Why You Should Listen to Sex Workers Giving Marriage Advice

Recently I wrote an angry response to an older Tracy McMillan article ("Why You're Not Married"). Her advice seemed outdated, sexist, patriarchal, heterosexist, telling women how they needed to be less driven, less sexual, and less angry in order to "bag a husband." My personal experience as someone who has just celebrated a divorce from an emotionally abusive guy and is engaged to someone who is totally into my angry, career-obsessed self is that being a "yes" girl breeds resentment and expensive legal proceedings. Your mileage may vary on that score.

I figured that maybe the backlash would've led to Ms. McMillan having a think about the advice she was giving and whether it was really appropriate anymore. But wait! Then another article by her appeared, called "Why You're Still Not Married," in which she acknowledges the criticism by saying, essentially, "Yeah, y'all think I'm sexist and outdated, but you're still not married, are you?" She digs an even deeper hole this time, adding ableism ("You're Crazy") and gender shaming ("You're [Like] a Dude" for asking men out) to her already awful advice.

The number-one response to all this, of course, is people saying, "But Tracy, you've had all these failed marriages." Now, to be fair, had she been humble and said, "I had three failed marriages, so I know how to get married but might need help with having it stick," people would've been a little kinder, I suspect. Instead, her piece came across as a smug, patronizing declaration of "you're doing it wrong." Like there's a failsafe way!

Meanwhile, the (expected) response to my article was, "But why should anyone listen to a prostitute give relationship advice?" That's one I can tackle. There are two massively obvious reasons: 1) I run workshops on communication and sexuality, so I have some experience giving advice, and 2) sex workers have relationships, too -- big shocker! But there's also another, possibly less discussed reason I'm perfectly placed to give this advice.

As a sex worker, I know that when husbands (or wives; I've seen them, too) are looking for something different or aren't feeling satisfied at home, they have an affair, or they see me. I'm safe. I'm not going to call and ruin their marriage. I'm not going to fall in love with them. They can book an appointment, and we can explore all the things they're afraid to ask for at home. And I'm known as a sex worker who will give you real advice; I don't coddle my clients. I tell them what I'd tell my friends.

I can't tell you how to get married, but then, I don't think you really need help in that regard. Instead, I'd like to focus on how you stay married, and stay happily married. There are some common threads I hear about why my married clients come to me, and I have a pretty good success record in helping couples figure out how to talk to each other about one of the scariest subjects there is: sex and intimacy. I feel that that might actually be more useful than a handful of gender-normative crap that reinforces problematic attitudes. Granted, despite the fact that most of these tips relate to sex, when my clients book a session, more of then than not, what we end up doing is talking. The actual intercourse is an afterthought.

That should tell you a lot.

"I'm scared/embarrassed to tell my partner what I want."

A lot of people are absolutely terrified by their desires. Communicating what you want is a scary thing: If the other person says "no," it can feel like a rejection of a core part of you. And sure, sometimes saying "I'm really, really into superhero costumes during sex" is a deal breaker in a relationship. Some people try to get around that by coming forward about their proclivities in the beginning of dating, though this can create a "scare them off" mentality that's not particularly helpful.

Most people either vaguely drop hints and get timid when these hints aren't picked up on, or they don't say anything at all. Many of my clients tell me the longer they waited, the scarier it became. More intimacy can lead to more of a willingness to work things out, but it can also alienate a partner that you held on to such a secret.

"I don't really know what I want."

This is another common thing I hear: People go to a sex worker because they're hoping that an expert will be able to tell them what they're into. Many people don't even have the language to talk about sex the way that I can as a sex worker. I've heard of all sorts of kinks and desires, and so if someone has some general words to express what gets them going, I can typically find a way to name it and give it credibility.

Clients know that I'll give them space to try things on and discard them if they don't actually work for them, and they don't have to worry they'll hurt a partner's feelings. I give them space and safety to be selfish, uncertain, and confused. I offer them options, and take note, without judgment, of their decisions.

"I don't feel attractive." / "My partner is uninterested in me."

