Sex Workers – An Invitation to Tell Your Stories

via Greta Christina at free thought blogs.

If you work, or have ever worked, in the sex industry — as a prostitute, a stripper, a pro dominant, a pro submissive, a phone sex worker, a porn actor or model, or any other area of the industry — what was your experience?

IMPORTANT NOTE ABOUT COMMENTS: The comment policy for this post is different from my usual one. It’s at the end of the post. Pay careful attention to it. Violators will have their comment disemvoweled, and may even be banned.

As regular readers of this blog know, my fellow blogger in the Freethought Blogs, Taslima Nasreen, wrote a post a few weeks ago positing that all prostitution is always patriarchal oppression, always sexual exploitation, always sexual violence, that women are always forced into it, that it is never a vocation choice, that it is always human rights abuse, that all of it harms women.. I wrote a post in response, saying that I understood that there were often terrible abuses in the sex industry and that many prostitutes are forced into the work, and that of course I fervently opposed this — but also saying that there are many sex workers who freely choose the work, and like it, and do not find it abusive or exploitative.

Nasreen and I had a private email conversation about this. I’m not at liberty to disclose her side of that conversation. But I will tell you that I asked her, repeatedly, to put up a post on her blog asking sex workers what their actual experience was working in the sex industry — so she could hear for herself the tremendous variety of experiences that prostitutes and other sex workers have, and so she could take those experiences into account when she considers the questions of how abuses in the industry should be handled.

As of this writing, she has yet to do this.

So I’m going to do it myself.

If you work, or have worked, in the sex industry — as a prostitute, a stripper, a pro dominant, a pro submissive, a phone sex worker, a porn actor or model, or any other area of the industry… what was your experience?

This query is for women, men, and trans people who don’t identify as one gender or the other. Please feel free to answer any or all of the following questions, as well as any others:

Why did you get into the sex industry?

Did you freely choose this work? Were you in any way forced or coerced into it? Were you pressured into it by economic or other pressure?

Why did you go into the particular line(s) of sex work that you did?

What, if anything, did/do you like about the work?

What, if anything, did/do you not like about the work?

On the whole, did/do you like the work, dislike it, or feel neutral about it?

What are your feelings about your customers?

Have your feelings about the work changed with time? If you no longer work in the sex industry, did your feelings about the work change after you left it?

If you still work in the sex industry, do you feel free to leave it? If you no longer work in the sex industry, did you feel free to leave it? If not, what restraints did/do you have?

Is there anything else you want people to know about your experience of sex work?

I’ll start things off, with my own answers.

The basics:

In the late 1980s, I worked for a few months as a nude dancer in a peep show, the Lusty Lady in San Francisco. I mostly worked on the main stage: a small stage with four or five women dancing naked, surrounded on three sides with booths. Customers would go into the booths and put in quarters, a metal windowshade would go up, and they’d watch us through a window.

I also did one stint in the “talk to a live nude girl” booth at the Lusty, which had a similar setup but was one-on-one (more focused personal attention, a more explicit show that could involve sex toys, more expensive). I might have done more of those eventually, but I quit the job soon after my first stint in the talk booth.

I never worked as a prostitute — but to a great extent, that’s a distinction without much difference. I had more physical protection than most prostitutes; I didn’t earn as much but had a more regular income (I was paid an hourly wage); the work I did was legal. But if I had been in a hotel room with my customers instead of on a peep show stage with a pane of glass between us, much of what I did would be considered prostitution by pretty much anybody. Not to put too fine a point on it: I showed off my naked body, and often masturbated, for men (and occasionally women) who watched me and often masturbated. I’m not going to pretend that my experience as a peep show dancer qualifies me to speak about the experience of prostitutes — but I’m also not willing to pretend that I’m on the “good girl” side of some bullshit line between good girls and whores.

(For the record, I’ve also done nude and erotic photo modeling, and have performed in video porn — but none of that was for money, it was just for fun, with small independent labor-of-love pornographers, so I don’t really categorize it as sex work. I did write/ produce/ narrate a sexually explicit how-to video, and that was for money, but I didn’t do any of the sex in it, so I tend not to think of that as sex work. I also worked as an order taker for a phone sex company, but I wasn’t the one doing the phone sex, so I don’t think of that as exactly sex work, either. When I think of my experience in the sex industry, I mostly think of dancing at the Lusty.)

Why did you get into the sex industry?

A combination of sexual curiosity, sexual exploration, and money.

I worked at the peep show at a time when I was doing a lot of sexual experimentation, throwing a lot of sexual things at the wall to see what stuck, and this work was part of that. My sexuality has a strong exhibitionist streak to it, and I was intrigued by the idea of dancing for an audience of strangers. My sexuality, and my personality in general, also has a strong adventurous streak (more so in my twenties than now, but still now to a great extent): I like trying new things simply for the sake of trying them, and this work was part of that as well. I was also just starting to really come out as a dyke, and dancing naked in a small room with several other dancing naked women had an obvious appeal. I had friends who worked at this particular place, who liked it and spoke fairly highly of it, so I felt safe trying it out. Also… this is hard to explain, but part of me simply wanted the experience of working in the sex industry. I wanted to be in solidarity with sex workers, or something. Again: I didn’t want to be on the “good girl” side of that particular fucked-up “good girl/ bad girl” dichotomy. I felt like this was… well, like this was a fucked-up dichotomy, and I wanted to transgress it. I wanted to cross that line, and be on the other side of it.

