It’s been quite some time since I wrote about my personal relationship with sex work. Our relationship went on for eight years. But a couple of years ago, after I survived an exceptionally dangerous situation I promised myself I would never put myself in, I decided to just be friends with sex work and stop bringing it back into my life and my bedroom. I still believe that the rights of sex workers need to be dramatically improved, but I’m not the right kind of person to engage in it. My motivations for engaging in sex work were, quite simply and without exaggerating, the most dangerous. This journal entry concerns how some of those experiences gave me insight into what dangers sex workers face and how those problems need to be addressed.
Not All Sex Work is Criminalized or Looked Down Upon
One thing that I’ve learned through directly engaging in various kinds of sex work, is that not all sex work is treated the same. In a marked majority of instances where a camera is involved, sex work is not only completely legal, it is also not nearly as marginalized as any other variety. It’s literally celebrated, as people’s bodies are turned into commodities on video and in print, and bartered or sold off for billions of dollars a year. This is the type of sex work I have been involved in the most, the type of sex work through which I was treated the best (though it’s really more a matter of the best of the worst), and the type of sex work that earned me the most money. It was also the easiest to find myself stepping into, because I had a lot of support for doing it and — even more important — encouragement to start doing it and keep at it. I’ve done live webcam “modelling”, erotic photography, and video projects ranging from stripteases to boundary-pushing erotica that polarized audience responses to either begging for more or being utterly disgusted. Because of my video projects (many of which are still found all over the internet if you have the right key words to search with), I’ve even been asked to autograph posters with my image printed on them. But that didn’t make me feel proud — it made me throw it back in the man’s face, saying “Are you fucking kidding me?” I thought it was a joke until he told me, with a completely straight face, that I was one of the most sought-after femme Dommes in the area.
And this is my point, really. Unless the camera is in private, where there are no model releases and no web stores to publish the product in (something I’ve taken the risk of doing alone), people literally look up to you (the character) for engaging in sex work. You can gain national or even international notoriety over time. You can become fucking famous. People will buy you gifts or pay you extra money for fulfilling special requests (especially with a tight timeline), and constantly shower you with positive affirmation and affection. It’s as if you’re a celebrity because you took your clothes off in front of a camera and said a few choice lines. Well… That is, right before either a phallic object or a human body part entered one of your orifices. But there’s a price to pay for all this money and attention: your privacy is gone, or at least, it’s gone until you’ve had a couple years since the last time you did a shoot. How can I be certain my privacy was gone? Let me paint you a portrait of my life, at the moment I fully realized this.
You’ve done a few erotic video shoots, and held your ground on a very important boundary you told yourself a long time ago that you’d never cross. You’ve also been doing it with a heavy amount of make-up and with wigs of unnatural colours, because one in particular has become your trademark look. Your friends hardly even recognize you in stills, so you’re confident that the videos aren’t going to cause you any unwanted attention from stalkers. It’s been a few months and you haven’t had a job or a shoot for a while, so you enroll in a 6-month course that will give you credentials to pick up a new career. A couple months after you finish, you’re holding a copy of your diploma and working at the highest-paying 9-to-5 job you’ve ever had in your life. A man walks in one day who, while you’re busy fulfilling your duties, makes a remark to you about leather that makes your heart start pounding in your chest. Not only has he recognized you, but if you don’t handle this like he just handed you the Gnostic Gospels themselves, you’re going to out yourself in front of a medical doctor, his technician, three other co-workers, and an entire waiting room full of patients (and their family members) who are watching every thing you’re doing. Your privacy is gone.
