Mental Health

I always believe sex work is a blessing or a curse, and sometimes both, and this extends to mental health impact of the job too. However, like most bad topics in sex work, nobody likes to talk about it in fear of being told we’re fuelling the SWERFs. However, we can not deny there is sometimes truth to what they say. I’m not agreeing with the debunked Farley PTSD statistics they throw around, but sex work can truly take a toll on your mental health. This is never more so true than for survival sex workers, who feel they have less choice, more anger and feel more entrapped in what I call, the trap of sex work.

I recently read the Untold Stories project book, which is a collation of words, stories, pictures and poems by street sex workers from Hull. I loved it because they told it ‘like it is’ and that includes all the awful shit that comes with sex work, or the impact it has on yourself. They cut through all the sex work debate and quite rightly, spoke about how they think, feel and of their experiences. As I read it, I felt myself nodding my head at the worst bits, knowing full well I perhaps couldn’t be publicly honest about agreeing with these things. I worry that sex workers will get angry at me because I am giving SWERFs what they want, but equally, it’s quite exposing putting your mental health out there for anyone to criticise. 

Another fear is that I will be seen as a victim again, and by extension, so will sex workers. Victimisation of sex workers is something I hate, when in reality, sex workers are very resilient and resourceful. In the same breath however, we can’t just act like everything is fine. It gives the wrong impression and demonstrates that we have to be extremely strong, brave and bottle everything up. This causes even more damage to your mental health. Speak about how you feel or what you experienced without worrying about a radical feminist might say. We are constantly chugging out the marketing machine when it comes to sex work, and is far from the reality of how it can be for some people. 

Breaking down the empowerment model

We all know describing sex work as empowering is irrelevant, because no other job would be described or justified as such. However, when it comes to mental health in sex work, we swing the other day. Sex workers reel off how sex work allows them to manage their mental health, but little room for the opposite discourse. There have been time where that has also been true for me, and if that works for others, I support that fully. I have been able to seek counselling, pay for it and find time for it because of sex work. I have also been able to afford lots of psychoeducation books, and have the time to read them because of sex work. I know when I worked in a civvie job, I was unable to manage, afford and have the time for all of this. 

However, it may be worth bringing the topic back as to why I sought counselling in the first place, it was because of sex work. My local sex work project has a mental health worker and also have a relationship with the local women’s counselling service, which I am part of. I often have mental health problems myself, including ignoring my support worker when she knocked on the door because I didn’t want to see or talk to anyone. I didn’t want to to discuss sex work anymore; I had had enough. I’ve spoken openly about how much I dislike sex work, how it has impacted my mental health and why it is perhaps one of the main reasons I wish to leave. Although, it is rarely a topic I speak about publicly.

I posted on Twitter ‘can we talk about how sex work can actually be detrimental to your mental health too’ and was met with a strong response. I felt like I was tipping my toe in and testing the waters, because it’s not really a topic sex workers like to discuss – at least the negative side of it. The responses echoed mine, that it was the empowerment discourse that prevented people from talking; the feelings about serving abolitionists; fear of being attacked for speaking up; the deeper mental cost of sex work and being honest about the bad side. I also had private messages speaking of similar experiences, and it is quite disheartening. 

The sex work community prides itself in mutual support, but we are quick to suppress topics and censor each other, because we fear the opposition more. A sentiment that was echoed by Ginger Banks who recently tweeted that many had spoken to her about abuse in the industry, but they were scared to talk about it because they didn’t wish for the anti-sex work groups to use it. I fiercely reject this and believe anyone should talk about their experiences, and the issue lies with the people who weaponise that, not the person who spoke about it. I can understand why people do it, and I can’t imagine people do it out of sheer malice, but we’re coming down hard on the wrong person. 

Is there truth in what SWERFs say?

The short answer is yes. Sex work can be awful for your mental health. Of course, the discussion is more complex and nuanced than that, and it is wrong to apply the same concept to all sex workers. Many say sex work is their saving grace for their mental health, and therefore, they have their own experiences which doesn’t ring true to this article. As a result, we shouldn’t apply broad statements to all over work. Also, the statistics radical feminists throw around about PTSD and what not is heavily debunked. They would be better talking to actual sex workers and their experiences. 

I particularly love Deborah’s input into the book, largely because she is direct, straight and is very honest. Sex work is work and deserves the same rights as any other worker, but it isn’t quite like other jobs. I know I will get accused of being whorephobic for saying this, as though I am ‘othering’ us. Although I do partly agree, we have to recognise that sex work is different in many ways. In no other job do you face the being killed, have flashbacks of being raped or take a copious amounts of drugs to numb yourself out to cope with your job. I sometimes feel it is an insult to compare to a ‘civvie’ job because it downplays all that comes with the job – from the stigma, danger, risks and the history of it. Also, nobody is excluded from services simply because they are a therapist, engineer, bank manager; it’s discrimination that is specific to sex workers. Finally, sex work is notoriously difficult to leave, and there are no barriers to entry either. I appreciate this may not be a common trail of thought, so I welcome conversation about it. 

