Former Sex Workers Tell Us How and Why They Left Sex Work Behind

"The first step towards leaving that world was writing a book about it and putting my face on the cover."

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18 July 2016, 3:31pm

(Photo: Lewis Whyld / PA Archive/Press Association Images)

Sex work can be a contentious topic. Like in August of last year, when celebrities such as Lena Dunham and Emma Thompson attacked a report that drew on the experiences of loads of sex workers, subsequently pissing off a load of sex workers. Or this year, over the past month or so, as British politicians have been squabbling about the best way to treat sex work.

Some, who called for legal reforms earlier this month, argue that stopping the penalisation of prostitutes and escorts would make their lives less dangerous, while others have expressed the view that consent can't be bought, and even likened paying for sex to rape.

One part of the debate is framed around the issue of choice. Is it so difficult for sex workers to leave that world behind that they are essentially stuck in their professions, or do some men and women simply view sex work as a simple way to earn money? In order to shed some light on this, I asked four former prostitutes and escorts how and why they got out of the game.

Sandra Hobson

Sandra (centre) in her role as the Mayor of Bradley Stoke

While touring Europe as an entertainer I had a love affair with a German man. It all came to an end when his mother found out, and wasn't too pleased I wasn't blonde and Aryan, which left me very depressed. I returned to England destitute and suicidal, and bought a house there with the intention of dying in it. Fortunately, I eventually decided that I was going to carry on living after all and attempted to figure out how I was going to pay the mortgage. After trying my hand at several different jobs, I realised that I wasn't going to earn enough by working a regular 9-5, so I became a sex worker.

I hated what I did, but told people I loved it and that I was proud of it. The event that made me decide once and for all that I was going to leave the business behind was being diagnosed with cancer. I'd got health insurance, which covered the cost of the mortgage, so I knew that once I'd finished treatment there was no reason for me to continue in the sex industry.

Unless you've got a plan for finding another source of income, leaving that life behind can be very frightening. I'd advise those who are trying to get out to start their own businesses rather than working for someone else. That way, they won't be at the mercy of other people's opinions. The money also tends to be better than the wages for the typical 9-5s that are available to former sex workers. I started my own bed and breakfast, which is now doing well. I'm a radio presenter as well, with my own weekly show on Bradley Stoke Radio 103.4 FM, which is now the most important thing in my life.

I also entered into the world of politics. Believe it or not, my peers in the political arena were all extremely encouraging, and I never received any stigma from them. I was voted in as a South Gloucestershire councillor for the Liberal Democrats after openly admitting my temporary career in the sex industry to the party. They were fully aware of my past career, and very supportive. That was very empowering. I also became the Mayor of Bradley Stoke from 2005 to 2006.

I'm a lot poorer now than I was when I was a sex worker, but much more content. I'm currently part of a committee that will be putting a paper before the Lib Dems' conference laying out the challenges that people who have been in the sex industry face. It points out the job discrimination they receive, and the need for additional help and support. Hopefully it can help to bring about a change.

Gaye Dalton

Gaye then and now

The first time I sold sex was a single traumatic incident while living in Dublin. If I hadn't, my son would have had no food on his birthday, let alone a present. The next was in London. I was alone and in a state of mental and emotional collapse. My world had imploded, but I kept on going until I made one stupid mistake that landed me with nowhere to go and hardly any money. I could afford one coffee in Marble Arch. A woman sat opposite me as I drank it, and we started to talk. She worked Park Lane and explained how she went about doing it. There was no grooming or trying to exploit me; she was lonely, too – in many ways in a similarly nightmarish situation. We talked to each other about things that, through no fault of our own, set us apart from the world. I went out that night with nothing and came back with £180.

We eventually parted ways. The fear of arrest was constant and terrifying, so I went to Paris, where I fell in love with an Egyptian teacher. He worked two jobs, but, as an illegal, still didn't earn enough to live. I'm autistic and can't function in a normal job in English, let alone French, so, in desperation, I insisted on going back to sex work, just to buy us some time. He tried everything to stop me. I resented him every time he failed. We gave up trying in the end. He went back to Egypt, I to London. He gave me his mother's address. I never wrote.

London was a daisy chain of bad experiences, so I returned to Ireland, where I still couldn't find a way to get enough money to live. The only option left was a return to sex work. I sold sex for six years in Dublin, until 1993, when I was approached by an organised crime group who wanted me to work for them. Tougher laws criminalising prostitution were coming in, and they planned on using them as leverage for control over the independent street workers. I refused their offer. From then on, being me became an extreme sport.