I had narrowly avoided outing myself in all the wrong ways for a couple of years while I was doing those video shoots. I’m not a very good liar because I believe with the very core of my being that it is disrespecting myself and everyone I know to try to deceive another person instead of being honest, even if it means saying “I’m not comfortable disclosing that,” or “That’s too personal.” But I had to say something in that job interview (and many others) when I was being asked to account for all the time I had spent not working. So I said I was modelling, because it was true (I did the legit look-how-pretty stuff as well as erotica). But this disclosure also invites a penetrating type of speculation into one’s lifestyle and personal choices. While not as obvious a loss of privacy as being nearly-outed at the workplace (which I’m fairly confident caused me to lose any opportunity to remain on staff part-time after my temp contract was complete), it’s still a significant loss of privacy. One I learned, simply doesn’t factor into sex work where you are in full control of who knows about it.
Out of Sight, Out of Jail — Not Out of Danger
A lot of sex work is done out of the invasive watchful eye of the vehemently-disapproving public. Obviously, for many people, lack of privacy is not an option. Many sex workers have children or other jobs that they would lose if they were outed, not to mention housing. As long as no one reports a suspected parlour (of any type), no one gets arrested, and it carries on without calling attention to itself. I have known multiple men and women (and still know a few) who work independently as rather successful sex workers out of their own homes. It’s how they pay the rent and keep themselves (and their children) clothed and well-fed. One of them was the guy I did most of my video work with, and he was paying for his daughter’s post-secondary education with it, last I heard anything about it. Some prefer to do out-calls (i.e., do the work either in pre-arranged hotel rooms or client’s homes). And once again, I’ve even done it myself (out-calls and in-calls). As far as my experiences of sex work go, these were the safest (except for those clients who were never going to be safe no matter what the circumstances). Though I wasn’t exactly treated like I was the queen of Egypt, I wasn’t ripped off (except during my most dangerous out-call), I got paid what I asked for, I did no more than exactly what I said I was there to do, and I had a sense of privacy that my other sex work didn’t leave me with. But there were harmful side effects in my case that I don’t hear other people talking about — again, I attribute this to healthier motivations than my own.
First of all, I had to put up with a lot of fucking whining. If you are working in a niche like professional domination, as I was for some time, no one agrees to what you’re asking without whining about it or debating it first. I also had to spend an exorbitant amount of time, energy, and effort screening my potential clients for my own safety, because I needed to be sure that they had no expectations of penetrative or oral sex with me. There are smart ways of screening and there are desperately unsafe ways of screening, and I wasn’t particularly smart. I frequently took enormous risks with my own safety without even realizing it. This behaviour revealed to my clients, who were often significantly more experienced than I am, that I wasn’t being particularly smart. As a result, the men I worked with frequently tried to take advantage of my lack of smart by attempting to re-negotiate the terms of what we agreed to, either once I arrived or in the middle of what we were doing. And because I was already in the practice of taking more risks than I ought to, and engaging in this type of work from self-harming motivations, I often found myself unable to assertively say no. This wasted an enormous amount of my time once I was on the clock, which meant I was paid less than if they had just treated me with respect. That frequently left me feeling lower than shit, no matter how much money I had in my pockets afterwards.
But another important factor in my experience was that I didn’t talk to anyone else about what I was doing. There are going rates for things like a massage with a “happy ending” or an hour with a cruel bitch dominatrix who refuses to let you cum in front of her. But if you’re trying to keep the whole business between you and the person paying for your time, they have power over you. Many aren’t even slightly afraid of wielding that power to manipulate you into doing things that more confident, assertive, or safety-mindful sex workers will simply charge extra for (if they don’t show their shitty clients the door first, and/or tell them to come back when they have more respect). This is one of the hidden social effects of criminalizing sex work: it and those who engage in it are forced to the fringes of society, where predatory and manipulative people are literally waiting to exploit anyone who’s new in the neighbourhood. So, for example, when an experienced sex worker showed a particular someone where the exit was by jacking her prices so high that he couldn’t return for her services (I’m sure she did this just for him), he found me. And though he wanted me to play the role of being in charge and on top, my physical safety depended entirely on him — and I still didn’t tell anyone what I was doing or where I was going.
What Can We Learn From Sex Workers Who Died Trying To Tell Us?