Untold Stories: Hull

I used to sit with women smoking crack before working, and myself using drugs before working because we knew what was ahead of us. None of us liked working. We were at times assaulted, raped, robbed or beaten. How can this not impact your mental health? How can we not be angry that we watched our friends die from overdoses, were drinking themselves into oblivion or those who had a friend killed. We all had solidarity in fear, and knowing the danger of our jobs. It was an unspoken truth about what it entailed. Being constantly on alert doesn’t do much for your mental health, and neither does taking substances to dampen it help either. 

Survival sex work can be even worse for your mental health because you feel less able to escape. For most sex workers, high income can give them the opportunity to fund education, driving lessons, therapy or perhaps training courses for a specific job. Having money allows you to have more freedoms and opportunities in life. When you are being consumed be survival, you simply can’t get to the next level. When you are working to fund a drug habit, that is survival within itself, but worst of all, you have nothing to show for it. The cycle continues, and it can break you down and makes you feel shit. Survival sex workers generally don’t sit down with a bit of paper and decide to become a sex worker, they are pushed by desperate circumstances; poverty, addiction, immigration status, systemic discrimination or structural inequality. For some, they watched their Mum be a sex worker and it was natural for them to become one. I’ve spoken in previous blogs posts the impact survival mode has on you, even after you are no longer in that anymore. The effects are long lasting. 

We must also remember that some radical feminists were sex workers themselves. The crux of their argument and experiences is that it was awful to their mental health; they felt they were being raped and don’t wish it upon anyone else. Although I disagree with their support of the Nordic Model, I am not here to speak over their experiences. The more we shout at them and say you’re lying or that’s not true, the more they argue that we freeze them out and ignore their experiences. They would be right. In fact, I’ve sat and listened to women saying they felt like a piece of meat or have scrubbed their body with bleach because they felt disgusting after working. Who am I to tell them they’re wrong about how they feel? I sit and listen, and try to build their confidence rather than telling them that’s not okay, or support them in the best way I can.

So what does this mean?

Well, first of all, we need to stop the gatekeeping of what experiences we can or can’t talk about, or topics. I find this a lot and it is something that angers me so much about sex work. Although, more importantly, we need to break down the stigma that surrounds these things, and the stigma of sex work itself. This includes services not going into panic mode and pressing the ‘they must leave sex work’ button whenever we disclose sexual violence. Support us in the same way as anyone else, because leaving sex work is difficult to do and you’re fundamentally asking them to give up their income. You also have no idea the efforts they may have put in to doing that themselves. Why should we be treated any differently when we experience violence? 

Sadly, sex workers are often excluded from mental health services. Or like myself, had a counsellor who said hurtful things about sex work and told me her personal opinion on it, making the relationship between us futile. Therapists argue that there isn’t much point engaging with a sex worker if they continue to work, because that means they are actively re-traumatising themselves or not reducing harmful behaviour. As a result, these attitudes stop sex workers ever talking about how they think or feel about sex work. All therapists should practice unconditional positive regard, and allow you to speak about topics in your own way without expectations or judgement. Before you moan about sex workers not seeking help, it might be worth checking as to why – they likely already have tried but met several barriers along the way that need breaking down first. 

If sex work helps your mental health then I absolutely support that. I wish everyone can find a job that is suitable for the mental health, and if that’s sex work then I am happy for you too. This post is not to disregard these people or that they should shut up – quite the opposite. We should just all be able to talk about what is good/bad for us, without being squashed or force ourselves into censorship in fear of anti-sex work lobby. I’ve done it myself, or depicted a different picture of my situation to suit the more dominant narrative, or when a radical feminist has jumped on one of my posts. I realised how damaging this was when a friend of mine became a sex worker and it ruined her mental health, I then also noticed that I had spent weeks saying it was good my mental health when in reality, it wasn’t. People watch sex workers online talk about the positives, when they should also be presented with the reality or the negatives too. 

I will finish this post with a poem, written by Millie, a street sex worker from Hull, called ‘I Will Devour Your Soul’

I will offer you peace for your turbulent mind
The inner tranquility you can’t seem to find
I will soften the edges, lines not so defined
Your everyday turmoil left so far behind

I will take you from all those you adore
Broken relationships you can never restore
Warning bells ringing that you chose to ignore
Anything to score just a little bit more

You’ll practice my ritual again and again
Hollowed out, darkness, all that remains is your pain
No longer your life, this is your domain
Kneel before me I roar my disdain

I’ll scar your heart til there’s barely a beat
Your life stops, judders; then is stuck on repeat
Total surrender, my deceit now complete
Dead inside – now will you admit defeat?

Your future’s not written, but I hold the pen
Your slow suicide, but I’ll decide when
Your body a commodity – for sale to all men
Your misery resplendent, you’re alone, what then?

I will destroy your life and devour your soul,
Spinning kaleidoscope, out of control
Ripping you apart so you’ll never feel whole
Worshipping me is your only goal. 

Written by Millie. 

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