This post is my summary of a transcript of an interview (not done by me) with a Birmingham sex worker whom I have called Katy (this is neither her real nor her working name). I am, to be honest, reluctant to blog about sexwork again as there are so many bloggers who know a lot more than me and are much better placed to write about it. One or two of them, I know, read this blog.
I want to post this primarily for those who perhaps don’t know much about sex work and the debates currently going on. If you are one of these please read on. A lot of reporting talks about sex workers in abstract and often derogatory terms ‘prostitutes’ ‘prostituted women’ , and so, denying them an identity. When you read about sex work in the future and think about the consequences of changes in the law, I would ask you to think not about sex workers in the abstract but about Katy, and what it would mean to her. Katy is a daughter, a sister, a friend. Katy has hopes and dreams. Katy is a sex worker.
Katy is 21 but looks a couple of years younger. She is wary and defensive at first but soon relaxes and reveals herself to be a friendly and open young woman. She never imagined that she would become a sex worker having grown up with the idea of prostitutes as emaciated drug addicts and sex work as something dirty and unpleasant. Having left school with few qualifications and become estranged from her family she needed to earn money. It was at the suggestion of her best friend with whom she has been close since school days that they visited a massage parlour in a Birmingham suburb to ask about working there. That was three years ago and Katy has been working at the parlour ever since.
Does she enjoy her work? Yes, said Katy, if I didn’t I would have left long ago. She likes the girls she works with, who include university students working to finance their studies, and she generally likes the clients. She says that these are very often men with little kinks and fantasies they can’t fulfil with their wives. It is surely better, she says, for them to see her rather than to look for an affair and risk their marriages with emotional entanglements. Katy talks with particular pride about a disabled client she sees. He comes to the parlour once a month, brought by his carer. The way into the parlour is via a narrow winding corridor which means his wheelchair has to be left by the door. The carer and the girls carry him to he room and undress him, which takes some time. His disability means that he cannot manage penetrative sex so Katy gives him sensual massage and hand relief. He enjoys his visits and looks forward to them. Katy look serious for a moment and says quietly
“We do good.”
What about sexual health? Katy takes health and hygiene very seriously and points out that sex with her is much safer than drunken unprotected sex with a stranger picked up in a bar. The parlour is visited regularly by a sexual health outreach worker who brings free condoms by the boxload. She gives advice on sexual health matters and handles appointments for checkups, something Katy regularly takes advantage of. She also gives out useful information and it was from her that Katy learnt about the National Ugly Mugs scheme to which she quickly signed up. Katy is clearly happy that there are agencies that care about her health and well being.
Katy has never encountered hostility because of her job. Her friends all know what she does and she is anyway estranged from her family. She was not aware of the proposals in Scotland and Ireland to criminalise clients. She seemed genuinely shocked that such things were being proposed.
If criminalisation came to England the consequences for Katy would be dire. The parlour that gives her a safe and comfortable place to work would close probably forcing her onto the streets. She would be cut off from sexual health services, cut off from protection against violent clients. A severely disabled man would be denied possibly the one thing that makes his life bearable. His carer would become a criminal.
I know that advocates of the proposed changes to the law in Scotland and Ireland on both sides of the border say that it is only the client that is being criminalised and that help and support will be given to sex workers to exit. Leaving aside the fact that many of them don’t actually want to exit, the idea that sex workers would not be criminalised has been unmasked. The proposed changes to the law in the Irish Republic, published this week, include provisions for confiscation of sex workers’ phones and the shutting down of their websites on the same basis as websites with child pornography. They will be forced into the shadows, into danger, just as all serious commentators on the matter have predicted.
You will read a lot about these issues in the coming months and if legislation is passed in Scotland it will surely come to England in due course. All I ask is that when you consider the issues take out of your mind the impersonalising terminology you will read. Substitute it with a bright friendly young woman from Birmingham.
Katy is a sex worker. She is also a daughter, a sister, a friend. She has hopes and dreams. She is just like you, just like me.