Who do we mean when we refer to sex workers? Why is there such a huge stigma surrounding the profession, and is it all as sordid as we’ve been conditioned to believe?
Written by Helena Venables
Illustration by Zoe Boltt
“It was October last year when I got involved in it. I wouldn’t consider myself successful, and I won’t be doing it forever. But I’m not ashamed.”anonymous male sex worker from London
The laws surrounding sex work in the UK are particularly inexplicit. Exchanging sexual acts for money is lawful in this country, however, it is illegal to ‘solicit to sell or buy sex in public places’, ‘operate a brothel’ and ‘control and direct prostitutes’.
Whilst these laws are largely not regulated by authorities in today’s political environment, local police are authorised to undertake random crackdowns on street sex work, despite it being tolerated or ignored on other occasions.
The lack of public discussion and knowledge of the profession has led to a society which shuns sex workers, leaving the individuals themselves even more vulnerable. Women in particular are forced to work alone without support or protection for fear of accusations of running a brothel and subsequently facing jail time.
As it currently stands, ‘if you sell sexual services from a flat with someone else, even if you are not there at the same time, the flat can be classed as a brothel’ and you may be prosecuted. Throughout history we have seen stern measures taken against sex workers yet those who create a demand for the industry face none.
A spokesperson from the English Collective of Prostitutes noted that under austerity and since the implementation of benefit sanctions, the number of sex workers has soared according to outreach workers from local charities.
As of 2015, there are an estimated 60,000 to 80,000 sex workers across the UK and around 11% of men between 16-74 have paid for activities relating to sex at least once (equating to 2.3 million people).
I asked an anonymous male sex worker to share his experiences within the trade and and offer a glimpse into his daily life. His first experience in the line of work, he told me, was a result of personal financial distress and the anxiety of affording a life in the capital.
“I was so upset about money. We are always taught that safety can be secured so long as we have money.”
He described feeling utter liberation following this encounter, to have disposable money was new and invigorating.
“My dad always worried about money but as a result he was never around, he was a robot for someone else’s dream. I’ll never be that. I don’t associate ‘respectable’ work with happiness.”
We went on to discuss the reality of the work and how the media has a tendency to focus on and exaggerate scandalous narratives surrounding it.
“Sometimes I’m literally just a therapist, sometimes people just want to talk and I’m happy to relieve their loneliness. It’s a multifaceted profession and a lot of people don’t understand that. That’s why they judge, because of this image they hold in their minds. An image which tells them we’re all degrading ourselves unwillingly.”
Picking up on whether he had any haunting tales or instances during which he felt particularly vulnerable or afraid, he recounted one of his early experiences.
“I’m cautious and I’ve been careful with that. But once I met a guy who had been awake for three days. I arrived at the apartment and there was an array of drugs laid out across the coffee table. His place scared me. He didn’t want to pay me. That’s why my policy is pay first now. It’s a business transaction just like any other.”
Undeniably, the industry can be dangerous, unpredictable and menacing. However, for those who choose freely to participate and feel liberated by this choice, the unforgiving nature of the laws and perceptions this country holds towards it only exacerbate the existing issues. The role of criminal law, law enforcement and stigma contribute to increasing the risks sex workers already face.
Labour party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, suggested in his 2016 general election campaign that his personal views are in favour of decriminalising prostitution. ‘I want to be [in] a society where we don’t automatically criminalise people’. This opinion is yet to transcend to party policy.
Not all adults who participate in sex work do so out of a lack of an alternative, or as a result of exploitation. Would a legislative response to the recent rise in workers of the field affect the way we, the public, talk about and perceive them?
As it stands, the law does not protect sex workers and the majority of society, it seems, does not respect them.
Sex worker rights are human rights.
It’s time we began dismantling the stigma and challenging our understanding of what it means to work in the sex industry.
Edited by Stephanie Kleanthous