It doesn't really matter how attractive my clients are. They tend to feel like their cocks are too small, their breasts not perky enough, their abdomens too round, their heads too balding. I touch them with reverence and give their flesh value, which in turn can help give them some confidence in their own skin. My clients are afraid their partner doesn't want to have sex with them anymore, and even more afraid to ask and have that confirmed. They don't need to ask me how I feel about their bodies; I show them through my relaxed smile and my gentle hands. I smooth away insecurities, because I'm a professional, and I'm excellent at hearing the anxieties left unspoken. It's a hard world, and one in which everyone is told constantly how inadequate we are.

Never mind my clients who have disabilities; they aren't seen as sensual by society at all. Some of them have never been sexually touched. Some of them had never received sexual education, because it wasn't seen as necessary. As a society we treat people with disabilities as chaste, and the ones who are sexual, inherently as fetish objects, which can be just as painful and difficult. These clients come to me because I am very loudly political, and they trust that I will treat them with respect... like anyone else.

"My partner is uninterested in sex/kink."

Finally, I get a lot of clients who tell me their partner is no longer interested in sex or kink at all, of any kind. The spark may've been gone for months, years, or decades. These are often people with older partners, or partners who have had a sexual abuse history left unchecked; not wanting to argue or pressure their lover into sex unwanted, my clients come to me instead.

If they felt they could have sexual interactions with their partner, they often would, but instead, these clients are trying to balance being genuine about their desires and not upsetting their partners. Talking about sex within the marriage might be triggering, so they don't anymore.

Do you see a trend here? I do -- and it's not that "men don't like women who pursue them" or that "women don't want to have sex most of the time" or any gendered crap like that. No, it's that people in these marriages don't know how to communicate with each other about sex (or, often, anything else) in a way that's healthy, non-accusatory/defensive, and open to compromise. Marriages, and other committed relationships, are about nonviolent communication, coming from a place of compassion, giving each other space for emotions, and actively listening.

So here's a snippet of my advice, not on getting married but making a marriage work, whether in or out of the bedroom:

  • If you want your partner to do something for you that you like, make it appealing for them to do it, whether by doing something they like in return, or finding a way to make it more pleasant (though don't fall into the trap of doing nice things as a tit-for-tat). If I want to have a snuggle date with my lover, I'll let him pick a movie to watch and say, "I'd love for us to cuddle while we watch this. Is that OK?" If he wants me give him a massage, he'll offer to run me a bath, and maybe I could give him a back rub -- then we're both happy. We give each other space to say, "I'm tired, so not tonight," but we also offer to reschedule if we're not in the right head space.

  • Don't push! Nothing makes people dig in their heels like being cajoled and pleaded with until they wear down. Respect your partner's boundaries. At the same time, figure out what's non-negotiable for you and your lover, and what would be nice but not necessary. Maybe there's some middle ground that can work for you both. And sometimes time is enough to make it so your partner ends up bringing it to you, exploring those desires on their own time and figuring out how they can relate to them... and you.
  • If your partner comes to you with a fantasy or a desire that weirds you out, try to keep in mind that it's a scary thing to trust someone enough to be radically honest, and start from there. Understand that you may be reacting to their anxiety and worry, which may be radiating off of them, rather than the thing they're asking for. They may be dumping something on you fully expecting you to flee. Sit with those feelings of confusion. Maybe go to couples counseling and try to figure out what those desires mean for both of you, individually and as a couple. I can't even count the number of times I have had a client blurt out that he was into bondage by wearing a full-on leather slave ensemble when what they really liked ultimately was to have their hands held down during sex.
  • Don't take your partner being taken aback, uncertain, or awkward about something you've said as a personal affront. It's probably not about you but their own reexploration of their own head. Offer to give them some time to think, and then give them that time. If my fiancé says I'm being overly bossy, of course I want to get defensive -- but a day or two where I can think about what he means and ask how that manifests, in his opinion, means I can reflect on where we can work together to communicate better instead of arguing and getting nowhere.
  • I know it's trite, and I know it's often blown off in favor of "tricks you can do to blow him away/keep her interested," but the secret really is communication.

    Boring, right? But seriously, buy a book on that rather than on how you can sculpt yourself into a person you aren't in order to fool someone into marrying you. You'll save yourself a lot of grief... and, maybe, a lot of money on attorneys.