Sex work, trauma and addiction.
Sex work has been a common issue around the globe for hundreds of years, this bizarre, degrading and frightening way to earn money has led men and women to their death caused harm to the communities the trade is offered in, and caused massive long term effects, mentally, physically and emotionally, the affects are devastating. In Whitechapel, East London April 1818 Jack The Ripper killed five vulnerable women. Five women on witness accounts that were seen to be drinking in the local joints somewhat heavily before they took their trade on to the back streets of Whitechapel. This would lead you to believe each women was suffering an alcohol problem. This happened, it was real, a man cutting sex workers to pieces and taking their lives.
In November 1996 in Ipswich, United Kingdom five female sex workers were killed by strangulation in the area over the space of six weeks. All these women were known to local services for suffering with heroin, alcohol and crack cocaine problems. One we see being interviewed on the news saying how she didn’t want to be out there but didn’t have much choice, she had to feed her addiction problem. Just one day later her body was found a few miles from where the interview had taken place. One of these women had only given birth to a boy a few weeks before she was killed. All of these women were someones child, sister, aunt and also mother to their own children. Extremely vulnerable women forced to work on the streets down to their drug addiction, with the consequences proving fatal for them.
These are just two accounts in one country of the affects of sex work. Ten women killed while out trying to fund a habit they had no choice over, while trying to avoid the pain of underlying trauma. I’m certain that none of these women had any understanding of why they were using, they didn’t even know why they were putting themselves in such high risk situations to fund their drug habits. For them their thinking was just to earn a few pounds so that they didn’t need to suffer the affects of withdrawals. A total loss of control over their lives, values, morals and respect for themselves will have taken place, desperation of the highest form.
The reasons for me mentioning the above is that I myself was a sex worker in the Whitechapel East London area for a period of time, because ironically I didn’t want to ‘work’ the streets in my local area down to fear of somebody I knew seeing me. It was at this time that the Ipswich strangler was killing his victims. I remember the news being flooded with images of these woman, warnings for sex workers in Ipswich and the surrounding areas not to go out onto the streets, and the police presence in Whitechapel being stepped up. The police would get out of the car, ask if we were ‘ok’ and warn us about what was happening to these poor girls in the Ipswich area. Did this stop me going out on dark nights? No it didn’t, was I scared? I was absolutely petrified, then why couldn’t I stop? The answer is I had totally lost all my power to heroin and crack cocaine. I started taking crack and heroin when I was the very tender age of 17, not really aware of the dangers or effects this was about to have on me, or my children’s lives, which were devastating and I still live with them today. Even after being in abstinent based recovery for over 4 years I still live with the affects of my sex work, the harms I caused to myself have left me with deep rooted pain and trauma and I live with complex PTSD. I live with nightmares, triggers, and sadness for the young girl I lost to the men I gave myself to so cheaply.
After coming in to recovery I wasn’t even aware of the effects my sex work had on me. I was walking around consistently angry, the nightmares I was having I just put down to coming out of my addiction. I couldn’t mange or maintain friendships or my relationship I just put it down to defects of character as I furthered along in my recovery my mental health was deteriorating, anxiety, panic fear and a feeling of constant dread, I wasn’t making the connection. Nobody in meetings could diagnose me my support network never said anything, in fact I was pushing my friends away on a daily basis. Nobody was allowed to hug me even if my sponsor went to I would cringe inside. I was in pain deep rooted trauma caused by own actions to feed my addiction and I wasn’t even aware.
