“The money is of course fabulous. The confidence it gives you. The friends you meet in the industry are amazing. The job itself is rather rewarding – I help people through break-ups, I help those with disabilities, I help people with mental health problems, and generally help with loneliness.”
That’s the view of London, a 22-year-old student at the University of Western Australia. As student work goes, her job sounds ideal – far removed from the drudgery of bar work or babysitting. But read the same words again with the knowledge that London (not her real name) is a sex worker and it doesn’t quite add up.
Yet for London, and a host of students in the sex industry, it can provide a lot of perks. “Sex work isn’t for everyone, but for the right person it is the best job,” she says.
London moved out of home at 16, and when her friend applied for a job as a skimpy peepshow girl, they offered London a job as well. “I needed the money and thought, why not? From there the progression to ‘extras’, and even full service, was nice and simple.”
London is one of many students in the industry who have managed to use the industry to their advantage. “I am 22, I have no HELP debt and I have been supporting myself for years. The flexibility in hours is also fabulous,” she says.
A misconception that London hopes to quell concerns safety and morality. “[People think] that we are ‘dirty’ or carrying STDs; that we are of a lower moral calibre. That’s so untrue.”
Despite the risks involved in the industry, Professor Basil Donovan, head of The Kirby Institute’s Sexual Health Program at UNSW, says he doesn’t think it’s very dangerous. “As far as infection rates go, sex workers are at no higher risk than the general population. They’re probably in more danger from their boyfriend than their clients in that regard,” he says.
Professor Donovan admits that most people involved in the sex work industry would most likely avoid bringing up work with those they deal with at university. “You can’t predict people’s responses and it might not be good for future career prospects,” he says.
While there are certainly problems with the way that some establishments and operations are run, Professor Donovan feels that the misconceptions about the industry touted by propagandists cause more problems than they solve. “Propagandists whip up a lot of hysteria around it,” he says. “You can turn on SBS any night of the week and they’ll be showing something about debt bonded sex workers.”
Likewise, London doesn’t believe that many people are trapped in the industry. “The government financial support is minimal and the cost of living is extreme so, in theory, that may be driving people into the industry,” she says, “but no one I have met felt like they had to be there.”
Alex (not her real name), a psychology student at Macquarie University, says that sometimes there are few options, and people can feel cornered into the business. Alex spent the last chapter of her life immersed in the queer scene, surrounded by people who were heavily involved in activism and queer and feminist pride.
“Sex work was normal and the done thing,” she says. “It’s where a lot of people in that environment get their money, but it takes a lot of out of you.”
“The money and hours aren’t too bad and there’s no degree necessary, but the social stigma is the worst,” she says. “You’re different to other women and will always be different to other women.”
In London’s opinion, the industry is a difficult one to leave behind. “I have seen girls come in, work for a few weeks, months or years, make their goal and leave. But, in my opinion, whether you have done one sex work job or a few years worth you will always have those secrets, you will always have that ‘worker’ brain. Once you’re in the industry you leave a little piece of you in it, and it a little piece of it with you.”
Alex is studying to be a school counsellor, and far from believing that her occupation will hinder her ability to help people in schools, she says that it will help. “You can’t help people through the worst day of their life without having been through yours,” she says, simply.
Alex sees the work as rewarding, but sometimes dangerous. “The worst experience I’ve ever had to deal with was a customer getting angry and lashing out at me. I had to draw the line because he was in pain and wouldn’t admit it. That can be very difficult, but totally necessary. You have to know the difference between scene anger and real anger. You have a responsibility to cool things down.”
Professor Donovan, says, “The main advantage of sex work is that the income per unit of time is greater than pretty much every job.”
“There are pretty much no downsides,” he says. “People who don’t want to do it just don’t do it.”
But it’s certainly not the right work for everyone, and most people working in the industry can identify negative aspects of the job. Alex stresses that she isn’t in it for the glamour.
“I have issues. I’m poor, and I have mental illnesses which I’m trying to deal with,” she says. “It’s not glamorous, we don’t earn millions of dollars, but lots of people are a part of the industry. I don’t want people to think it’s a perfect job. All I want is for society to stop being whorephobic.”
While he would be hesitant to recommend the industry to students, Professor Donovan’s advice for anyone intent on becoming involved would be to go to a public sex health facility, The Scarlet Alliance or The Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP). He says they provide important education and support services.