I knew that starting graduate school would change my lifestyle, but I never predicted I’d be spending a Sunday evening standing with my legs open over a man’s face, aiming my urine into his mouth. But here I was, a queer women’s studies major and sex-critical feminist who wrote countless undergrad papers critiquing the commodification of women’s bodies, doing sex work. How the hell did that happen?
Before last year, I usually viewed sex workers as fitting into one of two categories: someone driven to sex work by desperation, lacking any other “choice,” or a wealthy white liberal-arts college graduate who willingly chose sex work in order to feel “empowered” and more in touch with her sexuality, while failing to stand up for sex workers with less privilege. My own position as a sex-critical feminist made me further distanced from the prospect of entering sex work. I firmly believe in everyone’s right to do whatever gets them off as long as it’s consensual, but am also highly critical of the ways in which pre-existing cultural power dynamics shape what we view as “sexy” and what constitutes “sexual behavior,” particularly in regards to the conflation of penetration with sex.
However, graduating college and entering the workforce forced me to re-examine my definitions of “choice” and “exploitation.” I spent three years working entry-level jobs in a notoriously underpaid field, usually having a granola bar for dinner and worrying every minute about money. Although I had accepted these jobs, I felt exploited for using my brainpower to copy and paste text and do other “grunt work” all day, five days a week, for hardly above the minimum wage and no recognition or hope of promotion. When I began a full-time graduate program, I had no way to work part-time on top of my 9-5 M-F school schedule, due to balancing school with having a chronic illness.
The first things that surprised me, and what I believe most needs to be demystified about sex work, were the wide variety of jobs that count as sex work, and how boring they usually are. Sex work is more diverse than “streetwalking” and often does not involve penetration, or even physical contact in the case of web camming or operating a phone sex line. Many forms of sex work that are hardly discussed in the mainstream, such as erotic massage, erotic wrestling, private lap dancing, foot fetish work, domming, and sugaring, are among the most common types. As for the tedium: arranging dates with clients is almost identical to online dating, with the constant cancellations, the men’s refusals to follow up, and the annoying insistence on chatting endlessly before setting a meeting. Through SA, I found my first client, the aforementioned masochist who liked golden showers, spanking, and other forms of humiliation. I found it easier than expected to slip into the role of dominatrix; in a way, it was cathartic to take out my socialist, feminist rage onto the perpetrators. However, despite its explicitly transactional setup, the majority of men on SA delusionally view it as a “real” dating site, looking for love, and, of course, sex. While I found some fetish-seeking clients through SA, my inability to perform intercourse with clients (my chronic illness causes intense bladder and pelvic pain, which makes intercourse excruciating), limited my chances at making money.
My new career took a positive turn in December, when I received a message on SA from a man who runs a private lap-dancing club who asked if I was interested in working for him. After speaking with him on the phone, extensive Googling, and visiting the club made me feel safe, I began dancing multiple nights a week over winter break, and continue to do so, in addition to working at parties that cater to men with foot fetishes. Does grinding my vagina over a man’s (clothed) erection feel empowering? Not at all. But does doing the bare minimum of moving my hips and looking pretty, and then depositing a few hundred dollars into my bank account feel great? Hell yes.
Becoming a sex worker made me realize the extent to which I had always felt exploited as a worker, sometimes more so in an office than when having a man pay me $20 to lick my feet for ten minutes. As someone whose political beliefs lean towards socialism, I feel that most work under capitalism, and the way in which work is structured and is often used to define us, is inherently exploitative. We are encouraged to capitalize on our assets to make money. For a limited time, I possess the assets of youth and beauty, and I believe that I and other sex workers have as much of a right to do so as someone who capitalizes on their skills or connections to get a job.
Is the sex industry a utopia? Far from it— the beauty standards that permeate American society also infect the industry, and I often reflect on how my whiteness, thinness, and educational privilege have impacted my perceived desirability. I can’t tell you how many SA profiles say something to the effect of “I’m not racist, just only into white girls,” how many times a man has paid me extra for “being so educated; you’re not like the other girls,” or how many have delighted in wrapping their hands around my waist and calling me “tiny.” There are few women of color employed at the clubs where I work, which is no coincidence.
Sometimes I’ve panicked about only being valued for my body, and have felt like I will lose my sense of identity when I age and my appearance changes. So yes, I frequently feel exploited when doing this work— just as I did in my “straight jobs” when asked to work overtime with no extra pay, or when I had a boss who made me so afraid to come to work that I couldn’t sleep, or when a date paid for my dinner and expected a blow job in return. Understanding sex work made me understand the extent to which all relationships are transactional in a capitalist society. So don’t blame sex work for being exploitative: blame our current labor system.
Photo of Vivre Sa Vie by Criterion Collection, 2010.