“I do not think sex work is ever just about the sex”
Lucy gives us a very warm welcome into her home and one of the first things she does is offer us a cup of tea, having a plate with biscuits on the coffee table.
With a lovely big smile, the young woman seems relaxed straight away as she sits cross-legged on the floor opposite me and tells me about her cat.
Lucy has been working in the sex industry for just under a decade and these days is a part-time escort, having another job as well. Her name has been changed to protect her identity.
She said how she has always had other jobs simultaneously – such as in recruitment or telephone fundraising – so that she could have something to put on her CV.
After a two-year break where she was only seeing one regular client, Lucy had her first booking as an escort again last weekend.
She had mixed emotions about going back into sex work, she said, but admitted that after the booking she was mainly relieved.
“I have stopped before but I never seem to be able to keep my head above water without it,” she continued. “You never know what is going to happen – you could lose your job or my husband could leave me.
“Sex work to me is now a safety net.
“It is something I can fall back on rather than being totally reliant on it.”
‘I do not like clients coming to my space’
The sex worker said that she normally books hotel rooms to see her clients or alternatively she goes to clients’ houses if she has seen them before.
“I do not like clients coming to my space and I would not want to do it from the bed I also sleep in,” she continued.
“I offer a diverse range of things, but mainly is girlfriend experience which means they probably want things like sensual touching, some sex and cuddling.
“I do offer some fetish services and they are some of the most popular requests.
“They request it because that may be something that is hard to get on their personal life.
“A lot of the work you do when offering fetish services is alleviating sexual shame.
“Sometimes they do not want to tell their partners or other people about it, so it is easier just to pay someone to do it and they know they are not going to be judged.
“I do not think sex work is ever just about the sex.
“People seek other things from a sex worker such as intimacy or even counselling.
“I think there is something powerful in having someone you can talk to that isn’t part of your day to day life and sometimes people feel safer exploring their sexuality with a sex worker.”
The young woman – who is on her late 20s – said her first experience of the sex industry was working in a strip club.
“With the licencing, each time they were adding new rules so it got harder and harder to make money as the rules got stricter,” said Lucy.
“I was making less and less money with it and I remember one of the last weeks I worked every single night and just took £20 home each night.
“I do not think I was very good at it as I don’t necessarily have the confidence needed for it, I was struggling going from person to person.
“I do not think I am a very good sales person either.”
Lucy, who lives in north Bristol, said she spent five years working in strip clubs, first starting out as a university student seeking money.
The sex worker said she remembers having a retail job as a student and, despite doing as many hours as she could and even missing lectures, only taking £600 home over the Christmas period.
Having been to a strip club before, she had spoken to a dancer then who had told her how much she earned, Lucy continued, so she thought it was worth a try.
Even though initially she was making variable amounts of money, Lucy said she found that stripping paid better.
“I remember that summer I was doing really great and having money for the first time ever,” she continued.
“We went on holidays and was going out in the evenings as the weight had been lifted from my shoulders of how was I going to live.”
Lucy said that, after stripping, she tried to get some agency work and then found out she wasn’t able able to work due to changes in immigration rules.
Unable to buy her right to work in the UK, it was these immigration problems that pushed her into escorting, she continued.
‘I did not feel uncomfortable about the work itself’
Lucy said: “I was really angry about the immigration issue, but I was not heartbroken about going into escorting.
“I was worried about my safety sometimes, but I did not feel uncomfortable about the work itself.
“There are lots of people out there who have had to go into sex work due to immigration problems and do not enjoy it.”
Lucy said she tends to avoid saying that she likes or dislikes working as an escort to avoid falling into stereotypes, being branded as a victim if she says she doesn’t enjoy it and being classed a ‘happy hooker’ if saying the opposite.
Instead, Lucy said she is pragmatic about what she does, adding that for her is just a job.
She added: “Some days are good and some days are bad, like in any other job.
“I work by myself and I set up a profile on adult work websites.
“I didn’t really know what I was doing at first – I have learnt since then.
“At first, I was getting buses to meet clients and I remember once it took me an hour and a half to get to his house and then he cancelled.”
Lucy said her experience with her first client was a testament to the fact she didn’t know what she was doing.
Having found the client online, they met up in a hotel he had booked, she continued, but being nervous and inexperienced she didn’t put the condom on properly.
It then came off during sex so she had to get tested for sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), with the results coming back clean.
‘You can not help it, but internalise some of the stigma there is around sex work’
“I mainly remember feeling nervous,” she continued. “I had a confused mix of emotions about it.
“You can not help it, but internalise some of the stigma there is around sex work.
“I do not personally have a good or bad view about it, but you internalise the way other people view it.
