22 July 2014

Challenging Prejudices around Sex Work

by Amanda Williamson

I have been pondering on this blog post for several months now. I have opinions about sex work that some people might struggle with. I have found myself pussyfooting around the issue and worrying that my network won't be able to handle my thoughts and beliefs around sex work...

Could this be anything to do with my Catholic school upbringing? Might I, even though I believe I have forged my own moral compass by being curious and genuinely open to taboo issues, actually still be being influenced by others' attitudes towards sex, taught to me decades ago? When I started secondary school, a convent grammar school, I had to read two books before term started. The New World Bible and Girls Growing Up. I didn't read the bible before I started school (rebel). I couldn't wait to get stuck into Girls Growing Up though. I can't find any reference anywhere to this book online, not even an illustration. It was basically a book to explain the changes of puberty (I remember misreading "pubic" as "public" and making my parents laugh) and sex. The narrative focused on a married couple with kids who, once the kids went to bed, talked about their day and then expressed their love for each other with a very gentle sounding lovemaking, in bed of course, that involved the woman lying back and the man taking the initiative. The whole purpose being that they express their love so intensely that they can make a baby out of it to prove their love (or something like that).

I have come a long way since then, which was 31 years ago (yikes). I have more knowledge, maybe even wisdom, personal experience and been exposed to a whole spectrum of sexual behaviour through acquaintances and clients I have worked with, from asexual to monogamous, adulterous, polyamorous relationships, exchanging sex for money and coercive or forceful sex.

I'll say it now, the only time I feel that sex is wrong is if it is forceful or coercive. For the sake of clarity,  sex with children is always coercive in my opinion as well as sex with people who you are in a position of power over e.g. therapists' clients. Read more about this here: http://www.amandawilliamsoncounselling.co.uk/2013/05/sex-in-forbidden-zone-by-peter-rutter.html

Please also note that I am well aware of the issues with forced prostitution and trafficking which I believe are wrong. However, I also have the capacity to see that full service sex work (commonly referred to as prostitution, although sex workers dislike that term) does not necessarily involve force or coercion.

Whether somebody chooses to abstain from sex, or whether they choose a monogamous or polyamorous relationship is not a problem to me, provided nobody is being hurt in the process.

It goes to follow then, that full service sex work is not a problem to me, provided the sex worker and the client are both consenting adults. I would prefer that people did not engage in polyamorous relationships if they are having to lie about it to their partner. That is deception and I believe that almost all of the time this is ethically wrong. But I am aware that me thinking something is wrong does not mean that the rest of the world will agree it's wrong. Hopefully everybody (besides certain sociopaths) would agree that forceful or coercive sex is always wrong (excluding consensual BDSM practices, talking of which, research seems to indicate that BDSM practitioners may be psychologically healthier than non-practitioners).

Why sex work is okay

I actually think that full service sex workers provide a very much needed service, particularly so for disabled people or those with mental health issues that might make finding a partner (whether that be for a full relationship or just for sex) incredibly difficult. What many people don't seem to appreciate is that sexual needs are pretty much universal. We are (most of us) wired to want sexual release. Many of us want both an intimate emotional connection and a physically intimate connection. Even a monogamously wired person may not be able to have both those needs met in one relationship.

As for people without any disability or mental health issues, if they aren't hurting anybody, why is it a problem for them to pay to have sex with a sex worker? Why is it somehow preferable for them to go to a bar or club, buy drinks for a potential sexual partner, or treat them to dinner, with the purpose of wanting to have intercourse at the end of it?

I suspect that sex work is tarnished with old attitudes that are perpetuated. I hold my hands up, I have probably passed judgment on sex workers in the past due to ignorance, insecurity and societal and religious expectations.

No Agenda

I would like to be clear here that I have no personal agenda. I am not a sex worker and it wouldn't work for me personally. I have a comfortable spot on the sexuality spectrum that would make it difficult for me to have sex with somebody I did not know. That doesn't mean I am somehow morally right. It's just what is right for me. Some people get a lot of enjoyment and a buzz from sex with a stranger. Each to their own. I appreciate why gambling is so addictive but my brain isn't wired to get a thrill from gambling either.

Acceptance of individuality

Wherever it is I am on the spectrum of sexuality, I appreciate others' positions (as long as they aren't being forceful or coercive with sex). 

A Therapeutic Contract

I might be taking a risk here by saying it, but full service sex work can be compared (and contrasted) with counselling and psychotherapy. A client is paying for a service that involves a certain amount of intimacy. For some clients, being emotionally intimate may be more excruciating than being sexually intimate and therefore forming a relationship with a therapist may feel fundamentally more risky or scary than paying for sex. There are therapists that traverse the two issues although the UK law on sex surrogacy is ambiguous. Sex therapists deal explicitly with issues of sex and I suspect have a more open mind about sex work than the average person.

