Almost without fail when I tell someone I’m a sex worker, they will ask one of a handful of very, very boring questions. Usually the first ones are something to do with numbers. They want to know how many people I’ve slept with, how many people in one night—because hookers, like vampires, only exist under cover of darkness—how much money do I make? What they’re really asking is for a way to quantify exactly how different I am from them—how other am I? The question about money is a way to determine if I’m one of the "good" ones.
The other questions are about what happens “in the room” or sometimes a tone deaf question about my personal sex life which usually amounts to a virtual stranger conversationally asking “so, do you fuck?” within 90 seconds of us meeting. I tend to assume that most people I’m having these discussions with, other adults who presumably understand appropriate conversational mores in other contexts, have had sex. They understand the mechanics. It’s not magically different because it happens in a work context—it’s just negotiated with clearer boundaries from the get go. And at the end I can pay my power bill, or some of it, depending on how brutal the Wellington winter has been.
The issue with these questions is that they’re inherently taking the position that the specific sexual acts I carry out in the course of the work are the only, or only interesting or valuable, part of it. And by asking me to quantify those acts—“so, how many dicks do you suck in an average week, Gwyn?”—they’re playing into a demand that I situate myself within a framework where there is a single, specific acceptable way to do sex work, and that I explain myself and my job. Asking how many clients I’ve seen, or see regularly, gives the querent a number to put between me and them, and asking how much I earn is how they figure out if it was “worth it”. They are working on the assumption that sex work is still inherently degrading and disgusting, that the less actual sex you have in the course of doing it, the better, and that the only way to justify engaging in it is if I’m making significant amounts of money.
Asking about my personal sex life is irrelevant and invasive. But it’s also part of an expectation that sex workers will be an open book to satisfy others' curiosity, or that we don’t have a right to privacy and dignity. The question about sex, too, carries with it an expectation that I’ll divulge some titillating stories about how much I love my job. Unfortunately, for narrative purposes, work sex is mostly pretty formulaic and unerotic. It’s sex with men who I find neither particularly attractive nor unattractive, and I don’t really take issue with this. Charlotte Shane, in the magnificent essay Getting Away With Hating It, best outlines how I feel about work sex. But if I’m to perform sufficient acceptability that isn’t good enough—I need to love my job on top of being good at it. Neoliberalism comes for us all.
The other thing I dislike about these questions is that no matter how I answer them I’m playing into efforts to arrange sex workers in an artificial hierarchy. I’ve worked independently and in brothels for several years, switching between the two depending on my specific situation and needs. The most I’ve made in a single booking is a hair over $2000, and the least I’ve been paid for sex is $65. I was performing exactly the same job in both those situations, and was perfectly comfortable accepting both those amounts for the time and effort each booking required. I suspect this will be unsurprising to sex workers who’ve met clients who want no-fuss quickies and clients who want an Authentic Experience along with the sex. I know though, that to many non-sex workers, the two extremes will seem irreconcilable.
My point here is that I have been doing the same job, under different conditions and rates of pay, for several years, and it was not more or less worthy of respect at any point. I am loathe to enter into a discussion where the subtext is that I ought to justify myself by throwing my colleagues working in different ways under the bus, and where my job is assumed to be bad until I prove otherwise. Sex workers are some of the smartest, funniest, kindest and most resourceful people I’ve met—I’m not interested in 101 small talk with an extra sting of expecting me to participate in entrenching stigma against my co-workers less able to access the protections of decriminalisation than I am. These questions aren’t really a way to understand my job—they’re a way to categorise me. Sex work is interesting, and funny, and challenging, and I’m certainly not short on things to say about it. If you persist in asking dull, closed questions though, you’re pretty much guaranteeing you’ll never get the good stuff.
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INSIDE SEX WORK IN NEW ZEALAND is the second episode in the Zealandia Women's Suffrage Series we made to mark 125 years of women getting the vote in New Zealand. In the first episode, LETHAL LADIES, we get up close and personal with a cross section of Aotearoa’s most ferocious female fighters. Watch all the Zealandia episodes here.