"So what do you do?" is a question I used to get asked a lot at the pub in London. Generally, I sized the person up and decided how far up the exposure scale I wanted to go. (If you're curious, my answers, from least to most intimate, are blogger, sex blogger, sex therapist, dominatrix/escort, and kinky queer interactive sex therapist.) Usually I'd go all the way and say that I did hands-on sex therapy with an emphasis on kink and exploring sexual arousal, while offering a GFE; and they'd look at me blankly, so I'd laugh and say, "I'm a queer dominatrix-slash-hooker with a psychology degree."
Then I'd get the "o" of surprise, often closely followed by them sobbing into their pint and telling me that their girlfriend never orgasms anymore. They're a tightly wound bunch, the Brits. Thankfully, I rarely got the "oh, that's terrible you have to do that!" or the rescuer-type scenario.
In San Francisco it's a little bit different. I know a lot of people who are sex workers, so it's not terribly rare for my being a prostitute to warrant simply a nod. But a lack of variety in the sex workers seen in the media can also lead to me being treated suddenly like a rare species: "Oh!" some well-meaning partygoer might say, waving a friend over. "This girl is..." -- and her voice drops to a stage whisper -- "a prostitute!" I sometimes feel like the novelty friend, the one invited so that the others have something to talk about. I'm generally asked to comment on trafficking (by which they almost always mean sex trafficking, to the detriment of any other kind). Maybe I get another few questions, like, "What's the weirdest thing you've ever done?"
It's not long till I drop the ultimate bombshell: that I have a fiancé, Mike.
That's when things really pick up, almost always starting with the incredulous question, "And he lets you do this kind of work?" After patiently explaining that, given that I am a woman in 2012, no one "lets" me do anything, I find myself often answering the same questions, over and over again, about my queerness, about my work, about his feelings on it. At first it really surprised me; was the idea of being a prostitute with a life partner really such a novelty?
Then I started watching depictions of sex workers in the media. Pretty Woman. Memoirs of a Geisha. Firefly. The Girlfriend Experience. Secret Diary of a Call Girl. Moulin Rouge. I began to see a trend: The media says that if you are a person in the sex industry, even one who consensually entered sex work, you will always have to make a choice between love and work. Sex workers, you see, cannot afford to love. Cue dramatic music and wistful looks into the long distance.
I say that's crap. Can't afford to love? Says who? On my budget I can afford to do the love boogie more than most! Romancin' and livin' costs money, whatever the propaganda says, and with each client I see, I build up expendable income that offers me the luxury of treating my lover to a night out or a weekend away, as well as paying my rent and giving me free time to, say, write about how ridiculous these stereotypes are. I have privilege, too, which means I can work only a few times a month and have enough money to afford plenty of free time to cavort.
Ah, but that's not the sort of "affording" they mean. They mean emotionally. Anyone who has sexually charged encounters for money, especially if they involve that deified thing called intercourse, must not be emotionally available for anyone else, sez the media. At least, that's what is implied: If your body is "for sale," after all, you can't afford to "lose your heart," right?
But see, my heart isn't something I lose. I don't misplace it, like I do my keys or occasionally my wallet. It's also not something I give away. Love is something I enter into with hope and a contract, with stated boundaries, agreements, and a certain amount of sense. Sometimes I wonder if I'm losing out by not being as giddy and starry-eyed as rom-coms say I should be, but I have enough experience to suspect that starry-eyed tends to end badly when not tempered with discussing how to deal with the hard and serious stuff like reproductive rights and thoughts on queer politics.
Just as my heart isn't something I lose, my body isn't something I sell. I rent my experience out as a service provider. No one suggests that masseuses can't afford to love, or acupuncturists, or therapists, and what they're offering is intimate in nature, as well, in different ways. I'm offering my skills in relationships, sexuality, and kink, skills I spent time developing. I'm offering someone who will talk about sex with you and communicate clearly and effectively, and, with any luck, some of that will rub off on you.
