Stella Winter is a sex worker and the mother of two children. She volunteers with the English Collective of Prostitutes.
During the 15 or so years I worked as a sex worker, I estimate that two out of three of the other working women I met were mums. Of course, this isn’t surprising considering 90 per cent of single parents are women, and sex work can be more flexible and better paid than other jobs. But this undeniable truth is rarely mentioned and appears to have little influence on prostitution policy. If it did, financial and other support for mothers and opposition to austerity (which has disproportionately targeted women) would be the order of the day instead of increased criminalisation.
I raised two children on the proceeds of prostitution. The money was an escape from what would have otherwise been the unbearable drudgery and occasional terror of poverty.
I left my husband after 11 years of marriage. I couldn’t go back to full-time nursing as the children were still very young and part-time didn’t make enough to make ends meet, so I claimed benefits.
The money wasn’t much, but when I received the first payment I remember thinking I would rather have this little amount that I could call my own than depend on my husband’s good will to pass on some of what he earned.
I didn’t have money for the kids’ tea
For a few years our lives just about worked. I managed to get occasional cleaning jobs, but scrubbing toilets and vacuuming around porn magazines under beds is exhausting, hard physical work and badly paid.
We ate a lot of beans and rice. One pack of chocolate biscuits was a Friday after-school treat. It was a relief when the kids went to a friend’s house after school because I didn’t have to find the money for their tea. I nicked toilet rolls from public toilets and kept my eyes skinned for money in the street. I was part of a community of mothers and we helped each other out.
Then one of the mums from school let slip that she worked in a massage parlour. She knew I was looking to earn some money because my recent camping trip had been a washout and I was desperate to take the kids somewhere nicer next year. I knew a bit about sex work because I had already met some women from the English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP). Everyone seemed ok to me.
He gave me the money and dropped his trousers
I went and had a chat with the woman who ran the parlour and she took me on. The other women were friendly and showed me the ropes. Shifts were 11pm to 3pm (probably organised like that to allow time to pick up children from school) and 3pm to 8pm. My first client was a well trained regular. He gave me the money and dropped his trousers.
I saw two clients that first day and at the end of the shift I went straight to the shops and bought some really nice food with what I had in my pocket. After years of having to be painfully careful with money, I filled my trolley like everyone else. As the days and months went by, sitting around waiting for business, we women learned from each other about how to deal with clients, how to stay safe and which parlours to avoid because they ripped girls off. Occasionally we heard the police had closed a parlour down and that would be fodder for many anxious conversations.
From where I stand it looks harder for women now. Mothers are disparaged by politicians, the media and even some prominent feminists, who promote the view a “good” mother is a mother who goes out to a waged job, regardless of how little we are paid, how exhausted we are at the end of the day and how distraught at having no time or energy for our children.
Cuts, benefit sanctions, the benefit cap, the bedroom tax, you name it – all have made it harder to survive, especially for single mothers. Where are the playgroups and libraries? Where is the public transport so we can get together as mums and kids?
Sex working mums are terrified of losing their children
Sex working mums are the last to want to be public; we are terrified that social services will be on our back trying to take our children away. People campaigning to ban prostitution take advantage of our illegal status. Claiming to be motivated about violence against women, they refuse to listen when we say criminalisation undermines our safety. They characterise us as victims, ignoring the courage it takes to step outside the law to support our families.
As mothers, we are looking to the best of the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell for change. They support decriminalisation and Labour’s manifesto commits to raising carer’s allowance by £11 per week, making the minimum wage a real living wage and reversing benefit cuts. This goes some way to giving mothers the recognition and respect we deserve.
But we need more. The writer and organiser Selma James, who in 1975 became the first spokeswoman for the ECP when none of us could be public, said: “Women produce all the workers of the world, the source of all industry and all profit.” Surely mothers are entitled to financial recognition by society for that fundamental work. For me, I know if I had got a living wage for my caring work I wouldn’t have gone on the game in the first place.
The English Collective of Prostitutes is speaking 1:00-2:45 at Mums4Corbyn, 23 September, Synergy Night Club, Brighton. This club is the main venue for the TWT events, is near the main conference centre and is fully accessible.
Read more at: https://inews.co.uk/opinion/comment/like-mother-sex-worker/