Within all of this someone saw me. Chip Somers from Private Practice London, kindly reached out to me and offered me some free Skype counselling. I had had therapy before but that was when I was still using drugs and consequently I was never open or honest in my sessions back then. I gave him my back ground, my mother also suffers from the disease of addiction, my father had left when I was four and I was rejected daily by Mum because I got in the way of her using. I see this today as neglect and mental abuse on a child, hugs were not a common thing in our house. There were different men coming into the home, and sexual and physical abuse took place. I briefly touched on my sex work in the session, Chip was very good with me and held me and made me feel safe and supported through the process. At the end of my session Chip started to guide me on the areas that I needed to work on. I was stunned by his statement ” You need to look at your sex work Marie”. My response “I’m ok, I was powerless, I know why I did it”, little did I know by saying this my mind was shutting out the trauma from it. He replied, and I will never forget what he said, its stayed with me, ” Don’t be so bloody surprised Marie your sex work is affecting every area of your life, and there is a link to your past trauma that made you be able to go and fund your habit that way”. I was stunned, every part of my being didn’t want to believe him, I had always thought the link to my troubles was down to my parents. I do not blame or justify my using on my past, I take full responsibility for it. I’ve made some very poor choices in my using and there have been devastating consequences not just to me, but to others. Nothing has caused me more harm than my sex work. I’m extremely grateful to Chip and his support, I feel if it wasn’t identified when it was, the guilt, shame and anger I was carrying around it would have eventually taken me back to a relapse at some point, if I didn’t look at it.
Since that session with Chip I have completed the 12 steps and looked at my sex work in there, I added myself to my amends list as part of the process as amends to myself. The Step four process really wasn’t good for me in parts, the sexual inventory and abuse section was raising my trauma to the surface, I was 15 months clean and writing around an issue I had no awareness on myself. It was dangerous to my mental health and my recovery to unearth this stuff so early as I had huge amounts of shame linked to my sex work. The anger I felt was towards myself for years I thought I was anger at the world. I remember heading out on to the red light area for the first time like it was yesterday, I can remember thinking to myself “well he’s taken it all from me anyway”. I was thinking about my abuser as a child. I don’t remember my fist punter, I don’t Remember my last, I don’t Remember cars or names but I remember men, lots of men and their smell. The winter months were horrendous. I’ve stood out there hour after hour, the temperature below freezing and my withdrawals from heroin biting my skin and bones. Tears streaming down my face because I just want to go home, but I don’t, I cant, I need my next fix. The summer months were not much help either, it got dark later so less money was earn’t and more police purging the area so my convictions were clocking up. There is nothing more embarrassing than having to stand in a magistrates court charged with soliciting, talking about the matter in police interview wasn’t much fun either. Being locked up for nearly 24 hours in withdrawal is really not the way to help a person who is clearly extremely vulnerable and damaged. Not once in my process of court orders was I offered counselling or help around my sex work. No helped was ever offered to me on any of these occasions.
I had a really bad experience out there one night. A man had picked me up while I was withdrawing and I wasn’t able to do what he was asking from me, I was raped I was held at my throat and forced into a sexual act I didn’t want to do. After I managed to get away when he was finished with m,e I didn’t go to the police and I didn’t go home. I returned to the red light area as I still needed the money for my next fix, this is the hold drugs had over me, total loss of control, I was sore and completely numb to what had just happened to me. And this is how my life continued for 15 years, in and out of punters cars and at some points working in brothels. In the brothels my addiction would go through the roof as the people running these places were mainly coke dealers. Not once was I aware of the damage I was causing myself.
Since coming into recovery in June 2014 it has been tough. Living with Complex PTSD has been one of the hardest battles I’ve had to deal with. My symptoms are feelings of anger, fear, dread, irritability, restlessness, discontent, and on a bad day I feel like I’m going to stop breathing, I get hyper vigilant, have sleep paralysis, flash backs and night terrors. I isolate myself in an attempt to keep myself safe from the outside world. Today I have the awareness of what is happening, I know my triggers. I’ve learnt about my mental health by reading books and looking it up on the internet, I connect with other addicts who can hold me and who I trust. I feel its really important when talking about my symptoms to find the right people, people who can just listen, not advise, and just let me be and people who don’t make the situation about them and dismiss my feelings. Whilst the 12 steps are a great tool, some things they just do not cut. The steps are like the wind at the top of a volcano blowing away all the lava and dust that keep me alive, but under all that is the fire that is bubbling away under the surface, for that I needed outside help. I’ve been in therapy for just over a year now, I get close to the core of the onion then stop because it gets that painful, but I keep going back, I will heal, I am healing every day I don’t pick up, I’m healing in one form or another from my trauma. I’m most definitely not a victim of my past, and I take responsibility for the harms I have caused to myself. I’ve become a survivor and I refuse to let my addiction or mental health define me as a person. I’m a mum today, a sponsor, a sponsee, a friend an employee, an active member in the fellowship I attend. What I’m extremely grateful for is that I’m no longer a sex worker, a ‘working girl’, a prostitute. I’m me, a recovering addict free from the seedy streets, cars, and punters. When its dark and raining and I’m inside, an immense feeling of gratitude comes over me. I will never forget the street corners I stood on, the cars, or smells, but what I will always remember is how lucky I am that I’ve gained control of my life and by healing and facing my trauma head on I will never have to subject myself to such pain and hurt again.
