V: Body of Work/Work of a Body
Saint Harlot, escort and blogger, October 2017
He tells her that the earth is flat —
He knows the facts, and that is that.
In altercations fierce and long
She tries her best to prove him wrong,
But he has learned to argue well.
He calls her arguments unsound
And often asks her not to yell.
She cannot win. He stands his ground.
The planet goes on being round.
Wendy Cope, Differences of Opinion
Prostitution is about as ancient as the idea of trade but it remains about as sensitive as the body parts involved. It’s shrouded in legal issues and social stigma. Few people admit to using sex services and even fewer sex workers talk about their jobs openly. Sex work is also an arena for policymakers to square off against activists, all sides strongly opinionated regardless of where they sit on the political spectrum. Ironically, sex workers themselves are rarely included in the debate. Everyone else is convinced they have the answers even without asking any questions.
A single, broadly applicable perspective on the working lives of sex workers cannot exist. Based on a report from 2010, there are 40–42 million prostitutes around the world. And that’s a conservative estimate: not all sex workers are prostitutes and methodology of many statistical studies of sex work is hopelessly bad. On top of that, countries simply lack data. It’s an enormously complex group, too — from exclusive escorts to underage victims of human trafficking. But I managed to get a small peek behind the veil. I got in touch with a Polish escort and sex blogger, Święta Ladanicza (Saint Harlot) and she agreed to share her thoughts on working in the oldest profession. We discussed the legal and social implications of sex work and she pulled no punches, neither against conservatives nor feminist self-appointed allies.
Wojtek Borowicz: I found something on your blog that shocked me. You write that in your line of work, rape is just professional risk. Don’t you think this attitude normalizes violence against sex workers?
Saint Harlot: I’ve heard that before and it still surprises me. What does it mean to normalize violence? Violence is never normal. Not against a sex worker, not against anyone. That should be obvious and indisputable. But we live in a world where violence happens every day. We see it on the news, in the movies, we hear and repeat violent language of the politicians, we don’t react when we hear screams behind the wall. And we don’t penalize violence nearly enough. If anything normalizes violence, these things do.
We live in a culture of rape. Sexual violence happens daily against women and weaker people, for example the disabled. I was at a workshop once and heard that the main cause of rape is not the customer’s ill will but the wrong idea of what sex services are. These wrong ideas include the belief that what you’re buying from a sex worker is a right to do whatever you want with them or that when a woman says no she means yes. I’m furious when I hear people repeating that without a second thought when they should get fucking angry.
Entering sex work, you need to be aware that sooner or later you’ll experience violence and you need to be able to quickly pull yourself together afterwards. I often repeat this isn’t a job for everyone. Being a policewoman or a firefighter isn’t for everyone, either. By the way, a policeman can also come across violence in their work but informing about this isn’t called normalizing violence. A double standard, isn’t it?
You call yourself a feminist but some feminists believe sex work is a tool of oppression for the patriarchy. How do you combine feminism with prostitution?
By cutting myself off from tools of oppression for the patriarchy. That’s not my story. I don’t fight the patriarchy, I advocate equality. There’s a difference. I believe feminism is for equality and against discrimination. I believe we need to work intersectionally, to support people of color, the disabled, LGBT+ communities, people of different religions and of no religion at all, and sex workers as well. We won’t get rid of inequality if we don’t give each of these groups agency.
Maybe if patriarchy vanished overnight I would indeed find myself unemployed. But it’s not happening anytime soon. Right now the main problem of sex workers in Poland is not patriarchy but the criminalization of facilitating. Because of that we cannot safely organize, work in a duo, or make money by sharing our knowledge. When caught doing any of these, we face up to three years in prison. We cannot even hire a bodyguard or a driver, because they would be guilty of facilitating, too. Polish law doesn’t give us any support and people are afraid to help us. That’s sick.
I’m also for decriminalization of procurement [Polish law differentiates between three sex work crimes: kuplerstwo means facilitating prostitution, sutenerstwo means procurement or pimping, and stręczycielstwo means inciting to prostitution — WB]. Let’s just call our employers what they are: bosses. There are employers in all industries who harass and exploit workers. Why would employers in the sex industry be treated any different? Sex work is work, after all.
We want to speak for ourselves because our needs are much different than people think — even the people who claim to want what’s best for us. Feminists-abolitionists do care about us and want solutions. They just don’t understand our work. Their solutions only make things worse for people that want or must work in the sex industry. They don’t help anyone.
But the argument against prostitution is that even if it is a conscious choice for some, it still leads to oppression, sexualization, and objectification of women. You don’t have a problem with that?
First of all, most women choose to go into sex work. It’s not necessarily something they want, it’s often because of economic woes, but it’s a conscious decision nonetheless. Personally, I picked the risk of violence, STDs, and being ostracized over my previous life — constant fear of not being able to afford food or rent, a single pair of worn-down winter shoes, and having to choose between buying meds or having a roof over my head. I ended up enjoying this job but even if I didn’t, it was still my decision. Let’s not pretend sex workers don’t have free will and are just victims of their circumstances. It doesn’t help us. We need empowerment.