Simply because you may have an orgasm in my presence and you pay me for it doesn't mean I'm suddenly unable to love people or be loved. That's absurd. But you'll hear that idea everywhere, including and especially in the comments of articles on sex work; there's almost always a chorus of people saying how I should love myself and leave the business so I can settle down. Because, you know, obviously that's what every woman wants to do, right?
Thinking on what I could speak to on this topic, I decided I'm going to go through five questions about being in a relationships while also being a sex worker. Full disclosure: I speak as someone who has various advantages: I work indoors; I'm white and pass for middle-class; I'm nonmonogamous and queer, so I'm wired for alternative relationships; and I live in an area supportive of alternative relationships. I don't know what it's like for street workers, or people of colour, or straight people, or monogamous folk, though I would encourage you ask them, if they're willing to discuss it with you and you're able to just listen. These are just the questions I, as a white, middle-class, indoor escort, get on a regular basis, specifically about being in a relationship while having sex for money. If you're curious about other questions we hear all the time, Uppity Whores has a great video, and Scarlet Alliance has another with advice from sex workers if you are the potential or current partner of one.
1. "Your partner lets you do sex work?"
Usually people say this, I think, because they can't imagine being OK with their lover doing sex work. Maybe they're concerned about safety: STIs, for example, or violence. Maybe they're worried about the social stigma (not just yours, but the stigma against your partner). Maybe it's a jealousy thing: How could you "share" someone you care about? They're not generally thinking about how completely outdated the idea that my male sweetie "lets" me have the career of my choice is; amazingly, he "allows" me free will.
The reason it works for us is because we communicate. A lot. We get tested far more often than the average person (I aim for every three months), we stay up on safe-sex techniques, and we talk about our relationship worries and what we need from each other. Because I have a few people I can really trust, my partner knows I have safety measures in place: I check out my clients in advance, and someone always knows where I am and for how long I'm supposed to be there. Emotionally, I can come home and talk about having had a hard day, and I know he won't tell me I should just quit then or some other unsupportive thing that doesn't acknowledge the various financial and social advantages of me being a sex worker. Mike doesn't try to "fix me" but gives me space to have a hard time -- something I could expect with any other job.
On the other hand, I have had partners who expected that once the relationship got serious enough, I would stop doing sex work. I've done other work in the past -- marketing, mostly -- and I have to say, if I need to be making money, I'm likely to do it via the sex industry. I like having free time and being my own boss way too much! Having someone you love turn and ask you to quit your career can be incredibly difficult.
2. "Are you horny all the time?"
This question has a few variations. I've also heard a knowing "ah, lucky boy, he gets it for free then, eh?" with a wink. No, I'm not horny all the time. I have a relationship to sex that works well for me: I enjoy it, I don't feel the need to have it to prove my feelings, I don't actively pursue it. If it's on offer, I'm typically game, but I'm not twitching for it, either.
This can actually be an issue, this assumption that being in the sex industry means you're erotically charged nonstop. I have an ex who wanted to have sex all the time and expected me to express my confidence through sexual acting out. When I said no, she told me huffily that she bought me nice dinners, so I should put out. I informed her that if she wanted me to have sex when it was convenient for her, she could book me as a client like anyone else. She was not the first to assume that having sex for money in my professional life must mean that I'm always sexually available. But I'm not rubbing one out every spare moment; I'm reading political science books and watching documentaries. Sorry to disappoint.
It's not always easy being a sex worker with a lover at home. If you have a really demanding client, you might want to just go home and play on the computer alone, or you might want to snuggle. Sometimes sex seems really trite. It can change from day to day. Sometimes I come back from a client and I'm really horny; other times I don't want to be touched. None of it is personal. I want my partner to respect that my needs are variable and unpredictable; I do my best to communicate them, but I want him to do his best to honour them and communicate his own needs. I don't think that's really any different from a stressful day of any other kind of work, except that I've definitely had partners who assume that because I'm a sex worker, I'm up for sex whenever they are. It can feel very coercive, and difficult to find people who understand.
