What is it like to have a sex worker as a parent?
My sister Ramona looks a lot like I did when I was sixteen. We are compared to each other frequently. Despite the mere six years between us, she feels to me as if she is decades removed. When I ask her why she thinks this is, she reminds me that I used to put her to bed every night with a bedtime story. I left when she was twelve, and she had never conceptualized me as anything but a responsible grown-up. In turn, I had never conceptualized her as anything but a child that I had to leave behind. This dynamic made it easy to slip into a role as a parent when she, too, had to leave the house we grew up in, two years younger than I had managed it.
In a strange way, both of us are both young and old. When I first started organising in sex worker movements, people were taken aback to find out that I was only nineteen. I had grown up in a neglectful household and taken on caring responsibilities for my younger sisters from a very young age, shielding them from our abusive father and stepping in where our mother — who was abusing alcohol to cope with the domestic violence — was falling short of her responsibilities as a parent. This, and my experiences as a sex worker, aged me considerably and I continue to find it difficult to relate to people my own age. Ramona, on the other hand, has experienced far too much for a sixteen year old and is strangely wise as a result. Yet the emotional and physical neglect that she grew up with have left her with many complex issues and in need of far more care than most sixteen year olds.
When Ramona and I sat on my bed with hot chocolate last night while I tried to get some writing done, I hadn’t intended to write anything about her. However, everything I started kept coming back to my life today: caring for her full time. Recently, I have been obsessed with second-guessing every decision I made and whether or not I was a ‘good’ parent as a result of it. A lot of this insecurity stemmed from the popular idea that it is inappropriate for sex workers to care for children.
So, with Ramona’s permission, I turned on my voice recorder and we began to talk about it.
Lydia: Do you remember when you first became aware that sex work existed?
Ramona: Sort of. I have two memories I can think of. One was when I was in school, I think in reception or year one (Kindergarten) we were learning a story from the bible about a man who spent all of his money on food and — I don’t want to say the word.
Prostitute? You can say it.
Okay, I guess. He spent his money on prostitutes, and a boy asked the teacher what a prostitute was and she wouldn’t tell him.
So you knew that it had to be something bad?
Maybe not bad. But too grown up. And then another time, a bit after that, I called dad a prostitute and everyone went silent like I’d just hit him.
What did you think it meant?
I don’t know. I thought it was an insult, but not a bad one. Like calling someone a ‘poo-head’. But everyone got very serious and told me never to say that again. I figured out that it was probably bad to be a prostitute.
Do you remember finding out what prostitutes actually do? Was it from TV or anything?
Maybe. Dad used to watch Two and a Half Men a lot, and Charlie Sheen had lots of sex workers around I think. It must have been TV because I didn’t really see or hear about sex workers in real life at all. Oh, I just remembered. You told mum before your year six exams that you just didn’t want to do them and you would be a prostitute instead. She told me that story before my exams.
Jesus. Did I? I guess I knew what was coming. Do you remember when you first realised sex work was something political? Like, something that was debated about and there were laws and issues around it?
I think it was before you spoke to me about it at all. I didn’t know anything about the law, I mean. But we read An Inspector Calls at school and I went on this rant in class about Eva. Do you remember that play? Eva meets Gerald, and he starts paying her and puts her in rooms so he can keep her as a mistress. Then he cuts her off out of nowhere. Someone said that she was in love with him and that he broke up with her, and I went on a rant about how she actually hated him for using her desperation to get sex, as much as she appreciated and depended on his money.
Wow, that’s… actually hugely insightful and nuanced. I weirdly just wrote an article about that, about disliking my clients even though I’m grateful to have their money.
Well, it’s like all jobs, isn’t it? The people who have all the money have power over things. There was also this line in the Hunger Games about one of the Peacekeepers, and how all of the starving girls in District 12 used to wait outside his door to get picked, and how Katniss would have probably done that if she hadn’t competed in the games. I guess I realised then that it was something that poor people have to do. Well, choose to do. Because there aren’t many options.
The Peacekeepers are meant to be cops, right? Yet they’re the ones causing violence and exploiting vulnerable people. That’s fitting.
Yeah, I guess they are. I didn’t really think about the violence thing until the sex work strike. I remember you read out these names of sex workers who had been killed. I remember thinking how crazy it was that most people wouldn’t ever know anyone who got murdered, and sex workers could know more than one. I was really angry at it, because everyone there was really cool.
Tell me about the sex work strike.
Best night of my life. Hands down.
Let’s go back a bit — why were you there in the first place?
I was interested in politics already because of you. I liked debating things in school. Then I saw you were doing all of this stuff around sex work, and I wanted to support that. I didn’t think you were a sex worker or anything. I just thought it was cool that you had organised a protest. And you mentioned it to me and seemed open to me going.