And I also had a debt to pay off (ironically, to the University of San Francisco, a Jesuit school): there had been a screw-up with my student loans, and I got stuck with responsibility for a big tuition payment. I was already considering getting into this work for personal and political and sexual reasons, and the debt tipped the scale of my decision.

Did you freely choose this work? Were you in any way forced or coerced into it? Were you pressured into it by economic or other pressure?

I freely chose it. There was a certain amount of economic pressure, in the form of the abovementioned debt. But I could have found other ways of paying that off (such as working overtime at my other job). I wouldn’t have taken the work if I hadn’t been interested in it anyway.

Economic pressure isn’t always a simple either/or thing. There are often degrees of economic pressure, with sex work and any other kind of work: “I’ll starve if I don’t do this work,” “I’ll get kicked out of my apartment and will be on the street if I don’t do this work,” “I’ll get kicked out of my apartment and will have to move back to Indianapolis with my parents if I don’t do this work,” “I’ll have to take a shitty job that I’ll hate if I don’t do this work,” “I’ll ruin my credit rating if I don’t do this work,” “I won’t get tenure if I don’t do this work,” many shades in between. My pressure was on the less-pressured end of that spectrum, right around “shitty job” and “credit rating.”

Why did you go into the particular line of sex work that you did (i.e., prostitution instead of stripping, or vice versa)?

Nude dancing in the peep show let me explore sex work in a way that felt safe to me. I didn’t feel comfortable doing forms of sex work that involved physical contact with customers, such as prostitution or lap dancing. I briefly considered lap dancing, since the money was better, but decided I wanted to keep the physical barrier between me and my customers.

What, if anything, did you like about the work?

The actual work part of the work was usually pretty pleasurable. I liked dancing naked for an audience: I found it hot and fun. I liked being on a stage with other dancing naked women: again, hot and fun. I liked many of my customers: many of them were sweet and appreciative, some of them were sexy and fun to work with, and some of them were imaginative and hilarious. One of them, in fact, actually stays in my mind as one of my favorite sexual partners of all time.

I gained a lot of sexual confidence at that job, and got much more comfortable with my body. It was a good place to explore and experiment with different aspects of my sexuality: different costumes, different personas, and to some extent sexual exploration with other dancers (dancers were encouraged to fool around on stage, although more explicit sex was supposed to be saved for the private talk booth). And I loved most of the women I worked with. They were smart and funny and tough, they had great attitudes and interesting ideas about sex, they had great attitudes and interesting ideas about lots of things, and there was a strong sense of camaraderie, on stage and behind it. We took good care of each other.

I also liked the exercise: I got into good shape dancing at the Lusty. Plus there was a good burger place right across the street. I have very fond memories of wolfing down Clown Alley burgers right after a shift. And it was cool working in North Beach. If I got to work early, I’d sometimes kill time at City Lights Books before I went in.

What, if anything, did you not like about the work?

Mostly the management. When they first hired me, they put on a good show of being responsible and supportive employers, but they kind of turned out to be jerks. Not in any of the cliched ways you might have heard of — they didn’t hit on dancers (that I know of), they didn’t give us drugs, nothing like that. What they did was this: They hired women with promises of frequent raises and lots of money if you stuck with it, but the reality was that once you’d gotten a few raises and were making over a certain amount, they often started hassling you. (I got hassled about my weight, which they’d been fine with until I started making more money, and even though I got good reviews from customers. Another woman got hassled about her body hair, which they’d also been fine with until she started making more money.) They kept very few women on at the higher rate of pay that you got after you’d been there more than a few months. I think they liked having high turnover: it kept fresh faces on the stage, and kept wages low. But they weren’t honest about that. They just kept hiring new women, and giving them lots of encouragement when they were new and not making that much, and then turning into assholes once their pay got too high.

(BTW, the dancers at the Lusty Lady in San Francisco later unionized, and still later bought out the place and operated it as a worker-owned collective. I wish I’d been able to work there during those days. I don’t know what the status of the place is now.)

The other big downside was some of the customers. There were very few who were serious assholes — and the dancers had full authority to get any customer kicked out if he was being a serious asshole — but some of the customers were kind of just… blank. They didn’t smile, or wave, or make eye contact, or give any acknowledgement that we were human beings (or indeed that they were). They just stared blankly, and left. Or stared blankly, and jerked off, and left. They were like robots. It was hard to keep my sexual energy up when these guys came in. It kind of sucked the life out of the room.

Of course, much like any job, there were days when I didn’t feel like going in, I just wasn’t in the mood — but if I wanted the paycheck and wanted not to get fired, I had to go in anyway. Actually, though, on most of those days, once I got on the stage and started dancing, I got into it and was fine. (It was a lot like writing in that regard. There are days when I don’t feel like writing and do it anyway because I’m on deadline… and once I get started, I’m usually happy to be doing it.)

