How to Survive the Uber Economy, According to a Former Sex Worker
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How to Survive the Uber Economy, According to a Former Sex Worker

The gig economy is nothing new. In fact, it’s very, very old—dating back to what many of us know as the world’s oldest profession.
September 30, 2015, 3:00pm

Silicon Valley is chock full of companies eager tell you just how dramatically their product is going to change your life. Whether it's Netflix and YouTube changing the way we think of TV or Soylent changing how (and what) we think of food, everyone's on the path to remake the world in their image. And now a new breed of businesses want to take the process one step further, not just making our lives easier through apps, but also with dramatically transforming the way business itself is done. Uber, Handy, and TaskRabbit use a network of independent contractors to peddle their wares, and in the process, they've promised to move us all into a "gig economy," where everyone's a free agent calling the shots in their own career.

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But don't let the smoke, mirrors, and GPS enabled apps fool you: the gig economy is nothing new. In fact, it's very, very old—dating back to what many of us know as the world's oldest profession.

Since the early days of the internet, sex workers have been using the web to connect with clients and book sessions, with sites like RentBoy and Eros getting them jobs long before Uber launched its first fleet. It may seem like a stretch to compare Handy cleaners to handy sellers, but just in case we're all destined to become cogs in the great gig economy, it seemed prudent to get some advice from a practitioner of one of the world's oldest gigs.

I reached out to escort-turned-freelance writer Charlotte Shane to learn more about what sex work taught her about being an independent contractors, and how those lessons might apply to those of us working in more mainstream gigs.

Set your prices—and stick with them. In her sex work days, Shane was incredibly uncompromising about her rates. She knew what her time and services were worth to her, and she stuck by that, refusing to offer specials or discounts, even if it meant losing out on work. When men tried to cajole her into offering them a special deal, she'd ignore them. "[My] response was basically, 'LOL. I'm not going to have this conversation," Shane says. If someone couldn't pay her rate, it wasn't worth giving them access to her body, especially since there was usually someone else more than willing to meet her price.

The confidence Shane developed denying her sexual services to cheaper clientele has served her well in her new career. "Even if an editor does not have the ability to offer me more than a few hundred dollars for something, I can still say, 'That's just simply not enough money.' And it doesn't become a judgment on what they think about me, or what they think my writing's worth, but I can say, 'It's ridiculous that you think I should write a piece like that for that amount of money,'" she says. Shane doesn't have to have a huge inner dialogue about the value of her work. She knows her worth, and moves on when editors can't meet it.

"When I was an escort, I really never stopped advertising, even though I had plenty of work."

Mixing business and pleasure can be great for business. Shane's marketing strategy has shifted a bit since she changed careers. Where once she relied on paid ads to alert clients to her services, now she's more focused on social media promotion. But one thing that hasn't changed? The value of cultivating good relationships and genuine friendships with work colleagues. "When you cultivate friendships with other workers, they might recommend you to clients… or they might get you to do a double with them," Shane offers. Granted, work friendships probably won't result in a threeway for most of us, but they're likely to lead to other lucrative opportunities.

Know that a sure thing isn't always sure—and always be ready to line up something new. The intimacy of sex work can make it easy to confuse a brief engagement with something more long term (in fact, that's kind of the point). A savvy escort needs to remember that even a spectacular session won't necessarily turn a first timer into a regular, and that the most loyal regular might drop off of the map for a number of reasons. Mainstream independent contractors are in a similar boat: A job, no matter how well done, might only be a one time thing; and your steadiest source of work might go out of business or shift their focus to something that doesn't involve paying you.

For both groups, though, the solution is ultimately the same: always be on the lookout for new opportunities, no matter how secure your current ones might seem. As Shane puts it, "When I was an escort, I really never stopped advertising, even though I had plenty of work. I always wanted to be on people's radar, and be able to turn people down"—and to be able to pick up new work should current gigs fall through.

Make sure your clients see you as more than just a service provider. In her work as an escort, Shane made sure to keep in touch with her clients, and not just to ask when they wanted to book her again. "I stayed in contact with clients, emailed them a bunch," Shane says, noting that those exchanges in between sessions often took a lot of work. In her new career, she's less likely to email an editor out of the blue to see how they're doing, but still recognizes that she's more likely to get ahead with editors who like her for more than just her work.

But know the difference between your work life and your personal life. For sex workers, there's a very easy way to differentiate between work colleagues and actual friends: whether or not they know your legal name.

"If you told another escort your real name, it was a gesture of, 'I trust you, I want us to be real friends, not just people who know each other and occasionally work together,'" says Shane. "It's nice, in a way, to have such a handy gesture that indicates all that."

Mainstream freelancing doesn't always offer such a clear distinction, which Shane feels leads to a lot of blurred boundaries. When your work life extends everywhere, it can be easy to wind up crying about your boyfriend to someone who's really more of a work colleague than an actual friend.

Using an entirely different name with work colleagues is probably too extreme a solution for most , but it's still important to keep track of who's a work friend and who's a real friend, and make sure you're only getting really personal with members of the latter group.