Oppression, sexualization, and objectification of women are so transparent in our culture that it’s difficult for me to even talk about it. I don’t feel a victim to any of these. I’m not oppressed, unless by people with negative opinions of my job. But these are not my clients. Most often it’s abolitionists, the women opposing sex work. And I don’t think I’m objectified more than anyone who sells goods or services. I’d even go as far as to say that more of my clients see me as a human now that I sell sex than when I used to stand behind the counter or brew coffee. Buying sex leads to seeing the person on the other end of the transaction more often than buying a vacuum cleaner, toilet paper, or going to a hairdresser.
As for sexualization, my worth as a person offering a service is indeed based on my attractiveness, but remember that I work in the sex industry. It’s sexualization outside my industry that is a bigger problem to me. Women in music videos, concerts, or ads often look more slutty than me when I’m waiting for a client. That’s not right. Sexual attractiveness should remain in sexual context, which I’m part of when I’m at work. Meanwhile, sex is ubiquitous and in a bad way. As a society we’re not sexually free, we’re not affirmative towards our own needs. We’re reduced to objects supposed to generate profits. It’s wrong and sex work is not at fault. Sex work has been around for thousands of years but sexualization of life at this scale is fairly recent.
How do you stay safe? Is the risk of violence the worst thing about your work?
I’m not gonna talk about specific ways of ensuring my safety. They work because they’re concealed. What I can say is that I always tell someone I trust about my plans. Experience plays an important part, too. The longer I work in the industry, the better I handle difficult situations and avoid conflict. I call that violence prevention, though it stirs controversy. People instantly take that as victim blaming. That’s nonsense. I know how to talk to a horny client and I’m experienced in negotiating sexual boundaries but if someone breaks those boundaries or harms me in another way, that’s his fault and his fault only.
Being a victim to violence definitely is one of the worst things about the job. Getting attached to clients is hard as well, when for some reason they disappear from your life. They get bored, they’re tight on money, or they move someplace else. We’re not in a relationship and there’s nothing formally binding us but you can forge a bond between people in all sorts of circumstances. I’m also anxious about the risk of pregnancy. My period is often late and whenever this happens, I do a test and am extremely nervous. I use contraception of course, but I don’t trust it 100 percent.
What’s the best thing about being an escort?
Making people happy and having a wonderful time with them. Many men love my company and we often strive to make the time we spend together something special, whether it’s a quickie, a romantic date, or a travel. I visit interesting places, some that I wouldn’t have seen otherwise. I meet people I wouldn’t have met. Sex work is how I met some people that became very important to me: friends, lovers, partners. I love having a deep relationship with another person and that makes it a perfect job for me. I also like that everyday is different and that I set my own schedule. I don’t have to get up at 5:30. I always hated full-time, 9-to-5 jobs and cannot see myself coming back to them.
Why did you hate them?
The usual suspects: harassment, low wages, bleak career outlook, meaningless tasks, stress, boredom. My health also doesn’t allow me to work a 40-hour week. There were moments in my life when I just couldn’t do normal work. At some point I decided to try escorting and webcams. I didn’t have the right personality for webcams, though. I just couldn’t engage the audience and my channel was boring. Escorting worked so I sticked to it.
I also try a bit of freelance work but it’s a part-time thing that would barely allow me to keep my head above water. Eventually, I want to start a business and I keep honing my skills but I can’t afford to change careers just yet.
At what age do sex workers retire? What’s next for you?
People leave this job at different ages. In theory, the price for a meeting drops after you hit 35 but there’s still many sex workers over 50 and older. You can also specialize. I once heard about a 60-something dominatrix that people line up to meet. She has all kinds of certifications, equipment, and themed rooms. She’s incredible but she’s not Polish. I’m also Facebook friends with an ex-porn star. She’s about 50 now and doesn’t complain about lack of demand. She’s a certified sex coach, too.
As for me, I’m curious myself. I like my job, I like the sex industry and feel good as a part of it. But I have different plans. I started thinking recently that I might be able to combine everything but it’s just an idea, nothing specific yet. It’s worth to note that like any intensive work with other humans, sex work can easily burn you out. You need to take care of your mental hygiene. Don’t take on too much work, always have something else to keep you relaxed and entertained. And in case of trouble, immediately seek help.
Do your friends and family ask a lot of questions about your work?
They don’t really ask me questions. My family doesn’t know anything, though maybe they’re suspecting it. For some time already they haven’t been asking me about work, it’s become a don’t ask, don’t tell kind of thing. Most of my friends don’t barrage me with questions, either. They just read the blog. If there’s one thing that annoys me, it’s the idea that I have loads of money.
Oh, there’s one more thing, actually. Recently, a friend tried to convert me to normal work. Of course he didn’t have any alternative that would be viable personally and financially. This is a theme for saviors. First they offer us worthless advice and then say we’re not thankful and that we can’t leave prostitution because we got addicted.
