In the past, I’ve discussed the difficulty of maintaining separate identities and how to do so successfully; we all know that, more than ever, our achievements, failures, and indiscretions are one “I’m Feeling Lucky” click away for any future employers. Successful management of our nuanced lives is crucial for future opportunities…but what happens when a network is built, but can’t be utilized for fear of reprisal?
I recently “retired” from sex work in its entirety. It is something I have been considering for awhile, and while I was writing for Slixa, I wanted to create more options for myself. It seems like the longer one is in the sex industry, the harder it is to extricate oneself, and I knew that I wasn’t going to be in it forever, and no longer than another year or two at most. Creating additional options using the skills I’ve developed while in the industry, both as a sex worker and as a writer, seemed like the best way to do something I hadn’t been able to do for a long time: Have job options that weren’t low-wage non-profit work, food service, or sex work (the latter of which being, by far, the best of three options, but still ultimately not my preferred career path). What I didn’t realize during my time in the industry is that building my network, both interpersonally and professionally, would make leaving feel enormous.
During the last few months, I have been slowly and casually taking freelance work, and plotting out my plan to build my own copywriting business. As I started doing this, though, I realized how hard it was going to be to make this transition: not only am I starting a network from scratch, but even referencing the hard work I’ve put into the last few years would mean potentially alienating future clients and irrevocably outing myself, thus negating all the work that has been put toward avoiding that very outcome.
Sex workers are often encouraged to leave the industry by anti-prostitution advocates and even their own friends; the most common response to a sex worker’s complaints about work is, “Well, why don’t you just leave?” Of course, like with many jobs, leaving a primary source of income that actually pays the bills and is, for many sex workers, the best option isn’t as easy as picking up and walking out. Kitty Stryker recently talked about this in a piece titled, “Branded: The Fight For Employment After Sex Work”:
I wish that people who push for sex workers to leave the industry understood, REALLY understood what they were asking. Sex work isn’t consistent, but for me and many others it’s money, decent money, money that comes without compromising too much of my time, money that’s survival. I didn’t have to hide who I was as a prostitute, or as a pro Domme, or as a porn star, or as a phone sex operator. I could be genuine, choose how performative I wanted to be rather than forced into a standard. Asking me to leave that behind? To delete it all? It’s submission to a world’s ideals that women cannot do what they want in their own time with their own bodies, and I just don’t think I can do that. It kills me that men who have worked in the adult industry don’t feel as much pressure to hide their past, but it looks more and more clear that I might have to just to get my foot in the door…
I wish that more rescue workers understood that when they tell a sex worker like me to just leave the industry we need endless support, because the odds are stacked against us everywhere we turn. We need career help, we need connections, we need new wardrobes and resume help and technology. Sex work is work far beyond the bedroom, and we’ve been the CEO, CFO, marketing director, PR department, and human resources all on our own.”
When I read this, I nearly cried. She’s right. It’s not easy leaving the industry, and if we are to completely demolish our networks, it means that we basically have nothing. Although many of us have skill sets that would make us absolutely eligible for another position, the stigma against the industry forces us to not only refuse those skills were developed, but often repent for our past. The stereotypes about sex work (happy hooker or hapless victim) pigeonhole us, and the redemption is expected to be achieved through shame. Shame is a prerequisite to getting out. To put it plainly, that’s fucked.
Some folks believe that it’s asking too much to have it both ways: to have success as a sex worker, but to want to move on beyond that, is too much. Didn’t we know what we were getting into? Maybe we should have thought about that before we got involved!
You know, we do think about it. Sex workers are having conversations about it all the time. This is part of the conversation about being outed, which can carry both short and long-term risk, as well as both physical and intangible danger and consequences. No one knows this better than the folks in this industry. This simplified response, though, is missing the point.
In “I Was a Teenage Porn Model,” Lux Alptraum talked about her experiences in porn, and explored what led her to it, as well as led her away. She wrote, “If it was easier to shift between the worlds of porn work and mainstream work — to dip your toes in the adult industry without fear of permanently ruining your resume — then teenagers intrigued by the adult industry could have the freedom to experiment with it without being burdened to commit to it. Teenagers could have the freedom to be teenagers, without fear of permanently blemishing their future.”
It shouldn’t just be teenagers, though. Adults often shift careers, changing from one thing to something else that better suits their needs or interests, and there is suggestion that the current climate of employment is contributing to a rise in professional reinvention. The option to change and to utilize skills and talents should be recognized, and until sex work is recognized as legitimate work for many, there’s no way to do that.
As for me, I don’t know what the answer is for those of us who are looking to leave successfully (and finally, should we want to). Building from scratch is tough, especially when so much time and effort has been put into building what I already have. It’s a slow, uncomfortable climb, and starting all over may mean that “retirement” turns out to be a leave of absence, regardless of what I really want.
All in all, it validates what sex worker activists (and many sex workers who speak out about their experience at all) have been trying to say for years: sex work is work. Those who want to be in sex work should be able to do so without punishment, and those of us that want out need more than a demand for repentence, and if it were treated like any other job, we could. Just like the loathable low-paying customer service jobs that folks take when they need them to survive, sex work can be just option…but one with a stigma that creates the exploitative, unhealthy atmosphere that folks who encourage us to leave the industry assume is the standard.