The Work in Sex Work
I often get asked the question “how do you differentiate between sex for money and sex for free?” and it irks me. This question seems rather pedestrian. To me, a sex worker, the answer seems so obvious; one is work and the other is not. This question also points to the way sex workers are constantly asked to prove the validity of their profession. And perhaps, for this reason, I should not attempt to answer it. Perhaps I should simply tell the asker to trust that my labour is valid. Nevertheless, the answer leads to interesting threads of shame, empathy and the limits of understanding, so I am going to answer it here — both for my own peace of mind, and in an attempt to encourage some deeper understanding. My answer has two broad themes: the barriers to understanding sex as work, and a more technical discussion of my experiences of sex at work.
Obstacles to Labour-Centric Discussions of Sex Work
There are two factors which hinder people’s ability to view sex work objectively and without bias. Firstly, sex work is unlike other professions in that most people have some experience with sex and, as a result, bring their preconceived notions of what sex is to discussions of sex work. Some are unable to conceptualise something they do for free as labour, because they assume that their experience of sex is universal. Perhaps they have never had sex for any reason other than selfish ones, or their view is clouded by shame or trauma. This means that if people want to discuss sex work constructively, they have to momentarily discard all that they know of sex and listen to sex workers as if they are learning about something they have never heard of before. The systemic marginalisation and stigmatisation of sex workers means that this is difficult; sex workers are rarely afforded the opportunity to speak for themselves and are instead portrayed as distant “others” deserving of pity or scorn limiting the general public’s ability to trust that sex workers understand their reality better than anyone else.
Secondly, the people who make up the sex industry tend to experience a significant amount of discrimination in broader society and this creates extensive challenges in having their voices heard and their labour understood. The sex industry is dominated by women and this means fighting against patriarchal notions of what kinds of labour are deserving of financial compensation and should be held in high esteem. The sex industry also provides a viable means of economic survival for people of colour, LGBTQIA+ people, drug users, and migrant workers. Marginalised people experience discrimination, bullying and even a total inability to find work; the sex industry does not have any of the traditional barriers to entry and so plays home to people that the average office manager would not hire. The people that society deem unfit to hire are the same people fighting for sex worker’s rights and thus the fight for sex workers’ rights comes with fighting various, intersecting stigmas.
This is the landscape that discussions on why sex work is, in fact, work are set in. They are clouded by people’s own experiences of sex and how it should be had. It is dominated by women, whose labour is often overlooked and undervalued. And considering sex workers’ rights means examining the intersection of various stigmas that shine a bright light on many nasty biases and injustices present in modern society. Talking about sex work can be an uncomfortable enterprise.
A Word on Advertising
Advertising is one of the ways that sex workers are publicly visible and thus is one of the ways that their labour is judged, yet a sex worker’s advertising is often at odds with their politics and the realities of their job. It is difficult to talk about the ups and downs of sex work or about the significant problems within the industry while maintaining a “fuckable” image. Advertising is simply an indication of the kind of experience a sex worker can offer and it is aimed at a largely male client base. For this reason, it is not reliable data for judging the labour involved in sex work or the humanity of the person behind that advertising.
To unpack this a little more it is useful to look at all of the ways a sex worker’s advertising is at odds with usual norms of society and has the potential to broaden the empathetic gap between sex workers and the rest of the world. Rarely are sex acts discussed and presented so blatantly as they are in a sex worker’s advertising, this can be alien and off-putting to many people. A sex worker’s ad can be contrasted with the politicised way that some sex acts are discussed in television and movies, or the censorship of books that are too racy. Portions of society do not like discussing sex. Sex worker’s ads rely on a matter-of-fact discussion of sex.
Furthermore, ads will often appeal to the male-gaze, racialized stereotypes, sexual taboos and any number of things that may make viewers uncomfortable. This discomfort can lead people to make broader generalisations of the toxic culture within the sex industry. Instead of viewing these sex acts as a form of labour they are dismissed as disagreeable and upsetting; people want them out of sight and out of mind in order to protect their own sensibilities. This leads to censorship with disastrous consequences for sex workers as seen by the passing of FOSTA/SESTA, and with Instagram, Facebook, Tumblr and Twitter all tightening their Community Guidelines in 2018. In many ways advertising provides perfect cannon fodder for abolitionists because it is used as evidence that the sex industry embodies the worst values of society. Even if the sex industry has issues, I do not see any rational ground for dismissing the labour of sex workers who have their own views on their work or who rely on the sex industry for survival.
Positioning Sex as Work
Conversations around sex work rarely start from the perspective of regarding it as work. Instead, sex workers’ labour is ignored, their jobs are criminalised, and they are punished. Sex workers must invite non-sex workers to think empathetically about the realities of their job, identify the many similarities between it and other jobs, and promote sex worker lead discussions of the industry.
I once answered the “how do you differentiate sex for money and for free?” question with “think about making a short film; making one for yourself is entirely different to commissioned work. You might have fun making a commissioned film, it might have pieces of you in it, but it will never be entirely your own.” This answer speaks to the very best sides of most jobs. If a worker is lucky — very lucky — they will have enough autonomy and control over their work to feel somewhat connected to what they do. But ultimately, work is something done for someone else. It is providing something of value to another person and receiving financial compensation as a result.
