This essay was written by Haley K.- a friend, an activist, a mother, and a sex worker.
Dear future ex-lovers,
My relationships are bound to fail. This is not necessarily my fault, although with what I am about to write, most of society will place the blame solely on me. My attempt is to try and disrupt the idea that choosing to partake in a socially unacceptable practice somehow justifies violence, morally based attacks, or attempts at saving/restoring me to my “true self”.
I’ll tell you when we start dating that I am a sex worker. You’ll ask what that means. I will tell you. You’ll try and hide the look of disgust from your face as I explain that I exchange sexual services for cash. You’ll ask if I’m a prostitute. I will say yes, but gently and patiently tell you that I prefer the term “sex worker.”
You might be accepting at first. You might not. Sometimes, you’ll ignite into a full on rage and physically hurt me. Sometimes you’ll put your hands around my neck and choke me. Sometimes you’ll throw me down on the ground and bash my head into my closet door repeatedly. Sometimes you’ll apologize for that, and usually you’ll validate your reaction by saying that you just can’t understand how someone seemingly so normal could degrade herself like that, and in turn disrespect YOU like that. That’s not the story I want to tell though.
More often than reacting in physically harmful ways, though, you’ll get the sympathetic look on your face, apologize for nothing in particular, and throughout the duration of our relationship, you’ll try and save me from myself. I’m going to work, I’ll say. Are you sure you want to do that? Can I pay you not to go? Want me to drive you? Do you know this guy? You weren’t in the mood last night, and now you’re going to fuck some other guy, so obviously I’m not good enough and clearly you don’t love me but I will continue loving you because obviously you are a broken, immoral soul who needs to be supported and saved by a good, upstanding man like me.
Either right away, or later after you’ve claimed you’re open minded about my profession, you’ll inevitably ask me questions – questions rooted in insecurities of yours, questions rooted in your perception of me, and questions centered around the morality of a frowned upon and illegal practice. In order to save you some time, I’ll answer them here:
You’re too smart, pretty, and driven to be a whore. Leave that work for the stupid girls.
Actually, I am too gorgeous, sexy, intelligent, open minded and driven NOT to be a whore. I find it demeaning to associate intelligence with sex work or being a “whore”. There are many intelligent sex workers I know who are also attorneys, social workers, masters students, PhD candidates, the list goes on. I also know individuals that haven’t experienced higher education, and that doesn’t necessarily determine their intelligence. In short, without negating the fact that much of the sex worker population is without the option to receive an education, I will speak for myself when I say that I find it demeaning to associate sexual labor with intelligence.
I am pretty by conventional standards. There’s a niche for every body type, and every appearance in the world of selling sex. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to claim I am too pretty to partake in erotic labor – there’s a market demand for women who look like I do (not everyone enjoys my body shape or appearance, but a lot do).
I am intelligent, so I am able to handle my money and as part of my intimate encounters, I am able to offer an additional element of intellectual conversation. So with the physical intimacy I also add intellectual and emotional intimacy (which in turn, keeps clients faithful to me, and I to them. This reduces the need to meet new clients, where I am more susceptible to violence, rape, and/or law enforcement involvement). I am driven – and I am driven in many different areas. I am driven to become an author. I am driven to become a better mother. I am driven to be an activist to help in the fight to gain rights for sex workers and change harmful narratives that (especially) women involved in the sex industry are powerless, passive, and victims. That’s simply untrue.
Were you abused as a child? What traumatic experience happened that would lead you to this? Did you have a pimp?
No I was not abused. No I was not a runaway. I have had trauma in my life, but none of this trauma forced me, coerced me, or otherwise led me into being a sex worker. I did have what some would call a pimp. For three weeks. Once empowered with the knowledge, I said goodbye. He didn’t track me down to kill me. He didn’t force me back to work. He didn’t threaten me. He called a few times because he missed me. That was all. What led me to do this work was an initial fascination with the illegality of it, and my own internal debates about whether or not sex work was in fact immoral. This was when I was 19. I toyed with the idea for quite some time. The first time I received cash in exchange for erotic labor was with my soon-to-be, so-called pimp. He gave me $17.00 to let him jerk off onto my glorious tits. After that, I thought about how easy it was, how surprisingly fine I felt with the exchange. But there were times I felt shame. There were times I felt guilt. But as I found a community that I could relate to, I stopped feeling those things and instead felt empowered and confident in my work. The narrative that all whores are there because of force, coercion, or traumatic childhoods is simply not true. I manage my own money, my own time, and do my own marketing (with the help of a photographer). I find great joy and empowerment in what I do, and what I choose to do with my money (whether that’s to give it to someone else or keep it for myself) is frankly, none of anyone’s business. But I’ll answer that no, I am not managed in the conventional understanding of that word. Nobody is forcing me to engage in this work. But I don’t think I am any better than those that do use management, I don’t want to engage in the whorearchy – the classist, racist, and other “ist” systems in place that prevent sex workers from working together.