I feel I would also like to add how some of my ‘clients’ became my victims. There were some very vulnerable lonely men out there, possibly with their own mental health problems and addiction troubles. Me being the very manipulative addict that I was, could spot these issues from a mile away and knew exactly how to let it benefit me. I had one remortgage his house to fund my addiction and cleared any savings out of his account that he had. I’ve had men who know absolutely nothing about addiction take me to houses to score drugs at 2 am. I’ve shouted at them, I’ve screamed at them when I think I can get away with it, I’ve stolen car keys, house keys and I’ve also taken money and run. This is known in the streets as clipping. There was more often than not a come back. I’ve been beaten up and attacked on a number of occasions by the men I’ve stolen from.
Sex work doesn’t just affect the person selling themselves. Married men get found out, destroying marriages. Neighbours have to contend with these men driving round their streets at night, and having the girls walking up and down making a noise. Leaving paraphernalia lying around for people to have to pick up in the morning. It affects everybody in the area .
After giving my own experience here I felt I wanted to talk to other women who had similar experiences to myself. So I spoke to two women I know in recovery. Jane I first met in Holloway prison around 20 years ago. She had been in and out of prison most of her adult life, had resorted to shoplifting and other crime to fund her drug addiction. Like many of the women you meet in recovery she has come from a very dysfunctional childhood. Jane grew up in a household and was very much exploited with sex work because her Grandmother was a pimp who she said was really quite detached to her feelings around it. It was a business to her, a way to make money. She sold her Mother to men who were coming to this house, her Mum would self harm regularly and Jane later understood when she came into recovery and did some work around her sex that she was also was being sold from the age of four, along with her sister. I asked Jane some questions around the sex work and childhood trauma and her addiction, this is how she responded.
Q1. At what age did you start sex working?.
I now understand I was being exploited and sold from the age of four. When I was a young adult I became a shoplifter for my drugs and then with time I started to sell myself. There was less fear of prison and it ‘felt’ easier to do.
Q2. At the time you were sex working can you remember any thoughts or feelings that were attached to the sex work at the time.
I can remember the feelings felt like a familiar place, the feelings I got from my abuser. By doing the work I know now I didn’t have a choice in what I was doing, my addiction had totally taken control over me. I felt desperate and guilty and full of shame and humiliation and my biggest fear was the fear of being seen. I didn’t want people to see me out there on the streets.
Q3. Do you believe there is a link between childhood trauma and addiction?.
There is definitely a link to these two things. Sex work and childhood trauma come hand in hand, I don’t know about other people but for me it does.
Q4. Were you offered any help or support from local services?
People didn’t know I was a sex worker, I did my best to keep it secret so nobody could really help me. There isn’t enough support out there still to this day, there is a great need for support groups and outreach teams to be set up, things such as gender specific groups.
Q5. Do you think that sex work should be made legal?.
No, I think it should be made harder. By making sex work legal the women are being enabled. There should be more programs set up to help women, and I feel they should be made compulsory. Things like outreach teams, safeguarding, groups on how to keep yourself safe out there. Explain a better way and safer way to dress, talk about birth control and STDS. Use the ugly mugs. Ugly mugs have photos of men with convictions against working girls printed on them, they get distributed by outreach teams in the red light areas.
Q6. What impact has sex work had on your life?.
I’m 18 years clean, so by continuing to talk about it and helping others it doesn’t really affect me. Of course it used to, but I’m better today, Its given me purpose to help others.
Q7. What work, help and support have you had to do to help you manage the affects sex work has left you with?.
Through talking about it and 12 step fellowships and step work. Writing about sex work helps the healing process.
Q8. What do you think private rehab clinics, and local services should be doing more to support men and women who are sex working?.
