Watching my back.
I once delivered a guest talk at my university in which I told the audience that I was a former sex worker. Student media took photos and penned an article about it. People remarked on my ‘courage.’
I confess that my interests were selfish.
I framed the talk as a teachable moment about complex personal journeys and finding hope. Truthfully, I told people so that nobody else could out me. So that nobody could blackmail me with the knowledge. At the time, I still wanted to work at that university after graduation and I needed to cover my ass. I was terrified.
When I was fresh out of undergrad and my CV was lighter than my peers, I scrambled for skills and experience to put on it. I reframed taking far too many nudes and posting them online for money as internet-mediated sales experience. I hoped that interviewers would never ask why this work experience never corresponded to any of my listed employment.
Neuroscientist Dr. Nicole Prause says, “I believe the open advocacy for violence against sex workers in the USA would be a major barrier to employment.” I’m inclined to agree. My former sex worker friends live in fear of exposure or blackmail. Some were abused by their partners after the reveal. The violence driven by sex work stigmatization doesn’t leave us when we stop working. “Sex worker” is an indelible label that can have major consequences down the line.
Sex workers are everywhere, you know.
People often don’t think critically about the quip that sex work is the ‘oldest profession’. We’ve been around for a long time. Our job title often conjures up imagery of ‘bad’ women standing on street corners or working out of forever ‘seedy’ establishments.
Sex work used to mean in-person work of a sexual variety: prostitution, pro-domination, pro-submission. This definition broadened with technology: Phone sex lines. Cam performers. OnlyFans. I’m part of the generation weaned on internet pornography and that knowledge shaped my approach to the job. The most common response I got from friends when I told them was a variation of, “I never thought it would be you.” Supportive as they were, I caught the unspoken part: you don’t look like a sex worker.
Sex work is rarely seen as prestigious. I took home a good income compared to the hours I worked, and that’s what draws new people to the profession: the promise of easy money via OnlyFans or the sugar baby lifestyle.
I understand the allure, especially if someone lacks the means to explore alternatives due to financial circumstances, lack of qualifications, or disability. Women of color and trans women disproportionately enter sex work under financial pressure and carry major bodily and psychological risks for it. The pattern of marginalized women being pushed toward risky and ‘undesirable’ work holds strong here, and those at the bottom are transgender and disabled – some of society’s most pressured groups.
We deserve more than stigma and marginalization
I wasn’t a survival sex worker. I operated with a certain amount of privilege, mostly sacrificing my mental health and risk for an income. But that doesn’t mean the industry, and how society treats people who work in the industry, doesn’t carry implicit danger. We experience difficulties paying taxes, securing housing, switching jobs, and attaining healthcare due to the criminalization and stigma attached to our work.
Likewise, we seldom have employment rights or union representation that protect other workers, due to the stigma and illegality of much of our work. Sex workers who migrate are subject to discrimination by immigration authorities, even if they are not doing sex work in the nations they move to. Sometimes, this discrimination occurs at the behest of laws created to ‘protect’ people from trafficking. Continuous discrimination (legal and social) inhibits our ability to switch to other work, resulting in sex work re-entry that re-exposes us to stress, criminality, and violence.
At the societal level, the criminalization and stigmatization of sex work expose sex workers to crime, isolation, and vulnerability. This vulnerability takes on different shapes worldwide but is ever-prevalent. In the UK, sex workers cannot operate or reside together lest they run afoul of brothel laws, increasing the risk and costs of their work. Until recently in California, sex workers (and people mistaken for sex workers by police) could be profiled and sanctioned under loitering laws.
Sex workers exhibit higher rates of substance use than the general population, due to stress and exposure to narcotics. My experience is nowhere near the same as someone selling sex out of necessity, or even meeting clients in person, but every form of sex work bears some of the cumulative stress that pushes us to the margins of society.
Journalist and writer Emme Witt noted the experiences of people with disabilities, saying “…Certain health and mental issues that may preclude a woman’s ability to get another job.” Her definition of disability encompasses many different impairments that prevent ‘typical’ function. She ends it with pragmatics, saying, “If a woman has autism and ADHD or has chronic depression she may find it hard to hold down a 9-5, but she can get it together enough to do an hour-long session with a client for the same money.”
Confronting my internalized whorephobia
My most memorable lesson from the profession was that none of us really “look like sex workers” – it actually made it harder to see myself as one. I didn’t want to confront the stigma inside me. I rationalized my decisions. It doesn’t count as sex work because I enjoyed some of it. Sex work was supposed to be horrible. Then, it didn’t count because there was no money involved. I just accepted “gifts” from “suitors.” When money got involved, the goalposts slipped again. It didn’t count because I wasn’t having sex with anyone. It hurt when I came to terms with my job title. It would be longer still before I realized that the pain wasn’t due to my wrongdoing. I was feeling the societal stigmas against sex workers bubble up inside me, some of which I perpetuated.
It did count.
All of it counts as sex work. Sex work is true and valid when there’s no in-person sex act. It meets the definition when money isn’t involved. The first sex worker was surely not paid in dollars. It can even be enjoyable – not every workday is unbearably awful. And none of us ‘look like’ sex workers all the time. We look like men. We look like weedy university students. We look like your friends, like the woman who serves your coffee, like the waiter who brings your lunch. Open your eyes and you won’t see us because we look like everyone else.
