Sex Work is Not a Defect; How the 12 Steps Fail Sex Workers
I came into 12 step recovery as a recent sex worker, riddled with shame and internalised stigma. Sex workers suffer intense societal stigma, regardless of how they ended up in the sex industry or their thoughts about being there. At first, recovery and the 12 step program in particular seemed to offer a way out of that, in a way that was not dissimilar to the way that evangelical Christian groups often try to 'rescue' sex workers through their particular brand of religion.
At my very first meeting I heard a woman share who spoke about her experiences of sex work, which she used as a way to fund her heroin addiction, and it was the first time since I had left the industry that I had heard anyone speak candidly about the subject. I got the much lauded 'identification' straight away and was able to open up a little about my own struggles, including experiences of abuse in the industry.
When the meeting ended there was the predictable 'love-bombing,' the handing out of 12 step literature and exhortations to 'keep coming back.' I promised I would. I did, and am now six years drug-free. I can't deny that the community 12 step groups gave me was indispensable in helping me overcome my compulsive use of drugs and rebuild my life. I have made strong friendships and met my life partner there. Although there are many things about the program that drive me insane, and I do not believe in either the disease model, lifelong 'powerlessness' or an interventionist God, certain people and groups remain dear to me and I still visit my home group. I'm not quite ready to leave for good, although I suspect I will, some time soon.
However, in my experience and from talking to many others, I believe 12 step groups are often failing sex workers, whether they are still working or not.
The one low point of my first meeting was the woman who came straight up to me and, without invitation, told me that if I didn't keep coming back to meetings I would 'end up selling blowjobs for a fiver with a needle in my groin.' When I protested she explained to me how the 'disease' of addiction was progressive. Later this same woman - herself a former stripper - would tell me how my sex work had nothing to do with money or survival but was another addiction to feed my own ego. That it was driven by my 'defects.' That I owed amends to the punters I had 'deceived' and probably to wider society too.
I believed her. After all, remove the 12 step jargon and that is pretty much the narrative that society tells us about sex workers. Desperate, diseased junkies, or women who are sexually voracious, sinful women who go around entrapping men. I thought if I went through the steps, my shame would go away. I could live a new life as 'a productive member of society' and put my past behind me.
Except it never quite went away. In spite of the rhetoric about living a 'spiritual program' I soon found that meetings were full of predators. If I ever spoke about sex work, I was surrounded by men as soon as the meeting finished. My first sponsor encouraged me to confess a detailed sexual inventory to her as part of my 'Step Four' and then promptly shared it with her home group. When I met my partner he was warned off me and told I was a 'sex addict.' Because if I was a sex worker, it must be because I couldn't get enough of the sex right? Of course, for most sex workers the case is anything but that...the clue is in the word 'work.'
I quickly learned not to mention my experiences in the sex industry again, but the stigma lingered. I watched other women experience the same shaming, and had private conversations with countless others who felt that they couldn't discuss their sex work experiences, either because they felt ashamed or because they knew their stories would be twisted back at them. I spoke to men too, who had been in sex work for various reasons, often to fund their habit. The stigma they felt they experienced within the rooms of recovery was just as pervasive as for women, with homophobia often rearing it's ugly head regardless of the sexual orientation of the man in question. The only way to be an acceptable former sex worker was to be a penitent one, and even then some harassment was to be expected. A friend of mine, in a 'confessions' group in a 12 step rehab, admitted to a past as a male sex worker and was applauded for his 'bravery' only to come across his rehab mates later mocking him. It was years before he was prepared to open up about it again.
For current sex workers however the stigma was even worse. One girl confessed to considering a return to sex work due to a sudden income lss and was piled on at the end of the meeting, told to 'talk to your sponsor' 'do God's will not your own' and that if she was to do such a thing it would be feeding her disease and she would relapse. She did go back into sex work, but she didn't go back to a meeting. I saw the same scenario play itself out on a few different occasions. None of the people in question have yet relapsed, by the way.
12 steppers can claim the program is 'spiritual not religious' all they like, but it starts to look a lot like religion when it encourages confessions of sexual behaviour and demands penitence for it (steps 4 through 9). Then it starts to look like evangelical purity culture at its worse, which is perhaps not surprising when one considers its origins in the evangelical Oxford Group.
Sex workers in recovery, current and former, need understanding and acceptance, or at least a good dollop of people minding their own business.