Image Courtesy of Dainis Graveris | Unsplash
Managing to escape her captor, Prudence was now alone and stranded on the early morning streets of Canterbury. She finally understood the threat of her career choice.
Tedious nine to five jobs have been the staple of the average British working life. Tight shifts and minimum wage may not be the dream job that most people aspire to, which is why self-employed workers are gradually beginning to make up a larger amount of the workforce in the UK.
In 2001, they made up 12% of the workforce. This figure increased to 15.1% in 2016. According to the Office of National Statistics (ONS), the last year has witnessed the number of self-employed people increased by 187,000.
The labour market in the UK is seeing a shift of people moving towards self-employment. Applications like Uber, Just Eat, and Deliveroo has given individuals the chance to work flexible hours providing them with the opportunity to be in control of their labour. With the advancements of the internet and communication, more opportunities have been created for people to earn money from their own hard work.
Tight for cash and in desperate need for an income, becoming a sex worker was always at the back of Prudence’s mind. “I can do it,” she would say to herself. With some assistance from another sex worker, 20-year-old Prudence [fake name] soon started selling her body for a living.
Prostitution and escorting have existed for centuries, yet the field still lacks any form of protection and rights for its workers. In order to find new customers and to advertise sexual services, Prudence and many other young women are using the internet to reach new clientele in Kent. I had the chance to sit down and talk to Prudence about her job. She was more than happy to sit down and talk, with an intent to clarify any misunderstandings or preconceptions about her field.
She told me that she works “in quite a few different places”, proceeding to list Kentish towns like Herne Bay, Canterbury, and Whitstable. She had been working in the field for just under a year and planned on remaining a prostitute for the next three to four years.
Before we met, I was picturing a young woman who would have been unhappy with her circumstances. Instead, I was surprised to hear that she enjoys her job. She proceeded to inform me: “It’s the only job I’ve managed to keep.”
In 2016, British Parliament estimated that in the UK there were about 72,800 sex workers. By law the sale and purchase of sexual services are legal, but activities linked to exploitation are illegal, such as selling and buying in public.
Prudence is fully aware of the law surrounding the job and when the subject of law was brought up, she told me: “I do car meets as well, but I am aware that it is illegal.” Meeting a client in public is seen as curb-crawling, which is illegal in the UK. Although she breaks the law on occasion, Prudence was not worried. In fact, quite the opposite, she laughed about partaking in car meets seeing it as another harmless addition to her job. Despite this, she has not had any interactions with the police.
One of the benefits Prudence saw from her job was the cash flow. During our conversation, I caught a glimpse of the contents of her wallet, seeing wads of ten- and twenty-pound notes. I asked her what the pay was like. “The money is very good and very easy, but it can be just as easy to spend. And often I found myself spending a lot of money on drugs.” It soon became clear that although she was making much more than the average 20-year-old, she was also blowing cash as if it was nothing.
This got me thinking about the link between sex work and drug use. The two are closely linked but hard data on the topic is difficult to come by. Prudence has been a drug user since her early teens, often smoking Marijuana and taking psychedelic substances such as Magic Mushrooms (Psilocybin) and LSD (Lysergic acid diethylamide).
Throughout the interview, Prudence mentioned drug use occasionally. She later told me that she was recovering from an addiction to crack-cocaine. At this point, she was one month clean, and she said she felt healthier and more confident in herself. “I used cocaine for two months every day, multiple times a day, more often than smoking a cigarette.” Hanging around social circles influenced by drug use did not help Prudence avoid taking part in using herself. She was surrounded by fellow sex workers who also use crack-cocaine. She soon made it clear that heavy drug use was common within the culture of sex work.
After a profound psychedelic experience on Dimethyltryptamine (DMT) in 2017, Prudence had opened her mind to a repressed memory of childhood trauma. “As a child I went through a lot of sexual abuse from family members, it took me until I was 17 to realise this.” Prudence faced abuse from those who should have loved and cared for her. After repressing the years of abuse and neglect she experienced, it took her years to come to terms with her childhood trauma. In a number of studies, past trauma has often been seen as linked to a career in prostitution. This, however, is something that Prudence refused to comment on.
Prudence made her start in prostitution after seeing an old friend. “I bumped into an old friend who had been doing it for six months. She said it has gone fairly well.” Her friend then helped her set up accounts online and showed her how to find clients and how to start working. “I was thinking of becoming a sex worker from a very young age, even from when I first started having sex.” Prudence seemed to have no issues or quarrels with prostitution and took an early interest in sex work. Her desire to be a sex worker stemmed from a fantasy of making money from sex and she continuously mentioned how she takes pleasure from her job. After becoming recently single and being introduced to sex working, Prudence claimed that it “started off as a bit of fun”.