Where sex work meets therapy

I have for several months been in contact with a sex worker who is also a trainee therapist via Twitter. We met via a mutual contact Phil Dore as this lady, Jemima, has a mutual interest in the regulation of therapy to help protect clients from rogue therapists who abuse the position of trust they hold. My dialogue with Jemima has helped me understand more about the abuse that sex workers face and the assumptions that many people, including therapists, make about sex workers. There was an article written very recently in the BACP publication Therapy Today on women exiting sex work which, whilst an important issue I was pleased to see being discussed, did have a flavour of assumption that all women in sex work would choose to exit if they could. Whilst reading it I thought of Jemima and Tweeted her to ask her what she thought of it. Jemima was so upset she told me that she had cried. She quite rightly pointed out that the BACP Ethical Framework promotes client autonomy and that this attitude is clearly at odds with that. She has written a response to Therapy Today. Jemima mentioned an article a this blog post on the criminalisation of the clients of sex workers in Canada.

I have invited Jemima to be interviewed for this blog post as I believe that she is in the perfect position to lend a voice to this issue. I believe that it is important to realise that there are people who choose sex work and not assume that they are all downtrodden, abused or in need of rescuing. If we automatically take that stance that makes us, the judge, assume a position of power which says more about us and our egos and insecurities and/or ignorance than it does the sex worker.

Q Please can I have a brief description of what you do in terms of how you choose to define yourself professionally? 

I am an independent, indoor, full service sex worker, independent means I do not work for an agency or brothel. Indoor contrasts with outdoor, or street workers, the most common image that comes to mind when people think of sex workers. Sex work covers a variety of jobs, from porn to phone sex. Full service means I will have sex with my clients, under a variety of pre-negotiated (i.e. I insist on condoms) and time limited conditions. People might know the words escort or call girl to describe what I do, though both are problematic for different reasons.

Q How long have you been a sex worker for? 

Around 6 years, which in sex work terms is quite long, there is a joke that sex work years are the same as dog years.

Q What are the best and worst bits about being a sex worker? 

Best bits; working for myself, the boost it has given to my self esteem and confidence, the money, the independence, travelling and meeting new people. The community that other sex workers provide, sometimes the sex. The many older gentleman for whom I provide the only human contact. With clients of any age seeing someone leave happy and relaxed, and being responsible for that is a wonderful experience. Many clients talk to me about their lives and problems, in some ways the kind of trust that the therapeutic alliance is meant to work towards over a series of sessions is achieved far more rapidly. I become someone they share problems and intimate secrets with. It has also allowed me to explore a feminine side to myself I had previously,  for a variety of reasons been unable to express.

Worst; The fear of assault and rape, being raped, not being able to be open about my work, the fear of outing, the fear that stigma may impact on those I care about, unreliable working hours-like many self employed people I spend a lot of time waiting for the phone to ring. A tricky subject much discussed among sws but little understood outside the job is having sex when you are not particularly wanting it. This is not the same as non consensual sex, it is assumed it must be the worst part of the job, but it isn't. It is no different really to anyone else going into work when they don't really fancy it.

Q Can you tell me a little about your psychotherapy training? 

I have to be slightly circumspect here, but I am training to be a person centred therapist on a BACP approved course at an accredited learning provider. (Though the more I learn the more an integrationist approach seems the best).

Q What are the best and worst bits about being a therapist? 

Well I am still in training, and one of the worst things about this is not being able to express my knowledge or experiences. For example when the tutor was discussing the importance of being able to leave clients behind for self care there was so much I could have contributed. To be a successful sex worker, in terms of personal health and self care, you have to be able to leave the clients behind in a very similar manner. In terms of clients who don't show there was also a lot I could have shared, but was unable to. Again when lone working came up there was a wealth of experience I could not share. On another level there is a level of congruence and authenticity denied to me in things like skills practice, since there are whole aspects of my life I have to censor due to stigma.
The self development has been amazing though, I feel I am so much more self aware than I was a year ago, I have grown so much. It has been incredible getting good feedback, and realising I can do this. With those clients I have seen as they open up and trust me I feel incredibly honoured to be allowed into their lives.

Q What do you think of current legislation regarding sex work – what would you change and why? 

Current legislation is a mess. Sex work is legal in the UK, if you work alone and indoors. However those with an ideological objection to sex work as well as those with a religious one have tried to criminalise almost every aspect of life surrounding sex work. Street soliciting is illegal, which criminalised the most vulnerable sex workers, often trans, WoC, substance users and migrants. Working with another person is illegal, technically a brothel (thank you Labour) this means if we wish to share a work space for security and companionship we can both be arrested as the other persons pimp. Sex work is dangerous and isolating as it is and this particular law makes it more so.
Our partners are also criminalised, arrested as our pimps regardless of evidence. then there is the assumptions and stigma, sex workers are evicted, have their children taken off them, loose custody cases, purely because of their job.
We need decriminalisation on the New Zealand model. This moves the regulation of sex work from the criminal to the civil sphere, treats it as any other job, with some particular exceptions around the claiming of benefits.

Q What do you think about the current legislation regarding counselling and psychotherapy? Again; what would you change and why?

