A highly experienced and accomplished Dominatrix
I came across a tweet the other day, it reminded me once again of a topic I’ve been wanting to write about for a very long time. It was an offhand comment saying ‘that feeling you get when you find a bunch of escorts’ accounts and the vast majority of them are disabled, mentally ill, traumatised and openly admit to hating their clients – but the sex industry is so empowering and totally like a normal job right’ with a clown emoji to finish it off. Now this person is a survivor of industry abuse and feels exploited and states the opinion that all sex work is ‘coerced rape’ due to the financial exchange. There is *a lot* to unpack with just these few short sentences. But the most important thing I want to say is this is not about denying another person’s experience or to pile on them emotionally or deny their own truth about the industry. What I want to do is talk, with clarity and objectivity, as much as is possible, in regard to things I have been thinking about deeply for a long time. I have spent my whole adult life working in just about every facet of the sex industry. I have studied it at an advanced academic level from a health point, a psychological and sociological perspective, a global legal perspective and from a philosophical, ethical view-point. I am more than qualified to talk about what I am about to discuss. I have worked for a charity supporting victims of trafficking and helped write charity policy in development of a mentorship program to try and prevent vulnerable girls and women from being groomed whilst in state care. I have frequented sex worker charities to access services for My own needs and spoken to an MP about exploitation within sex work. I am not blind to the issues that exist and there are hours of things we could sit and discuss.
But what I want to do is unpack what I think to be the most important one. That is, the false dilemma that is often presented to us. It’s alluded to in that tweet. There are a few representations of it; one is the belief that if it’s not empowering then it must be exploitative. That’s a common fallacy. Possibly stoked a tiny bit by sex workers themselves because we’re so forced into a corner when it comes to defending our right to work we end up feeling like we have to tell people that a lot of women find it empowering. Which they do. And a lot don’t. It’s not actually a necessary condition of us having the right to work safely in a job that is legal to do in the UK, that we be empowered by our work. Hence the fallacy. Any job can be empowering. Many women might find it empowering to take over industries like plumbing or building or driving huge trucks. Those jobs often provide independence and freelance work that is highly paid, they are traditionally occupied by men and could be called unsafe for women to work in (I suspect there will be a whole host of problems for female truckers for example). No doubt many women would probably feel empowered to learn trade skills, home improvement, car mechanics, electrics, etc., would also enjoy setting up a female-owned business to provide services to other women in an industry that is rife with gender-based issues (men having to go into the homes of women they don’t know, women being charged more for services due to an assumed lack of knowledge – the pink tax). And yet nobody would ever suggest that these women *must* feel empowered to justify choosing their line of work given the dangers involved.
Surely nothing says that sex work is indeed a totally normal job than the fact that sometimes we hate doing it. Some of the clients are arseholes, the inbox is filled with idiots and occasionally our safety doesn’t feel on steady ground. Let’s put aside the fact that the legal framework in which we are forced to operate is the exact thing that makes us less safe than the average job. I’ll say now that I experienced ALL those things working in retail or hospitality. Customers and managers were massive arseholes. I worked for HMV in Piccadilly Circus, London. I was the lucky one who became employed there just at the point that so many customers were buying CDs and burning them, then returning the CD for a full refund, HMV had changed their policy. You could now no longer have a refund, it was exchange only. I experienced daily customer abuse about this policy and it was frightening; screaming and shouting and insults, often from grown men. I was 20 years old with little experience of how to deal with this level of aggression in the workplace and I was not supported, other than taught to defuse at all costs – *how* to defuse these situations wasn’t actually something I was ever given any help with, neither were self-defence classes available. Someone threw some vinyl at me over the counter once. I was pushed around on the shop floor on several occasions, and we had security staff to deal with agitated local homeless people who came in off the street to shelter from weather or sometimes shoplift. A security guard had his jaw broken by a shoplifter and my friend who worked in a nice clothes shop in Covent Garden had her nose broken when a thief headbutted her over the counter whilst she was alone in the shop. We were coached on what to do if someone came in with a gun and demanded the till (take the draw out and give it to them). Retail managers regularly displayed power play bullying behaviour, spoke down to staff or perved on us in creepy ways that totally took advantage of the power structure between us. Because I needed them if I wanted my job, it was very difficult to challenge this abuse.
