Elise, 23, lives in a housing project in London for young women recovering from drug addiction. She was raised in Watford by a single mum on benefits who had a disability. As a route out of poverty, when she was 17, Elise started working as an escort. In order to cope with the rising trauma of her job, she ended up dosing herself with large amounts of ketamine and alcohol.
She stopped working as an escort last year. When I interviewed her she talked in a whirl of hand gestures and hair tosses, her flair for the dramatic shining through.
I’m 23, but I feel like I’ve lived a million lifetimes.
Growing up financially insecure had a massive impact on me wanting to strive financially as an adult. I knew working a Saturday job wasn’t going to cut it. When I was 13, I bought a de-tagger, a magnet for shoplifting. I was stealing Ted Baker bags and selling them on eBay. I’d save 80 percent of the money I made. When I was 16, this progressed to selling MDMA at squat raves.
At one of these raves I met a girl involved in prostitution and she told me about a website she advertised on. She said it was legal, so there was less risk – and more profit to be made compared to selling drugs. She planted a seed.
I used to watch Secret Diary Of A Call Girl, based on the book by Belle de Jour. It glamourised high class escorting, but it wasn’t real life. It turns out Belle de Jour had an education in journalism, did sex work part-time for six months and wrote a book on it. She’s not representative of the demographic who do this job, and has no experience of the reality. Most of the girls who get involved in the industry are poor, and they don’t want to do it. I realised I could make more money through sex work than with any degree. However, all the money I put in my pocket came at a price: it put me into a crisis.
It was ironic – I was spending the money I earned on therapy to recover. Booking flights to go to Asia to do yoga, just to try and heal, because I was so fucking traumatised by the end of it, and so depressed and suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. At the end of yoga, I’d get my internal psyche fucking hammering at me not to do sex work. Every part of myself was screaming at me not to do it again. However, I made a conscious decision, based on fear: to accumulate economic wealth as opposed to taking a healthier path.
I was always lying to people – my name, what I did for a living – so I was constantly having to try and remember what I told people. Was I Amelia or Alice or Elise? I almost started forgetting my real name.
I remember fucking this guy who used to own a football team – I was getting four figures from the bookings – and I remember just recoiling at his touch. Hearing my internal monologue in so much pain, and me being like, “What the fuck is this? How can I help you?” I just split from myself, I dissociated. Part of me had to split off in order to protect myself, to live.
I remember being in therapy and refusing to talk about sex work, and that was the whole reason I was there, because I’d get bad dreams, getting fucked by demons, a lot of sexual violence. I had a horrific perception of men that affected my capacity to believe I was capable of romantic relationships with the opposite sex.
A lot of people don’t do sex work right. As in, they end up 40 years old, with loads of handbags and used pairs of Prada shoes, and not a lot else, still in a council flat. You do get a small amount of people who cultivate their money – they invest in stocks and shares – but they don’t have any relationships, they don’t have a family, they're not married. They’ve got so much wealth, but do they actually have stuff of real value?
One of the madams I worked for owned this house in South Kensington and a house in Marbella, and she’d let the girls go to both of them. She had a lot of money. We’d have to meet her in a Pret a Manger in Kensington every month with our cash and give her our cut, which was like 30 percent of each booking – which were £700 an hour. You’d see girls dropping off their bags of money and also giving her gifts – Godiva chocolates, jewellery, watches – so she’d give them more bookings. She was quite glamorous, really pretty, probably about 60 years old, but she looked about 40. She didn’t have any kids, so she treated the girls like her kids. The girl who introduced me to her said she loved getting Mother’s Day cards, and that it gets you in with her. It was all about manipulation, basically. You’ll find that across a lot of fields of business.
We all got a professional photographer to take pictures of us with sexy underwear. We had work phones, and once you put your number on a site your phone didn’t stop ringing. I had different portfolios with different prices on different websites. You had to work across as many markets as possible.
It wasn’t all doom and gloom – sometimes it was fun, a bit like a music video. A couple of us girls would get an Airbnb or a nice five-star hotel, with loads of cocaine, loads of champagne, playing rap music to keep us motivated, stacking as if we were hustling. You’d go out for a booking, come back with the money, so there would be thousands of pounds everywhere: £100 became like £5 to me. You’re just making so much money in a short period of time that you lose the value of it.
I legitimised my income. I was paying tax and I was registered as a beauty therapist, all in the hope of buying a property, maybe becoming a landlord and retiring early. However, I just couldn’t get the extra year of tax returns I needed. I couldn’t do the job any longer – it was killing me.
When I went into rehab I learned that I’d been chronically masking unhappiness. On the surface I was a really happy, effervescent, tits and teeth, jazz hands kinda girl. Even if I felt like shit on my fourth booking or whatever, I’d pretend I was this happy-go-lucky cheerleader. When a booking knocked on the door, I’d just take a deep breath and go, “Hey, how are you doing! Come in!” A massive smile on my face.
