Last night, as I was tweeting about my general dismay at Pretty Woman, Shira Glassman struck up a conversation with me. Not for the first time, her LGBTQ books have a heroine with celiac disease, which I have, so we’re buds. Anyway, Shira wanted to talk about sex work in romance and what I, as a former sex worker, do and don’t want to see in such stories.
There are a few things I want to say before I get into this topic (which is really complicated). The first is that I am mostly okay with whatever fantasies writers and readers want to have about sex work. Some of those fantasies won’t interest me. Some will offend me. Some may concern me. But I’m a big advocate of people being responsible for their own kinks and doing their own separating of fact and fiction. I’m writing this not to say what people should and shouldn’t write, but to provide a somewhat informed perspective for people who do want to write sex work in ways that may be more accurate.
Why may? Well, there are a lot of different types of sex work, and I have experience with several, which I have delineated in a number of published essays but don’t necessarily feel like going into here because sex work is one of those things that tends to overshadow everything else about a person, and that’s just annoying.
It’s also important to understand what I say about sex work in the context of me as a white, relatively well-off woman from a comfortable background who gender conformed when she worked and who chose to engage in the work for a range of reasons including financial need and personal challenge. Many sex workers do not have the resources or choices I have and are more vulnerable to violence, drugs, financial exploitation, human trafficking, and general shitty working conditions. Legality of different types of sex work in different jurisdictions also has a huge impact on the safety of those working in it and their ability to choose to enter…or leave the profession.
Sex work is empowering for some people and destructive for others. For some, it’s how you get to take a nice vacation. For others, it’s whether you eat today. For some it’s a choice, other others it’s the only choice. Generalizing about why people do the work and the consequences of that work for those people is usually not a good idea.
Okay, all of that said:
1. A sex worker does not sell themselves. A sex worker does not rent themselves. A sex worker provides a service. This is true of all types of sex work done with consent, whether it’s phone sex, escorting, domination, etc. What that service is varies widely, and goes way beyond the sexual. Some clients just want to tell you about their problems. Some clients just want to hear about your life. Some clients just want to know that they’re not alone, or weird, or damaged, because of how they fantasize or see themselves.
2. Most clients are men. The conventional wisdom behind this is women don’t ever need to pay for sex. The reality is that I often meet women who say they wish they could pay for sex because of the clear expectations and low demands for them as potential clients. But these women then tell me that even purchasing sex doesn’t feel safe or permissible for them, or that they can’t find men in the business who cater to women and reflect their personal aesthetic preferences. And, considering that many sex work establishments are male-owned or have male security, there are some pretty good reasons many women do not feel comfortable purchasing sex from workers of any gender.
3. When female clients present themselves, sex workers investigate. Sometimes, a man will contract the services of a sex worker and have a woman with him that he will identify as his wife. Most sex workers will take a moment to get the woman alone to make sure she is okay with everything and find out her limits and concerns without the man in the room. 80% of the time, this is when we find out that she’s a sex worker too. Another 5% of the time in relevant jurisdictions and activities, she’s an undercover cop.
4. Most clients are married. Some are there with spousal approval. Most aren’t. These aren’t people who can’t get laid, these are people who can’t get laid the way they want, enjoy the experience of sexual commerce, or want something with guaranteed low strings attached. Most sex workers are very careful regarding business cards and promotional materials; no one wants an angry spousal call.
5. Sex workers look out for each other. I can’t emphasize this enough. No matter how much drama or competition there is, safety effects everyone. People who are able keep an eye out for each other. If your sex worker fiction involves workers who hate each other enough to put each other at risk, it’s not necessarily plausible.
6. Professional and personal sex have different degrees of overlap for different workers. There are female escorts who fuck men at work and are lesbians in their personal lives. Some sex workers are turned on by their work, some aren’t. Some sex workers go home to a spouse with whom they are monogamous. Some sex workers are asexual. Don’t assume.
7. In person sex workers have a strong familiarity with the range of physical bodies and sexual desires out there. They can tell you circumcision stats, what an average penis really looks like, and how appendix scars have become smaller as surgical technology has improved. Once they’ve been in the business for a bit, it’s pretty hard to shock them for good or for ill. Outliers always exist, but sex workers see those outliers and have the ability to contextualize them.
8. Just like at your desk job, there are clients you hate and clients you can enjoy a beer with. In some ways, this is the most important thing. It’s just like any other job. Sometimes your day was awesome. Sometimes it was awful. Sometimes you’re sore. Sometimes you’re tired. Sometimes you want to talk about it. Sometimes you don’t.
9. In the U.S. traditional sex work can be a highly racist environment. If you’re not white, you’re specialty. And if you’re specialty, that often means you are paid less and if you don’t work independently find it more difficult than white women to work in houses and services that represent bigger income and better working conditions. This situation also affects trans, fat, and disabled sex workers and like PoC sex workers can compromise income and safety. I presume versions of these issues exist in other countries as well, but I am not knowledgeable enough to speak on them.
10. Yeah, everyone’s got a fucked up story, but if people at your desk job told you about their childhoods, you’d be just as appalled. Everyone’s damaged. Sex workers haven’t corned the market. Don’t assume workers are abuse survivors or drug addicts. Don’t assume they aren’t. Apply the same guidelines to every professional you come into contact with in every industry.
11. That stupid no kissing on the mouth thing is really overblown. Thanks, Pretty Woman. But yes, some workers keep some acts just for them and their partners.
12. Some of the most business savvy people you will ever meet are sex workers. You’ve gotta to be a brand, you’ve got to market, you’ve to read the desires of a potential client fast, you’ve got to not let your own bad day or distraction show, you’ve got to manage an unstable cash flow, you’ve got to deal with security and physical and medical safety, you’ve got to know the law. Sex workers aren’t dumb.
13. Sex workers are not liars. Yes, the job often involves illusion. But sex workers don’t lie more than anyone else. And when they do lie, it’s usually for reasons of safety.
14. Even high paid sex workers can be exploited, and they don’t make as much as you think. Yeah, someone working the street is often at risk and their pay can be low enough to shock ($5 truck stop blow jobs are a real thing). But If you pay $200 an hour to see a dominatrix who works for a house, she gets $80 of that. She also has to buy her own (expensive) clothes, pay fees to the house for marketing and locker rental, and pay for taxes and health insurance. Seriously, don’t haggle with sex workers in non-haggling countries. It’s tacky.
15. Please tip. Remember how this is a service? If you tip your barber or waiter, you should tip your sex worker. If you don’t tip your barber or waiter, you should improve your choices.
16. Sex workers who choose the job aren’t looking to be rescued. Sex workers who are looking to get out and need or want help to do it aren’t keen on “rescuers” who are just someone else to owe something to.
17. If you want to help sex workers who want to get out of the business, replacement work of comparable or better income levels has to be a part of that package. Sex workers do not want to take a pay cut for your moral comfort or your savior complex. Don’t be the lesser of two evils, don’t assume sex work is evil, and just don’t be evil.
Basically this whole post comes down to just one thing: Sex workers are people.
I believe strongly that no one’s job should be the sole and most interesting thing about them whether they are a famous actor or a street-based sex worker. Want to get sex workers right in your fiction? Write sex workers as people who are more than their jobs and who are more than their traumas.