And how much was I paid for this absolute joy of a job that went on for 11 months? Around £6-7 per hour. And that was including London waiting so was considered good retail wages. I was lucky if I took home £1k a month and a lot of that went back on travel and lunch money etc. But not once did anyone tell me I was exploited. Nobody suggested I was abused because I despised my work and hated most of the customers, in fact friends and family were just happy I wasn’t an icky sex worker anymore who made conversations difficult around the dinner table twice a year. I experienced more abuse in HMV in 11 months than I personally have seen in the sex industry in 22 years. And the manager did less about that than any of the managers in sex work locations; they also dealt with things swiftly and without a second thought about who they should be protecting (me). Within another 6 months, I had happily and voluntarily returned to sex work. I earned in a day sometimes what I earned in a month and the clients were nice to me. Why wouldn’t they be? They were coming in for a nice time. Maybe they go away and write crappy or toe curlingly detailed reviews on the internet and objectify me (I don’t care – we actively encouraged reviews as they helped our business: the juicier the better); maybe deep down they’d never date ‘a girl like me’ and had no respect for me (again, I don’t care, I wouldn’t date them). But on a professional level they are nice to you. The snotty white collar man who came in and shoved me into a CD display rather than say excuse me and then told me I was ‘just’ a shop worker when I challenged him, didn’t respect me either. He also reduced me to an object and definitely would never have dated me. But I can tell you now when he invariably pays someone for sex, he pays them a damn sight more and he’s probably nicer to them even when he’s still an entitled bore whilst he fucks them. I know which version I’d rather be dealing with and I won’t be alone in that.
For me, sex work was a million times better and a choice I was happy to make. Yes, I was able to manage fluctuating mental & physical health, which I couldn’t do in retail. Sick days were unpaid and I just ended up on incredibly low wages, with poor health and no financial independence. Trapped in a relationship I didn’t want to be in because I couldn’t afford to leave him. So back to sex work I went. This was my choice. It was a job I could do and most of the time I enjoyed it. I loved the freedom and the money. I left my shitbag of an ex and I paid myself through University and am now the holder of a 1st class honours MA. And yes, I still choose to be a sex worker in a different facet of the industry.
Now I am categorically *not* saying that my experience is even necessarily representative, or that we should be pushing this at the university careers fair. But the fact remains that certain sets of complex social circumstances give rise to a small but significant minority of women and men choosing to do sex work because it suits them. And the issues that exist in the sex industry exist in every single industry. There are drugs in nearly every government toilet in The Houses of Parliament. Media is full of it, pubs and restaurants are full of it. There is trafficking everywhere – the nail bar industry, cleaning firms, restaurant work. There is exploitation in all industries – the government is fining huge firms for not paying even the minimum wage as we speak and let’s not forget the Leicestershire sweat shop scandal for clothing firms like BooHoo just before lockdown (bet they breathed a sigh of relief when the pandemic hit as we never heard another word about the child slavery going on INSIDE the UK). Or the Bangladeshi fires that occurred and were never compensated by UK clothing companies. Corruption and awfulness is everywhere – Phillip Green nicked all his staff’s pensions, got appointed Government financial tsar whilst his wife stashed all their money in Monaco under her name (obviously a tax free haven- yawn, they really are just so predictable aren’t they?). But we don’t stop manicurists from working or make their customers prove they are not trafficked before commencing their nail polish. We don’t restrict every single aspect of their jobs to ‘protect them’ and force them to work alone and criminalise people wanting a pedicure just because there is a relatively high rate of trafficking in this industry (mainly from Vietnam I believe, hence the awful and distressing lorry deaths that occurred in the UK in recent years). Because that would be ridiculous and wouldn’t make anyone any safer; and so it is with the sex industry.
The reason why I am so sure in this is because the argument that matters the most to me, the one I think that gets overlooked the most and never even thought of because it is lost in all these distractions – the false dichotomy of exploitation Vs empowerment is a huge red herring. And convenient too, we all spend so much time fighting or presenting this argument we don’t present the argument that matters the most. That is the one surrounding our bodily autonomy. I believe that bodily autonomy is a necessary condition of our personal freedom. I.e. without it there is none. The idea that someone can tell me what I can and can’t do with my body to survive just doesn’t compute. If I want to, the idea that I cannot use my body however I wish, provided it is consensual, is a logical inconsistency. (And don’t get me started on money meaning consent is withdrawn. We navigate consent daily to the point that this is instantly disprovable, and that argument makes all other forms of work look dodgy too – but that’s another argument for another time).
