Guest post by Georgina Burke, a recently retired sex worker
A couple of months ago, I found myself in probably the worst depressive episode I’ve had to date. One of those ones you can see coming for months, but you’re there trying to battle away at general life things and you don’t have the time to deal. It creeps up on you.
So, I needed to find a doctor and a counsellor. I needed antidepressants, therapy, and time off! I called someone who we shall call Sarah. I knew she worked with outdoor sex workers and understood the issues we face. She began to look for a doctor that could treat me. The healthcare system is even trickier to navigate for sex workers, than it is normally for others. I and close friends of mine made call outs for a doctor that would be able to treat me, in case Sarah came back with nothing. In the past, I had the experience of doctors tell me to ‘get a job’ when I explained my work, I didn’t want this to be the case again, especially in my vulnerable state.
I spent my days calling up different organisations and individuals trying to find a counsellor that wouldn’t have views on my work that would impact on my trust of them and the quality of therapy. Most replied to my questions with ‘this is a non-judgmental service’. I don’t know what it is about that phrase, but it turned me off them immediately. I was so worried that my occupation would be blamed for my depression due to negative opinions on the sex industry. I knew that my depression was creeping up on me a long time and I had a fair idea why, and it wasn’t to do with sex work.
“You could just not tell them what you do” This thought ran through my mind a lot. How can you properly receive counselling without mentioning your work? If you have any doubts or slightest mistrust in your therapist, it’s just not going to work, is it? Therapy is supposed to be a supportive environment. Lying to a therapist just seems ridiculous. I had also just moved to Dublin, and so I needed to find a doctor that I could use long term, not just for this particular episode. Again, It just seems largely unhelpful to have to lie to your doctor about your occupation.
After a couple of weeks of no luck, my friends were getting increasingly worried about my health. They called an ambulance for me one night. I couldn’t get in the ambulance. I couldn’t trust that I wouldn’t be stigmatized by hospital staff. I felt like the HSE was the last place on earth that would be the caring and supportive environment that I so badly needed. The day after, I agreed to attend a counselling session in a mental health charity, and when I disclosed my work, I was asked what my parents would think of me. I was asked about the danger in my work. Even when I stressed that I have several methods of keeping safe and nothing of note has ever happened to me, this woman could not accept my answer. I left with the feeling of stigma reinforced more than ever.
It was some time after this I heard from Sarah, who managed to find a really amazing doctor who wasn’t fazed by my work at all. She gave me a full screening, and prescribed me medication and was extremely helpful in finding a counsellor. The counsellor I had was amazing, I felt supported by her and I trusted her with my issues.
I think the issue that really arose from this, was the distrust of healthcare professionals not being able to dissect their personal opinions and their professional responsibility. But, of course this is all due to receiving mostly negative messages about sex work in the media and general society. I don’t believe that any healthcare professional purposely sets to stigmatize or further isolate any client of theirs. When they are hearing constantly of how awful the sex trade is and that the government are all set to criminalise the clients of sex workers, of course they are going to hold the view that it is inherently bad. The problem with this is that it affects sex workers incredibly.
It’s ironic that just before I fell ill, the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation held a conference on the effects of prostitution on health, and I bet none of these issues were raised once.