We want to speak for ourselves because our needs are much different than people think — even the people who claim to want what’s best for us.
You mentioned money so let’s talk about it. People often think sex workers live on the fringes of society. But you don’t complain about money, do you?
Of course I do. My family fell into debt and we actually fell out to the fringes of society after years of living a comfortably middle class life. My health problems don’t help, either. I make a lot of money but I spend most of it. I spend on work, to pay back debt, to help my family, to pull my life together again. I live modestly, except for one luxury I allow myself. Every day I make myself coffee in a coffee machine — the cheapest one I could find. Getting out of poverty is a costly investment.
So how does your work routine look like? How much do you work a week? How much of your income do you need to reinvest to keep the business going? Do you pay taxes?
I work afternoons and evenings, about 36 hours a week, but at least half of that is getting ready for meetings and waiting for a call from the client. Each day I would see one or two men, occasionally three. Sex cannot be legally sold in Poland so it’s not taxed either. There’s an upside to that because if I don’t like someone, I can refuse them my service and there’s no liability.
I reinvest around a third of my income into work-related stuff. That includes rent for the apartment I use to meet clients, bills, clothes, lingerie (I spend a fortune on tights and stockings), cosmetics and beautician services, and of course advertising. I took part in a lot of workshops, both in Poland and abroad, to improve my skills: communication, assertiveness, setting boundaries, and developing my own sexuality. I have to mention The School of Erotic Mysteries in the UK. They offer workshops on sexual development organized by sex workers. They helped me a lot.
I should reinvest even more. That would give me enough of a kick to raise my prices but I still have too many other expenses.
How does prostitution in Poland compare to the Western Europe?
There’s no such thing as Western Europe in the sex industry. Each country is a different legal context. Let’s take the Netherlands, UK, and Sweden as examples. In the Netherlands, sex work is considered work. You can start a business, pay taxes, and get insured. It’s a decent country for sex workers, though nowhere is perfect. In the Netherlands, immigrants have it rough. It’s difficult for them to legally work in the sex industry, so they’re forced to go illegal.
United Kingdom is similar to Poland. Third parties are penalized for procurement and facilitating sex work. For example if I wanted to work at an escorting agency so that they would find me clients and take care of my safety, I’d be in a criminal context. It would be difficult for me to fight for my rights. I couldn’t go to a labor court to report wrongdoings. The only option is criminal justice but I’d need to really hate my boss to send him to prison. One difference between Poland and UK is that unlike here, I could be legally self-employed there.
Sweden is much worse than Poland. It criminalizes both third parties and the clients. That pushes the industry deeper underground and forces the prostitutes to work with clients that are ready to break the law. What’s worse, you risk losing your apartment if you work at your own place, so sex workers drive to clients. And you cannot check a client. They’re scared of the police, so they never give you their real information. The anonymity makes it even harder to track them afterwards, if they turn violent. All of this makes sex work dangerous. There’s also the assumption that no one would offer sexual services of their own volition. This means that if a sex worker has children, they can be taken away from her because she would be classified as unstable and self-destructive. Unfortunately, the Swedish model is considered progressive and is gaining steam in Europe. Recently it was adopted in France.
In general, the sex industry in Poland has changed for the better over the years. In many cities you can work like in the West, there’s no more mob control, and Polish clients aren’t any worse than those from abroad. Admittedly, some regions are lagging behind.
Do you think we’ll see the times when selling sex is not a taboo anymore?
Not in Poland. So far, our country has only become more conservative. And I don’t only mean the right wingers who just hate women and sex. Feminists-abolitionists are also doing us harm. They’re spreading false claims about sex workers, like the stereotype that a client buys the right to do whatever he wants with us. They are often advocating for criminalizing clients, too, which is one of the worst solutions, right next to criminalizing sex works itself, like they do in Serbia. Abolitionists also want to shut us down with phrases like you don’t know what you’re talking about, your experience is singular, or you’re privileged because you like your work and since you chose it yourself you have no right to speak for the ones that were forced into sex work. Meanwhile, most of us did choose this line of work for one reason or another. This kind of attitude pushes us underground. It’s sad because our potential allies, women who actually care for us, are making our situation worse.
Let’s finish on a lighter note. I was talking to a friend recently, a hardline feminist, and I asked her what should I ask a prostitute in an interview. She said: does she ever buy groceries in sweatpants and without makeup?
Ah, the famous stereotype that we always look like we just came back from a job. I only wear sweatpants at the gym, I’m more into jeans and t-shirts. I put on makeup when I meet a client, go on a date, or for a major occasion. When I’m buying groceries I just put on whatever. I don’t care about showing off. I buy my clothes second-hand and in cheap retail chains. I live a simple life, I relax with a book or with Netflix. When I go to see a client at a hotel, I don’t look the part. Otherwise, he’d be afraid to meet me in public. I don’t look any different than my peers. Neither do other girls in the industry when we meet sometimes. These are perfectly normal girls.