Out of the last ten years of my life, I have directly engaged in sex work (though sporadically and often through multiple different vectors at once) for eight of them. I was neither physically well, nor mentally/emotionally. Though my direct motivations were largely preconscious, I have begun to become fully conscious of them, due to the self-endangering manner in which I realize I persistently conducted myself through sex work of many kinds. My intent going into it, quite simply, was deep-seated self-hatred and a silent death wish. This facet of my history is in my reflection in the mirror. Especially now, as it creeps into my dreams, nightmares, and waking hours in full force.
I have been told that I’m haunted. The truth is that a lot of things haunt me. But if there is anything I don’t really tell anyone about, it’s the sex work I’ve done. I make no efforts to hide the fact that I am a former sex worker, mainly because anyone can find out all about part of it if they have the right key words to punch into a Google search. But I don’t often inject this aspect of my experience into discourse, because it is a very painful part of my history that I often have doubts anyone would believe. I went through this with respect to my experience of incest as well, but have brought myself to the point of disclosing when it’s relevant to do so, in large part due to an important essay I wrote for an anthropology course on sex and gender — I also disclosed about my experience of incest for the first time in that essay. Now it’s been two years, and my reasons for being ashamed and afraid of disclosing are gone. I’ve disowned and cut off all ties to my entire biological family, I’ve cut off all ties to people I’ve previously been in romantic/sexual relationships with but who I didn’t trust enough to be fully honest about my history (or about my needs; especially when I turned to sex work to answer them instead of my partner), and I’ve become apathetic towards anyone who cuts their ties to me as a result of what I have to say. So here it goes.
Low Self-Esteem & Modelling
Modelling often became a form of sex work. What made me feel good about myself because of how accomplished my image looked when it was achieved with professional lighting and an air brush, also offered me pay if I showed a little more of myself. And a little more pay if I was intimate with myself. And a lot more if I agreed to being gratified by someone else. And getting paid to give myself or receive sexual pleasure? Yeah. That made me feel good about myself too. Until it didn’t. But that wasn’t for a while, at least. None of this happened overnight. In fact, it started years before it turned into what it became. It started with a newspaper ad, in fact, and the first time I stepped in front of the camera was the first time I was homeless. I received so much high praise and encouragement, not only from the two photographers who spent an evening shooting images of me, but also from many of the survival sex workers I was living with in the downtown homeless shelter for women. I didn’t receive any pay, but I was told that I could start a portfolio with my work, which would more than likely invite offers for paid work. At the time, there were no websites where one could start an online portfolio for free, so I just used a couple of my images for a dating site profile and gave myself a pat on the back for being hot shit.
Then came the point that I had been in the homeless shelter for so long, watching so many women leave, that I was beginning to wonder when and how I would ever make it out. I wound up there because of poverty and an abusive family I couldn’t return to, while a majority of the residents had arrived there because of abusive intimate relationships and/or drug and alcohol addictions. Many of them worked their way out on the streets. I found myself watching a woman from my bed on the third floor, as she stood in the alley between the food bank and the 25-cent peep shows. She stood wearing an ankle-length black leather duster, whipped by an icy wind from every direction, clinging it shut over a black lace teddy and gartered stockings. I watched her for a full ten minutes until she was picked up, and I never saw her on the streets again. This was the first time I thought about sex work — the first time I wondered if that was my only means to survive, and the first time I wondered how desperate I would have to become to bring up the courage to finally do it myself. Somehow, I made a promise to myself that it would never come to that.
I found out a year after the fact that one of the women I was in the shelter with during the time I lived there, had been brutally murdered shortly after I left. The news media was particularly brutal as well, graphically detailing how she was tortured and where she was left — a spectacle — before she was found within hours. I counted myself lucky when I found out, knowing full well how close I was to being that woman. Knowing that my luck would have put me right in the same passenger seat she occupied. In the mean time, I had received an offer that sounded too good to be true, from the personals website where I posted three of my modelling images. A man claiming to represent a fitness wear line wanted to use me in his catalogue. I met him against my better judgment, and sure enough, he wanted to be my sugar daddy, making all sorts of promises to take me all around the world. That was enough to scare me away from trying to model for a full year, as I tried to just live a relatively normal life — by engaging in high-risk, self-abasing behaviours that very easily could have resulted in my death or a devastating viral illness.
