“People have scared my heart with the words they’ve called me.”

Alisha Ostberg Blog, human rights, international, sex work, stigma, support

This blog post is a candid story of a sex worker supported by HIV Community Link’s Shift Program. She has been in the industry ten years, and exited the industry one year ago.

She wanted to share her story of stigma to advocate for the human rights of sex workers, in honour of International Sex Worker Rights Day. We invite you to read her story and help support sex workers’ rights.

Shift has a harm reduction and rights based approach to sex work. This means that the safety and human rights of sex workers are our focus. We recognize that sex work is a choice for many in the industry, and we respect the rights of adults to make this choice. We also recognize that not everyone has active choice in sex work. For some, outside forces such as poverty or exploitation can force people into situations where they don’t have control. Shift’s services will meet you where you are at – whether you want to stay in the industry, get out of the industry, or anything in-between.

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I started working as an escort when I was 24. I was in the middle of a separation/divorce and struggling to make ends meet with 2 small kids and a mortgage. I knew I didn’t want to take out loans or ask my parents for help, I was too proud, but I didn’t really know what else to do. The only jobs I was qualified for paid minimum wage, which at the time was $8 an hour. That just wasn’t going to cut it, especially since I was going to school, I could only work part-time. I had lived a life with a drug dealer; we never had to worry about money problems, ever until the day he decided to leave me.

I thought about all my options, but it didn’t seem like I had very many. I couldn’t bring myself to do porn, and I knew wasn’t talented enough to be a stripper. I figured I could try being an escort. I was personable, thin, pretty and I was funny. It turned out to be pretty easy work for me, and I only needed to see clients one or two days a week to cover my expenses, which was great, spent time with my kids and focused on school.  I learned a new way of life and living. With every call, came more confidence, which ultimately led me to fail school.

“I wish I could feel proud of who I am and what I do.”

I think though,  I’ve internalized the societal hatred of escorts. I am sometimes embarrassed to be an escort , even though I like my job, I’m really good at it, and I’ve made exceptional progress in my career over the past few years. Not many people can say they’ve built what I have and survived hell and back along the way. Despite all my accomplishments, I still feel like a loser sometimes. Sometimes, I jokingly refer to myself as a “whore” or a “hooker” to try to re-claim these derogatory terms, but I often find myself thinking of myself as “just a whore.”

After almost a decade of doing this work and hearing all the negative messages about sex workers and getting bad reactions from people when I tell them what I do, I sometimes wonder if there is something wrong with me? Maybe everyone is right?Maybe I am deranged?Maybe I am unlovable or crazy?

I wish I could feel proud of who I am and what I do. I’m tired of feeling embarrassed and ashamed. I wish other people could see me for everything that I am, and not focus so much on this one aspect of my identity. There are so many things that make me who I am. I love my kids and animals, movies, and going on road trips. I own my house, car, I have my own things. I’m passionate about cannabis , I’m interested in politics and current events. I love my life , I read sometimes, and I stay in close touch with my family and friends. But these traits are overshadowed by the fact that I am an escort. I don’t feel like anybody cares about any of these characteristics – all they would see is a ” whore “.

“At first, I was a bit open about my job.”

At first, I was a bit open about my job. When I met people at parties and the “so, what do you do?” question came up, I’d be honest. I told people that I was a full-time student and a part-time escort. Reactions were so negative, however, that I quickly realized I needed to be more selective about revealing this information. I was young and blind about the world, after 13 years with the same man. I had no idea what I was doing anymore.I was too open in the beginning about my job, this I quickly realized because of how harsh people became after finding out about me. It was brutal.

In my first few months of working as an escort, I was met with enough raised eyebrows, grimaces of disgust, and looks of pity to last a lifetime. Sometimes I received lectures about how I was enabling the Industry by choosing to be a sex worker. I was derided and called selfish for choosing a line of work that encourages sexism against women, and I was accused of being a traitor to the feminist cause. These were by close friends, so I became very secretive about my life.

On many occasions, I was asked intrusive questions like “has a client ever hit you?” and “what’s the most disgusting thing you’ve ever had to do for a client?”. Believe it or not, my clients treated me better than any of my boyfriends did. They were more genuine people than all my boyfriends and somehow, had a greater respect for me. I was never treated badly, at all, if anything my clients gave me a purpose and confidence. I adored my clients. I received more gifts from my clients than any boyfriend ever gave me; from handbags, designer shoes,  crystal candle holders, lingerie, gift cards to go shopping, flowers, and chocolate You name it,I got it.

“I had an incredibly fortunate upbringing – just about the best any child could possibly hope for.”

People ask about the families behind escorts, I had a happy childhood, that was completely devoid of abuse of any kind. I grew up in an upper class family. We had a very nice home, my parents cooked dinner for me every night, helped me with my homework, and told me they loved me every single day. My older sister was my best friend and my younger sister was always included in everything, we had a good sisterly bond. My parents are the most wonderful people in the world and I adore them, 36 years they’ve been married, never have I seen them fight. They are the true definition of love, I still believe in love because of them.

I believe, I had an incredibly fortunate upbringing – just about the best any child could possibly hope for.

However,  everyone in my social circle came to think of me as deranged and messed up. I eventually grew apart from those friends. As I met new people, I kept my work a secret. I had become uneasy around strangers. I didn’t trust them. Experience had taught me that people would judge, pity, or lecture me if I was open and honest about my life, and after years of enduring these reactions, I didn’t have the energy to cope with them anymore.

I withdrew.

