This post originally appeared on VICE Canada.
A few weeks ago, I was asked to perform on a show called Bedpost. Bedpost bills itself as an erotic cabaret. I was one of two storytellers on the lineup alongside a sketch troupe, a few burlesque dancers, and game show. The prize for winning the game show was a $200 couple's vibrator. I performed my set that night to general indifference, which at first I attributed to the crowd, but in retrospect the failure was definitely mine. The audience ate up the rest of the event. They were particularly fond of the evening's second storyteller, a former dominatrix who explained how she first got into the business.
Later, after the couple who won the vibrator bought a round of shots for the bar, I struck up a conversation with the former dom, and she politely answered my questions. We talked about the stigma surrounding sex work. We talked about money. We chatted about a lot of different things, but what I kept on coming back to was the first day on the job. The first day I started my new job, I had an anxiety attack after someone showed me how to use the copy machine. I can only imagine what would have happened if I had been responsible for another person's genitals.
In my life I've known a handful of people who have been involved in the sex industry in one way or another. It's not something that I had ever discussed at length with any of them. I figured if they wanted to talk about it, they'd tell me, and otherwise it was none of my business. The openness of the dom and our subsequent conversation, however, piqued my curiosity. I decided to reach out to a handful of friends and acquaintances and ask if they wanted to be interviewed about their first day. The conversations below are by no means a comprehensive account of lives of sex workers, but they are an anecdotal look into what it's like to get started in those jobs.
Renata Val*, Foot Dominatrix
Two years ago, I moved to Toronto after living and working in Europe. My family and boyfriend still lived there. I was lonely and depressed. I had moved into an incredibly dark, incredibly tiny room in a grimy house with four dudes. For my first three months in the city, I stayed in that cave, mostly in the fetal position. When my savings dried up, I knew that I would need to find work. In a fit of boredom and curiosity, I ended up on Craigslist and came to the conclusion that the best way to make money was via foot fetishists.
I was extremely nervous before my first Craigslist rendezvous, but I tried my best to make my feet look presentable. I don't think I have particularly nice-looking feet. They're not bad. My toes are a little crooked. On the day in question, I had blisters from walking too far in six-inch stilettos. I painted sparkly purple nail polish over old chipped nail polish and hoped for the best.
I met Miles, a surprisingly handsome silver fox, at the local Tim Hortons and took it from there. After chatting over coffee, we got in his giant SUV and drove to, of all places, the underground parking lot at a mall. It was the only place I could think of that was private and dark enough for some daytime raunchy foot play.
I kept an eye out as Miles massaged, licked, and sucked my bare feet. As this happened, I wondered how we would react if we got caught. I wondered if Miles would get hard. Did he have sores in his mouth I should be worried about? Should I pretend to really love this?
On the way out of the parking lot, Miles got his giant SUV stuck under the yellow concrete parking bumper. He hadn't looked at the clearance properly, and it got really jammed. I don't know why I did this, but I decided that I needed things to look normal, so I helped him push. The screech of concrete on metal was not quiet, and I think we did a lot of damage to the car. After, he dropped me back at the Tims and gave me $60. We didn't meet up again.
I still see a few guys with foot fetishes, but since that time, I've gotten better at the whole thing. Shortly after meeting Miles, I started selling my used socks to a lanky grad student, who is currently my house bitch. He does things for me: chores, laundry, groceries, sometimes I make him write essays. In exchange, he gets to suck on my toes. It's great.
Sovereign Syre, Adult Performer
When I left grad school, I wanted to write a novel. The plan had been to travel around France and explore Brittany, which is the setting for the action in my book. I suppose I could have gone to work for Starbucks if it was just about money. It was more than that, though. I'd always been a good girl and achieved a lot of "traditional" success very young. I danced as a ballerina. I graduated high school early. Despite all that, I was miserable. I was itching to do something different.
There was a website called God's Girls. It was an alt-porn site, very tame, just nudes, and they paid. I thought I could do something adventurous, being naked on the internet, and make some cash to go traveling. From there, I started working in erotic photography, but I didn't really think of it as porn. There was always some artistry to what we were doing. And it wasn't video.
At a charity event I was working, I met a handful of adult performers who I started following on Twitter. I became fascinated by their lifestyle, the freedom they felt being sexual.
Through those connections and social media, I was scouted by a director named Nica Noelle. She offered to write a movie around me, and it was going to pay me a lot more money than modeling. You have to understand I got into the industry in 2011 when there was something of a disruptive element going on, a group of people making queer, alt, and feminist porn. It felt like activism.
From the minute I arrived on set, I was full of nerves. There are very few times in life when you know you are crossing a line you can never come back from. Porn is one of those lines, for the rest of your life, this thing is going to be with you. It's hard for me to remember much of that day because I was so much in my head. When it was time to shoot the actual sex scene, though, I just went with it, let myself get lost in the other girl. When it was over I felt relieved, and also very free.
I remained a girl/girl only performer for the next four years. I started filming with men in the last two years, but I think I've been in fewer than ten scenes with them. I don't really shoot very much anymore. I've transitioned into stand-up and podcasting.
