A group discussion by sex workers who identify as Disabled

Intro:

Mafalda:

Before I started doing sex work, I tried other self-employed forms, doing 30 hours a week and it really took a toll on my health. The only types of work that I could access were low-waged, minimum wage and that is not really enough to be able to survive in London. When I started being self-employed, I was very scared of claiming benefits and I found it very difficult to consider myself disabled. I had issues because of the stigma attached to being disabled or being on benefits. I did not think that my problems were serious enough and on the other hand I also did not want to be that person. It took me a long time to be able to accept the label disabled for bureaucratic processes.

 

Andy:

I started sex work almost 10 years ago. I am a sex worker of colour. I am also a child survivor and have long-term CPTSD as well as other neurodiversities relating to trauma. I went to university and it was a struggle. I have done various forms of work, being migrant, being a survivor, it’s difficult to do frequent work for little pay and be able to survive. So I turned to sex work. I started out in the porn industry. For me as a survivor it has been very difficult. The longer I have been a survivor, the more trauma that happens to me, it’s become harder as I get older to do most things. Keeping a job, a civvy job, even going back to education is incredibly difficult. Sex work has given me the freedom to work when I want or can. I can dissociate whilst at work, which has its downsides and upsides. I personally hate sex work, I do it to survive.

 

Victoria:

I am a sex worker. I have PTSD and severe anxiety. I was diagnosed when I came to London, when I had money to access health care and a therapist. Before that, I had 40 jobs that were not sex work. I could not stay in jobs, because people scream at you, I just freeze and go into panic mode. I stop being able to go to work, then guilt trips in and makes everything complicated. My family, they see therapy or anything related with mental health as very stigmatised. So I could not really explore while I was living there, why could I not keep a job. When I came to London and I started doing sex work, I could afford to take time and to explore.

 

Jak:

My first experiences of sex work were not even sex work. I did a lot of survival sex which was transactional. At that point in my life, I remember going for a job interview in a brothel and thinking ‘This is actually quite shit money! And I didn’t do it. I lived on benefits for a long time. Reflecting back I was mentally and physically unwell, that money enabled me to live. At the point where I got a “normal”, civvy job, I felt a real sense of achievement, “I am a real person!” Then finding out how shit work was. I had very few jobs where I earned proper money. Years of overworking, doing too much free work and living with a long-term untreated illness, I became more and more unwell. Austerity got worse, I lost my shit job and and I started doing sex work. Sex work was what I coulddo at the level of health that I had.

 

Aya:

I have not been in sex work long, that is partially to do with my age. I grew up in a family of disabled people – all of us are autistic – and that made it difficult to live together. I started SW as a way to supplement a civvy job I was struggling with. A job that worsened my mental health. So I started sex work as a supplement. It got to the point where I could not handle that retail client-facing job for hours, I could not do that anymore. I had to rely on sex work fully, and I had to move out of the house. That transition from part-time, to survival sex work is quite jarring. I have to remind myself that this is all I can do, I did not always hate it but in a way that makes me more bitter: this is the only option that I have. Because I am a student, I cannot claim universal credit. I am not diagnosed with Autism and because of that I cannot apply for PIP.

 

Why civvy work does not work:

Aya:

On the autism side of things, that affects how much time you have to spend interacting with people, pretending to be neurotypical. When you are doing a retail job, one of the only jobs you can access without training and education. You have to be in that client-facing role for four hours at the very least, usually six to eight hours, sometimes twelve. With sex work: I personally work in a way that I push clients into half hour slots at the most. That is how I work best. Then it is over and I would have made the equivalent of doing eight hours in a civ job in retail. For my brand of autism that works. Mathematically it makes sense: eight hours or thirty minutes.

Fitting into work place hierarchies, relating to figures of authority and the anxieties that can induce. Being able to work independently is very freeing from that. I understand that is definitely not the case with all sex workers, there are sex workers who do have a boss. But I know for a lot of other sex workers, myself included, have independent status, that is an invisible aspect.