More groups, more counselling, more information should be given in local service providers.
Jane is very strong empowering lady who I meet in Holloway when I was inmate. She had created sex work groups for women on the detox wings. This was the first time I had ever seen or experienced anything like it in the way of support. I felt love in that room, something I had not felt in a very long time. Where sex workers come from its an extremely dark and cold place, so for this to happen felt and still feels very special to me. Women would come in and share their stories with the inmates and told us how they got out of their addiction. All these seeds I believe were being planted. Jane now has a very successful woman’s house helping vulnerable women into recovery. She continues to do outreach work in the community.
The second lady I went to talk to is very dear friend to me, she is one of the only people who I feel safe to open up to about any of my trauma including my sex work. She like me, comes from a dysfunctional family back ground and had the same addiction problems as me. Kathy is about to celibrate 13 years of abstinent based recovery. I see her as one of the strong, loving caring and kind people that our fellowship needs. She is a great role model for women who are coming in new to us. Kathy is an asset and a very important part of mine and other women’s support network. I asked her the same questions that I put to Jane.
Q1. What age did you start to sex work?.
I was in a sexual relationship with my brother from the age of 6. Then when I was in my teenage years I was having full on sex with my Mums friends in exchange for going out for nice meals and things like that. Then when I was heading in to my 20’s I started working to pay my bills, my sex work didn’t start due to a substance misuse problem, but in the end I was sex working to fund my habit.
Q2. At the time you were sex working can you remember any thoughts or feelings that were attached to it at the time?.
At first I felt empowered, I felt I was independent when I worked in a sex parlor, I felt independent and in control. Then when it came to funding my addiction I was in fear what my friends were starting to think, I saw what I was doing wasn’t right but I had lost all control. I had no boundaries at all. There were huge amounts of shame, guilt and disappointment attached to my sex work and the same feelings caused from the abuse by my brother were also coming up for me. At times I felt like an object, treated like meat. It is still very jumbled in my head the order of how things happened.
Q3. Do you believe there is a link to childhood trauma and sex work?.
I wouldn’t be surprised if most sex workers have suffered some form of childhood trauma. I can only speak for myself as yes most definitely.
Q4. Were you offered any support for your sex work?.
No I had no support from local services, none whatsoever
Q5. Do you think sex work should be made legal?.
Yes, I think women should have a right to do what they want with their own bodies but there should be more support around it. Women’s projects should be set up, and safer projects created in supporting the women in what they do.
Q6. What work, help or support have you had to do to help you with managing the affects sex work has left you with today?.
Through the fellowship of Narcotics Anonymous, working the steps, and my friends in my support network who I trust around this stuff. I do share a little bit about it in meetings but not much. I’m still waiting for therapy.
Q7. What impact has sex work had on your life?
It affects my intimate relationships in areas I struggle in them.
Q8. What do you think treatment centres and local services should be doing to support women who are sex working?
There needs to be things like working women’s projects, people need to be out on the streets helping the girls, legal houses, handing out condoms things like that. There should be services for the punters too, its just another form of addiction paying for sex. There should be a punters perspective too.
Kathy is now teaching people how to manage their finances and is an active member of the fellowship she is in and she is a valid member of my support network who I aspire to be like when I reach her clean time. She is a strong caring women who I have the utmost love and respect for, and who I’m extremely proud to call my friend.
At the start of this article I decided to put the question on social media “Should sex work be made legal? On my Facebook friends list are people from every walk of life, most are in recovery from a substance misuse problem. Some are just civilians going about their daily lives. Many are people still battling to get a day clean. There was a massive response to my question and some people were in recovery from sex work like myself and some not, just people with a view around the subject. Here are the responses.
Emma Shelton who is a sex worker in recovery from drugs and alcohol said this.
” Yes, I was fortunate that I didn’t have to stand on street corners but I did get robbed and beaten up a few times. If I were somewhere like a brothel with security the risks to me would have been decreased for sure. Making it legal can also reduce trafficking and sexual exploitation to women because women can then be vetted and managed to make sure they actually want to be taking part in sex work This gives the women the help and the option to talk around sex work, the impact it has and any addiction problems they may have”
Rebekah Hope, who’s just over a year clean from prescription medication said.
