As a sex worker, I often have people telling me to “get a real job.”
They say things like, “But I can tell you’re smart from your writing. Can’t you get a regular job?” The funny part is that because I am an open and out sex worker, I can’t get a regular job. I am unemployable, essentially, for things like this very article you are reading.
My career has consisted of being ping-ponged back and forth from poverty and low-barrier jobs like sex work to temporary stability in mainstream jobs to being invisible as a writer, except in cases where the same marginalized identity that is used as fodder for articles is then used as justification for looking right past me.
I started out in the sex industry by force as a victim of sex trafficking in New York City at the age of 18. After escaping my pimp, I got a job as a case manager at a domestic violence shelter, which I did for three years before I had to take medical leave from work to go through detox and rehab for alcohol addiction. I was fired upon my return from leave.
After that, I went into sex work by choice because I needed a low-barrier form of employment that I could start right away and that didn’t rely on the benevolence of hiring managers and their whims. Some days I hated sex work, but overall I liked it and found it very empowering. Sex work at that time made me feel like I had some control, some say in my fate.
Addiction and mental illness also made sex work a good alternative to a brutal 9 to 5. With sex work, no matter how I was feeling or what challenges came up with my sobriety and mental health, I could do what I needed to take care of me.
After I got sober in 2015, I began to search for a reason to live now that I didn’t have drugs and alcohol. Writing was something I loved as a child and was very good at. I was working another mainstream job in social services when my first big article was published. In the article, I criticized the ways in which the anti-trafficking movement in the United States treats sex trafficking victims. My boss called me into the director’s office, accused me of supporting child prostitution and fired me.
Since then, although I have years of experience in social services and writing, no one has wanted to hire me for either of them because they’re worried that doing so will look like an endorsement of prostitution — or, even worse, sex trafficking.
I am very open in my writing about things that are highly taboo, such as my personal experiences with prostitution, addiction, mental illness, attempted suicide, sex trafficking and domestic violence. I’m not just doing book reviews or writing “10 Ways to Get a Summer Body.” I’m writing about my experiences with things that reinforce many people’s belief that I have no worth as a human. That I don’t deserve to have a job among mainstream society, financial stability, love, or even, honestly, my literal existence.
My very existence is highly controversial, and even when it isn’t, my background and reality often make people uncomfortable.
Despite the consequences, I write about these things because I would rather exist in poverty and invisibility while standing for something than hide who I am and live a lie to make others comfortable.
Even sex workers who aren’t writing publicly about their experiences may have difficulty getting mainstream jobs. Maybe they don’t have fancy education or they have gaps in their resumés or even have a felony in their past. These are also real things that hold us back from getting “real jobs.”
Laws around prostitution and sex trafficking also influence people’s attitudes ― and legislation such as FOSTA has made us more stigmatized, more maligned, more poverty-stricken and more desperate by taking away what is often our only option and then offering us no space in the traditional job market.
If someone does want to exit the sex industry, whether they are a sex trafficking victim or just a sex worker looking for a change, that transition is not supported by our current culture and system of laws around employment.
I’m terrified that I will end up homeless yet again, like many others who are public about their involvement in sex work.
What the general non-sex working public can do to help counteract all of these barriers is be willing to hire sex workers; encourage and support the employment of people with resumé gaps or police records; and understand how hard it is for us to try to start anew in the American workforce. Diversify hiring practices in your workplace, and recognize that diversity and inclusion also mean hiring people with nontraditional pasts.
I have skills, knowledge and experience that are just as worthy as those of any other prospective employee. But if you’re going to tell me to “get a real job,” you’ll first have to help change the system so that it allows me to do so.