 

Andy:

That is the whole condition of work, it is a very neuro-typical-accessible space, everyone else outside of that does not fit. My brain has deteriorated because I have been a survivor since I was six years old, my CPTSD gets worse and worse. I cannot speak at times, linguistic functions stop working. Many aspects of my life are harder because of my neurodiversity/brain injury – which is what PTSD/CPTSD is classed as, it is a brain injury. Especially when it is left untreated.

Even doing basic admin work is incredibly hard, which is why I stopped doing independent sex work. Brothel work – as shitty as it is and as shitty pay as it is – means it cuts down the extra work I would do if I was independent. Then again, it is not very good pay so I work more. It’s not great, but then I can take time off.

Accessing benefits, I have done that but also had a time where I was undocumented because I have joint nationality. Without my EU documentation, I did not have anything to prove that I was legally allowed to be here without a visa and could at any point get deported. I could not apply for housing benefit or anything. Even if I wanted to do civvy work, I could not. Civvy work is a thing that people assume, that people can do, and should do.

 

Mafalda:

This is something the rescue industry or people who do not know sex workers, and even some people who do know us think: “You could be doing something else”

I have tried to do something else! I delayed. I have been thinking about doing sex work since I was 18. Sometimes I go: “I wasted all that time. I could have been making more money!” I tried being a student, my mental health meant that I could not continue. I tried working in a call centre. I tried doing other self-employed work. Working a normal job 30 hours a week, would have a terrible effect on my health.

I tried doing a different self-employed job it was incredibly draining and I still depended on agencies. So even though I had a very noble job dealing with vulnerable people, it was not something that I could live on. I was also punished if I cancelled, it became unsustainable. Sex work was freeing in a way.

 

Victoria:

I would be excited usually about every job that I would start, then something would happen that would throw me. The times that I stayed longer in jobs, was because I was working with really cool people. I did not have even one job that I was able to say: “I am not feeling well.” Because they would be like: “You have to come to work!” This idea that we have to go to work when we are sick, how it works in Portugal is: When you are sick, you lose the three first days of payment. If you stay ill for a week, you only get paid sick pay for four days. When the minimum wage is 400 Euros a month that is a huge amount you lose.

I would start having big problems to focus. I would not sleep well. I would go to work, having this complete blur of my mind, including vision. Sometimes, I would not go to work and I would be in such tension that my body would ache, the muscles would ache like if I was being beaten up. I was never able to hold a job for more than a few months.

Power dynamics. It does not even have to be a boss or manager, it can be just someone who has one role above yours. It makes a huge difference how people treat you. Why can someone not explain to me what they are telling me to do? It is like holding the power of knowledge. Everything just makes me go mad. Then the anxiety, it just keeps going in loops, until I am just so fucking tired.

 

Jak:

With ordinary work I never had a job that had sick pay, that was not casual, that had holiday pay. Work took up all my time. If I was trying to do something outside work which was creative and/or part of some political action, there just was not enough time to live. I do not think that I am so different from other people through having shit mental health or having physical illness. Maybe it is different when people have good jobs, whatever they are. I do not know. That does not seem to be the case as far as I can tell. Ill or not, work seems enormously unrewarding for the amount of time and life that it demands.

 

Why welfare or respectability is not accessible.

Aya:

Sometimes the system has cracks that people fall through. It is the case with any bureaucratic system. Student finance does not consider the fact that your parents maybe cannot give you any of their income. Universal credit will not consider that you are not getting enough in student finance, you are still not eligible. Those are things that for bureaucratic reasons are inaccessible. Because people have a lot of faith in systems to work for the most vulnerable people, they do not want to be confronted with the reality that actually it does not work.

 

Mafalda:

I have only been able to access welfare for very short periods. When I tried to claim housing benefit as a self-employed person, they said that I was not working enough hours. Then as person from abroad I was not allowed any housing benefit. I was too young for working tax credits. I had issues not being born in the UK. I have applied for PIP and universal credit but I have not heard back yet. I am scared they are just going to turn around and say: “You are not ill enough.”