The law supports me in this argument, the law doesn’t prevent me from having sex for money. I am fully and legally allowed to do so. It’s the rest of it that they’ve focused on, making it the only job whereby the job itself is legal but everything around it is not. Meaning we must work alone and unsafely and surely *that* is the enormous violation of my human rights? The fact we respect bodily autonomy as a necessary condition of personal freedom (not without license – you are not free to do others harm without their consent), is clearly shown in the entire industry built up on 2 humans beings beating the absolute crap out of each other in the name of sport. Giving a hugely increased risk or early death, brain damage, dementia and a multitude of physical health conditions. And yet nobody blinks when we’re there handing out medals to boxers and rating Mohammed Ali the GOAT (who had glaring neurological symptoms by age 38 fyi). We happily allow 2 people INCLUDING CHILDREN, to consent to being beaten up for a financial incentive. Huge financial incentives! And we do this because we accept they have bodily autonomy. If they want to do that and to make money that way and they consent, then who are we to stop them? Why, we’ll even let you buy tickets and cheer along as the blood splatters across the ring – coveted expensive seats by the way to get hit by some of that brutality straight in your face (also a public health risk if you hadn’t realised).
So why does this not extend to sex workers? I believe nobody should do a job they don’t want to do or that harms them against their consent, but we regularly allow that too. I despised working in a factory. It gave me untold injuries and repetitive strain injuries at a young age; it was brutal hours, and it would have wrecked my body for very little pay. I shouldn’t have had to do that if I didn’t want to. In fact I left and became a sex worker – but there will be some who have no problem with the former and an enormous objection to the latter. Why? There were aspects I haven’t liked in sex work, but that’s the same in every single industry. People to some degree buy our consent to put up with things we would never dream of putting up with in our private home life (I’ll be honest and say mostly they came in 5 minutes flat and the consent was me having to lie there and smile whilst they patronised me about something and bored the living daylights out of me). But if that’s the argument doesn’t that mean we are fundamentally exploited in every single job with no possibility of ever giving our consent due to the wage we are given? Surely all work is coerced consent that’s impossible to withdraw on that basis? I personally think that would be a really hard bullet to bite just to get the argument about sex work through, but maybe the anarchist and communist would go right ahead and bite down on that one.
So that is the point. Sex work *is* normal work. We have the right to hate our clients, or some of them (as some are extremely lovely people as it happens) and moan about it on twitter; moan about the arseholes, look forward to seeing our regulars and love our income or even to dream of a day we’re not doing it. We are free to find it mundane having to listen to the 12th person bang on about some pointless aspect of their lives whilst you give them a blow job and accept an offer of extra cash to open up more of our bodies to them. These things are navigated in nearly every area of every job. We just don’t see them in those terms and it’s so much easier to point and yell about the ‘harm’ of sex work. Those that can’t do it find it icky and embarrassing; disgusting or horrifying and literally can’t imagine doing it. Fine. Then don’t. Or wait until you’re so desperate your standards drop. That’s how jobs work. And god I’d have to be so desperate and my standards would have to be so low to find myself applying to be degraded in a factory again. That is the point of bodily autonomy. You get to choose what happens to your body and how it is used and what you do with it. Freedom but not license. You can go and put yourself forward for medical testing if you wish, carry someone else’s baby, or even test speculum instruments (yes these will get tested on people) and have things inserted into your vagina for financial gain in the name of science. So ask yourself, if for you the issue is with sex work alone…. Why?
I think boxing is abhorrent actually. And kids doing it is exploitative – they can’t fully understand the consequences of their actions in regards their future physical and mental wellbeing and definitely can’t consent. I despise the military – young people being indoctrinated into unworthy wars that make rich, powerful white men richer and more powerful. But I don’t tell those people they can’t choose to do what they wish with their bodies. Want to have a high chance of being blown up on the battlefield? Fine – be my guest. It’s your body. All I can advocate for is better education so people can critically and properly make their actual choices with informed knowledge and consent; less conditions that give rise to people making economic decisions they don’t want to make – so reduce poverty, introduce basic universal wages, so those that don’t want to slog in a factory, work in an abattoir or yes, do sex work, don’t have to. I can also advocate for better care *after* the wars and better routes out of the military so we know people who are on the battlefield truly want to be there; so those people are properly cared for if harm occurs, despite their choices, because they still had the right to make that choice. The kids that were manipulated to sign up to 2 years in the military and then 9/11 happened and they all got shipped off to war… could they withdraw their consent? No. Why? Because their consent was negotiated as was access to their bodies (getting blown up is pretty damn invasive I’d say). I’d say those kids had worse routes out of that, less ways to withdraw consent in the military than many sex workers who negotiate and renegotiate access to their bodies even after money has changed hands on a regular basis.
But even with no poverty some people will have to accept that some people will want to work in the sex industry and that becomes the crux of the matter. My bodily autonomy and personal freedom will always trump your disapproval of my life choices. You can disapprove and find it offensive, but you can’t argue that I don’t have the right to make those choices, if we accept all the other choices people make surrounding their bodies with the harms and risks they want to accept in return for increasing financial incentives.