Yeah, I remember. It was back when it was just starting to be organised, and I made this offhand comment about it and how you were welcome to join. You were thirteen and you hadn’t mentioned it again. Then later on it was decided that I was going to be on the microphone for the march, and I thought “Thank god Ramona isn’t actually coming.”
How did it come to you actually attending?
I wrote dad a letter. You know how he was. You couldn’t ask him for anything because he would never hear you out, and he would get angry with you. So I put it in a letter so he couldn’t interrupt me, and I made the letter really over the top with loads of flattery. I thought he would like that. I told him it was a women’s rights march, and that Lizzie (our other sister) would take me because she was sixteen. He let me do it, somehow. Then Lizzie was sick on the day and he ended up taking me.
What do you remember about the actual day?
I finished school and went into mum’s work to get changed. Then I went to the station and while we were on the platform dad asked me what the march even was. That was the first time I told him that it was for sex worker rights.
You just launched it on him?
Yeah! Well, the train hadn’t left yet. He could have put his foot down and taken me home, but he didn’t. He was mad, though. I told him that sex worker rights are a women’s rights issue, so I hadn’t technically lied. He couldn’t really kick off in public.
Do you remember when you called me after you got off the train?
Yes, we were lost. So I called to ask how to get to the protest.
I couldn’t believe it.
Did you think I was lying?
No, I just didn’t have any idea that you were actually coming. And I was wandering around with people calling me my work name, and I also hadn’t seen dad since I walked out. Were you concerned about him being there?
I don’t know. A little bit. After you left, nobody really talked about why except that you were being dramatic. I just knew he was not very nice and hard to get along with. I think I blocked out most of the stuff that happened when I was younger because one time I found this note I’d passed under your door about something that was happening and I had no idea what I meant. And most of the stuff was hidden from me because I was a kid. So I felt a bit bad for bringing him to the march because I knew you didn’t get along, but I feel worse now. I thought he was just going to drop me off and not stick around.
It’s okay, I’m not mad. It was just stressful. And he kind of handed you over to me and said he was leaving, but he actually joined the back of the demo, didn’t he?
Yeah, he did. You were really stressed doing things so you asked Amber to keep an eye on me. She was really cool. And you handed me the corner of one of the banners right at the beginning of the march.
I was running around telling people not to use my work name. I had to avoid speaking in first person as well. Do you remember that photographer?
Yeah, he got really in my face trying to take a picture. So you covered up my face and shook your head at him until he left.
How did you feel while we were marching?
It was so cool. There were those smoke bombs everywhere, and all this music and shouting. Amber grabbed my hand and pulled me through the crowd. I was thinking that it felt like the really important part of a movie.
At the end of the march, we joined the striking workers at the Picturehouse. Did you understand why that was? The way we were trying to be taken seriously as part of the labour movement?
Not really. I remember when we were all dancing in the foyer and some of the staff at the cinema who weren’t striking were laughing and pointing at me. I glared at them because I knew they were the bad guys but I didn’t really understand why.
Do you understand now?
Yeah, of course. When I left, I was thinking that I needed to learn everything I can, because I wanted to be part of it again. It was one of the coolest things I’d done, but I didn’t know much about it. I knew it wasn’t a ‘fun’ thing, it had a meaning. That’s why I asked for that book for Christmas.
Yes! I read that at school and my form tutors asked me about it. And then when you took me last year, right at the beginning we were standing in the park and those riot vans pulled up, I thought “I know these are the bad guys and I know why”.
Before we get to last year’s march, let’s talk about me being a sex worker. You left the 2018 Sex Work Strike with no idea, but you started to get suspicious, didn’t you? Why was that?
Yeah, I was a bit suspicious. You cried a lot before about how you couldn’t afford to stay at university, but you never had to drop out. You always paid with cash, which wasn’t that suspicious by itself. Then one day, you asked me to get your phone for you and I saw another phone in your bag. I looked at it and thought “this is a door I’m not going to open” and tried to forget about it. But then I started to put it together. Out of nowhere, you were really interested in sex work and doing all of this stuff about it. You like politics, so it’s not that weird, but you were quite sick at that point so I started to wonder why you were putting so much energy into an issue that didn’t affect you. Then you asked me what I’d think if you were a sex worker.
I’m not very subtle, am I?
No, not at all. I remember I thought that it was the ‘big reveal’, but I told you I’d be fine with it and then you didn’t tell me anything. I was worried I’d reacted wrong and you didn’t want to tell me anymore.
I was just testing the waters, really.
I can’t believe you thought I had no idea.
I really thought I was being slick! You remember the day I actually told you?
March 8th 2020.
Yeah, well it was the Sex Work Strike again, wasn’t it? And I remember really well because of what happened before I got on the train. That was a low point.
You used all your savings up, didn’t you?