Websites like adultseekers.com and adultworld.com offer people like Prudence the chance to have their own page to reach their target audience around Kent. These sites offer sexual services for men and women, ranging from video streams, swingers’ clubs, and real-life meetups. The website allows Prudence to post videos and pictures to encourage new clients, as well as making money from donations on the site. Clients can also post reviews and recommendations, giving Prudence and other sex workers a higher status on the site. Upon showing me her phone, the sight of thousands of unopened messages from strangers left me astounded. Prudence receives a message from a client at least every half an hour and at the weekends often receives much more.
Although Prudence refused to link her childhood trauma to her current career choice, she did find a link between other trauma. “I do this job because it gives everyone a chance to have consensual happy sex, which I like to provide because I’ve been abused in the past non-consensually.” She proceeded to tell me about her variety of clients: “There are virgins, people who haven’t had sex in five years, and people uncomfortable in their bodies.” It was obvious that she saw herself as providing a much needed and real service for these clients. “A lot of my clients are lovely; they couldn’t do enough for me.”
Prudence seemed to have a bunch of regulars that she is happy to meet and who she feels very comfortable around. Since she works in the local area, I wondered whether Prudence had students from the University of Kent as clients, which she later confirmed, “Yes I have, they’re normally the international students though – normally just for a bit of fun.”
Although Prudence has a number of friendly clienteles, her work presents a much darker side. “Someone took me for three hours and wouldn’t let me leave, until I threatened him with a knife which I didn’t actually have, he left me out in the middle of Canterbury at 3am. It was very scary, and I was thinking about calling the police.” It quickly became obvious that there was a threatening side to her job and many times Prudence was made very uncomfortable and scared when working. “You never really know who your client will be at first.” The fact that Prudence did not report this traumatic incident to the police is a perfect example of how prostitution severely lacks protection from law enforcement, putting the lives of sex workers at risk. She decided not to report this particular case to the Police because she managed to resolve the situation herself and feared that if she did, they would not be of much help, instead only escalating the incident.
“I’ve also experienced quite a few rude people that make you feel bad about yourself.” She explained how she often has problems with clients not paying properly for the services and in some cases, Prudence travels far distances to meet clients who then raise issues with the payment procedure. Without proper financial protection and lack of a stable income, Prudence is reliant on her clientele to pay fully and without hassle but judging by what she said throughout the interview this is the most frequent issue she faces.
Although she did not look fazed by these stories, it was easy to tell that she was deeply troubled and felt uneasy when discussing them. Prudence hesitated to tell me how she once woke up to a client having sex with her, she was asleep at the time so therefore was unable to give any consent to the act. She seemed to have normalised this behaviour and did not really understand that in this example it is considered as rape.
Prudence is a young, attractive, and all-round lovely person, but I imagine how working in these uncomfortable environments and going through horrific experiences would affect her mental health.
Most research on sex work focuses on sexually transmitted infections (STIs), but there remains a lack of study into its effect on mental health. I ask her whether her job impacts her mental health, to which she says: “Yes and no. It doesn’t help with relationships, it’s hard to date as an escort which affects my mental health.”
Prudence is currently dating someone who is aware of her job, but this doesn’t make it any easier to handle. As she says, it is difficult to maintain stable and healthy relationships with people when working as a sex worker.
Some sociological research has been done to identify the link between sex work and mental health. BMC Women’s Health found that 48.8% of sex workers that took part in the research had been diagnosed with a mental health issue. Having intimate sexual relations with multiple people, bad interactions with some clients and the stigma surrounding sex work all contribute to the decline of many workers’ mental health.
Prudence has not received any support or protection since she has been working. “If it was recognised as a real profession, that would be amazing. I would be more than happy to pay tax. I want to contribute to society as much as I can.” She hopes that if her job was recognised and taxed, more protection would be implemented for fellow escorts and prostitutes.
All the money that Prudence receives is in cash and undocumented, meaning that her income is not taxable. If proper regulation and support for sex workers were implemented, Prudence and many other workers would be able to contribute towards these new schemes. Currently, organisations like Ugly Mugs are the only source of protection for people like Prudence. According to their website, they are a “national organisation which provides greater access to justice and protection for sex workers who are often targeted by dangerous individuals but are frequently reluctant to report these incidents to the police.”
My interview with Prudence was cut short because she was late to meet a client. Initially, I was expecting Prudence emphasise the circumstances where she was taken advantage of by men with money but was surprised to see that she is passionate about her job.
Although Prudence experienced trauma as a child and now faces risky interactions with strangers, she remains optimistic about her future.
Without a doubt working as a prostitute comes with many problems. Sex work should not be forgotten about. Thousands of people have found themselves working in this field and long to be treated with dignity and respect as any other workforce is treated.
Our conversation reinforced the fact that there is little-to-no support for people like Prudence. If we truly want to create a future of prosperity and freedom for all, then we should be giving all women and men who work in the sex industry the protection and support they need.