Even if I do get universal credit at the end of a long period of struggle, it is a long time to  get the money. I need the money now to pay my rent now.

Landlords are difficult around benefits. You have to claim them in secret, that is extra stress. The anxiety of going through all the loopholes, constantly being scared they are going to take that away or that you are not going to get it at all, because they have made claiming so difficult.

 

Jak:

I remember applying… not even applying for housing benefit, sending away to get the forms. The next day my housemate got a call from the DWP investigating them. “You told us that your housemate was employed.” Which I had been! I lost my job! The system is enormously bureaucratic, punitive, based on sanctions, based on punishing people rather than helping. It is fucking exhausting. When I was looking for medical treatment the doctor said to me: “Well, it is difficult for you to keep working through the treatment, you can just claim benefits.” [laughs] Clearly, that person had no fucking idea.

 

Aya:

Course administrators recommended: ‘You should just stop doing your course for a bit, interrupt your studies, and claim benefits while you sort your life out.’ This is really damaging: people in authority positions over disabled people who do not know how it works. Most of my income is through a student loan. If I interrupt my studies, I lose that student loan. The DWP will still class me as a student, I still would not be able to claim universal credit. But that was the advice one of the head people on my course told me. You cannot trust people in these authority positions for help, because they do not have experience with the system. They are not going to know the ins and outs, since it is not part of their lives.

 

The double stigma of disability and sex work.

Andy:

The NHS would only offer therapy if I stopped doing sex work. On the basis that sex work is abuse and they do not help people in abusive situations. To access therapy you need to be in a stable job and be stable. I said to them: ‘I am looking to exit the industry at some point but cannot do that until I have the therapy.’

When you are seeking help and they know that you do sex work, you are backed into a corner. I turned to the psychiatrist and said: “Unless you are willing to pay for my survival, then I am not going to stop doing sex work because I have no other option.” It is not  the best job for me, but it is what it is.

I have to talk about sex work in therapy because it has contributed to other trauma. I do not want to be like: no, sex work is not violence. I have experienced a lotof violence at work! I do not want to be like: it is fine and dandy, sex work is perfect, blablablablabla. If you want help, you haveto play the happy-hooker card in order to get things.

I did manage to get sterilisation on the NHS, the only reason I got it is because I said I was a sex worker. They did not take anything else into consideration, as soon as I brought out the sex worker card, they were like: yes, tick. Stigma works in many different ways.

 

Victoria:

Sorry, what the fuck?! “Sterilise all the sex workers!” Wow!

I do not even know what to say.

 

Andy:

When you mention trauma, it is like: ‘That is why you are a sex worker!’ So you are stuck in this cycle: you do sex work because you are a traumatised person but then they will not treat you as a traumatised person, because you do sex work.

 

Victoria:

For me the most traumatic thing about sex work is the violence from people who keep telling us to stop doing it. “You do it because you have been abused” or “you do it because…” Yes, maybe, but if I would be working in something else, would you be analysing me in that way? What is it about sex work? I mean, obviously, it is the sex. Catholic hangovers and moralistic bullshit, that is basically what it is.

It’s complicated to talk about my mental health even to other sex workers. Can you just stop telling me how bad it is? I can analyse that for myself. I can make that choice. Yes, sometimes it is bad, but it has given me time to recover, which is something I did not have before. Do not fucking tell me how hard it is because I know better than you! This constant infantilisation. Argh! It just infuriates me. Then I am labelled as the angry woman.

 

Jak:

On respectability, stigma, sex work, I was going to bring in this focus on disabled clients. Because it is always presented as: “Yes, this is a really nicekind of sex work”, “We need sex workers because that is the only way that disabled people can ever have sex.” Which is really ableist.

 

Victoria:

What do people think that ourbodies are?