False Confidence & Professional Domination
After feeling taken advantage of, terrified for my life, and never so vulnerable as when I found myself sleeping in a tent pitched in the backyard of a condemned house full of meth addicts, I worked up an attitude within myself by telling myself I was going to take charge. I decided to invest in dungeon furniture before I even had a bed to sleep on or my own apartment. I thought to myself, I’ll just do the things I already want to be doing, but I’ll charge $100 an hour for people I would otherwise avoid as playmates. And I was marginally successful at it, quickly attracting my first client. Despite his years of experience and a lack on my part, I was able to give him a better night than he had ever had before. This was just the thing I needed to hear, to convince myself that I was empowered through my behaviours. But when he left, I was busy trying to date someone who I wasn’t completely convinced I could trust not to be judgmental. I wound up choosing him over my client anyway, and before long, I had gotten rid of my dungeon furniture — but not what I put on my body while I was making him cry within minutes of stepping through my front door. And I continued to acquire a wardrobe suited for the job.
Then one of the photographers who had worked with me before contacted me again. He encouraged me, talked me into an even greater false sense of confidence, and we worked together. That turned into more work, and that turned into more advances from complete creeps. But with my enormously boosted sense of false confidence, I started arranging photo shoots with more photographers. When I ended my relationship with the man I chose over my dungeon, I felt no hesitation accepting a one-way plane ticket from a complete stranger 500 miles away. That he was offering to set me up with photo shoots and the opportunity to start being paid for professional domination again merely boosted my confidence even higher. Literally the only people who attempted to discourage me from acting on this decision were my biological family and the boyfriend I had just denounced in a similar capacity, for being too much like my father. I contacted people in my destination, and everyone talked me up about what an up-standing guy I was going to meet when I got off that plane. He kept telling me all sorts of unsolicited oaths about what he would do for me, including fixing my teeth and paying for me to go to school, and I dismissed all of it as a fantasy I’d never see come true (although in the back of my mind, I would always be waiting to see if it did, because that would change my life). I should have taken all of these unsolicited gestures as an indicator of the danger I was subjecting myself to, by accepting that plane ticket. But I didn’t.
Sure enough, I got on that plane, and within a couple of weeks of landing, I was already talking to the man I would wind up shooting domination erotica with for years. As for the person I moved in with when I landed? Definitely not the up-standing individual he had been painted as, and definitely every bit of dangerous as I only realize now I should have been prepared for then. When I said I needed to leave, I was picked up within 48 hours by concerned community members and left no trace of myself in that home. I wound up seeking out a deepening level of trust with the man I shot those domination clips with — mostly because I didn’t feel like I had anyone else I could talk to so openly about what I was experiencing. He shared insights into his own life (and his daughter’s) that made me believe in that friendship. So when our plans for filming started pushing the limits of respectful free speech, I put my trust in him and kissed my privacy (and a few more of my previously held personal boundaries) good-bye. I also picked up professional domination again, this time doing out-calls. Anything I wrote down was in code, I didn’t tell anyone where I was going or who I was going with, and I didn’t arrange safety calls. I realize now that I was putting all the power I had over my own fate into the hands of complete strangers. But I didn’t realize it then, and anyone who knew about what I was doing just kept encouraging me; either with an unending shower of affection and praise, or with their cash.
My attitude, and the conviction that I had some sort of invisible creep-deflecting armour, started to change when I convinced myself that I was a person of high enough quality that I deserved to go to post-secondary. This was largely due to the constant badgering of one of the men I maintained a long-term relationship with, but also because one of my life-long aspirations was to become a doctor (though I didn’t know what kind for a good long time, so I went to school to work for doctors first). This allowed me to initiate a new kind of conversation with my family members — one that revealed to me that my mother somehow got it in her head that when I moved away, she thought I had taken some sort of a time machine that put me on the most notorious streets in the country, where she predicted in her infinite wisdom that I was engaging in survival sex work with a heroin needle hanging out of my arm before I was plucked off the face of the earth and fed to pigs by a man who had been arrested two years before I even boarded that plane. I’d just like to take a moment right here to express thanks to my Mum for being so righteously convinced of both the significant decline in my quality of life and my ability to care for myself as an adult without her to stand by helplessly and watch me (that was sarcasm). I’ve still never even smoked pot, let alone tried or become addicted to other drugs, for the record.
I continued to shoot domination erotica through two of the four years I’ve attended post-secondary. During my short-lived “career” working for doctors, I was actually very nearly outed on the job by a patient while I was measuring his glasses in front of a room full of patients and their family members. And I later outed myself in select circumstances, where it was relevant to express that I have an insider perspective on the world of sex work. It felt good, too. I used my voice to passionately call people on their shit for putting sex workers down or adopting political stances that exposed survival sex workers in particular to even greater harm. At the same time, I started shooting other forms of erotica, convincing myself this was what is referred to as “sex-positive feminism” and that I would finally break into the greater internet erotica field. Instead, I wound up being exploited by scumbags, working without pay, and losing any sort of faith that I would be taken seriously as an erotica model. I tried to do high-paying webcam modelling, and wound up getting ripped off again. And yet, my friends still kept trying to talk me into keeping at it, because they know someone who worked really hard and reaped all the benefits of investing in themselves. Yeah. Sure.
