‘When Esther McVey claims there are other jobs out there for me, I would ask her what jobs can fit around caring for a disabled child?’
By Heather Saul
Esther McVey stirred controversy last week when she advised the women resorting to sex work because of financial hardship that there are “other jobs” available to them.
The Work and Pensions Secretary was responding to independent MP Frank Field’s claims that women in his constituency were being driven to sex work because of hardship caused by the Universal Credit roll out.
McVey replied: “We need to work with those ladies and see what help we can give them – from the work coaches right the way through to the various charities and organisations”.
“In the meantime, I might add that perhaps he can tell these ladies that now we have got record job vacancies and perhaps there are other jobs on offer.”
Her comments have sparked criticism from women who say the system left them with no other choice but to sell sex in order to survive.
i spoke to Jenny, a mother who lives in the north-west, about the circumstances which led to her selling sex for three decades while she was caring for her disabled daughter.
Jenny is a volunteer with the English Collective of Prostitutes, an organisation led by sex workers who campaign for decriminalisation, safety and sex worker rights. You can find out how to contact them here.
I can’t get a nine to five job
My husband left me and sold everything from under my feet while I was on holiday. I was left with what I had in my suitcases and in a homeless families unit with my daughter, who is disabled and requires round the clock care.
My daughter’s father didn’t want to be involved in her upbringing, so I have always been a single parent. My daughter is in her thirties now and I still care for her. I have no family near-by.
Having a disabled child has always meant I can’t go out and get a normal nine to five job. It was either go on the streets and earn money the only way I thought I could at the time, or give my child up. And that wasn’t an option I wanted to think about.
Going out to work on the streets was expensive
I got into sex work about 33 years ago, when my daughter was three, and did it for 25 years, on and off. I used to go out and work when we got a bill in, or when we needed something for the house and extra things. I never worked every night because going out to work on the streets was expensive in the first place – I couldn’t get a babysitter because of her complex needs. So I would pay for care for a set time and work within that. I’ve always said that I’m a full-time mum and a part-time sex worker.
This was something I never thought I would have to do, especially not over the long term. In the end, it turned out that I didn’t really have the option. I have had cuts on benefits and had to go back on to the streets to earn the money to make up the shortfall. It complicated things if the police were about and they picked you up, or if you ended up being taken to court and having to pay another fine and then had to earn the money to pay for that too.
Benefits might be fine for a couple of weeks when you can just about manage. But if you’ve got bills to pay and expenses, they can be very difficult to actually live on.
I was actually offered well-paid work because I had the room and the experience with looking after my own child, from doing her injections to tube feedings. Social services asked if I wanted to be an emergency respite place so if somebody’s parent was ill, I could take that person in.
But I couldn’t accept it, even though it would have been the perfect solution for me, because I would have had to have a full police check, which would have shown that I had been arrested for sex work. Then I could have lost the child I was on the streets trying to support.
Things changed when my daughter turned 16 and she could claim benefits in her own right. Then our financial situation improved.
A decent benefits system would have stopped me ending up on the streets. When I was in my forties, I had a heart attack and I was in hospital for nearly one month. Social services put somebody in my home to do what I do 24/7, and they paid them hundreds per week. They could pay a stranger that amount of money, and I wasn’t getting £100 a week.
As much as I was grateful, it was a big slap in the face. After that, I had meetings with social services and more or less demanded the independent living allowance. Resources were put in place to help look after her. But it took for me to have a heart attack, get that ill and have to work the streets first – I should never have had to get to that stage.
After getting the allowance, I only did sex work for what I class as luxury – a holiday, or if we needed to replace a piece of furniture or something. I still have one client that I do see every couple of months, a man who I have grown old with.
I know my daughter’s needs better than anyone
When Esther McVey claims there are other jobs out there for women turning to sex work, I would ask her what jobs can fit around the hours that you really need when you are caring full time. Finding the hours to balance out work with the things you have to do is so, so difficult, especially when you don’t have family support around you.
Having that you’ve worked on the streets on your record also cuts you off from so many jobs. I don’t see any way out unless they actually decriminalise it. Then at least if people who are desperate end up on the streets, they’ve got a chance of coming off it.
I know my daughter’s needs better than anyone else. She is non-verbal, but I know how she holds her body, I know how she looks when something is wrong. I know if the feed pump isn’t working, or if the tubes are blocked. So although I now have somebody doing physical work, I’m still there if and when I’m needed. Your caring role never goes away.
If my benefits were sanctioned now, I don’t know what I would do. I think I’m a bit too old to go back on the streets now. I would just have to think of the possibilities of putting my daughter into full-time care, which I really don’t want to do. Nobody cares about children like their parents do.