“I realised I could make more money in sex work than with any degree. But all the money I put in my pocket came at a price: it put me into a crisis.”
Elise, 23, lives in a housing project in London for young women recovering from drug addiction. She was raised in Watford by a single mum on benefits who had a disability. As a route out of poverty, when she was 17, Elise started working as an escort. In order to cope with the rising trauma of her job, she ended up dosing herself with large amounts of ketamine and alcohol.
She stopped working as an escort last year. When I interviewed her she talked in a whirl of hand gestures and hair tosses, her flair for the dramatic shining through.
I’m 23, but I feel like I’ve lived a million lifetimes.
Growing up financially insecure had a massive impact on me wanting to strive financially as an adult. I knew working a Saturday job wasn’t going to cut it. When I was 13, I bought a de-tagger, a magnet for shoplifting. I was stealing Ted Baker bags and selling them on eBay. I’d save 80 percent of the money I made. When I was 16, this progressed to selling MDMA at squat raves.
At one of these raves I met a girl involved in prostitution and she told me about a website she advertised on. She said it was legal, so there was less risk – and more profit to be made compared to selling drugs. She planted a seed.
I used to watch Secret Diary Of A Call Girl, based on the book by Belle de Jour. It glamourised high class escorting, but it wasn’t real life. It turns out Belle de Jour had an education in journalism, did sex work part-time for six months and wrote a book on it. She’s not representative of the demographic who do this job, and has no experience of the reality. Most of the girls who get involved in the industry are poor, and they don’t want to do it. I realised I could make more money through sex work than with any degree. However, all the money I put in my pocket came at a price: it put me into a crisis.
It was ironic – I was spending the money I earned on therapy to recover. Booking flights to go to Asia to do yoga, just to try and heal, because I was so fucking traumatised by the end of it, and so depressed and suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. At the end of yoga, I’d get my internal psyche fucking hammering at me not to do sex work. Every part of myself was screaming at me not to do it again. However, I made a conscious decision, based on fear: to accumulate economic wealth as opposed to taking a healthier path.
I was always lying to people – my name, what I did for a living – so I was constantly having to try and remember what I told people. Was I Amelia or Alice or Elise? I almost started forgetting my real name.
I remember fucking this guy who used to own a football team – I was getting four figures from the bookings – and I remember just recoiling at his touch. Hearing my internal monologue in so much pain, and me being like, “What the fuck is this? How can I help you?” I just split from myself, I dissociated. Part of me had to split off in order to protect myself, to live.
I remember being in therapy and refusing to talk about sex work, and that was the whole reason I was there, because I’d get bad dreams, getting fucked by demons, a lot of sexual violence. I had a horrific perception of men that affected my capacity to believe I was capable of romantic relationships with the opposite sex.
A lot of people don’t do sex work right. As in, they end up 40 years old, with loads of handbags and used pairs of Prada shoes, and not a lot else, still in a council flat. You do get a small amount of people who cultivate their money – they invest in stocks and shares – but they don’t have any relationships, they don’t have a family, they’re not married. They’ve got so much wealth, but do they actually have stuff of real value?
One of the madams I worked for owned this house in South Kensington and a house in Marbella, and she’d let the girls go to both of them. She had a lot of money. We’d have to meet her in a Pret a Manger in Kensington every month with our cash and give her our cut, which was like 30 percent of each booking – which were £700 an hour. You’d see girls dropping off their bags of money and also giving her gifts – Godiva chocolates, jewellery, watches – so she’d give them more bookings. She was quite glamorous, really pretty, probably about 60 years old, but she looked about 40. She didn’t have any kids, so she treated the girls like her kids. The girl who introduced me to her said she loved getting Mother’s Day cards, and that it gets you in with her. It was all about manipulation, basically. You’ll find that across a lot of fields of business.
We all got a professional photographer to take pictures of us with sexy underwear. We had work phones, and once you put your number on a site your phone didn’t stop ringing. I had different portfolios with different prices on different websites. You had to work across as many markets as possible.
It wasn’t all doom and gloom – sometimes it was fun, a bit like a music video. A couple of us girls would get an Airbnb or a nice five-star hotel, with loads of cocaine, loads of champagne, playing rap music to keep us motivated, stacking as if we were hustling. You’d go out for a booking, come back with the money, so there would be thousands of pounds everywhere: £100 became like £5 to me. You’re just making so much money in a short period of time that you lose the value of it.
I legitimised my income. I was paying tax and I was registered as a beauty therapist, all in the hope of buying a property, maybe becoming a landlord and retiring early. However, I just couldn’t get the extra year of tax returns I needed. I couldn’t do the job any longer – it was killing me.
When I went into rehab I learned that I’d been chronically masking unhappiness. On the surface I was a really happy, effervescent, tits and teeth, jazz hands kinda girl. Even if I felt like shit on my fourth booking or whatever, I’d pretend I was this happy-go-lucky cheerleader. When a booking knocked on the door, I’d just take a deep breath and go, “Hey, how are you doing! Come in!” A massive smile on my face.
I wanted to work in a way that made my clientele – who were upper middle-class rich businessmen, essentially – most comfortable. They were high-flyers, people who made a lot of money, so I needed to be a female who hadn’t been a professional shoplifter at 13, who spent their time hanging around in a graveyard inhaling aerosol gas. It’s like most girls in the industry – they just pretend to be what their clients want.
My “story” was that my dad had his own business and my mum was a nurse. I pretended I was studying for my BA in Psychology at UCL. I read around the subject so I could talk authentically and to satisfy any suspicious prying. I said I was working as an escort part-time because, “I love sex, and the money is a good bonus!”
The reality was that I didn’t do the job because I loved sex, I did the job because I loved money. I was working full time, my highest level of formal qualification was GCSE, I was seeing multiple clients a day and I didn’t have a relationship with my parents. I hadn’t seen my dad for years – he was really abusive to my mum.
But a good sex worker is a good salesperson, and they tell their clientele what they want to hear. Generally, not many want to fuck the desperate poor girl from a broken home trying to get out of poverty. They want to fuck a vivacious and bubbly girl, emotionally stable from a secure background, with a bright future and an insatiable taste for dick. Much more appealing!