And so I found myself turning to the adult gigs section of craigslist, cruising for opportunities to do a paid in-call within reasonable boundaries. I didn’t want to fuck anyone and “knew” from years of previous experience that I didn’t have to fuck anyone I didn’t “want” to. At least, that is to say that I hadn’t fucked anyone for pay in all those years of playing the parts of porn star and live-action Barbie doll for men who jerked off watching a 20-something in a blue wig step on a 50-something’s balls. I let people videotape me doing the same to them. I dressed up and let people shoot photos of me while I gave myself an orgasm for pay. I did private stripteases after spending an hour giving someone a massage, and let them touch my hip while they finished themselves off. I indulged a man who had a scratching fetish, and took photos afterwards. If someone came to me for a completely platonic backrub, but they wanted me to dress up, I played along. With every fee I collected, I let a little piece of me walk out the door. By the time a particular man contacted me to have weekly hot stone massage, I had already lost any recognition of my right to say no to extra requests from someone like him. He waited until the second week to drop his extra request in my lap, and I indulged him, even when he showed up two hours later than I was expecting him. I also had a romantic partnership at the time, in which I was pressured to engage sexually with a person who entered this relationship with me, bearing the shared understanding that this would never happen between us. And I gave in to him too. I never told him what was going on the rest of the time in that apartment.
Suicidal Sex Work
With all of my confidence, self-esteem, and ability to say no eroded away, I reached the point that all I had left was that self-hatred mentioned at the beginning of this post. That’s where my death wish came from — that’s what drove it up from my unconscious depths to the preconscious. My behaviour started to change in very subtle ways that went unnoticed by all of my friends (which is ultimately what revealed to me later, meant that they were never really engaging with me as a person… they were only interested in my physical presence or not at all). My anxiety could no longer be contained in my day-to-day living, and it crippled me. I stopped being able to voice my need for help, and with no capacity to say no to people who wanted to take more than I was willing to give, I became, in my mind, the woman in the alley between the food bank and the 25-cent peep shows. And I acted on it in the middle of Winter.
I chose my trick. He told me what he wanted. What he expected. I complied. But when he parked his car, he found a way to take away the little bit of confidence I was pretending to have. Then he came into the back seat. He wanted me to feel as powerless as possible before he acted on his share of the evening’s events, which included forcefully entering a part of my body that split my psyche in half, before driving me to an apartment building. He told me to wait while he parked and then dial a suite number that didn’t exist. I tried to phone him at the number he had called me from, but he had forwarded it to a small business that knew nothing of him or the name he had given me. I cried for about twenty minutes, thinking how desperately I just wished I could wash my hands with warm water. By the time I reached a train station, I couldn’t look anyone in the eye any more. It took me nearly an hour and a half to get home that night. I had no gloves to keep my hands warm, and no underwear beneath my dress slacks. I let my thoughts drift constantly to suicidal ideation. For two days I was completely silent except for constant sobbing, and I avoided acknowledging my own reflection. I disclosed what happened to my psychotherapist after I found an open letter about my perpetrator on craigslist, describing a man who has raped and beaten multiple women by holding them down at knife-point or pulling a gun on them. Until my psychotherapist bluntly asked me if I have a death wish, the full magnitude of the danger I had exposed myself to hadn’t even occurred to me for the first time yet. And it took me nearly two years to even hint at what happened to any other person as a result.
Possibly the only thing that shocked me more was how my message was received when I was finally ready to say it in vague terms, which is why it’s taken me longer than an additional six months to finally express my experience in any detail. Rather than taking to heart that I wanted more than ever before in my entire life to make it through the difficult time that had just begun to plague me for the second time in ten years, the first person other than my psychotherapist who I trusted enough to say it to their face — the person who answered me with a genuine offer of help three days after it happened — responded with ice-cold emotional withdrawal. I opened this blog on the second anniversary of my last death bid. The day after I wrote a good-bye letter to the man who turned his back on me when I most needed someone I felt I could trust, who I felt safe with. In the mean time, I’ve found out who my real friends always have been, and I’m grateful for that. I might not know them in that capacity today if so many people hadn’t revealed the real nature of our relationship (or their character) to me this past September. I’m able to cherish the people I have in my life right now. Today and tomorrow. There’s no looking back because I am never going to repeat this history again (and I am confident that my friends now will never let me lose my voice again, either). I have nothing if I have neither my health nor my voice, and I have a lot of help to make sure I keep both.