3. "What do you tell their family/friends?"
This might be one of the hardest things about having a partner when you're a sex worker. I haven't been closeted for a long while, and I hate being forced back in there. But it's not always safe to be out as a sex worker when there is a very real risk of violence and a lack of legal protection, so often sex workers have a more socially acceptable job of choice on call for family and friends of their partner. "Massage therapist," "personal assistant," and "personal trainer" are all façades I've heard used in the past.
Sometimes, you're not lying to friends and family, because some partners won't even introduce you in the first place. I dated a guy and eventually realized that we never hung out with his friends or made plans to see his family. He was afraid that not only would I say I was a prostitute but I'd say we met at work -- something that was true (he had been a client of mine) and not an issue among my friends, but it would have meant admitting to his friends and family that he was a john and risk being shunned. It was painful to feel like I had to pretend to be something I wasn't and be afraid of being outed accidentally. Worse than that, though, is that sex work can come up in conversation and you can't say anything. People will loudly discuss how all prostitutes are drug-addicted, pimp-controlled streetwalkers, and you can really only cringe and say nothing or risk upsetting your partner.
I now only date people with whom I can be out and who aren't ashamed to be seen with me as the lover of a sex worker. My fiancé has appeared in documentaries at my side, something I find hugely gratifying. It's nice to know Mike has my back, and that we're fighting stigma side by side and hand in hand.
4. "Doesn't being a sex worker make sex with a partner less intimate?"
If you work at a day care, do you love your own children less? What a strange question. No, the fact that some of the sex I have is a clear exchange of resources doesn't make the sex I have with Mike less intimate or valuable. The sex I have professionally is, on some level, performative. It's about me giving the client an enjoyable time. I am paid to be GGG ("good, giving, and game," though of course I have limitations), and I may or may not ever see the client again. I am aware during sex work that I should try to look good while we engage each other: arching my back, with perfect makeup and stockings without ladders. While many clients genuinely want me to enjoy myself, ultimately they want an orgasm at the end; there's a goal in sight that my fiancé and I are less likely to set.
Additionally, when I am booked, I am generally expected to be heterosexual. I'm pretty loudly queer, and prefer other queers sexually; fluidity in role is fun for me. But the majority of clients, particularly in the U.S., are heterosexual men wanting to be with a heterosexual or, for the adventurous, heteroflexible women. In my private life we can switch back and forth around who penetrates whom, we can play with gender, and we can get messy and experimental.
It's like cooking, I guess, for me. I really enjoy going to a professional chef and eating from their menu something they've crafted, perfected, and present to many, many people. I know it'll be delicious, right? But it's not the same as homemade cooking, which may not be as fancy but is made with love and a sense of adventure; you might try new things at home, while if you were a professional chef, you might not mess around with the recipes you know work. One style of cooking is no better or worse than the other; they're just different.
5. "Doesn't he get jealous?"
Sure, we both do. Sometimes he gets to go do something fun while I have to go to work. Other times my work means I get to be paid to do something really nifty, like get interviewed for a documentary or present a workshop. Who doesn't get jealous when their partner gets to "have all the fun"?
But if we mean jealous of the sex, not usually. Mike and I talk pretty regularly about the work I'm doing, and we have little check-in rituals. Now that he's starting to do some sexual performance himself, it's becoming a little more equal. Work sex is not threatening for us. We have an open relationship, and dating other people can feel threatening sometimes, but because the boundaries are so clear within the sex industry, it tends to feel safe. And we generally have certain pet names or sex acts that are just between us, which creates a sense of closeness.
In summary, yes, sex workers date. It's not always easy, but that's not the fault of the work as much as it's the fault of a lack of support, socially, for sex work being a job. We're not all nymphos, or unable to feel, or anything like that; prostitutes are a variety of people, with a variety of experiences, and we deserve the happiness that can be found in love as much as anyone else. Some of us want to get married. Some of us want to raise kids. Some of us want white picket fences. Just like accountants. Or fast food workers. Or any other profession.