Prostitute, hooker, sex worker, whore. Sometimes it’s easier to describe the day-to-day minutiae of my job than it is to give it a title: I have sex for money, usually penetrative, frequently with men, and always – at least in my career history – in a brothel. When I tell people what I do for a living, I’m usually faced with a litany of questions. “What’s the kinkiest thing you’ve ever done?” inquired one friend, while a lover was quick to ask, “You’re not forced to do anything, are you?” (My even quicker response was no). But after the queries about hourly rates and celebrity clients and how I manage to stay upright in heels for eight hours, one question remains: “What exactly am I supposed to call you?”
Some of the best advice I’ve ever received has come from inside brothel dressing rooms. Inside those hallowed, nicotine-stained walls, all manner of sex worker wisdom has been passed down to me, from how to keep your make-up perfect for eight hours (a spritz of hairspray straight to the face will do it) to how to get rid of rude clients quickly (turn the air conditioner down – way down). I was about 23 when I received perhaps the most memorable piece of advice, though, from a worker painstakingly applying a pair of false lashes in the mirror next to me: “I’ll tell you something for nothing, sweetheart,” she said, as she leaned in to her reflection. “Never tell a man that this is what you do for money. One day, when you fall in love, keep this completely to yourself. Don’t tell a soul, especially not your boyfriend.” And then she disappeared, a mist of body glitter in her wake.
I didn’t think too much about her advice at first, at the time I was working a lot. But some years later, older and better-adjusted, I found myself looking back on that night and frowning. Despite what God, society, and Melinda Tankard-Reist might say, I don’t believe there is anything wrong with my job. I truly enjoy sex work and I treasure the freedom and opportunities it has granted me. Of all the occupations I could’ve chosen, bringing physical and emotional pleasure to people is surely a better option than, say, cutting down old-growth forests or getting on the payroll of an anti-vaccination lobby group, so why was I keeping myself shut in the proverbial closet? Being in a relationship with someone surely meant being honest with them above all, even if that honesty had the potential to be awkward, challenging, or even scary. So I made a resolution: next time I found myself in a relationship I would be honest, completely, and throw the doors of the sex worker closet wide open.
In the end, it took several bottles of wine split with a girlfriend before I felt brave enough to confess, over text message.
Of course, I’m not the only worker to struggle with the in’s and out’s of outing yourself to a partner. In a world where our jobs are still heavily stigmatised and sometimes criminalised, it’s no surprise that not everyone wants to take the often-risky step of revealing themselves. There are horror stories too numerous to count, of women losing their second jobs, apartments and even children after their work in the sex industry was used against them by a jealous or spiteful lover; and there are documented cases of women facing stalking, threats and even violence as well. Make no mistake, coming out as a sex worker can be – literally – deadly serious.
The first time I ever told a partner, we had been dating for a few months and I had been trying for weeks to summon the courage to tell him that it wasn’t just writing that paid my bills. In the end, it took several bottles of wine split with a girlfriend before I felt brave enough to confess, over text message. His response was quick, and one of total acceptance: I was enormously grateful and apologetic that I had kept the secret from him for so long. He admitted that he had guessed there was something I wasn’t telling him and he had often wondered why I seemed to pay for drinks on our dates using only hundred-dollar notes.
I’m deeply fortunate that I have had nothing but positive experiences when telling partners that I’m a sex worker. Perhaps it’s because I tend to have pretty non-traditional relationships to begin with: I’m openly non-monogamous and I date people of all genders, so maybe the kind of men who readily accept a polyamorous pansexual are the kind to come with a positive attitude about sex work already built-in. One thing I have noticed, though, is that talking about sex work with my partners has always been a two-way street of confessions. One man admitted that he had regularly seen sex workers when he was younger, something that I actually found quite comforting: knowing that he’d had a little peek at my industry, even from the view of a client, meant he hopefully saw the human side of my work rather than the negative stereotype so often seen in movies and television. Another man confessed that I wasn’t the first sex worker he had been in a relationship with, while yet another proudly stated that he had done some volunteer work with a sex worker rights organisation in the past.
By discussing such a personal part of my life with my partners, I had given them the space to have an honest and vulnerable conversation with me, and it often resulted in a renewed sense of trust and intimacy. One man later noted that by spending the evening with him, I was sacrificing the potential of an entire night’s earnings: when he realised my pay rate, he couldn’t help but take it as a compliment.
Though having these kinds of conversations with partners has been difficult, it’s not all nerves and teary confessions. As someone who dates women, sex work has occasionally proven itself to be a great way to meet a partner: let’s just say that advice isn’t the only thing exchanged in the privacy of the brothel dressing room. But that, perhaps, is a story for another time...