There are as many reasons that people get into porn as there are people, but porn has actually been one of the best things that happened to me. I already understand that society has written me off, and that's so fucking freeing. Sex workers are people, but just because we're deviating from the standard that society sets for good behavior, it doesn't mean that we're bad. We're willing to risk being socially acceptable to get some happiness for ourselves, whether that means getting money or having sexual experiences we don't think we can get elsewhere. I think the only person I know who is really worried about it is my brother. He refers to my porn career as "why you ruined the internet for me forever." My dad said that only thing I could do to make him ashamed is be afraid.
Pamela Isley*, Erotic Masseuse
A friend of mine manages the spa where I currently work. She'd gone back to the industry after a long hiatus and said she wasn't sure why she didn't go back sooner. Hearing her speak about it piqued my interest. The place I'd been working was boring and inflexible and the idea of working fewer hours and making more money was exciting. I thought about it a lot. The turning point was realizing I could keep mulling it over forever, but I wouldn't really know if I could do the work until I tried.
My friend and I set up a time to chat, so I could ask her questions and express my concerns. We talked it out for an hour, and afterward she told me that had been my interview. If I wanted to come in to try a shift the following week, I was more than welcome to.
I was nervous as fuck on my first day. I had no idea what to expect of my training. Turns out, there wasn't too much of it. A general run-down on the structure of a 30-minute session, a few videos of body slides and massages, then bam, the first client of the day walks in, and I'm one of the three girls that has to go out and meet him. The guys were pretty typical of what you'd expect at a place like this—middle-aged, heavy-set businessmen. Y'know, just popping by for a 45-minute erotic massage on his lunch break.
Getting naked in front of a stranger was no problem. I'd done it plenty of times before as an art model. I'm as comfortable with sex as I am with nudity, and it didn't take me long to start enjoying the performative nature of the whole thing. The body slide was a trip. I oiled up his back and slid myself all over. It was nearly a feat of athleticism. At first I was worried about having to get someone off using only a handjob, but, if you'll excuse the brag, I managed to get the guy off in under a minute. I managed less than a minute with all of my clients that day. I think I might have some skills.
I knew pretty quickly this was a gig I could do, especially when I was handed $110, my cut of the payment for a 45-minute session. I walked out of there after my first day with a wad of cash and a total buzz over what I'd just done. I felt empowered by my sexual prowess. I felt like a rebel walking around with a dirty secret. I knew the novelty would probably wear off. But I knew I'd be back.
Andrea Werhun, Former Agency Escort
The first time I went to a strip club, I walked in with a series of assumptions. I figured the girls were dead-eyed bimbos and that taking their clothes off in front of a crowd of strangers was the last thing they wanted to do on a Monday night. In the club, I was surprised when the naked women I witnessed weren't weak or downtrodden. They were smiling and strong, their movement full of grace and magic. I felt a strong pull to be in their ranks.
For a while after that I tinkered over three-minute anthems and practiced walking in my newly purchased stripper heels. I thought that I wanted to perform and be in front of a crowd, but eventually came to the conclusion escorting was much more my speed. I'd been told it was private, safer, and better paying than stripping. I was in college and living on my own, so the idea of making my rent in a couple hours work was a dream. And that it could be my own little secret was exciting, too.
Once I'd made the choice to become an escort, getting the job was easy. I called an agency (based on its hourly rates and the quality of its website), and inquired about employment. We set up an interview that wasn't much of an interview. It was basically: You've got the job, here's how it works. When do you want to start?
I had brought a notebook of questions regarding safety, condom use, and the prevalence of sexually transmitted disease. After they quelled my fears, I picked my escort name: Maryanne. The first night on the job I trembled fearfully in the front seat of an SUV, flying down the 401 to a Comfort Inn just outside of Toronto. My boss assured me that the clients were more nervous than I was, but I wasn't so sure.
When the motel room door opened, a small man with a lazy eye appeared before me. Porn on mute played on the TV. A cloud of cigarette smoke hung in the air. He took my coat, and I collected the money. We started talking and soon moved to the bed. Oh, I thought, we just pleasure each other for a while. When the deed was done, he said he had to meet a friend at the bar and asked that when I left to close the door behind me. Alone in his room, I laughed and danced and looked at my naked whore flesh in the mirror and thought, This is the easiest money I've ever made.
For the two years I did it, sex work was an ideal job. I like conversation, meeting new people, and bearing witness to a person's naked body, their o-faces, and their vulnerability.
The shame and stigma of being a sex worker often outweighs the long-term benefits of flexible, well-paying work. It is a horrible burden to hide oneself for fear of judgement. Hiding hurts, but so does telling the truth. The choice to become a sex worker should not be made lightly—it is not a job to do "just for the money." The sex industry eats desperate people alive. If you're gonna do it, have a plan and exit strategy. Take care of your mental health. Get tested regularly. Talk to someone you trust about your experiences. Be honest with yourself. Watch the money pile up and enjoy the ride.
Andrea and collaborator Nicole Bazuin have documented her experiences as an escort in the upcoming book Modern Whore_._
*Some names have been changed to protect anonymity.
Follow Graham Isador on Twitter.