 

Aya:

In autistic circles there is the thing of autistic men being so hung up over the fact that they will never have a “normal” relationship with a “normal” girl, because autistic women are not valid options to them. There is a striking amount of internalised ableism and obvious misogyny going on there. Disabled women in heteronormative society are just completely desexualised. No one would ever consider the fact that lots of sex workers are disabled. Unless we are being used as a talking point: ‘We all have PTSD and that means that the sex industry is bad’. Even if the studies never really talk about the source of the PTSD.

 

Mafalda:

When people say those things about disabled clients, they completely erase the idea that sex workers can be disabled. Apparently, we are all able-bodied and perfect and we are just doing a service like a nurse or something [laughs]. It is only acceptable to be disabled when you are the client, and the only clients that are acceptable are disabled clients!

But we have discussed benefits and so how many disabled clients can afford to see us on a regular basis? There is an obvious thing around class and gender going on that we notice a lot as sex workers. Most of our clients are straight white men with high incomes, that can afford to see us on a regular basis, spend more time with us or book several different sex workers. Especially when you are doing independent work, you notice the class difference so much.

 

Andy:

Most of my regular clients are men of colour and working class rather than white middle class. A lot of my clients who are on the disability scale are also men of colour. It is interesting the huge disparity between sex workers, clients, and disability. In parlours, you get clients with physical disabilities coming in with their carers. The carers come in and help them get undressed and the carer will wait outside the room, or sometimes stay in the room as well whilst you are interacting with the client. It is difficult to talk about because we are talking about class privilege withindisability. Clients who are more likely to see you on a regular basis with disabilities, probably have more disposable income.

 

Mafalda:

I wonder about the legal situation of carers bringing in clients.

 

 

Survival sex work, survivors and trauma.

Andy:

Sex work, whilst it has added to my trauma list, it has helped me come to terms with my survivor-hood. I do not want to sit here and say that sex work is empowering. I think that is a complicated conversation, especially as someone who has experienced a lot of violence at work during sex work. It has been empowering in the sense that it kind of gives me the space to make do with what I have got, in terms of my deteriorating brain and mental health and being able to survive. I also had clients who are survivors who have outed themselves to me. So in that sense that I can connect to other survivors through sex work.

It is difficult being a survivor, being out as a survivor and being out as a sex worker. P urely because the stigma not only surrounds sex work but you are incrediblystigmatised as a survivor. If anyone ever says to you “Come out as a survivor, it will be fine”, that is nottrue in the slightest! I get death threats. I get that especially as an out sex worker who is a survivor, and is out about it.

 

Jak:

All these words we use do not mean just one thing: sex worker, trans, disabled, survivor. There are a hundred words within each of those words.

 

Andy:

When you meet other survivors who are sex workers, how interesting that is. We just: “oh yeah, it is fine! You know, just like humour and how sex workers use humour as well, humour and violence, to cope. How that is really beautiful when there is a shared experience amongst other sex workers. Which is why I doalso like working in brothels for the reason that you have other workers there and it is less lonely. Especially when you have a collective experience and you learn to take care of each other and just sort of coexist within this situation.

We have come to a weird spot in sex work activism, previously you hadto play the happy-hooker card in order to be taken seriously. That is no longer viable because we cannot talk about sex workers rights without talking about that violence that sex workers experience, at work and outside of work.

 

Mafalda:

The dual thing of recovery and sex work has made me have to think a lot around my own boundaries. At my own trauma and what I can do and what I cannot do. When I come across people who cannot understand what it is like to be a survivor and a sex worker but they are sex workers.

When you are in a space with people who have common ground, you understand each other in a way that other people do not. It is not about “oh, being a sex worker empowers me”, it is about being around people who have similar experiences, that is what is empowering.

 

Racism in the mix:

Aya:

In things like retail work and you can see the difference in how black workers are treated in the workplace in contrast to our peers. Sex work, if you are an independent worker, if you do not have a work place, you do not have that point of comparison. You have to go looking for it. In terms of income essentially.

