"I'm not a prostitute," my friend Cara told me from across the table. "But I did go on a date. For money."
Two strong drinks into happy hour, Cara explained that a mixture of sexual frustration, boredom, and earning potential led her to create a profile for herself on a prominent sugar daddy website she'd read about in the New York Times. Cara was considering offers from all over the country, but she had her first date the week before with a Los Angeles–based real estate developer who slipped her a crisp envelope of hundreds after they kissed goodbye.
"I'm not a prostitute, right?" she later asked nervously sipping her whiskey sour. "We didn't have sex or anything. I mean, I wouldn't." She looked into my eyes, pleading for assurance that she wasn't disgusting—or worse, a prostitute.
What Cara didn't know was that almost ten years ago, I had been a sex worker myself.
In the early 2000s, I worked a phone sex line for pretty much the same reasons Cara joined the sugar daddy website: I needed money, I was bored, and I was curious. After installing a cheap landline and completing a 25-minute "orientation" with my supervisor, I went into field to make some money. And I did. I continued working the phone sex line until I got my first teaching assistant job (which, depressingly, paid about half what phone sex did).
I don't regret it, and I doubt I ever will. I used to brag that I got people off all over the world, but it was much more than that: I talked to them, became their friend, lifted their spirits, and helped them unpack complex personal situations. I learned how to simulate the sound of a wet pussy (lotion in a fist) and how to convincingly describe my role in a courtly Elizabeth gangbang to the guy who yelled over the phone that he was going to murder me before he fucked me. Being a sex worker put me in touch with such a wide range of human circumstance than anything else had up until that point.
Sitting in front of Cara, I wondered what my 22-year-old self, still working as a phone sex operator, would say to her. I wondered what a prostitute, a porn star, a cam girl, or a stripper would say to the woman who had, for all intents and purposes, joined their ranks. Was her version of sex work "better" or "worse" than theirs? Was it sex work at all?
Throughout the next couple of months, I interviewed more than 30 friends, acquaintances, and researchers involved in the sex industry about their perspective on a "hierarchy of sex work," if one even existed. The more people I talked to, the more I realized that there wasn't one consistent metric to decide which jobs in the industry were "better" than others. But there was a pervasive sense that some jobs were "worse," and many sex workers looked down on others with "lesser" jobs.
This hierarchy wasn't based on money. If anything, the highest earners were often looked down upon as the least valued part of the community. It wasn't fame, either, now that anyone can film their own porn on their iPhone. Instead, industry professionals told me they thought about their jobs as existing on two hierarchies—one organized by the degree of physical contact with clients, and the other by how enjoyable they were.
Melinda Chateauvert, author of Sex Workers Unite!and self-described "whorestorian," told me that many individuals choose to work as pro-dominatrixes or dancers "because they don't have sex, give blowjobs, or exchange body fluids. They feel superior to those who do. They use contact as a meter."
Many sex workers agreed that they were often judged by this metric. A few strippers told me they didn't think stripping was sex work at all, since they didn't have to touch any of their clients. Escort and porn actress Gina DePalma recounts seeing this hierarchy in action at a strip club in Las Vegas: "Dancers thought of prostitutes as lower than them and would look down their nose at dancers who left the club for money with clients," she told me. "I always was amused: They walked around naked for dollars and grinded on guys crotches for 20s; let guys finger them in the club, gave BJs and hand jobs. Yet some thought they were better than the call girl or stripper who goes to the guy's room."
This is underscored by the legal boundaries, which are more permissive toward no-contact activities (like stripping) than high-contact activities (like prostitution).
A cam girl, who asked that I not use her name, told me these views made their way into her romantic life. "I've had a lot of men tell me that they wouldn't be OK with me being in porn but that it's fine for me to work as a cam girl or stripper," she said. "Similarly, men frequently believe that prostitutes are filthy and desperate—but they praise porn stars. It's as though the computer screen shields them from the reality that they are both women who sell sex."
Other sex workers were less judgmental about physical contact and instead prioritized enjoyment of their work. Due to the incredible availability of free porn and a market flooded by a cheaper and cheaper product, few people are getting rich by getting people off. A porn producer, cam girl, and stripper (who asked to remain anonymous because they have day jobs outside the sex work industry) each told me that the people they admire most in their industry are those who "really love what they do" or are sex workers because "it's something they've always wanted to do."
"I love what I do," Hilary Holiday, a Minneapolis-based escort, told me. "I'm very choosy as to who I will spend time with and require copious amounts of respect. I turn most away. I make a good six-figure income and trade options with the savings I've built."
On the flip side, those who feel bound to sex work for financial reasons are often looked down upon. They're also less free to pursue other forms of work, and as a result, feel resentment toward their jobs. I myself was conflicted about quitting my phone sex job to take a more "respectable" but much lower paying TA position.
Antonia Crane, who spent years working as a stripper and escort, emphasized that reducing stigma, shame, and industry divisiveness requires "working together instead of against one another, working against the very fabric of the system designed to pit us against each other. Which is to say: team up, bitches."
Back at the bar with Cara, my first instinct was to feel distance and shame from her judgmental rhetoric. Who was she to look down on other sex workers? But I knew I wouldn't get anywhere by recoiling. So instead, I bought us another round and started telling her my story.
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