When I think about my own experiences in the industry, I can clearly match my enjoyment at work with how much control I have. In moving from brothel-based work to independent escorting I have a greater degree of control over the brand that I develop, the kind of clients that I see and the amount that I work. This makes the time I spend with clients and the time I spend on other work-related activities far more satisfying. However, I do find myself working harder as an escort — my bookings are not easy and the satisfaction that I find at work is closely linked to the effort that I put into my job. I imagine most clients want me to think that they are easy, no hard work at all, but — like most jobs — my work satisfaction is closely tied to effort and the feeling of purpose that comes with having a job I want to put effort into.
Skills and Mindset of a Sex Worker
A booking is a finely tuned experience to make a client feel good. The skills needed for a booking do not come naturally and are learnt with time — I am certainly still learning. In a good booking I will help shape a scenario where the client feels comfortable, curious, desired, and excited. There are three things that make up a lot of the work in most of my bookings. Discussion of the labour that goes into being a sex worker outside of bookings is not something I will write about here.
First, the booking should feel like a complete experience. Achieving this comes down to timing things well, and reading and balancing energy levels. I have spent everywhere from ten minutes to fifteen hours with a client, but an average meeting is two hours. Often a booking requires time for nerves to dissipate, excitement to build, arousal to take over, sex to happen, and then reintegration from an intense experience with a relative stranger to daily existence. Sometimes a client will want to fuck from start-to-finish, in which case my primary goal is managing my own energy levels and arousal while guiding the client’s expectations. Other times a client will seem intent on an entirely social interaction in which case I will have to coax them towards sex at a pace they are comfortable with. I see it as my job to read what the client wants and guide them through an enjoyable experience. In doing this I must see each client as an individual with a unique set of needs, and I must do my best to meet these needs while staying firmly in control of my own boundaries. Managing energy levels in sex work is different to other jobs I have had in that there is often not a single minute where I can switch off, let my mind wander, or think about any other than what is going on in that room.
Second, social connection is of seemingly high importance to most of my clients. Often building social connections is one of the highlights of my work; I meet people that I would never have the chance to meet otherwise, I learn about their worlds and about their sexualities. Like every social interaction, it is important to listen to everything the client says, to never assume that I understand them, to ask questions to deepen my understanding, and not simply wait for my turn to speak. Unlike most social interactions, I am careful to ensure a connection builds between us, I attempt to never let my attention falter ,and I watch them more attentively than I would other conversation partners. I watch their body language, their eyes and the way they speak for signs of nerves. I notice the parts of my body that their eyes linger on. I test whether they want to keep the discussion entirely focussed on them because they want the chance to feel heard, or if they like hearing about me. I am wary throughout all of this that the client may become attached to me as a result of these conversations and that, while boundaries are ever-shifting, they must be maintained. It is a strange kind of social interaction that I am still getting my head around; often my compassion for and interest in clients is coming from an honest place, but these feelings are still built around the creation of a social interaction for someone else.
Third, the sex itself constitutes a huge portion of the work of most bookings. Even when the sex is good, in fact especially when the sex is good, it is energetically draining. I have noticed that being in close physical contact with a stranger is both exhilarating and tiring for me. Broadly clients can be sorted in to one of two categories: those who want me to feel real pleasure and share that with them and those focussed on the fantasy of wanting to do things a certain way regardless of my enjoyment. Many people might recoil at the idea of a sex worker being used as a prop in a client’s fantasy regardless of the worker’s pleasure, and this is an excellent example of how people’s own understanding of sex can misdirect empathy and muddy conversations of sex work. Neither one of these categories is inherently better or worse than the other, they are simply a different kind of work.
If a client wants me to feel real pleasure then I have to create a situation where I am genuinely aroused despite the demands of work, my energy levels and how compatible I am with the client. This requires creativity, open mindedness and an ability to focus my mind on specific things to the exclusion of others. This can certainly lead to a good time at work and helps me foster a positive relationship between myself and my job, but it is demanding and entails far more vulnerability. By contrast, being a prop in someone else’s fantasy is less complicated and comes with the immense satisfaction of playing a role in making someone’s desires come to life. However, these bookings can grate on my ego and be less personally satisfying. If all of my bookings required me to feel real pleasure I would be constantly emotionally burnt out; if all of my bookings required me to be a prop then my work would grate on me. The positives and negatives of different kinds of bookings are likely to be alien to non-sex workers.
The way I carry myself in work sex is also unalike my private life. I take care not to be overtly sexually powerful with most clients, but instead use my body gently and confidently. I have noticed that clients often mirror the way I use my body, so by role modelling confidence and sensuality I allow them to behave in kind. I try to constantly be aware of the fact that I have frequent sex and many of my clients do not, so I have to meet them where they are at. This means encouraging them to make requests until I have an idea of what turns them on. I will try to make sure the sex is interesting for the client, whilst remaining within their comfort zone and my professional boundaries. Work sex is the utilisation of skill and attention to create something that a relative stranger will enjoy and involves a combination of concentration, tenderness, and selflessness that is simply not present in the sex I have for free. It was impossible for me to comprehend sex as work before I had it and my comprehension will continue developing. It would be wise for non-sex workers to realise the significant limits of their understanding of the realities of sex as work and be comfortable with knowing they cannot understand what it is like to have sex for money.
Sex workers do things that they are comfortable with, that make them smile, and that make them come. Sex workers do things that make them angry, that conflict with their own personal politics, and fill them with shame. Sex workers are pressured by clients, management, and economic necessity into things that many would find repugnant. Sex workers do things that many would think are a wonderful way to make money and are a truly beautiful expression of human pleasure. The only thing that all of this has in common is that it is work; it is predicated by a commercial transaction and this foundation shapes sex for money into something quite different to sex for free.