If I pay you, or if I marry you, will you stop being a whore? (in other words, can I have complete control of your vagina as an indication of your love for me?)
No. Maybe when I am older and ready and willing to retire from this business, I will find a sugar daddy type relationship. But I don’t know. I don’t view myself as monogamous by any stretch of the imagination, so you having complete control of my vagina is out of the question. I also don’t believe in the institution of marriage. I think it perpetuates the idea that women can be owned by men, and vice versa. That’s not to say I don’t necessarily believe in lifelong commitments, but marriage to me, seem like a business arrangement. That being said, I would likely get married if it was an act of resistance against government involvement in the lives of others – for instance, I would marry someone in order to prevent their deportation. I would marry someone I cared about deeply if I needed to do so in order to access certain resources such as making medical decisions.
If your daughter wanted to sell herself, would you help her do it? If your daughter wanted your help to get in the business, would you help her do that?
I see right through this question. What you’re really asking is if I have enough love and respect for myself as I do for my daughter. It’s an attempt to appeal to the morality of it all: to get me to “see” the error of my ways, gain self-respect, self-love, and find something in my life that I would encourage my children to do as well. No. Instead, I’ll answer this way:
I did not have kids so that I could condition them into a certain profession. I did not have kids because I thought I would be a superior mother. I had kids because I got pregnant, twice, and I’ve been learning this whole parenting thing along the way.
If my daughter – or son – wanted to explore the industry of erotic labor, I know that I have been raising them in a way where (hopefully) they could be honest with me about it. But that might not be entirely accurate, in fact it might be a little too optimistic. Despite my best efforts to raise my children in a sex-positive, accepting environment, they will, without a doubt internalize mass media messages indicating that exchanging sex for money is wrong and bad.
At this point in time my daughter is 6 years old, so no. Her understanding of the word “sex” is twofold – either some weird process that makes babies, or a biological assignment based on traditional gender roles (yes, I taught my kids that there’s a difference between sex and gender, and that one’s genitalia doesn’t necessarily determine what gender they identify as). So without an understanding of sexual acts and all the inherent complexities, I am not going to help my 6 year old daughter or my 5 year old son explore those possibilities. When they are old enough, and they are capable of making their own decisions about their own body, and fully understand the importance of boundary setting in sexual relations, and they happen to confide in me or ask for advice, or need me in a certain (only imaginable at this point) way, then yes, a resounding fucking hell yes, I will help my children in whatever capacity they need me to.
In short, I don’t have control over what profession my children will choose for themselves, just as I don’t control what religion, gender, political affiliation, or any other aspect they might choose. I do have control over what I teach them now – and what I am teaching them now is love for themselves and others, patience, and respect. And I am also damn good at teaching them about boundaries, something I don’t think I would be as well-versed in had it not been for my involvement in sex work. Whatever they choose to do with those qualities is up to them.
You’re a mother. What do you tell your kids?
My kids are 5 and 6. I tell them I am going to work.
What about STDs? Aren’t you scared?
STDs are super scary, but all the hype surrounding them add to a moral panic and the further stigmatization of sex workers as dirty and contaminated. Yes, diseases are out there. Yes, it makes me nervous. But practicing safe sex is a super easy way to avoid that anxiety. Despite popular opinions, the majority of both sex workers and their clients engage in protected sex, indeed most require it. I am amongst that population. I will not have sex without protection. Does that mean I won’t contract an STD? Maybe, maybe not. The risk is there. But with clients that I can check references on, I know that I am walking into a situation where we both engage in the safest possible practices to prevent that. There’s this idea that the whore serves as a symbol for contamination – that the spread of HIV and other STDs are the fault of prostitutes. I cannot even begin to explain the problems with this line of thinking, and I won’t even get into a discussion about the stigmatization of HIV positive individuals colliding with the sex worker population. I will say this: people have sex. All day long. All sorts of people have sex. Singling out an already marginalized population as the carriers and spreaders of diseases doesn’t help anything. Turns out that sex workers are more likely to contract an STD from an intimate partner (boyfriend/husband/date) than from a client. You wanna know why? Because there’s an assumption that sex with someone you know is automatically safer than paid sex. That’s inaccurate, and obviously harmful and unhealthy.
