Contrary to the popular view of sex work, it’s not a one way ticket to a breakdown – but it hasn’t been a utopia either
Most of us underestimate the effect work has on mental health. It’s where we spend the bulk of our waking time: maybe in an office, under fluorescent light, in an uncomfortable chair, staring at a screen. Some workplaces ration your ‘sick days’, as though once they run out, you’ll put all breakdowns on hold until the next tax year. On my eclectic, erratic, CV is cavalcade of workplaces: jobs where I herded staff while yelling into a walkie-talkie and those where I mopped up vomit.
There is however one job not on my CV, which had a flexible schedule, as many sick days as I liked, and didn’t require me to sit in a meeting discussing the copier paper budget. On and off across a number of years, I was a sex worker.
Like many sex workers it wasn’t my first choice of occupation. Fresh out of uni I tried working in my dream industry only to find I was expected to intern for free, month after month, year after year. When I bucked the trend and got a job in the industry it was so poorly paid I tried to cycle 17 mile round trips to work because I couldn’t afford the tube. After that I tried freelancing, but late payments and erratic commissioning left me unable to cover my rent or bills. Finally, I began working cash in hand at a bar to cover the shortfall between my benefits and rent.
Thinking about sex workers who don't come forward for help because of the joint stigma of mental health and sex work. #mentalhealthweek— Laura Lee 🇮🇪☘️ (@GlasgaeLauraLee) May 8, 2017
When I began sex work there were aspects that were exhilarating. Being my own boss and setting my own schedule was something I’d never had the luxury of. My manager at the bar, who knew she could shop me for benefit fraud at any moment, didn’t care when men pinched my bum hard as I cleared glasses. When they threatened to follow me home because I didn’t want their numbers, she told me to suck it up. I worked 12 hour shifts, with no breaks, and at the end she would hand me an envelope with barely £70 in.
When talking to clients while escorting, they sometimes reminded me of the pub customers and that familiar sense of hatred would bubble up. Then at the end of a three hour booking I would tuck a few hundred pounds in the lining of my handbag, and go home to a bath and some posh beers. It was mind-blowing how happy being able to afford small luxuries made me.
Escorting couldn’t have been more different than the desk job where my coworkers ‘diet chat’ made me obsess over my weight. Eventually, it lead to my binging on lunch breaks in an alleyway behind the office where no-one could shame me. Most of my escorting clients happily wittered on about my body in flowery sentences until I reminded them how little time they booked for their appointment.
“What drove me to sex work was a need to exist without aching poverty, to have the time to see my many doctors, to work on being as healthy mentally and physically as possible, and to be able to claw back my life from the jaws of zero hours contracts and gaping overdrafts”
This isn’t to say sex work was a utopia where I could take six months off when my health was bad and have therapy sessions on a secluded island, filled with beautiful people all desperately writing me love sonnets. It can be a job where you spend all day smiling and complimenting people, only to come home with your makeup smeared, where you look at yourself in the mirror and feel a weepy fraud. Some days a client will make an offhand comment and you’ll replay it until it feels written across the landscape of your mind, as large as the Hollywood sign.
However, contrary to popular view of sex work, it is not a one way ticket to a breakdown. The difference between us and workers in other industries is that when we seek help we are asked to look at the ways we’ve kept ourselves out of poverty as shameful. Sex work can be stressful, and sometimes seeing new clients is scary. The only real contrast between sex work and my other jobs was that my proximity to violence increased. In customer facing roles of all kinds I’d been threatened, assaulted, and had bosses who, when told about this, were dismissive.
When we argue for rights, people respond "are you denying abuse happens?" No, we know first hand that abuse happens; hence *wanting rights*— SWARM 🐝 (@SexWorkHive) October 25, 2014
The difference was, as an independent escort, there were no bosses and no company to be my safety net. There was me and the client, and if I was lucky I could talk my way out of a situation. If not, then my assault would be held as an example as to why my life and choices were wrong.
Instead of seeing the criminalisation of sex work as creating an atmosphere where workers’ lives aren’t valued, and where men can act violently with impunity, I knew that most people I spoke to would go away thinking that at the core of it I should have simply made ‘better choices’.
Those same people agree that this proximity to violence means sex work, as a whole, is a terrible industry. Whether they favour making workers or clients criminals the message is always: you made this happen, and you’re too weak to stop it without us.
What drove me to sex work was a need to exist without aching poverty, to have the time to see my many doctors, to work on being as healthy mentally and physically as possible, and to be able to claw back my life from the jaws of zero hours contracts and gaping overdrafts. You may see those things as separate to my mental health, but let me tell you: if you have never been poor you cannot understand the grip money holds you in.
It is not simply the lack of holidays or new clothes, but wondering whether to eat, or save food for another day. Whether to leave the house, or only go out once a week so you can afford the bus. It is about whether you get out of bed in the winter, put the heating on, and try to do something for the day. Or whether you should stay sleeping in your hoodie and hat, because when you’re asleep you can’t spend money.
Sex work was messy, dirty, weird, confusing, and scary. It took me to places I wasn’t sure I wanted to visit again. But it also scooped me out of abject poverty and enabled me to start living life with joy.
Support and find out more information about SWARM, a collective founded and led by sex workers who believe in self-determination, solidarity and co-operation, here