I think it would be a good idea! Again it seems that when it comes to sex, people think there are a whole different set of assumptions and norms which must be upheld, norms based on purity culture and the dominance of capitalist patriarchy. People who sell sexual services are controlled, stigmatised, treated as outcasts, people who sell therapeutic services are allowed free reign regardless of the harm they may have done. In sex work terms we talk about harm reduction, therapy needs to place harm reduction front and centre, and there must be mandatory registration and regulation.
This may seem contradictory when I oppose mandatory regulation (or legalisation) of sex work, however it is about understanding power dynamics and who has the power in a relationship. In sex work the worker needs protection, best offered by decriminalisation, in therapy it is the client who needs it, best offered by regulation.

Q Do you experience any misunderstanding or discrimination over the sex work aspect of your lifestyle and if so from whom? 

Daily, society at large is whorephobic and makes huge assumptions about sex workers, as you already mentioned in the discussion of the therapy today piece. However I am very careful about who knows I am a sex worker, and so unless I am campaigning online I can avoid this, although i do not always exercise as much self care as I should. It is hard though when classmates or tutors discuss “prostitution” or trafficking, and make statements that show they have prejudices based on lack of knowledge and I feel unable to challenge them due to fear of outing myself. I know as much about trafficking a many academics, yet have to sit their in silence, seething. I imagine it is similar to how LGBT people feel when they are read as straight and surrounded by homophobic or transphobes.

Q Do you encounter any misunderstanding regarding your therapeutic work? 

Not so far

Q Anything else you want to say?

You mention the fact that some sex workers work with disabled people as part of your changing thoughts around sex work. This is problematic for me and many other sex workers for a number of reasons. Whilst on an individual level it is rewarding to work with people with disabilities, many of whom are denied access to sexual pleasure by the disablism of society and assumptions about people with disabilities being sexless this has nothing to do with the fight for sex workers rights and against stigma.

Many people are unable to have the sex life they desire, for any number of reasons, they may have poor social skills, be physically unattractive, shy, obese, and so on. Whilst these are not structural in nature as disability is (I take a social view of disability, in that it is society which causes some people to be less abled than others) to argue that sex work is somehow acceptable because it provides a sexual opportunity for those who would otherwise not be able to have those opportunities surely should include those without disabilities but with other disadvantages?

People with disabilities should have their right to sexual pleasure respected, and enabled if possible (assuming they are not asexual) On a side note there also should not be assumptions they are heterosexual, or have no interest in subjects such as BDSM. Enabling in this context may or may not involve helping to arrange meetings with sex workers if this is what the disabled person wants. We are fortunate in the UK as many OTs and case precedent means personal allowances can be spent on a sex worker, and carers are expected to respect the disabled person's right to privacy and desire for sex. Although further training is needed and there are still many issues around families who deny their adult children's sexuality and also for those with learning difficulties.

However as important as these issues are the rights of sex workers do not rely on the "worthiness" of our clients. A therapeutic analogy- imagine if the string them up brigade decided that counselling paedophiles should be criminalised, on the grounds they did not "deserve" to be helped? Quite rightly therapists would object, and would highlight how whilst not every therapist wants or is able to work with sex offenders it would be wrong to punish those who did. The rights of the therapist as a worker are not dependent on the worthiness of those they work with.

One last thing, many sex workers are disabled, it is a job that can work well when flexibility is a key requirement. It is so common in the discussion around sex workers rights to focus on the clients, rather than the workers, when discussing sex work and disability it would be good if for a change people's first thought was of disabled sex workers, not disabled clients.

Thank you Jemima for some very thought provoking, educative and interesting answers.

NB This post was updated on 25th June 2014. The link to a sex surrogacy agency has been removed because it was brought to my attention that the agency I linked to was unregulated having had their COSRT membership removed. 


Markus said...


very interesting post, thank you both very much.

I have a question to the Q&A part from Jemima - you write that you oppose legalisation of sex work ("...This may seem contradictory when I oppose mandatory regulation (or legalisation) of sex work, however..").

If I didn't miss any context (the new zealand law you reference seems to decriminalize certain necessary things, but sex work was already legal), could you elaborate on why?


jemina said...

Hi Markus, and thank you for both reading and your comment. Within a sex work context legalization has a very specific meaning. It is the model used in Germany, Holland, and Nevada in the US. It sees sex work as a problem to be contained and sex workers as vectors of disease who must be licensed, tested and not treated as autonomous adults with agency. Legalization (as a legal framework) still regulates sex work according to the criminal law, and most harshly impacts on marginalized sex workers who often cannot afford the licensing process or get work at legal brothels.

It also fails to combat stigma

I fell into the trap of using jargon, which I must apologize for.

Unknown said...

Thanks for writing this article and acknowledging that there is a therapeutic element to sex work (this was even said by Homer Simpson in the episode "The Great Simpsina" when during a couple massage with Marge he sighs "Masseuses - half doctors, half Hookers that solve everything!".
I'd like to see decriminalisation here in the UK and greater support for those in the industry.
Also a more sensible approach to helping people connect with their own sexual self as well as learning how to interact appropriately with others is needed. Something that I foresee becoming a greater problem in this age where almost every fantasy can be viewed instantly on line and personal interactions become diminished.

Amanda Williamson (She/her) said...

Thank you for commenting Tantric Francesca. I enjoyed the Simpsons clip which I include here:


Warm regards


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