StoriesPart of Reframing sex work

Selling sex and sacrificing safety

Many of us trust the police to protect us from crime and find and punish those who commit it. But sex workers don’t have that luxury. If they report clients’ offences, they are often faced with indifference and an assumption that violence is simply part of the job. One organisation is trying to turn the tide, as sex worker Abigail explains.

Words by Abigail and artwork by Jessa Fairbrother

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Artwork made up of a black and white photograph of a female figure from behind, from the waist up, against a black background. Her arms are held out straight to either side, her wrists and hands held up indicating a stop action. Embroidered into the photographic print with yellow and orange coloured thread is a crisscross floral pattern which exactly covers her head and hair. Across her back, embroidered in a copper coloured thread is a large  thin vertical rectangle. Surrounding the figure is a large ellipse made up of a layered texture of dots which forms a protective barrier against sharp tooth like forms approaching the barrier, also made up of layered textured dots.
Selling sex and sacrificing safety. © Jessa Fairbrother for Wellcome Collection.

In 2017 I experienced a burglary at my home late at night. I immediately phoned the police, who arrived within a couple of hours, made sure I was okay, cleared up the glass from the window that had been smashed, took my details and sent a forensics officer over the next day. I was shaken, but I never had any doubt that contacting the police was the right thing to do – the safe thing to do.

Like most other people, I used to look to the police as pillars of the community who safeguarded society. I believed those children’s TV shows where the friendly man in the blue helmet would help people cross the road or give someone directions. Even as I grew into adulthood, the police were the people who’d chase down the thief, stop the dangerous driver or solve the murder.

It was only when I became a sex worker, in April 2018, that this veneer started to slip. Suddenly the police became the people who might arrest me or my fellow sex workers for trying to support our partners and families. They became the people who’d dismiss our experiences of violence, or worse, be the perpetrators of that violence.

In a society that sees sex workers as disposable, easy targets or criminals, I cannot ever feel truly safe. 

As a sex worker, the idea of reporting to the police feels like playing roulette. You have no idea what is going to happen to you – whether you're going to be sat down with an officer who understands what it is that you do, gives you a cup of tea and listens to what you have to say (and then does something about it), or whether you’re going to be greeted by someone who dismisses your trauma as an occupational hazard and sends you on your way.

I’m very lucky – I have not yet had to report anything that has happened to me in sex work. But across the country, I see my friends and colleagues take a huge risk every time they choose to report directly to the police, and that risk does not always pay off.

Artwork made up of a black and white photograph of a female figure from behind, from the waist up, against a black background. Embroidered into the photographic print with yellow and orange coloured thread is a crisscross floral pattern which exactly covers her head and hair.
Selling sex and sacrificing safety. © Jessa Fairbrother for Wellcome Collection.

"Each and every one of these stories erodes your trust in the people you’ve been taught since childhood will keep you safe."

When trust is eroded

When a client contacted a friend of mine and asked her to perform sexual acts with a minor, her report to the police was disregarded. Instead the officer said, “Why are you so upset? You should expect this with what you do.” Another worker was one of several women filmed by undercover police when they infiltrated the strip club where she worked and took covert footage without permission. In 2017 a cleaner in a Bournemouth brothel was convicted under brothel-keeping laws after calling 999 for a client who had had a heart attack while on the premises.

Ask any sex worker and we’ll have a handful of such stories to tell: our own experiences, our friends’ experiences, and the experiences of sex workers all across the UK. Each and every one of these stories erodes your trust in the people you’ve been taught since childhood will keep you safe.

I’d heard of National Ugly Mugs (NUM – an organisation that provides greater access to justice and protection for sex workers) before I started sex working myself. I had friends all across the sex industry: the non-binary domme (who takes the dominant role in BDSM) whose disabilities made it hard for them to maintain a job in the formal labour market; the pornography performer working three jobs to support her partner on Universal Credit; the escort who made enough money from sex work to survive each month so that she could dedicate the rest of her time to volunteering and community projects. As soon as I started engaging in sex work too, I knew to sign up with NUM immediately.

Sex workers keep each other safe. We rely on our colleagues’ generosity, kindness and community to share knowledge, information and resources. Sometimes it’s just a case of having had a bad day and needing to vent to someone who won’t make you feel like it’s your fault for choosing this line of work. Sometimes it’s needing to know which clients are thought to be safe and which ones might turn out to be stalkers, harassers, thieves, rapists – or worse.

Artwork made up of a black and white photograph of a female figure from behind, from against a black background. Her left arm is held out straight to the side, her wrist and hand are held up indicating a stop action. To the left of her hand is part of a large ellipse made up of a layered texture of dots which forms a protective barrier against sharp tooth like forms approaching the barrier, also made up of layered textured dots.
Selling sex and sacrificing safety. © Jessa Fairbrother for Wellcome Collection.

"Sex workers keep each other safe. We rely on our colleagues’ generosity, kindness and community to share knowledge, information and resources."

NUM means we can share this information not just with our friends, but with a whole network of sex workers with whom we stand in solidarity. Every time I receive a NUM alert – which is sent to us if a worker has reported a dangerous person in our area – I feel mixed emotions. Sad that this has happened; anger towards a society where this has been allowed to happen, or accepted, or hidden, or, at worst, justified; but most importantly, I feel warmth and compassion towards the person brave enough to come forward and share their experiences in the hope that none of the rest of us will have to then face them.

To share this information with NUM is to help every sex worker across the UK, and I cannot thank them enough for it.

Demanding rights and justice

With NUM, I know that I have the tools to protect myself as much as possible. I can use email- and number-checkers to screen clients. I can find out about anything happening in my local area that I need to avoid. I know that if I ever needed to, I could report a crime to NUM and help keep other sex workers safe, while also being able to choose whether I want to report to the police or not.

I feel safer in the knowledge that sex workers can report incidents to NUM, which then passes on anonymised warnings, although I hope most of us never have to use this service. And yet I cannot help but feel that if every sex worker knew that the police would not dismiss, belittle or criminalise their experiences, NUM wouldn’t be needed. We should not have to fear seeking the help we so desperately need.

In a society that sees sex workers as disposable, easy targets or criminals, I cannot ever feel truly safe. The police perpetuate, recreate and reinforce that stigma that sees us either as abused victims who lack autonomy, or as criminals who deserve what we get. We demand to be seen as human, with the same rights and the same ability to access justice as everyone else.

About the contributors

Photograph of Abigail

Abigail

Author

Abigail (not her real name) is a pornography performer, webcam performer and professional submissive. In her other life, she is an academic who enjoys baking, vintage fashion and the Eurovision Song Contest.

Photograph of Jessa Fairbrother

Jessa Fairbrother

Artist
jessafairbrother.com
Jessa on QEST

Jessa Fairbrother is a visual artist using photography, performance and stitch. Her long-term investigations revolve around subjects of yearning and the porous body. Her work is held in numerous private and public collections worldwide, including Tate Britain, the V&A, the Yale Center for British Art and the Museum of Fine Art, Houston. Her work is represented by the Photographers’ Gallery, London and AnzenbergerGallery, Vienna. She is also a QEST (Queen Elizabeth Scholarship Trust) scholar.