“I was worried whether this was going to damage me forever.
“In our society, we view that exchange [someone getting paid for sex] as something that changes you as a person so it felt like a big thing.
“It goes back to the idea of sex workers poisoning our society morally and literally speaking.”
Lucy gave the example of how, until recently, if someone had ever been paid for sex they were never able to donate blood.
The sex worker said that, in order to decide her fees, she went online to see what other escorts were charging.
Initially, she was charging £150 for an hour but has recently raised her rates.
Lucy said she has a “civilian job” which she loves but, being minimum wage, it does not cover her bills.
The sex worker said that, in previous jobs, she had experienced variable hours and even fire and rehire policies, which was stressful and made financial planning very hard.
“If we want to end survival sex work, contracts like that should be made illegal,” she continued. “When I first started escorting, I was living in poverty while now I am in a position where the extra money I get from it is really helpful.
“It means I do not have to scrape by and that I am able to save – it gives me that extra security.
“I am not in a position where I have to do sex work anymore.
“I am hugely lucky now that I have a roof over my head and that I have full-time job so I can turn down clients.”
Lucy said that being an escort can sometimes feel like a big responsibility as it is not a cheap thing for a lot of people, with some of her clients saving up for a while in order to see her.
The sex worker said there can be lots of expectations around her work, adding she is conscious of the fact her clients are likely to remember the experience for the rest of their lives.
She takes certain steps – such as putting ambient lighting on and having some music on – to create an environment that is different from the outside world, she continued, so that her clients can start to live in more of a fantasy world.
Lucy said that she remembers how once a couple booked her as they wanted to have a threesome.
They were really nervous and scared, she continued, so they started by chatting and having a bit of wine in the hotel room.
After a while, the couple started touching each other.
“I was in the room, but I was not the main part of it – it was their experience with each other,” she continued. “They just had this experience they had never had and it was really beautiful to be part of it.”
Lucy said she has never done super high-volume work, sticking to six to ten clients a week at her peak.
‘It can be quite intense mentally’
These days, she works as an escort up to six days a month, normally booking a hotel and seeing several clients throughout the day.
“I always try to limit it to three clients a day as more than that it can be hard to provide the experience that I want,” she continued.
“It can be quite intense mentally as you are taking in a lot of the clients’ emotions.”
Lucy said that she tends to attract clients that book her for longer sessions, with her average booking being of one or two hours long but sometimes being up to four with some of her regulars.
The young woman said that for her getting paid for sex isn’t traumatic and that, instead, she just sees it as work.
She enjoys meeting different sorts of people and having unique conversations that she wouldn’t have anywhere else.
“I find the conversations interesting while the sex is just work,” she added. “They like talking about anything.
“Some clients are really political while others are really worried that you are judging them as they feel shame for booking an escort.
“Some are married and have really conflicting emotions about it, they tell you how amazing their wives are and how much they love their lives.
“These are super personal experiences for people.
“They are often scared or ashamed to talk about things.
“I just wish people would communicate more in relationships.”
She said how, years ago, a man who was Irish Catholic booked her services but was clearly very nervous.
They had had one drink when he told her that he was ready to start, she continued, but the moment she began touching him he burst into tears and left the room, never returning.
‘You always get your money first’
“I speak to other sex workers who prefer something that is quick because it is easier for them to do high-volume and avoiding the emotional-heavy stuff,” she added.
“You always get your money first and count it in front of a client.
“You take full payment in advance before you do anything.
“In my opinion, if you have gone to a sex worker and do not pay her, that is rape as you have gained consent under false pretenses.
“After getting the money, I always ask them if they want to have a shower but they usually already have.
“I then tell them to lie down in bed and ask if they want to have a drink and they usually say no.
“If it is a regular you probably chat a bit first but, if they are new, sex is probably first and conversation after.
“Mostly you only have sex once, but some guys can just keep going.”
Lucy said she advertises her services as being available to anyone but that the vast majority of her clients are men, having also had a handful of couples and one woman.
The sex worker said the female client she had was very attractive but very nervous, having not had sex with a woman before.
Describing the experience as sweet, she thinks the woman was curious as she asked her how to do certain things.
She always make sure the hotel she books is accessible, she continued, as she also gets some disabled clients.
‘Disabled people are just as deserving of love and affection as anyone else’
“As we live in an ableist society, it is harder for disabled people to have fuller relationships which is a huge shame.
“I really hope we can start to address that as disabled people are just as deserving of love and affection as anyone else.
“It is just a shame we have this view of difference.”
The sex worker said that her husband was one of the first “vanilla people” – which she explained as “not sexually adventurous, conventional” – she had been with for a long time.
