(Note: This post is written by a sex worker whom I admire. Obviously it is not representative of all people in the industry. But it is a beautiful insight into a world often kept in the shadows. I hope you enjoy it. Without further ado, here is Nell.)
Nell Gwyn here, legendary whore and magical unicorn. My friend Violet asked me to write a post for her blog, and I thought it might be good to go over some of the basic questions people ask me when they find out how I earn a living. I see one of my primary roles as a sex worker rights’ activist as an educator and demystifier. The stigma surrounding sex work is a huge problem both in the US, where I operate, and worldwide. It promotes violence against us, contributes to the criminalization of our work, and causes very really repercussions in our families and communities. I figure that if I can help just a few more people understand what it really means to do consensual sex work, perhaps I can help to break down some of these walls between we sex workers and you muggles.
Before I begin with the FAQ, it is important to note that I am just one sex worker out there in a vast sea of many. I can only tell you about my own experience. I have known many other sex workers with life experiences similar to mine, but I would never assume I speak for them. This is also not an exhaustive list of every question I end up getting asked; it’s more a list of basics and then some of the more annoying questions and explanations as to why they’re bad.
It is important to remember as you read this that someone you know has probably done a form of sex work at one time or another in their life, or may even be a current sex worker. We often don’t disclose that information to everyone we know. If a person is female and/ or (gender) queer, the chances that they have done sex work begin to go up. Sex workers are probably literally your friends and family, and you may not even know it.
Q: Wait, what’s a sex worker?
A: The term “sex work” was coined in the late 70’s by self-described prostitute and activist Carol Leigh. It is actually an umbrella term used to refer to all forms of sexual labor, including but not limited to full service (actual sex, usually penetrative), stripping/ exotic dancing, erotic/ sensual massage, pro domination/ submission/ switching, sugar babying (with sex), adult film performers, adult photography modeling, web camming, phone sex, and hands-on education or therapy, sometimes called surrogacy or sexual surrogacy.
If you are curious what type of sex work I do, I have done many of these, both in the past and currently. I make the bulk of my income as a full service provider and sugar baby. I also do adult film performance, live performance, modeling, pro switching, and, arguably, sex therapy and surrogacy.
Q: Why do y’all use an umbrella term to describe yourselves? Why not just say you’re a prostitute?
A: Many of us often do identify with other terms for sex work amongst our friends and in safe spaces. However, there are a couple of problems with many of the terms used to described sex work.
The first is that the more illegal and/ or stigmatized the work you do is, the more unsafe it is to use the individual terms in unfamiliar situations or spaces. This is especially true for full service sex workers, but can also be true no matter what sort of sex work you do. Anything that can be construed to be similar to prostitution is a seedy and scary place to find oneself amongst the wrong company. And using the P word in reference to yourself can, in theory, get you arrested. Or bring trouble your way at the very least.
The second reason is because many of the only words used to describe our work have also been used to stigmatize our work in modern history. Words like whore, prostitute, stripper, dominatrix, gold-digger, etc. are hardly ever used kindly or with nearly the reverence we feel they deserve. Calling all of them sex work draws attention the fact that it is work. It is, in fact, difficult yet often rewarding emotional labor. It also calls to attention the fact that many of us do many different sorts of sex work, and can’t always identify as just one.
And on that note, how a whore like me self-identifies does not give you permission to call me anything other than a sex worker or, under the right circumstances, a full service provider. I am the lenient sort who let my friends and those I trust use those words to describe me, but for the love of God please at least check in with a sex worker before your start using pejorative terms to describe them or their work.
Q: How do you advertise? How do full service sex workers find clients?
A: There are as many different hustles for clients out there as there are full service providers; each one of us usually has our own unique approach that works for us. In some ways it is not safe to talk about the ways in which this all goes down; teaching others how to practice full service or teaching clients how to hire us is also criminalized, and can be conflated with pimping and pandering, both felony charges in the US.