“I think it would be much better legal it will be safer all around”
Then a lady called Rachel West who’s 2 years into recovery said “No the government will put tax on it. This sparked a conversation with three women.
Denise Barnes who’s not in recovery because she doesn’t need to be said ” Rachel, you can already declare it on your self employment tax returns and the government do tax you”.
Tina Paine another lady who’s not in recovery because she doesn’t have a substance misuse problem said ” I definitely agree with government putting taxes on sex work it will make it safer”
Rachel West then said “How can they tax something that’s illegal? Just proves how corrupt the system is, I would have never have declared my earnings”.
Allan, who lives in the United States had this to say “I think this discussion would be much more on point if we didn’t tie it to… religion, personal ideas on morality and what one personally doesn’t like, and addiction.
I, being who I am, have seen prostitution from many sides and situations. Legal and illegal. Those instances and places where it was legal, it was much safer. Disease wise, and personal safety wise. Not all ladies involved in the activity are disease riddled addicts desperately scrambling for a fix. Many are law abiding citizens, except of course for breaking prostitution laws, just trying to better their situation for themselves, or their families.
Here in the States in April a new law was passed which highly hindered these soccer mom’s, and suburbanite middle of the road ladies who were supplementing their livelihood by using the tools available, by their own choice, from doing so. The misguided law forced the average, independent from the light of day back into the shadows, back into the dark alleys and venues which are inherently dangerous on many levels to all involved.
And let’s also talk of the buyer. Oft times these clients, predominantly men, are demonized as perverts, cheaters and deviant sickos. Not the case. Many, for a multitude of reasons either are left with few viable options to get some human physical contact, which is a vital part of a healthy psyche. We get told “it’s what’s on the inside that counts” but often the ugly, poor, not so well spoken, but otherwise decent guys are passed over for the flashy guys. Should they live their lives devoid of contact because someone else doesn’t approve? Even though it doesn’t affect them in the slightest? There are the busy, the physically challenged, those who just like contact, but not the games and life long commitments that some in society deem necessary to touch naughty bits.
Will there be problems? Show me a profession that doesn’t have problems. Free the ladies from seedy hovels and evil men who would control and use and abuse them for their own gain”.
John who is 4 years into recovery had this to say “Difficult question. In a perfect society I would say yes better protection, safer environment all these things would make it better for men and women. Every person has a choice as to what they want to do with their body. Unfortunately we do not live in a perfect society and legalisation will just end up being abused. Women and men will still be put at risk and because it will be legal those that are causing the abuse will be protected by the law. You know better than anyone the way the world works Marie, we live in a world that works solely on personal gain, and don’t worry about everyone else. So this is why I say this is a difficult question. In Amsterdam women and men are still at great risk and still abused and put in danger and its legal. I’m up for it, I just don’t think we live in a world that wouldn’t abuse it in some way”
Sandie, A lady who carried the message to me HMP Holloway many years ago said this “I agree with John, although the law may (hopefully !) protect the men and women who prostitute, it will also protect the exploiters. I couldn’t bear to think of the government taxing something that, on the whole, is seeped in misery. That would be wholly immoral. Non prosecution of those who sell and more safe centres/refuges/treatment for those who want to leave the life would be a better use of any funding”.
Nadya A girl who’s just coming up to her 18 months and is quite young herself said she watched a program on BBC iPlayer recently where there was a designated zone where women and customers could not be arrested and there were designated times for the women to prostitute themselves, there was some form of protection in this too.
This seemed a really good idea, however due to most of the women having addiction issues the designated times weren’t enough so they went out of the zone and times they were given. I do feel tackling the issue of addiction is imperative rather then the source of income as this is the main reason they turn to this form of earning money most likely in the first place.
This is what Lucinda Owen from South London added who’s also in long term recovery from drugs and alcohol addiction “If it’s legalised there should be more input from services to ensure that there is a holistic approach to support sex workers who want to exit the industry should they wish to. These routes are currently woefully underfunded and many havens are shutting due to this. There are also other women who are vulnerable working in the industry. The Maids are often supporting habits and their children too. Some will go on to sex work as a natural progression, and it’s often encouraged by the Brothel keeper.”