What about murder and violence? What about Gary Ridgeway?
It is heart wrenching to conceive of the violence against sex workers. It is also extremely terrifying that I have been, and will likely be again, the victim of such violence. But, the risks associated with this business have been remedied, in part by the availability of online escorting boards, a network of providers looking out for each other, and reference checks. I am amongst the privileged of a marginalized population. Street based sex workers, or those forced into this work, or those without the resources with which to check the safety of a particular new client, are not so privileged. I protect myself the best I can in meeting new clients. I get nervous sometimes, but I also get nervous taking my kids to the mall, or driving at night, or being in large groups of people. Instead of asking questions to try to scare me out of my lifestyle, perhaps focus your concerns on decriminalizing the work so that the risk of violence is lessened.
What about being arrested? Aren’t you the good, law-abiding person I perceived you to be when we met?
I don’t agree with the criminalization of consenting adults engaging in behavior that harms absolutely no one. I am a good person. I am a student. I am a mother. I am a friend, a daughter, a sister. I am all these things. I am also a sex worker. Not one of these things defines the entirety of my being. I am anxious that someday I will be arrested. But sex worker rights and sex work in general, are things that I am absolutely, wholeheartedly dedicated to. So if I am arrested, so be it. Maybe it won’t make national headlines. Maybe nobody will ever hear about it, but in my mind it will be an act of resistance. I also speed sometimes. I turned my children’s car seats forward facing before they turned one year old. I break the law a lot – that doesn’t make me a bad person. I don’t let others determine my moral compass.
How do you think your mom would feel knowing she raised a whore?
I don’t know. Someday I’ll ask her. This question is closely aligned with the question about helping my children to be involved in erotic labor. It’s an attempt to persuade me to live my life according to the dominant ideas of what is morally and socially acceptable. My mom is against the criminalization of sex work. And I think that in itself is answer enough for me.
How can you claim you love me when you are paid to fuck other guys? What makes me so special?
Love is a special kind of complexity. I have loved past boyfriends. I have also loved clients. I love my ex-husband. I love my friends and family, too.
The first issue I have with this question is the fact that it makes the assumption, like the majority of the population, that sex is the epitome of intimacy and the universal representation of love, commitment, and caring. I don’t view it that way.
In theory, what makes my relationships outside the business special, is that I am able to be myself. I genuinely care about that other person, and I can use my real name. And I show my love and affection in other ways, by sharing stories of my life, by allowing you around my children, by introducing you to friends and family. I show that love by trusting you enough to tell you what I do for a living, although I have learned that this is never enough. Sex will always be viewed as the ultimate and sole representation of love. And if that love is being spread around, then why bother? If you have to ask this question, we’re probably not a good match.
Can I help you manage your money?
No. Remember when you asked me why I was in this business if I was as intelligent as I am? If you think I am intelligent why would I need a money manager?
How is it that you call yourself a feminist and degrade/objectify yourself like this?
I actually appreciate this question. Because it is one I have struggled with myself. Up until very recently actually, I thought “feminism” was a unilateral way of thinking about women and equality. Because I had internalized an understanding of feminism that was anti-objectification, or anti-sex even, I felt that being a sex worker was in direct contradiction to feminist ideas. That’s the dominant narrative perpetuated by those with the strongest voices in feminism – objectification is wrong, sexualizing girls is bad, we need to value women and girls for more than their vaginas. On and on it goes.
Turns out, there’s a way to be a feminist and disagree with the mainstream feminist way of thinking. I subscribe to a feminism that supports equal rights. I subscribe to a feminism that sees the worth and value in not only the women who engage in this form of labor, but also the worth and value of the (usually male) clients who see them. It’s called sex-positive feminism, or pro-sex feminism, and probably lots of other labels. It’s now my feminism. It’s helped me in ways I can’t even begin to articulate here. Because I refuse to believe that all men are violent. I refuse to believe that every sex act is an act rooted in patriarchy and the historical trends of violence against women.
