This week’s blog is by broadcaster, journalist and campaigner, Ruth Jacobs.
What’s your background in the sex industry?
From my early to mid-twenties, I was a call girl in London. I stopped selling sex in 1999 when I stopped injecting heroin and crack cocaine, which I started after some time in prostitution. Numerous overdoses failed and towards the end even when I wasn’t sectioned in the local psychiatric ward or voluntarily in treatment, I could rarely see clients due to the track marks, lumps and abscesses on my arms and sometimes on my hands, feet and legs. If I wasn’t at my absolute worst aesthetically, I might have seen some regular clients, but my lack of self-esteem wouldn’t let me work for madams and escort agencies when I’d reached that point; I couldn’t bear being turned away from jobs and recall the two times I was – once because of my hair colour (or so I was told) and the second was due to my addiction when a regular client threw me out of his apartment, shoving a fifty-pound note in my hand, after finding me in his kitchen, trying to get a vein. We would smoke crack together and that was quite acceptable, but shooting up and heroin were not. I remember another incident around that time when one of my regular clients was in my flat, smoking crack with me, and I spent the whole session crying in his arms. He still paid me. He was someone I saw for a couple of years or maybe more. I wouldn’t recognise him now if he walked past me in the street though. None of my regulars’ or any clients’ faces are in my memory. I am sure that’s due to the posttraumatic stress disorder I suffer from and in most cases, apart from the regular clients I liked, I would far rather not remember.
Since the time you left the sex trade what changes have you seen?
The internet has changed the sex trade since the time when I was working. It gives women more opportunity to work independently rather than for madams and escort agencies. There is also less privacy for the women as some I have spoken with have their pictures online for potential clients to see, and back when I was working, a madam would have a book and only clients visiting her would get to see the pictures of the women. So there is less anonymity for women working as escorts online. Though I have been informed that from their private galleries on one site, and I imagine there are others offering the same too, they can earn funds when their personal pictures are viewed, but having pictures online like this means anyone can take copies and distribute them. When and if a woman who has been working in this way wants to stop selling sex, there is likely to be a legacy of pornographic pictures of her of which she has no control.
The number of students involved in sex work seems to have increased since I was working. I was a mature student at the time, something I took up after I entered the sex trade, but was unable to finish. I think with the cuts and lack of funding, more and more students see sex work as a way to avoid debt, have more time for their studies and partying than they would in a normal paying job, which means working more hours and of course, for far less money. However, it’s not as easy as it may appear: all but one of the women I know who have in their past sold sex suffer trauma associated with that time in their lives. Most of us have been victims of rape and other violence, and having what is for the most part unenthusiastic consensual sex and being viewed as a sex object can harm relationships, sexual relations, self-esteem and more.
I have been sad to hear about the review sites online where clients rate the women. I have seen the worst of those sites and what some men are reviewing there is rape and not consensual sex. I know my regular clients would never have even wanted to be with me if they didn’t believe I not only wanted to be there but was also enjoying what we were doing. Clearly some of the men on these review sites are sexual predators and not men paying a woman for consensual sex. It would make good sense for these sites to be used for gathering intelligence to identify victims of sex trafficking and convict rapists.
A huge benefit of the internet is that information for safety can be shared and schemes such as National Ugly Mugs are far more accessible with today’s technology than they would have been if operating back when I was working. There’s also the benefit of being able to communicate globally and this is really important for self-organising and sex worker rights. For connecting with other sex workers, the internet is also a great advantage to women, men and transgender people with online access who would otherwise feel isolated.
I don’t know that street sex work, in which the women are often involved for survival, has changed. I never really worked on the street; the one time I did get into a car in Australia for that purpose, I ended up being driven to the middle of nowhere in the outback and raped.
What are your thoughts on the policing of on-street sex work?
Some police forces in the UK are taking a hard line on street prostitution, which is extremely perilous for the women who are pushed to work in less well-lit and more dangerous areas. I recently investigated such an approach for Inside Out on BBC1. It was the Safe Exit scheme in Medway, Kent. These campaigns are about ‘cleaning up the streets’ and are concerned with gentrification of an area and not about the women they claim to be concerned with.
Safe Exit was hailed a success and stated to have helped huge numbers of women leave the sex trade. They say they reduced the number of women working on street by 90+. However, our sources, two public servants associated with the project, said only one woman was helped and she has since died. We were also told other women working on-street died since the scheme launched, and one woman was murdered. Arrests of women working on-street in the area rocketed, and that is far from a measure of success. Instead, it ensures the women stay in the sex trade whether they want to or not, because of course having a criminal record makes it even more difficult to gain other employment, let alone the numerous other barriers many women face, which may include lack of qualifications or previous work experience for example.
In addition, this type of policing strategy also criminalises clients. A negative effect when clients are criminalised is that it leaves mostly the more dangerous clients, including rapists and murderers. Just last year in Ilford, Essex, when police embarked on a ‘cleaning up the streets’ campaign, Mariana Popa, a 24-year-old Romanian woman who was working on-street was killed.
We need to take lessons from the failures of these types of schemes, which with media spin can appear successful to the public, but when researched on results there is no real help for the women. For example, in Medway’s Safe Exit scheme, treatment for drugs did not mean a residential or day rehab facility but a methadone prescription; help with housing did not mean being rehoused permanently in a private residence, but a temporary room in a multi-occupancy house – and this we were told was short-term until funding was pulled, and we do not know where the ten or so women who were apparently in their two safe houses went.
For women who want to leave the industry, far more services and real assistance and support is needed: drug and alcohol treatment that consists of more than prescribing (as most women working on-street have addiction issues), trauma counselling (high numbers of women in prostitution have posttraumatic stress disorder), assistance with debt management, help getting out of poverty, housing, training for life skills as well as further education, help with getting their children back from the care system if they’ve lost them, and advice and services that enable them to find other employment if they wish. Furthermore, these programs must never be forced. Coercion, manipulation and control are not conducive to therapeutic services.
In the second half of this interview, the policing approach to sex work that leads the country and currently operates only in Merseyside will be discussed.
For a petition to make the Merseyside hate crime model UK wide, please see here.