But, to give you a basic overview, most indoor full service sex work gets negotiated over the Internet these days. There are sites where you can advertise and you can handle potential clients through email. You can build your own website and optimize it for google searches. You can have a social media presence. You can do background checks on your clients and check national blacklists for their names. Those who work on their own are called independent providers, and some independent providers who are doing well hire assistants to do this administrative work for them. Others work for agencies who do their advertising and security for them in exchange for a cut. There are some brothels, and some independent sex workers who work together and share space cooperatively.
Outdoor sex work is still also done, but from what I can tell is much more rare since the advent of the Internet. Since I do not do this sort of work, I cannot speak to how it goes down. But I will say that the sensationalized trope of a scantily clad woman approaching a man in a car and asking him if he’s looking for a good time is not always accurate. Outdoor and street workers deserve just as much respect and societal protections as indoor workers- or workers in legal areas of sex work- do.
Q: Isn’t it dangerous? What about STDs, rape, abuse, murder, drugs, fear, fear and more fear?
A: Yes, it can be risky. So is driving your car to work every day. So are jobs in healthcare, construction, logging, mining, professional driving, warehouse labor, home maintenance, you name it. Being a person of color, LGBTQ, disabled or even just being a woman is dangerous no matter what sort of work you do. You could argue that choosing to be a sex worker on top of being born into less privilege is adding insult to injury, but that argument starts to fall apart when you consider how much those groups of people tend to be discriminated against when searching for “real” work. It is a risk that many choose to take when faced with other options such as poverty or inability to obtain upward mobility.
Many sex workers do take measures to insure their safety, to the best of their ability. We screen clients, we give references to each other, we maintain a national blacklist here in the US. We use condoms and other barriers and get tested frequently. We do have strategies. Not included in our strategies is reporting to the police when we are attacked, because the police either don’t take us seriously or arrest us. This, right here, is the crux of what makes sex work dangerous. And it doesn’t have to be. If stigma and criminalization could be eliminated, we could take further measures to insure our safety.
Q: Aren’t you afraid no one will ever love you again? – Or- Isn’t your partner jealous?
A: Ha! I’m really glad you asked this, as I’m the perfect person to bust that myth all to shit.
Many sex workers do have problems finding love, and it’s all your fault. If this sort of question even occurs to you at all, consider what it might be like to love a sex worker for just one second. We tend to be extremely compassionate, loving and giving individuals. We also know a few things about sex, though some of us may be sexually exhausted from using those skills in our work. I’m not always one of those people; for me it usually depends on the day and the amount of effort I have expended at work.
I was very lucky to enter into the industry as a non-monogamous individual with numerous romantic partners and a very supportive community. For the most part I tend to fraternize with people who understand that their jealousy is their problem, and not mine. This doesn’t mean I’m unwilling to discuss problems when they come up, or adjust my behavior in order to help a partner feel more comfortable with our relationship. It just means I have a low tolerance for possessiveness or ownership, or other forms of relational entitlement.
For me personally, non-monogamy has worked very well for my career and personal relationship choices. Many sex workers are non-monogamous like me, and others are monogamous with one partner outside of their work. Others are waiting to leave the industry to find a partner(s). I do think it’s important to point out, though, that we are definitely capable of feeling love without financial incentive. Assuming we are not is another layer of damaging rhetoric that is used against us.
Q: If there was one thing you wish you could tell the rest of the world about sex work, what would it be?
A: In case you haven’t gathered this from the way I answered these other questions, I think the most important thing to remember about sex workers is that we’re just normal, average people. Yes, there may be ways in which we conduct our lives that make us seem extraordinary to an outsider. But we’re not an alien super-breed of sexed up babes out to steal your husbands. Nor are we your worst nightmare of a life gone terribly wrong. We’re not victims for your tragedy porn and we’re not evil succubi set on eroding your morality.
We’re just people and we deserve a little respect.