Jakob was around five years old when he stumbled across explicit photographs of his mother in a porn magazine. “There were some copies under her bed,” he explains. “I kept asking her what it was, and she eventually explained that she took those photographs for money.”
As Jakob recalls it, this information didn’t bother him at the time. But living in a small town meant that word about his mother’s profession spread, and he remembers being teased as he was growing up – particularly when he got to high school. “I could hear kids saying, Jakob’s mum is a porn star,” he says. “When I first began puberty and speaking to girls, I was rejected by one who called my mother a slut.”
Despite Jakob – who asked for his last name to be withheld for privacy reasons – being made to feel different, having a sex worker parent is hardly a rare phenomenon. According to the English Collective of Prostitutes, most sex workers are mothers who’ve entered prostitution to support their families, with more women entering into the profession amid the poverty inflicted by COVID-19. Despite there being tens of thousands of them in the UK alone, the idea of sex worker parents is still considered taboo, even immoral, in social and cultural realms.
It has, in the past, been argued that the children of sex workers are more vulnerable to psychological issues and parental abandonment. These arguments are, on the whole, simplistic and reductive. While his fraught time at school “drove something of a wedge” between Jakob and his mother during his teenage years, his feelings towards her now are of admiration. “[My mum] put food on the table for her kids, and was willing to do whatever it took to do it,” he says. “She shouldn’t be made to feel shame for it.”
It’s an attitude Liz Afton, a psychotherapist and social worker with 15 years of experience working with sex workers and their families, often encounters through her work. “Ultimately, having a parent who experiences stigma and survives that, and who’s dedicated to your survival, regardless of the circumstances that they need to navigate in order to support you monetarily, communicates a sense of commitment to a child's wellbeing,” she says.
Also overlooked are the ways in which the flexibility that sex work allows for – often entailing fewer working hours for better pay – can facilitate a better parent-child relationship. “Many sex working parents I've known have been involved in that work as a way to parent their child better,” says Afton. “Being a sex worker has meant they are able to provide more options and experience a greater sense of independence, and therefore have more attention available to their children.”
This was the experience of Nina Hernandez, a 35-year-old from New York, whose mother worked as an escort when Hernandez was a child. “I had nice clothes, toys, and we finally moved to a better neighbourhood,” she says. “The most beneficial part of her working short hours with such good pay is that I saw her more often, and she seemed happy and bubbly because we had no financial worries.”
Of course, this isn’t to flatten the experiences of individuals who have sex worker parents or to say that they are less likely to undergo turbulent upbringings. In fact, the criminalisation of sex workers, structural inequality and the stigma they endure will likely have at least some impact on their families.
Brandon, who grew up with a single mother who made a living off sex work, had a tumultuous childhood. “Sex work played a pivotal role growing up and I often sat in the next room or made to wait outside in the car while it happened,” recalls Brandon, who asked his full name not to be used as it was the first time he has shared his story publicly. “She called [seeing a client] ‘mama time’. It was something I came to understand. We were more like best friends than mother and son… things weren’t perfect, but I never once doubted that she loved me.”
While Brandon felt safe “most of the time”, he recalls an incident in which one of his mother’s clients became aggressive and they ended up having to lock themselves in the bathroom of the hotel they were staying at until he’d calmed down and left. Her sex work would also eventually become bound up with addiction: “We didn’t have a lot of money, and she spent a lot of it on drugs,” recalls Brandon.
“I think the way she approached sex work meant she wasn’t meeting quality clients, because she wasn’t able to take care of herself,” he continues. “I grew up with very low trust in the police and those people that were supposed to protect the community because everything we did involved drugs or sex work – things that are illegal. Looking back, if she had been able to go through sex work legally, to see people who were willing to pay a good price, people who were vetted, essentially, it would have changed our quality of life.”
Afton similarly points to the fact that the criminalisation of their profession means that sex workers are often scared to seek out the help they need, whether that be for drug addiction or family support. Giving sex workers that safety would require the decriminalisation of sex work, instead of the continued criminalisation of related activities like curb crawling in UK.
“Decriminalisation would mean that sex working parents would not have fear of seeking help from the systems that are supposed to be supporting families,” explains Afton. “They would be able to speak openly with social workers or other people to help them to navigate dangerous situations.”
For Hernandez, her life was turned upside down when her mother was shamed by her family into quitting sex work. “We had to move in with my grandmother, and my mom had to work odd jobs. There was no time for my mom to study for a GED [diploma] now that she wasn’t escorting and had children to care for and no support, even from her mother.”
“I truly believe that had there was acceptance of sex work, she would have accomplished her goals of being a nurse and would have given us a better life. The one profession that is most looked down on by society [sex work] is the one that would have saved us from poverty and helped fund my mother’s higher education,” says Hernandez. Today, Hernandez, who went onto work as an exotic dancer, advocates for sex worker rights. “Sex workers are just normal human beings making a living – not criminals in need of punishment.”
Jakob and Hernandez agree that having a sex worker parent positively impacted their relationship with their mothers. “I think without her doing it, there would be a certain level of respect for her that I wouldn't have attained otherwise,” says Jakob. For Hernandez, who only learnt about her mother’s time as an escort after she became a sex worker herself, it brought them closer. “I suddenly felt understood... Once, we even went shopping together to pick out outfits for my job!”
Despite what was often a painful and chaotic childhood, Brandon believes that having a sex worker parent has made him more of a compassionate person. “It was never a question to not accept someone for being different. It was, like, ‘That's who they are,’’' he says. “I feel like I learned that early on, because my mom was a sex worker.”