The laws in North America are currently written so as to conspire against sex workers in the event that anything happens to them, such as being harassed, stalked, battered, raped or even ripped off. A sex worker is legally permitted to engage in hir chosen line of work — but it is not legal to for either party to solicit; for either party to openly negotiate before say, a survival sex worker steps into a client’s vehicle; or for a sex worker to live off the avails of sex work (thus criminalizing the entire purpose of engaging in it, especially for the most at-risk population: survival sex workers). As a person with a long history of extremely lucky misses and an entire other long history of extremely unfortunate tragedies, there was nowhere I could turn to report or share my experiences when I had narrowly avoided being seriously hurt by someone. And there was nowhere I could turn to report or share my experiences even when I had been seriously hurt by someone. I couldn’t tell the police what I was doing because I would either be thrown in a holding cell or laughed out of the detachment (the latter actually happened to a sex worker who had jumped out of serial killer Robert Pickton’s car while he was driving, immediately after he confessed to her how many women he had murdered on the very farm he was driving to).
There was no network where I could express that a particular person was behaving dangerously, not listening to me when I asserted my boundaries, or attempting to re-negotiate and low-ball me for my service. I couldn’t get legal work because it’s illegal. I couldn’t work for an escort agency because they legally couldn’t tell me what I should actually anticipate concerning my responsibilities. And I couldn’t risk working for a pimp because I have enough mental health problems without throwing battery and drugs into the cocktail in exchange for the distant assurance that my perpetrator’s ass would be handed to him with brass knuckles if I were beaten or raped. Of course, that would also be just one more barrier in my way, if I felt the need to report to police. And I couldn’t share any of my experiences with the people who were close to me, because I had to keep it all secret. The stigma against sex work is so pervasive, I felt that even a peep about what I was doing could result in my entire support network being torn away from me (and sure enough, even though I haven’t engaged in sex work in quite some time now, that’s exactly what happened when I finally came out with the worst of it in my time of most acute need). And what would happen if I were to just disappear? I would be forgotten about or dismissed — as the whole world learned (all over again) when the Missing Women’s Inquiry opened up.
Sex workers need safe spaces to conduct their business. At present, the best that is offered to them still carries a high risk of sexually transmitted infections in front of a camera (despite all the so-called regulations in the erotica industry, actors still transmit and receive HIV infections and other initially asymptomatic infections through productions that require them to perform without using condoms). And the worst is not just a battle with environmental elements, but also with police, pimps, drug dealers, addiction, social stigma, sexually sadistic predators, and the risk of STI transmission. In between these two polar opposites we find strippers, escorts, professional Dominatrices and submissives, and sex workers flying solo between carefully planned in-calls and out-calls. And of course none of this is even a gesture toward the spiritual and emotional drain that individual sex workers experience — and individual mileage may vary.
I believe in fully legalizing all forms of sex work between consenting adults (excluding human trafficking for the express purpose of coerced sex work, because these are clearly not the subjects of consensual activity). Allowing sex workers to operate with insurance, business licenses, secure locations, and industry self-policing that doesn’t have to fly under the radar of police, would dramatically improve the sustainability of individual lives as they move in and out of the industry. Sex workers should be able to pay taxes on their income so that this money could be redirected to address highly taxing social issues such as drug rehab, homelessness, and rape relief. If we’ve learned anything at all from the Missing Women’s Inquiry and the serial murder spree of Robert Pickton, it should be that no matter what the risks — jail time, being beaten, being raped, being killed — there will still be people who have no other choice but to face those risks and step into a stranger’s car. Criminalizing all aspects of the behaviour does nothing to stop it from happening, and in fact, only puts sex workers at even more enormous risk of harm. Making it illegal to openly negotiate the terms of service before putting one’s body at risk, or to live off of the avails of sex work, isn’t protecting society’s most vulnerable. There is a list 49 victims (and untold thousands of surviving family members, friends, and former clients) that tells us what the cost of criminalization is.
When will our governments ever get the message?