And Joseph Keevill , in long term recovery “I think legalising it means women get better protection but also prescribing the drugs they are addicted to whilst offering treatment. If someone chooses to be a prostitute that’s one thing, but being forced into it to buy small amounts of low quality drugs at a price that forces them into a cycle which men control and illegally profit from is absolutely horrific”.
And Alex who isn’t in any type of recovery as he doesn’t need to be offered this “In a perfect world I would say no, as there should be no need for prostitution. Alas we don’t live in a perfect world, so the answer would be yes, the girls would have more protection from thugs and pimps, plus it would be a more controlled environment for the girls.
And Neil who is a counsellor in the addiction field and in recovery himself put this to me “For me prostitution is the way it is because of the laws and peoples attitude to sex in Britain. If you look abroad where there is better protection, better laws and even safe houses, then it can be done differently. Whilst we make such vast horrible sweeping generalisations on what our opinions are on it, or our experiences of it, then we will never get the right view of it. There are many reasons why people do it and many different things that they think they are doing it but ultimately people should be able to use their own body how they want”.
And finally Shabina a girl early into recovery said this “Prostituting yourself shouldn’t be allowed, it’s degrading to self and one should really only give their body to someone they love and trust”
What I found quite extraordinary in all these views was that not once did anybody mention the mental impact sex work has on women, even the working girls who are in recovery themselves. My own personal view is that we are stuck between a rock and a hard place here. Yes we should be allowed to do what we wish with our own bodies and nobody has a right to tell people what they can or can’t do with them. Its more down do the serious impacts and harms women are causing themselves through sex work and for that reason alone I don’t think it should be made legal. I feel it should be made harder. I think there should be more police out on the streets stopping the women from being out there. The way men and women get treated in houses is just as bad as it on the streets, maybe worse if you think of the emotional abuse some of these people get from their pimps as well as their punters. It is only a matter of time before more women and men are killed. Lets not forget that most are selling themselves to feed an addiction habit that does prove fatal to many women and men. Last year I lost a very close friend who just could not live with the trauma from her sex work, she had 2 years clean and relapsed because the damage and mental aspects of the trauma she has suffered were just to much for her to cope with clean. She was never happy in recovery, she was troubled and it felt that way when you were in her presence, she was very tormented by her past. There were many hours I spent on the phone to her, hearing her sobbing around the way her punters were treating her. There were texts asking me to call the police if she hadn’t returned after a certain time. She died. She died because there is lack of support by local services, there are not enough outreach teams on red light areas or support for highly vulnerable men and women. Are these people being told there is a way out? I was in some training myself this month with a local service and it felt like it was more about crime reduction than finding the addicts of today an actual solution to their problem.
I sit in 12 step fellowship meetings and I don’t hear that many women who get out of the cycle of sex work and addiction. Yes there are many but not many as there should be. I don’t sit in meetings that often and hear the identification I really do need to hear in order for me to recover from the trauma of sex work. There are the handful of women who I have come across in our fellowship that overcome such a massive hurdle. This is what sex workers need to know. That there is a way out and that the chain can be broken with the right care and support. I feel that treatment centers should be setting up groups just on the topic of sex work. We need to heal on past trauma in order to recover and without the right support its not going to happen for the women who are left out on the streets today.
While in the process of writing this article I slipped into a complex PTSD episode and was not able to leave my house for 3 days. This is the affect I’m left with just writing about my sex work at over 4 years clean and while in therapy, I can still be triggered. Every time I have an episode as I’m coming out I embrace it. I look at it as another part of my insides healing. I’m struggling in many areas due to my mental health, but I’m better, I’m better because I’m not standing on a street corner in the rain waiting for another punter night after night and I’m not causing myself harm. I’m learning to like myself today for that reason, I’m also showing myself some compassion and forgiveness today.
I am now in the process with one of our local services setting up an outreach team in my area, on the very same streets I stood on for 15 years. I hope in this process I will reach someone just like myself and show them that there is a way out if they’re willing to take the help we are putting in place for them. As well as this, I hope I may just be able to let myself heal some more and let go of the ghosts of my past. I am determined to help myself, and others recover from this dark, and in my own words “somewhat twisted way to earn money for drugs”.