Lucy said she really liked him but felt nervous about telling him what she did for a living.
She started by telling him he used to work as a stripper and then gradually told him the rest.
“He has been great about it and he likes the fact that I am a sex work activist,” she continued. “He always says that, if I do not want to do it, he will lend me the money but I want to have my own money.”
Lucy said her husband does not get jealous as he understands it is just work, but that he worries about her safety.
The sex worker said she always tells him where she is and how long the sessions will be, adding that she always texts him when she is finished.
If he can not get hold of her 15 minutes after the booking was due to end, they have agreed for him to call the police, she continued.
They also have a code word in case she can answer but can not speak openly, with her husband knowing to call the police if such word is used.
Lucy said that, as a result of the immigration problems, she worked as an escort full-time for three years.
As she was not able to prove her income, this led to her being unable to rent anywhere, she continued, so she ended up moving in with a friend.
However, she ended up having to move out and another sex worker then allowed her to stay with him while she was figuring things out.
‘The stigma can be really alienating’
“If it had not been for the people I had met in sex work, I am not sure I would have been able to survive adult life,” she continued.
“Sex work has enabled me to be self-reliant and, when I thought I was going to be out on the streets, another sex worker gave me somewhere to stay.”
Lucy said that, while some of friends know she works as an escort, her family doesn’t.
She said a lot of her friends are understanding about it, but that she thinks her family would find it hard to accept and would then always be worrying about her.
“The stigma can be really alienating,” she continued. “It can make you feel like you are living some sort of weird double life, which isn’t easy – it can be a lot mentally.”
Lucy said that about three years ago her Twitter account got closed down and, as she was struggling to get new clients as a result, she had to see a client that had made her uncomfortable in the past.
The sex worker said she believes her account was suspended as a result of US-law ‘Fosta-Sesta‘, which intends to curb sex trafficking, adding this law has resulted in huge online censorship of sex workers.
She has previously experienced clients turning violent as well, Lucy continued.
Once, a man requested extreme acts from her and ended up pushing her and her head against the wall.
Lucy said she has since heard further reports of a man with the same name who targets new sex workers.
“I felt really stupid for falling for it, especially when I found out he does it all the time,” she continued.
Lucy said that seeing negative pieces about sex work has an impact on her mental health, adding she doesn’t disagree certain areas of the industry are immoral such as sex trafficking.
However, she warned that legislating against sex workers puts them in further risk, particularly those that do street prostitution.
In the UK, with the exception of Northern Ireland (where buying sex is illegal), the law around prostitution is a bit of a grey area.
Prostitution itself is not illegal but a number of activities around it – such as soliciting in a public place, kerb crawling, owning or managing a brothel and pimping – are considered to be crimes.
Lucy said she is worried about the Sexual Exploitation Bill which is currently going through Parliament. According to the Parliament’s website, the bill would criminalise paying for sex, decriminalise selling sex and create offences relating to enabling or profiting from another person’s sexual exploitation, among others.
The controversial bill, which is being sponsored by Labour MP Diana Johnson, would aim to “bust the business model of sex trafficking” but has been criticised by groups including Amnesty International and the English Collective of Prostitutes, who say the changes would push the industry further underground.
‘If the law goes through, it would make my job a lot more dangerous’
Lucy said: “If you want to help, speak to a sex worker or contact a sex worker organisation and find out how you can help then rather ending with these restrictive laws.
“If the law goes through, it would make my job a lot more dangerous.
“At the moment I use an app to scan a potential client’s number and see if they have had any violent reports made against them.
“If buying sex was made illegal, clients would be very reluctant to give us their numbers and would therefore make it harder for us to screen clients.
“You would also have fewer clients coming through so you may have to bring your rates down.”
Lucy said that clients would still want to buy sex but would want to be less visible and, for instance, meet in places that are less safe for sex workers.
The sex worker described proposals to ban sexual entertainment venues (SEVs) in Bristol as crazy, adding the venues give the dancers a safe place to work from.
At present, there are two sexual entertainment venues (SEVs) in Bristol, both in the city centre, that would face closure if Bristol City Council’s licensing committee goes ahead with a proposal to withdraw licences for the venues.
So far, no decision has been made on the new policy on SEVs, which is currently out for public consultation until December 19.
However, if the new policy is adopted by the council, both of the existing venues – sister venues Urban Tiger and Central Chambers – would be forced to close or change their business.
In September, the two strip clubs won the right to operate for another year despite the proposed ban in Bristol and dozens of objections from women’s rights campaigners.
To read the draft policy, with a summary of proposed changes, and to take part visit www.bristol.gov.uk/sexestablishment