I wanted to work in a way that made my clientele – who were upper middle-class rich businessmen, essentially – most comfortable. They were high-flyers, people who made a lot of money, so I needed to be a female who hadn’t been a professional shoplifter at 13, who spent their time hanging around in a graveyard inhaling aerosol gas. It’s like most girls in the industry – they just pretend to be what their clients want.
My “story” was that my dad had his own business and my mum was a nurse. I pretended I was studying for my BA in Psychology at UCL. I read around the subject so I could talk authentically and to satisfy any suspicious prying. I said I was working as an escort part-time because, “I love sex, and the money is a good bonus!”
The reality was that I didn’t do the job because I loved sex, I did the job because I loved money. I was working full time, my highest level of formal qualification was GCSE, I was seeing multiple clients a day and I didn’t have a relationship with my parents. I hadn’t seen my dad for years – he was really abusive to my mum.
But a good sex worker is a good salesperson, and they tell their clientele what they want to hear. Generally, not many want to fuck the desperate poor girl from a broken home trying to get out of poverty. They want to fuck a vivacious and bubbly girl, emotionally stable from a secure background, with a bright future and an insatiable taste for dick. Much more appealing!
It wasn’t as simple as that. When someone walked in the room, I had to work out whether they wanted you to be this innocent girl who doesn’t really do this and that, or a cum-slut fuck-doll. So you had to be really quick to work out: ‘Who do you want me to be?’
Being robbed and being stalked were some real issues. I used to have panic alarms in my flat, on my key rings, by my bed, by the side of my door. SOS buttons which called 999, and then also CCTV in the hallway of my flat and in the living room. I had to be good at conflict resolution and sussing someone out – like, do you have the ability to beat me up and actually harm me?
I had a lot of internalised anger and hate subconsciously from doing the work.
I had a zero-disrespect policy. Any perception of disrespect, I wouldn’t tolerate it and I’d throw them out. Suddenly, the whole posh girl act was gone, and it was someone from EastEnders coming through. At the end of the day you’re a young girl in a flat by yourself, and you’re seeing these adult older men, and a lot of these men get off abusing vulnerable women. I had to learn how to assert myself and put people in their place.
Eventually, it got to the point I didn’t really want to be alive anymore. I was taking a lot of drugs. There was one life on social media and one in reality. On social media, I was eating in the best restaurants I’d only heard rappers talk about, but in reality I was leaving early to go inject myself with ketamine. At 20, I had my will written up.
The way I see it with sex work, if you don’t have an alcohol or substance issue before you start, you will have one by the time you end. I went to rehab three times. If I took a couple of Xannies, I was just out of it enough to do the job, but still capable enough to hold an intelligent conversation. So that was my lucky medium. That balance took a few years to perfect. I was using a few grams of ketamine most days. I was injecting it because it hits you instantly and has a better effect. I was also using coke and Xanax almost every day, to bring me up and soothe me down. Because of how much money I was earning, there were infinite drugs. But ketamine was my main, alongside alcohol.
Now, I’m living in supported housing for vulnerable young women. I used to get four figures a day, and now I get £10 a day on universal credit. And I feel like I’m just starting my life fresh again, trying to decide who I actually want to be. I’m not as ambitious and as motivated as I used to be – that job just chewed me up and spat me out.
Funnily enough, the happiest time as an adult was when I was in a rehab last year. I was living with these six other people who were just really lovely – we were all in group therapy together, we were all supporting each other, we all just genuinely cared and wanted the best for each other, and I made some really amazing friendships.
I want to use my experience to help other young, disadvantaged women. I have a passion for helping vulnerable young people. I feel like pain can make you a lot more empathetic as a person.
There’s a difference between quick money and easy money, and people get this confused when they talk about sex work. It’s quick, but it isn’t easy. And it comes at a price. Every time I lay with a different man and made money, I actually sacrificed a piece of my wellbeing, my internal life, health and happiness – and, not to sound melodramatic, but a piece of my soul. I auctioned myself off.
I had this client who ended up stalking me. He had 11 bedrooms and this ridiculous amount of bathrooms. He was so rich – he worked for a bank – and was a completely socially inept guy. He had all this money, but did he have anyone to share this house with? No. That's why he was using me. It helped me realise the actual value of things in life – it’s not always financial. I believe the true wealth you have is the relationships with other people. That's the true treasure. I was willing to sacrifice everything for money. I had all my identity and self-worth tied up with money.
The only thing empowering about sex work is not being poor anymore. They say it’s empowering, that it’s feminism. But I think that’s bullshit.
If you are a sex worker who wants to talk, contact Elise here