But when it comes to fetishisation, you do not have to look for that, you are going to experience that. When you know your best chance of making money is basically fitting someone’s fetish, you kind of have to structure your persona around that, and that is deeply triggering. It becomes a source of embarrassment when you have to show your profile to other people. No actualblack woman is evergoing to speak like this, is evergoing to talk about herself this way but in the context of sex work you use all of these godawful words to describe yourself.

 

Andy:

Race is a weird one for me because I am white-passing. So my clients either assume I am white, and they specifically book me because they think I am white. Or I have clients who are like “there is something exotic about you!” I am always in this weird position with race. I ammixed race.

Where I work, there is a few of us who are women of colour and we stick together and as white-passing I know that I have huge privilege over darker skinned workers. As a person of colour you have to make a decision about how you are going to promote yourself as a sex worker. It is a very difficult position to be in in terms of sex work and race because often you have to do things that just are not right. I do survival sex work so I do not have the luxury of saying No to clients or to a session. So that puts me in a difficult position: Do I do it, do I not do it? This is so uncomfortable! With sex work: it is role play for so many of us but at some point it intersects with your life and it is very hard to remove yourself on a personal level from sex work. I think race has a huge part in that.

 

Aya:

I wanted to also talk about respectability. I make the point of calling myself British because of the point of respectability. There is a double stigma of being migrant and being a person of colour and I get an infuriating amount of clients who will come to me and be like “Yeah, you are definitely British, you sound British, that is really good! And then they will ramble about a bad experience they have had with an Eastern European girl and I am just baffled.

Even though I recognise how privileged I am to be able to say I was born in Britain, I have a British upbringing. I also hate that I have to do that in two ways: that I have to play into that respectability and I feel I am doing a massive disservice to the Nigerian women in the global north, Nigerian sex workers who do not have that privilege and who are targets of immigration and trafficking policies. No one talks about black women who are subject to those things and that is across all areas of the intersections of sex work in terms of disability and queerness. Okay, not necessarily with trans women, we are starting to have that conversation about trans-misogyny-affected people who are also black. But across all else there is nothing when there is an endemic of especially Nigerian workers, especially in countries with the Nordic mode,l and how they are affected by trafficking policies.

 

Andy:

There is a huge disparity between immigration and migration and then sex work and xenophobia and racism as well.  There is the “right” type of immigrant, you know? There is this level of xenophobia.

 

Summing up Disability and Sex Work.

Victoria:

Time and flexibility, and access to health care because I have more time and more money to do so.

 

Andy:

Better pay for less hours. I work a lot, but I just do it in a block, like four or five days and then take a week, two weeks off, and I can afford to do that. It also means that I can supplement other things in my life, my artwork and stuff. I think it kind of helps with having a community, that is very important, solidarity and community-building.

 

Jak:

I must appear able, athletically sexy, because that is my job.

As a sex worker I could probably say I am a bit nuts, that might fit some quirky sex worker narrative but if I appear physically unwell that would be considered unsexy, probably disgusting.

 

Mafalda:

Flexibility, more money, less hours, but also having to appear strong. I have marketed specific acts: face-sitting for example because I can just sit. Have minimal contact with the client and also not have to be physically active. Having time for myself to recover, to take care of myself. I would not be able to do with a “normal” job.

 

Aya:

It has taken me out of an abusive environment. I see it as a net positive of my life. It has given me time to navigate the system, with the knowledge that people of colour and women and non-binary people are are more likely to be misdiagnosed or notdiagnosed with Autism. When you want to access welfare, you need accommodation, documentation, proof.  You cannot really get that if your ethnicity means you are less likely to be diagnosed and validated by the health system. I have been given more time to do that, to be treated in a way I think I deserve.

 

 

 

Funding raised by the National Lottery and awarded by the Heritage Lottery Fund

Resilient & Resisting

This project is a collaboration between groups and individuals, with artist/activist Jet Moon.

Produced under the wing of Arcola Participation and with support from the Heritage Lottery Fund.