Yeah, I bought my tickets wrong. I took all of the money I had with me just in case there was an emergency, like £100 or something. All of my Christmas and Birthday money and other savings. Then I didn’t realise that a Travelcard included the train into London, so I bought another train ticket too. It used all of my money up. Then we couldn’t refund it.
I still can’t believe you willingly spent all of your money to come and march for sex workers rights.
Well, I wanted to march for you at that point, because I wanted you to know that it was okay and you could tell me.
Do you remember how I told you?
Yeah, you met me on the train. And out of nowhere you said “oh, there’s an article about today’s march that has been published. I’m going to read it out.” You had never done that before, and I could read it by myself so I figured something was up.
My editor had just emailed me to say it was up, so I thought “this is it”. It was in the Independent. I knew I was going to have to tell you because you’d surprised me again. I’d sort of prevented you from coming to the march the year before by saying I couldn’t look after you, but you were coming by yourself so I couldn’t stop you. Either I told you on the train or you found out by me giving a public speech about my time working in a brothel.
You read me that entire article looking really nervous so I figured out what was happening. I thought it was quite funny, actually. Then you finished and asked me what I thought of the article and I shrugged and said it was good. You said, “great, because I wrote it.” I just shrugged. You looked really annoyed.
Well, in my head, it was this big moment where I finally came clean. I thought maybe you hadn’t been listening to the article, which was first person and talked about having a manager and stuff.
Yeah, but I already knew. Didn’t I say “duh” or something? I was like “yeah, obviously you’re a sex worker, you always pay in cash”.
I remember you said “why do you think I would spend all of my money on coming to this march if I didn’t already know you were a sex worker? I was saving up to go to a BTS concert. I hope you’re happy that this is more important than a BTS concert.”
Were you disappointed that we didn’t have a big moment?
Maybe a bit? It was anticlimactic. I was so nervous for this big, momentous thing and you basically laughed at me. Looking back, though, I prefer it this way. It was very funny and I just got to be very happy for the rest of the day. I was surprised that it wasn’t a big deal. What are your thoughts on my job?
I mean, I’m trying to think of something profound, but I just really don’t care?
Sorry, I mean, it’s just a job, isn’t it? It doesn’t really affect me. I guess I benefit from it when you buy me things. And it’s probably better than when you worked in the bookshop.
Yeah, of course. If I still worked retail, I wouldn’t have time to look after you.
The only other thing that’s different about your job is that you look better for it. You have your nails done and you don’t have to wear a uniform.
Do you worry about my job? If I went for a brothel shift tomorrow, what would you think while I was gone?
I don’t know. I never really think about it. It’s just a job, isn’t it? And you work with other people, like Olivia, so I’m not that scared. I know it’s not always safe, and I wish it was, but nothing is 100% safe. I can’t worry about it all the time. I have my own stuff to worry about.
If something bad did happen to me, would that change your mind? Would you still be okay with me doing sex work?
Well, I would still support your job. It’s not going to change my opinion on sex work. If someone, like, stabbed you at work then I’d be upset but sex work would still be work and you would still need to work. I think I would worry more about you but it doesn’t change much except I would want you to be safer even more than I do now.
Let me ask the burning question that everyone is here for. Do you think being around a sex worker has made you want to be a sex worker? Have I glamourised the sex industry?
No, of course not. I don’t want to do it at all, I’m not interested in it. There’s loads of jobs I don’t want to do. I don’t really want to do any job at all actually. If anything, I think I want to do it less than other people now because you are always saying that you hate your job. I think I see the version of sex work that is real, unlike the version my friends see on TikTok which is all stacks of money and trying to get likes. I mean, if I had to do sex work then knowing you’re a sex worker would probably mean I’d be less scared because I wouldn’t need to keep it a secret from you and you could give me advice. But I’m definitely not planning it.
So to be clear, me being a sex worker and your guardian hasn’t made a big impact on your life? Do you think it’s affected the way I parent you?
Lydia, my non sex worker parents used to send me to school with no food, unwashed, holes in all of my clothes, and never listened to me. You once noticed I had no more makeup wipes and two packets appeared outside my door like magic. Put it this way, 100% of the parents I have that didn’t do sex work have not been very good, and 100% of the parents that do sex work have been good. It’s not like it affects my life a lot. I actually don’t know a lot about your job. It’s not like you tell me much or see clients around me.
Okay, fair enough! Would you tell your friends I was a sex worker?
I don’t know. I mean, I wouldn’t be embarrassed, but they don’t really need to know, do they? I don’t know what most of their parents do.
Is there anything else you would want people to know?
Um… I guess maybe that they shouldn’t speak over me. I don’t understand why people assume sex workers are bad mothers. Can you imagine if you couldn’t look after me because of your job?
Actually, I can. I think that, if you couldn’t come and live with me, you would have left anyway and had to look after yourself. And you would probably have needed to do sex work to be able to do that.
Well, I guess I’m just glad you did it so I don’t have to.