Jess is talking to me about her horses and the sex she has with strangers for money. She spends most of her time tending to the three geldings she owns but, for three days of the week, she works out of a hotel as an independent escort.
Jess provides the Girlfriend Experience to her clients, who’ve booked her service online. The GFE – a term you probably know by now, thanks to the critically acclaimed television show bearing that name – is the simulation of intimacy by a sex worker. It typically includes vaginal sex, mutual oral, kissing, cuddling and – if you’re really lucky – conversation.
I ask her if she considers her work to be ethical. She rolls her eyes, like she has been asked similar questions a million times before. “I work very hard at what I do. I take pride in it, and who likes their jobs anyway?” She pauses. “Do you know what would be unethical? Me not getting paid.”
So can you buy sex ethically?
Just this April, a suburb of Leeds attracted interest nationwide when it legalised women selling sex between specified hours. Leeds’ so called “managed approach” means that in a specified network of roads, street prostitutes can sell their services from 19.00 to 07.00 BST, without being stopped by police. Although selling sex is not actually illegal in Britain, soliciting – offering sex in a public place – is.
Jess, however, works in New Zealand, a country where any citizen can be a sex worker. It has been this way since 2003, when – to much controversy – New Zealand decriminalised the Kiwi sex industry by one paltry vote in their parliament. This means sex workers have the same rights as people with any other occupation – workplace safety and, as equal citizens, expect to be treated by police in the same way if they report a crime. New Zealand law now makes little distinction between a hairdresser, a waiter or a sex worker.
Jess, while reluctant to talk about any good experiences she has had, conscious of being stereotyped as a ‘happy hooker’, tells me that last week she was booked by a fireman. “He was so into the process, taking his time, being a good lover. Usually, I keep one eye on the clock, but [with this client] we could easily have spent three hours; it wasn’t enough.”
The easy answer then, is that it depends where you are in the world – and how you treat the person you’ve paid to have sex with you.
Audrey is a Kiwi sex worker who’s a big fan of decriminalisation. She’s been doing it for nearly a year, working with an agency while she attends university. “I work without fear and am confident to stand up for my rights,” she says. “But, even though sex work is decriminalised, there is still a lot of stigma that needs to be resolved.”
What’s it like for them?
Audrey describes the sex she has with her clients as being like “a physical conversation which can be pleasurable or boring,” depending on how much of a “mutual exchange” occurs. “I have had some great clients who have brought out the best in me… I’ve been surprised by the amount of enjoyment I have experienced with clients who I wouldn’t look twice at in real life”.
Crystal, who is a sex worker in America – where sex work is still highly illegal – tells me she is more afraid of the police than she’s ever been of her clients. “This sort of shame is what keeps me awake at night,” she says, sending me links to local news sites which display mug shots of young, bewildered-looking sex workers who have been arrested, and who must now live their lives hoping that nobody ever Googles their names.
But it’s unsafe, right?
Sex workers believe that criminalising them, their clients and other parties in the sex industry, drives sex work underground, making them unsafe. 237 sex worker-led organisations have rejected making a crime out of sex work. Last year, Amnesty International decided that allowing workers to choose how they work is a human right and have started advocating for decriminalisation.
I reached out to Catherine Healy, national co-ordinator of the New Zealand Prostitutes’ Collective. Her organisation launched a Code of Conduct to encourage participants in the sex industry to follow ethical behaviours. These include upholding the right of sex workers to say no to providing sex at any time; having a zero-tolerance approach to violence, including physical, sexual or emotional; and believing what sex workers say about bad clients, and supporting them in asserting their personal boundaries.
Healy says that when all parties are criminalised, it makes criminals of sex workers: “When people talk about protecting sex workers, often, they really mean policing them… to me, the word ‘ethical’ means sex workers are listened to.”
Crystal describes the cloak-and-dagger rituals of meeting her clients: “I would prefer to work in a brothel where I can just meet people straight up. Johns in the states love to go back and forth and back and forth. Just cut to the fucking chase already!”
Criminalising clients and sparing sex workers from prosecution is often called ‘the Swedish Model’, an approach which has been slowly gaining support across Europe, thanks – in part – to Labour MEP Mary Honeyball’s lobbying (Honeyball believes the death of a sex worker last December, Daria Pionko, in a managed area of Leeds is reason enough for Britain to outlaw paying for sex).
I ask Jess in New Zealand, what she makes of this. Has she ever felt afraid of a client? “I’m fine with my clients but, from memory, one was very pushy. I felt uncomfortable and I had to be very firm, then I blocked his number once he had left. I knew my mate was in the house so it was okay. If I was on my own, I might have been more afraid”.
When I tell her that – had she been in Sweden or (most of) Britain – she’d be committing a crime by working with her friend, she snorts. “I’ll call the police if I ever need help, thank you very much.”