Some things can’t be deleted.
After I left the adult industry, the stigma of my past work still accompanied me in the form of anxiety. Someone could blackmail me. Maybe my content would leak accidentally. At best, being outed as a former sex worker would be super awkward, and at worst, super dangerous. I made my departure from the industry ‘official’ by deleting everything I could. I’m not naive – I know I can’t reach into people’s hard drives and memories.
I knew that I had to set up contingencies in case someone found out. Deleting everything I could was a defensive foundation. I practiced my lines. If I was ever called into that dreaded meeting, I would tell the truth and also make it clear, “I left that line of work a long time ago and removed any trace I could. Anything that still exists is there without my consent.” And I hoped that would be enough.
Even as I concocted this plan, it didn’t feel right. It reeked of shame and stigma against myself. It threw the sex worker part of me under the bus and marketed myself as “clean.” The thought of sitting in a meeting and defensively discarding my past self was dehumanizing.
Telling a group of my university’s students and staff via PowerPoint (of all things) about my past work was far harder. It was also an assertion that I won’t expunge a part of myself for normalcy. It also prevents someone else from seizing my story and wielding it against me. That story can be wielded in many ways.
Dr. Treena Orchard, an anthropologist, lists it: “…stigma, ostracisation, housing, employment, education. If people have a criminal record related to sex work and allied activities, that is a significant barrier to employment. Their past involvement in the trade, if known, can also be used against them when applying for housing as well as education given the lingering stigma associated with sex work.” Reading her comment stung a bit – not because she was incorrect – but because I see the truth in her statement. I saw myself in it. I saw the risks that I, and other sex workers face, confirmed.
Recovery comes in unexpected ways.
My recovery wasn’t just about dealing with the phantoms of frayed self-esteem and an eating disorder – remnants of my time in the industry. My sense of self had been frayed under the hungry eyes of clients, fans, and followers.
I see the same pattern in my agency model friends; a lack of bodily agency caused by the threat of losing their income. Emme Witt told Cashmere, “Really, the main selling point of sex work is it’s a lot of money to be earned quickly. Therefore, it makes sense that women who are marginalized and disenfranchised because of racism, classism, capitalism, and neo-colonialism would turn to sex work.”
I think there’s a lot of truth to the statement. Given the extraordinary hostility toward sex workers we are all socialized into, it’s no surprise that I’ve never met a sex worker who primarily started for positive self-esteem or empowerment reasons. Collen Clark, a lawyer, echoes the sentiment, adding that “There are plenty of motivations why people turn to the sex trade. According to a 2021 study, most sex workers enter the industry due to financial reasons. Voluntary sex workers often belong to a structurally vulnerable population, which is characterized by critical food and housing insecurity.”
Every sex worker I’ve ever read said they started for the promise of money and discovered any other advantages along the way. It’s a rare person who enters sex work out of a passion for their work like so many teachers, nurses, and mechanics. We enter for the income and are forced to face the fallout for the very rational decision of keeping ourselves afloat. The industry fundamentally changed the way I valued myself. It made me beholden to income in ways non-sexual work didn’t. I, and society, attached a monetary value to my appearance.
Years after leaving adult content creation, I still post nude photos of myself online. For free.
I find this paradoxically liberating. It divorces my appearance from money, and people are seeing my body solely because I’m interested in showing it. When I was working, I was puzzled by fellow sex workers who said that they genuinely enjoyed what they did.
I always felt exposed and vulnerable to an online audience that was over-eager at best, and emotionally harmful at worst. I understand their perspective now – it comes from a place of agency. They had tools that gave them more agency: larger paychecks, fewer side commitments, and great resilience.
For as long as my self-image and health were tied to income, I did not have the agency – the freedom – to present my nude self for my own joy. Now absent of the need for income, my agency is elevated to the fore and my happiness is prioritized. Rather than lending my beauty to strangers, I’ve reclaimed it for its rightful owner.
My few years in online sex work mostly made me realize that the profession didn’t suit me. I’m fortunate to be able to leave it behind – many don’t have that option. I walked away with an eating disorder, lasting anxieties about my future, and a host of self-esteem issues. Some would consider that a lucky outcome, citing other forms of violence and bias against sex workers, but I refuse to accept such low standards for people working in the “oldest profession.”
It’s 2023 and sex work still lingers at the margins of respectability and dignity. On this, Collen notes that “Leaving sex work can also be difficult due to multi-traumatic challenges, such as physical and mental health, addiction, housing issues… People who exit the industry often face barriers to economic stability, because they are often stigmatized, causing them to have limited access to housing, employment, and even education.”
I think I’ve moved past the shame and stigma that I carried against myself. The advocate part of me now shields the shameful part of me. I want to shout out, rather than be silent. I am protected by a warm relationship and wonderful friends. I’m focused on restoration: restoring a body hurt by its past, and restoring self-esteem damaged by an industry that wrings its workers’ bodies for their sexual value and discards them.
I’m still a bit afraid of what people might think of my past work, but at least now I know that I wasn’t in the wrong.
And if you’ve ever sold sex, and regret it, neither were you.