I was in so much danger that an old client offered me all his savings to get out. I turned him down at first, but then realised that my situation was not only placing me at risk, but also the lives of my customers, so I took him up on his offer. I needed an income, so I sewed soft furnishings for 18 hours a day, seven days a week, which I hated. I later took up refurbishing computers, started to do really well, then a market shift brought an end to that. The long hours I worked and the stress I endured completely broke my physical health. I wouldn't say I've ever really even had a life. I never stopped looking for real help and support. There was none, and there is none now.

Paul Lovell

I first became involved in sex work after travelling to London for a job interview and losing my ticket home. I was sightseeing on Shaftesbury Avenue when I noticed a man cruising me. I hadn't come out or even been to a gay bar at that point, so I must have been very intuitive to pick up on it. I asked him the time, and his comically cheesy response was, "I have the time and the money." I had no qualms about taking him up on his offer, and felt empowered by the fact that I was able to use my only possession, my body, to earn enough cash to buy breakfast and another train ticket.

Poverty, abuse and desperation were also factors that pushed me towards that line of work. I was abandoned by my mother and raised by my father on state handouts, along with four other children. Going without the simplest things created a strong urge to have. Add to that the psychological effects of abuse and a troubled school life that produced no qualifications and it's easy to see why I went down the road of prostitution.

Even though I lived on the margins of society, I was often in plain sight. I mostly plied my trade in well-known gay pubs, clubs and on the fringes of cruising areas, avoiding the darkest places for fear of violence. Alcohol and drugs added a rosy haze to everything. They were a crutch that made life bearable and helped me to remain optimistic. There was little to no glamour; I was on the bottom rung of the working ladder. Saying that, the majority of my customers were compassionate and respectful.

Even when I found a regular job, I still didn't quit because I didn't trust my ability to keep it. I had more faith in maintaining my regular customers than in remaining legally employed. The turning point was when I fell in love, at which stage I immediately packed sex work in. I was so smitten that I wanted to give my new relationship 100 percent. The biggest difficulty lay in revealing the truth. But without question, I was accepted. Regardless of the years, it appears there isn't a best-before date when it comes to laying down clean sheets.

I didn't miss the money – saying that, my new husband could easily afford to support me. I'm not ashamed to have been a prostitute; I'm slightly proud, if anything. I used what I had to make an interesting life for myself, never stole from punters or hurt anyone, and entrusted my destiny to karma.

Rebecca Dakin

I first decided to become an escort at age 25 after becoming sick of dead-end jobs. I originally only envisioned it as a temporary thing, as I thought I'd be getting paid to literally just have sex, and wasn't sure if that was something I could see myself doing on a long-term basis. I ended up catering to clients who wanted the "girlfriend experience", which resembles a real date. Sex was only a small part of the job; it mainly involved eating at posh restaurants and being bought expensive gifts. It was actually quite enjoyable in some ways, and really easy money.

I eventually stopped escorting for a number of different reasons. Firstly, I was getting older, and realised that when a girl gets past a certain age the punters stop wanting to wine and dine her, and it becomes solely about sex. Secondly, I envisioned having kids one day, and wanted to be able to tell them I'd done something with my life apart from escorting. My confidence had also grown due to all the compliments I received from my clients, and I had enough self-belief to know that I was capable of being successful in other areas. It wasn't that escorting was a terrible job or anything; I just decided that it was time to do something else.

The first step towards leaving that world behind was writing a book entitled The Girlfriend Experience about my experiences and putting my photo on the front cover. I knew that being recognisable as an escort would prevent a lot of clients from wanting to be seen in public with me, so it was a way of closing the lid on that chapter of my life. I still continued to see a couple of my regulars for a few years after that, until one of them developed feelings for me. At that point, I made up my mind that I was going to pack it in once and for all.

I didn't have many qualifications, but had learned a lot about relationships and intimacy, so I decided to pursue a career in offering advice and therapy in that area. I trained in neurolinguistic programming and hypnotherapy, and got a package of skills together to assist me. The fact that I'd been involved in escorting actually stood me in good stead, as I was able to use my previous occupation as my unique selling point. It served as evidence that I knew what I was talking about. Using the name "The Great British Sexpert" I now offer a dating, mating and relating service, which is going really well.

Escorts can sometimes be addicted to the money and the lifestyle, and become stuck in that line of work. I'm glad I got out when I did, as the profession is completely different now that the internet has made it easier for escorts to advertise their services. There's a lot more competition, which means that there's less money in it and the customers expect more. Nowadays, I would definitely advise anyone thinking of pursuing a career in escorting to think twice about it and consider doing something else instead.

Thanks to everyone who shared their story. Gaye Dalton writes a blog about sex work and Paul Lovell has written a book entitled Paulyanna: International Rent-Boy.

@Nickchesterv

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