On the whole, did you like the work, dislike it, or feel neutral about it?

On the whole, I liked it… except for the management. They were the reason I finally quit. (I sometimes wish I’d stuck it out for longer — I knew I was being pushed out of their revolving door, and I sometimes wish I’d made that harder for them.) But on the whole, I liked the work, and am proud of having done it, and have very fond memories of it.

What are your feelings about your customers?

Tremendously varied. They ranged from “one of my favorite sexual partners ever” to “Christ, what an asshole.” With a whole lot of “Yeah, he was okay” in between. The ones I strongly liked were the ones who brought some real sexual imagination to the table (the guy who wore red lace lingerie under his business suit, the one who took off his shirt and danced for the dancers, the one who showed us how he could suck his own dick). The “one of my favorite sexual partners ever” guy was the guy who brought in a notepad and a pen so we could communicate (you couldn’t really talk through the glass), and who smiled and flirted like crazy, and who obviously really liked me and really liked being there. I can still picture his face now, giving me a big coy grin through the glass. The ones I strongly disliked were the ones who violated house rules (we got those guys thrown out); the party animals who came in drunk in groups (ditto, often); and the one who said “I love you” after watching me dance for fifteen seconds. Ew.

Have your feelings about the work changed with time? If you no longer work in the sex industry, did your feelings about the work change after you left it?

I had somewhat idealistic ideas about the job when I first got into it, and those became more nuanced and realistic. In a weird way, I both liked and disliked the work more after I’d done it for a while: I guess because it had become more visceral and more immediate. Right when I quit I was very bitter about it… but only about the management, not about the work itself. On the whole, I always liked the work, and that hasn’t changed with time.

If you still work in the sex industry, do you feel completely free to leave it? If you no longer work in the sex industry, did you feel completely free to leave it? If not, what restraints did you have?

I felt pretty much free to leave it. I did have this debt I had to pay off, and there were days I didn’t much feel like going in and went in anyway because of that economic pressure. But if I’d felt really strongly about it, I would have quit, and found another way to pay that debt. I never had a terrible revulsion against the work or anything; there were just days when I would rather have been doing something else.

Is there anything else you want people to know about your experience of sex work?

Zillions. But for now, I’m going to leave it at three.

1: I’ve had better jobs. I’ve also had worse jobs. I’ve had jobs where I felt more appreciated and less exploited — and I’ve had jobs where I felt less appreciated and more exploited. At the time I was doing nude dancing, I also was working for Ticketmaster as a charge-by-phone drone… and that job was far more exploitative.

2. If you, personally, would not enjoy doing this work… then don’t do it. But don’t assume that I couldn’t really have liked this work, or that there was something wrong with me because I did. Not everyone likes the same things — sexually or otherwise. When you assume that nobody could possibly like this work unless they’re stupid or co-opted or damaged, you’re contributing to the slut-shaming system that treats sex workers as Other — and this contributes to the abuse.

3: If you’re going to have opinions about sex work, you need to start by listening to sex workers. Far too many laws and public policies about sex work get set without ever inviting the input of sex workers. Many of these laws and policies are supposedly in place to protect sex workers from abuse and exploitation… but if you don’t listen to sex workers about what their problems are and how they want them handled, it doesn’t help us. It patronizes us. It treats us as children, incapable of making decisions for ourselves. And the laws and policies will typically hurt us more than they help us.

(BTW, I’ve written more about my experiences as a nude dancer in the anthology I edited, Paying For It: A Guide By Sex Workers for Their Clients. The book includes stories from many other sex workers, about their experiences in many different fields of sex work — and in particular, it includes lots of stories and perspectives on sex workers’ feelings about their customers.)

Now, as promised, here’s my comment policy for this post:

Comments on this post are for current and former sex workers ONLY.

This thread is NOT for debates about the sex industry by people who have never worked in it. If you want to discuss and debate the sex industry, and you’ve never worked in it, there are plenty of other places in the blogosphere to do so. You can even do so here on this blog, in this recent ongoing thread, or in other threads about sex work. This particular space is intended as a space for sex workers to share their experiences, for anyone who is open to hearing about them. It is therefore for current and former sex workers ONLY. If current and former sex workers want to disagree and get into debates here about the sex industry, that is fine. But if you comment in this thread without having worked in the sex industry, your comment will be disemvoweled, and depending on what mood I’m in, you may be banned.

And no, this thread is not for sex work customers. I may create a separate thread for sex work customers to tell their stories and their experiences — but this isn’t it.

Current and former sex workers: If you want to comment anonymously, that’s fine. If you want to use a different handle than the one you normally use, that’s also fine. I don’t normally approve of sock puppetry, but if you have a regular online persona and you don’t want to discuss your experience as sex worker using that handle, that’s fine. Please, however, stick with one handle for the duration of this conversation: don’t post here under multiple handles.

So sex workers, current and former: If you want to tell your stories, I want to hear them! And I hope other people do, too. Your time starts… now!

Click here to read the comments! (Not to be missed)

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