The questions from my non paying lovers beg to understand how someone seemingly so normal could be caught in a life or questionable morals. I don’t want to serve as a symbol of all sex workers, but in my experience, it’s the civilians who inflict the violence (whether physical or emotional) on me, and not the clients. That’s why this whole End Demand/Buyer Beware bullshit currently going on in Seattle is so outrageous. Clients don’t need to be criminalized. They’re (for the most part) really amazing individuals who are seeking out a service – whatever their reasons might be. There is an inherent risk in encountering new clients, I would certainly never argue that clients who are rude, violent, or disrespectful don’t exist or are not an issue:
Oh, you were expecting money? I thought that we really connected in the three text messages I sent to you…but anyways now that I’m here we should probably just do it for free.
Go away. I hate you so much for making me put on makeup.
How much would I have to pay to fuck you without a condom?
You know, if you lost like 10 pounds you could probably triple your business.
Can I build your website? I only charge free sex for the rest of your existence.
I’d like it if you were my girlfriend, but I can’t stand the thought of being in a committed relationship with someone who has been with as many guys as you have.
I wouldn’t want to be your girlfriend. Please turn away from my contaminated vagina and leave me alone forever.
Yeah, pretty horrific. But those comments and questions are rare. When they happen, I don’t see the clients again. And sometimes, I get really insulting comments, but taken in context, they are not meant to be insulting, they just happen to come from someone who has no history engaging in conversation with women, more generally, and sex workers, more specifically. In those instances, I’ll gently coach the person in acceptable social practices. A lot of my clients lack social skills – either because their outward appearance disallows for much social interaction; their personality turns people away; or they come from a different background where some cultural and social skills clash. Generally, though, I don’t have to defend my actions, or put up with emotional or physical violence, or explain who I am to clients. For my repeat clients, and for the majority of men who pay me for my time and erotic labor, I hear questions like:
Was traffic bad getting here? I am so sorry, but it’s great to see you!
How’s school going? What classes are you taking this quarter?
Can I give you a couple extra bucks for babysitting money for your kids? I know it took you a lot of arranging and effort to get here.
What’s the significance of this tattoo here?
Can I touch you here?
Is this ok?
What turns you on?
What’s your favorite flower?
Can I offer you something to eat, or a bottle of water?
I’d like to see you again. What’s the best way to get a hold of you?
Are you comfortable with seeing me again?
I hope you don’t mind if I tell you that you are an amazing person that I feel very deeply connected to. I don’t want to overstep boundaries, and I won’t, but I wanted to tell you that you make me feel amazing and I appreciate you. Here’s a tip.
In sum, the clients I have encountered in the over ten years I have been providing sexual services have been far more respectful and genuine than any of my former non-paying sexual partners. It seems as though clients understand the boundaries of a business partnership, but more importantly, they understand and value me for the entirety of my being (or what they know of it), not just the fact that I have a vagina that I will let them stick their penis in for a price. They value the conversation I offer, the intellectual debates we sometimes partake in, my struggles and successes in my life as a mother, student, and complex social being. They check in with me about my comfort level. They check in with my desires. Some care deeply about me, just as I do them. Some care for an hour, some care a lot longer.
Alternatively, with outside relationships, I am reduced to only one aspect of my multilayered, oftentimes conflicting identities. I am questioned about my morals. About my parenting skills, about my potential, and my alleged failure to see it. I am attacked for being a whore, for engaging in a practice, that to most, seems unsavory at best.
To all my future un-paying ex lovers- you’ll never know about my life. You’ll never know about what I’ve been through, and the love and appreciation I have gained as a result of being a sex worker. You’ll never know that because you are constitutionally incapable of seeing me beyond being a whore. Despite your inquiries, and my attempts to explain who I really am, you’ll never, ever, see the complexities of my identity. You’ll call me a whore, but you’ll use my language, “sex worker” in doing so, as if that somehow justifies it.
To all my future un-paying ex lovers. I guess I’m not sure why I am writing this. Because I don’t think there will be anymore.
And to my lovers who respectfully compensate me for my time and skills and presence: thank you for seeing me as a whole person, whether or not you know my real name.
“People are always warning against the dangers of prostitution, but if you look at how much violence and even rape occurs in marriage, it’s surprising you never hear a mother say, ‘Honey, don’t get married. It’s far too dangerous.’” (Margot Alvarez, Director of the Red Thread, Amsterdam, 1994).