Sex Workers Talk About the Lies They Tell Their Loved Ones
The best insurance against being caught in a lie is that often, loved ones don't want unpleasant facts.
For a couple years, I told my dad I worked as a caterer. I had been a line cook until I started escorting, so the story fit my skill set and random hours, as well as my ability to take off for month-long road trips at will. He worked in food when he was younger; we had it in common. Periodically I slipped into the macho, aggrieved tones I learned in restaurants and ranted about the imaginary fuck-ups of my coworkers.
If you need to shut down the curious, bore people with hostility. Instant eye glaze.
The lie seemed to fly for a while, kind of. But I wasn't sleep deprived, over-worked, or irritable enough. The sheet-tray scars on my forearms lightened and disappeared. Questions became pointed, so I invented extravagant weddings, and then was promoted to manager, at which point I began doing "on-site estimates."
That story was thin. I knew it.
I hoped it was enough for my dad that I was happy and had no plans to move home to his basement. A fragile economy was sending his friends' kids back to the nest in droves. Sex work isn't completely recession-proof, but it's close enough.
What ruined the lie was money, of course. My dad is not naive—caterers don't live in Manhattan, unless the passed hors d'oeuvres are blow. I realized that we were both lying; me about what I was doing, he that he didn't think I was full of shit.
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What lies do people tell if they work in the sex industry? For starters, it depends on exactly what they do. An independent escort's schedule is irregular, but not rigid. I spend perhaps a third of my working hours with clients, and must average my fee with the time I spend on my laptop generating traffic, churning Twitter, running reference checks, and writing lighthearted, kissy notes to regulars. Most appointments are in the afternoon or early evening.
An escort named Jane (I've changed the names of everyone in this story) tells everyone she's a real estate agent. It fits all the data, and also explains why her income is variable. That's a good story, but can get messy fast.
"Two years ago, my aunt set me up on a blind date, and it was after I said yes that she told me maybe he could get me a job at his firm," she told me. "I suddenly 'met someone at the gym.'"
Agency escorts have a different set of challenges, mostly surrounding the "call on" system. When an escort calls on at an agency, it means that they are dressed and ready to work; if they get a booking, they pledge to arrive to the call within an agreed-upon amount of time. Large NYC agencies promise anywhere in Manhattan in half an hour. It's not a Domino's-style guarantee—nothing is free if she gets there in 31 minutes. Hanging out at home in Bay Ridge makes things tricky, so the lie has to cover leaving the house in the early evening wearing full makeup, with a variable return.
Karen, who escorted her way through an accounting degree, told her Eastern European family that she was a party promoter. She spent most of her wait time in clubs, so it was close to the truth.
On work nights, Lauren, another agency escort, said goodbye to her four college roommates and left their tiny apartment in the South Slope on her way to a job "cleaning office buildings." Barefaced in leggings with a backpack, she took the train to a coworker's Chinatown apartment. They kept each other company while they got ready and waited for their phones to ring.
It was imperfect, but it worked for a while. "I didn't like lying to them, and the few times that I got a late party call I had to make up insane stories," she told me. "Once, I told them that I slept with my boss in his office. It seemed weird that that was OK, but the truth wasn't."
Strippers have a different set of challenges. The hours are set, and you can wear whatever you want on your commute, but arriving home at 5 or 6 AM—tired, starving, and in need of a shower—requires a specialized fib. Miranda told dates that she worked as a bartender, which did the trick if she kept it casual. When a relationship turned serious, though, her girlfriend wanted to visit her at work. "I panicked—I thought seriously about getting a bartending job, but I couldn't think of how to backdate it," she said. Her solution was to say she'd been fired and immediately hired somewhere else, and so should wait a while before receiving visitors. She was caught when she tried the same story a second time, and confessed.
Predictably, the job wasn't as big an issue as the lie.
Jobs that have a site and daytime hours make it easier. Jill works in a dominatrix parlor, and her hours are ten to six, Monday through Friday. Equipment is stored at the Midtown studio, which has a shower and wi-fi. She leaves the house at 9:30 and is home at 6:30. Her babysitter thinks she works in HR.
"I should make up something else; I don't know what HR people do," she said. "But I don't think anybody does. No one asks."
Lily goes to school three days a week and works two days in a massage parlor. She does homework on breaks. "Most of my friends know, but if they don't, there are three computer labs, and one of them is in a basement and has no reception," she told me. "I don't worry about it."
The best insurance against being caught in a lie is that often, loved ones don't want to know unpleasant facts.
Betty posted an ad on Seeking Arrangement when she was 21. She wasn't sure how to explain the cash and gifts she received from her so-called sugar daddies, but found intricate subterfuge unnecessary.
"I told my mom that I had won my phone on the radio, that I got free upgrades all the time, that my rent was half what it is. She didn't want to know," she explained.
Her family's ignorance began to seem willful. "I started pushing it into her face a little bit, but she didn't want to know anything. Sometimes I want to tell her, [but] I make it easier for them."
If lies can make it easier for everyone, the lack thereof can do the opposite. As Dan, who is in his 30s now but escorted a decade ago, recalled, "I never told my parents anything about how I was supporting myself, but I made it through four years of school. It hurt that they didn't ask. Did they know? Or did they manage not think about it?"
After a year at my fake catering gig, I asked myself why I was lying. Aside from the occasional shame hiccup (cue comments section!), I was not conflicted about my job. My friends were supportive, I was saving money, and I had unlocked the dubious achievement of having anxiety about other, far more nebbishy concerns. Both parents commented on how well I seemed; it gnawed at me to keep the lie going.
Concealment presumes that sex work is fundamentally bad or wrong, and it was believing otherwise that had led to my even keel. What kept me from disclosure was the idea that my dad wouldn't know how to process something that carries intense stigma. If I told him, he might shove it into the brain box where people leave upsetting information and let it rot, pushing us apart from each other.
I didn't feel I had a right to drop something so radioactive into his life.
He is pushy, and I am not good at drinking, so it eventually came out. The conversation went far, far better than I expected. It's been three weeks now since I've lied to anyone, and fuck it, it feels amazing.
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