Today, people are shocked when I tell them I used to be an extrovert; I was always the life of the party and the center of attention. I was the person who introduced people to other people. I cracked jokes and goofed around. I sang out loud, laughed ridiculously, and danced wildly. I was outwardly happy and I felt free to express myself. I was never self-conscious.Now, I go out of my way not to draw attention to myself. I try to blend in, fade into the background. I don’t want to have to explain myself. I don’t want people to know who I am, to find out my secrets. These days, people describe me with adjectives like “quiet” and ” reserved.” I keep to myself a lot.

“Lately, I’ve really been struggling with the stigma”

Sometimes, the negative images about sex work in the media I watch, and that only makes me feel worse.

Sometimes I can shrug a lot of this off. It’s not like I’m depressed all the time. I have three  really supportive friends in my life who know what I do and accept me the way I am. I also have a handful of “work”  friends that can empathize with my struggles and offer helpful advice. I can go months at a time without getting down about any of this. But lately, I’ve really been struggling with the stigma, and I’ve been feeling hopeless and uncertain about my future

Lately, I’ve been wondering how I could ever date someone again. Now, I’m afraid to tell potential partners about what I do, because I’m nervous that they will make all kinds of awful assumptions about me, as I was just shown by the man I loved the most. I worry that they will think I’m some kind of hyper-sexual nympho (I’m not), that I’ll sleep with them on the first date (I prefer to take it slow), or that I’m damaged and need to be treated like I’m fragile (which would be terribly patronizing and unpleasant).

I also wonder what any potential boyfriend would say to his friends and family about his relationship with me. How would the conversation go?

“I’m dating this girl I just met. She’s pretty great.”

“Oh, cool. How did you meet?”

“Mutual friends.”

“Nice. And what does she do?”

“Oh, you know. She’s a consultant and an escort ”

“People have scared my heart with the words they’ve called me.”

I know I don’t have to come out as an escort, and I don’t think I ever will again, my life’s been a nightmare since I did. I do have a cannabis part time job. I use it as a cover, so that I don’t have to reveal my occupation as an escort, unless I feel comfortable doing so.

I pretend that my part time job makes me feel like a superstar, I’m feeling lost there and can’t seem to figure it out fast enough.

When I do muster up enough courage to tell people about my escort work, I notice myself glossing over it very quickly and hurriedly steering the topic of conversation toward my other businesses instead. I hype it up and draw attention to it, as if to say, “Yes, I’m a whore, but I’m also smart and normal, really, I promise”!  I find it pretentious and annoying when other people talk excessively about their university educations, and I hate it that I have become one of those people. However, I feel an urgent need to communicate that I am more than “just a whore.”

In my darkest moments I am desperately overwhelmed with feelings of despair, and fear that I have made myself unlovable. Sometimes I think the only way out of this mess is to stop working as an escort and leave the sex industry behind. It would be hard to quit, (I’ve tried though) , because the work is relatively easy, my schedule is flexible, and I make ten times as much money doing sex work , as I could doing any other job I’m qualified for.

Besides honestly, I can never take back what I’ve done. I will always have a history as an escort, call girl, prostitute, hooker, whore and whatever else people have called me. My photos will never be removed completely off the internet, I’ll always have that stigma attached to me. Always.

People have scared my heart with the words they’ve called me, more than I will ever show, but it weighs on me heavily and I carry it in my heart. Very closely, it affects my mental health too. I will always be seen as damaged goods, whether I am a current escort or a former one. Everyone is going to judge me, regardless.

“Remember to be gentle with yourself, you’re amazing.”

It was hard for me, but I reached out to the Shift program about 14 months ago when I started to think I wanted to make an exit from the industry. I did my research and found that Shift was appropriate for my situation. After my first meeting, I didn’t feel I was ready, it takes a lot of courage and I wasn’t prepared to go through with it. I decided to continue on my journey.

A few months passed and I had made the exit on my own, but choosing to have no one help me and guide me.

I had made the choice to finally exit. I struggled internally with everything, I had just changed the only thing I knew.

I struggled with finances, identity, self-image, and PTSD. I hated the transition I was in, I didn’t know if I could actually follow through and break my cycle.  I became depressed, lonely, isolated and suicidal. I powered through the tough times, sometimes not leaving my house for days and staying in bed. I self-medicated to make it through those days. I became even more depressed and lonely.

The thought of going back to the industry, it scares me because I’ve worked so hard to reach my 1 year exit, but it’s also my “back up plan“ if things didn’t pan out.

I reached back out to Shift, I couldn’t do it alone anymore and immediately they welcomed me back and I had another intake meeting booked the same week.

I met with my case manager and instantly felt a sense of connect and warmth. We chatted for long while and I left there thinking, “ Ya, I can get through this”. I found someone I could just puke everything out with, someone who doesn’t judge me, if anything supports me and my journey. I went back a week later, and again, I just felt this sense of connection with her. She listened to me, she didn’t judge me, she didn’t offer her opinion, she just let me talk.

At the end of the second session, she told me about some programs that were available to me through different agencies, ones that I had never even heard of. I’m happy to say, I’ve enrolled in different therapy options and I’m getting the help I deserve.

I realize I’m not alone in this journey, I have so much external support, resources and people that care, with no judgement.

I hope that if you’re reading this, you will realize that there is so much available to you, all you have to do is make the choice.

Love yourself enough, do what’s right for you, and when you do…. they will welcome you and you too can finally feel safe and not alone.

Remember to be gentle with yourself, you’re amazing.

Xx

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International Sex Worker Rights Day is a day where we advocate and acknowledge sex workers’ inherent human rights. Upholding sex workers’ rights is key to ending violence, exploitation and discrimination against sex workers and people who sell or trade sexual services.

To learn more about the Shift program, click here: https://hivcl.org/shift/

To support HIV Community Link and the Shift program in our efforts to support sex workers of all backgrounds, donate here: https://hivcl.org/donate/