Fiction has an outsize influence on perceptions of sex work. Of the many depictions of prostitution in recent UK television dramas, only one* is based directly on a nonfiction memoir of a real sex worker – and it is widely accused of ‘glamourising’ sex work (mainly by people who have not read the books at all) for presenting a protagonist who is neither drug-addicted nor abused in childhood.**
Most other media depictions of the business, however, rely on stereotypes of streetwalkers and other sex workers having chaotic, desperate lives. Even the Home Office supports this distortion. Until recently it had a website which claimed: “Most women involved in street-based prostitution are not there through choice... Nearly all prostitutes are addicted to drugs or alcohol. Many of them have been trafficked into the country by criminals, and are held against their will. Many were abused as children, and many are homeless.” There were no sources given for these statements – for the simple fact that they are wrong.
As sex educator and ex-sex worker Carol Queen notes in Real Live Nude Girls, “a weapon consistently used against the marginalized is… insidious myth-making, leading outsiders to believe things about individuals, based on their group status, that may not be true.”
This reliance on fiction over truth influences how information is obtained and distributed. Lamenting the narrow focus of most research, Laura Agustín notes “[t]he focus is usually on personal motivations, the morality of the buying-and-selling relationship, stigma, violence and disease prevention.” It’s little wonder, then, that data showing the reality of life in sex work are not widely reported because, let's face it, prurient stories about violence and drugs and pimps are like the three-way-scene of social research: hot. People going into sex work to pay the mortgage? Not so much. As a result of this bias, preconceived opinions are seldom challenged.
A 2009 study polling sex workers about their attitudes towards work did more than just challenge the preconceptions. "Beyond Gender: An examination of exploitation in sex work" by Suzanne Jenkins of Keele University revealed the results of detailed interviews with 440 sex workers. Not simply street-based women, either, but women, men, and transgendered sex workers in all areas of the business. Over half were from the UK; the rest were based in western Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand.
The results may just surprise you.
Is paid sex all about clients dominating sex workers? No. Less than 7% of the women interviewed thought that paying for sex gives the client power over the escort. 26.2% thought paying makes clients vulnerable, while 54.5% said that 'commercial sexual transactions are relationships of equality'. (The remainder of repondents were undecided.)
The majority of escorts perceive commercial sex as a relationship of equality; as sex workers, they neither have power over, nor are submissive to, their clients. When asked 'in your escort interactions who normally takes overall control of the encounter?' 78.7% said they always or they usually did. 22.3% said it varies, and only 0.7% said the client decides.
Sex work is often characterised as brutal, with abuse a commonplace and even usual outcome. But when asked if they have ever felt physically threatened, only 25% of women and 18.7% of men said yes. 77% of women said they felt clients treated them respectfully; the same percentage said they respected their clients.
Sex work is also portrayed by its opponents as something most people want to get out of. But when asked "how much longer do you plan to do escort work for?”, "I have no plans to stop escort work" was joint first choice of answer for women along with "one-five more years" (both receiving 35.3%). Only 3.2% said they planned to stop in less than three months.
Sex workers are often stereotyped as very young and naive, unaware of the dangers of the choices they are making. But the age data do not suggest the field is populated with teenage runaways and naive youngsters: Almost 85% of the women were aged 26 or older - and 19% of them were over 40.
Sex work is frequently assumed to be a choice suitable only for the uneducated. But 35.3 % of the men held degrees, whereas for women, this was 32.9%. More than a third of the total were degree-educated, and over 18% held post-graduate qualifications. Only 6.5% had no formal educational qualifications.
I have known more than a few call girls with degrees and postgraduate qualifications. The balance between risk and reward is something people address all the time. Whether one picks a career as a deep-sea fisherman or as a call girl, the potential income and danger are well publicised, and yet people sign up willingly. This is a choice everyone has the right to make for themselves.
When asked what things they like about the work, 2 in 3 respondents in the Keele study reported 'like meeting people'. 75% of women and 50% of men and transgender women reported 'flexibility of working hours' as an aspect they enjoy. 72% of women cited 'independence'. Jenkins noted:
However, it is also important to highlight that an appreciation of flexible working hours and independence were factors that were valuable to women generally, not only mothers. The benefits of greater independence and flexible working hours were not just about the demands of parenting - they were often about time provided for other, non parenting-related pursuits. These included other business interests, studying, and artistic or sporting pastimes. Although some men similarly valued their personal time in this way, it was female participants who mentioned freedom and independence most frequently.The difference between how fiction imagines prostitutes’ lives and how they really are rarely gets airtime. Why? One reason could be because doing so might challenge a number of groups with criminalisation agendas. Of which more, oh so much more, to come.
* - yes, of course I’m referring to Secret Diary of a Call Girl
** - yes, well spotted, this is my blog, I'm allowed to plug myself