Last weekend I met some new people. I'm "out" as a sex worker to a friend and was meeting his pals for the first time. When he told one of them what I do for a living, I was apprehensive. If Pretty Woman were real life, the friend would try to rape me and then be very angry about a nebulous business deal involving an old man, and I wasn't sure how that would translate.
I shouldn't have worried. If there was awkwardness, I likely brought it with me, as per usual. A few times during the night, though, I realized that Friend Not Rapist was listening very closely to my answers to basic questions. Perhaps he was waiting for my eyes to go kaleidoscopic, or for my daddy issues to emerge.
Then I realized: I'm probably the first sex worker he's met socially.
This happens often. I'm open about what I do, and I'm friends with a lot of civilians. I could be more circumspect, but too many times I've been at brunch and my vague fib about being a line cook sparks 20 enthusiastic follow-up questions. I hate the taste of ever more elaborate lies. I'm lucky enough to live in New York, a city large enough that if someone disapproves, we can choose to never see each other again. So fuck it.
The unexpected thing is how often it's a non-issue. I can't tell if it's because I tend to hang out with the hyper-logical or because the world has changed, but more and more I get a "Huh. OK." I get the sense that many computer programmers have a dollar amount in their head that they would accept for every behavior they can imagine, and they believe I'm simply optimizing my time. But for everyone else, here's a few things I would keep in mind if you're introduced to a sex worker at a highly rated taco truck or karaoke bar or, hell, by Richard Gere.
YOU CAN ASK QUESTIONS
I would be an ass if I didn't understand that sex and money are compelling subjects. You would be an ass if you didn't understand that I don't want to be singled out as puerile entertainment. If you're curious, go for it! Try to keep away from nuts and bolts, and nothing too deep, too fast. Pretend I put animals to sleep for a living—not because it is a similarly sad profession, but because they are similarly touchy. No need for "Do you feel the spirit leaving the cat's body?" And if only for the sake of our mutual friends, don't ask me about STDs over food.
There are absolutely women in the world who are trafficked, who are doing sex work for reasons that are terrible and coercive and highly traumatizing. If you encounter someone with a story like that socially, do your level-best to help them. (Also, where are you partying? Good heavens.)
But if you meet a self-identified sex worker (or dancer or hooker or cam girl), especially in a big city, and you don't see someone standing behind them holding a gun, do them the favor of assuming that they have control over their own life. Do them the favor of assuming that they make decisions according to an idiosyncratic but valid analysis of their choices and consequent financial outcomes. Do them the favor of not assuming that they hate their job, or love it, or that their story is like something you read about or saw on television or even someone else's that you know. Don't make presumptions about their emotional tone. If they're chill enough about their life to buck stigma and tell the truth, they're probably about as seeking and flawed and confused and doin' it as the rest of your friends. Just like you, they would rather not talk about work all the time.
I DID SOMETHING ELSE BEFORE THIS
For me, the hardest part about being a sex worker is that it informs so many of my interactions with other people, and has a stronger effect on my perceived identity than anything I've done before. I escort because of money, just as I've done other work for money. When I was a waiter, though, people didn't assume a host of things about me because I put food on tables and picked up plates. They didn't want to pick my brain about the true meaning of food, or ask me if being a waiter was emotionally stable, or demand to know what I would do when I wasn't a waiter anymore. I didn't feel that I should be on my best behavior so that I could give waiters a good name. It's tiring.
I'm not being arch: I understand that almost everyone knows a waiter. But just as I wasn't Waitress when I was employed as one, try to get your head around the fact that I am not Escort above all else.
IF I BITCH ABOUT MY JOB, IT'S BECAUSE EVERYONE BITCHES ABOUT THEIR JOB
I have hard days sometimes, for a variety of reasons. Sometimes people are late. Sometimes I get two clients back to back who are vales of tears dressed as businessmen. Sometimes I get someone who stores cupcakes where his empathy for other humans should be, and I hate him, and I need to process that. And sometimes Gmail is screwy and I lose money and man, does that piss me off. If I bitch about these things, it's OK. I'm still OK. You're still OK. Everyone bitches about their job. It doesn't mean that to be a good friend you should worry or begin a Serious Talk. It would be nicer if you had a glass of wine with me and then bitched about YOUR job.
I'M NOT GOING TO GET PISSED IF YOU SAY SOMETHING ABOUT PROSTITUTION
This is obviously a matter of degree. If you tell a dead hooker in the trunk joke and laugh your ass off, you're a terrible person. But I would think that whether I was a sex worker or not. If you accidentally trip on a cultural trope, don't freak out—I'm probably not going to take it personally. It's like when Kanye comes on when there's a black person in your car: You don't sing along to that line, you know? But you can sing to the rest of it. He and his many eezys are part of the culture.
IF YOU DON'T KNOW WHAT TO SAY, ASK ENCOURAGING QUESTIONS AND LISTEN
This is baller life advice. I learned it by escorting. People bring sex workers their problems; we often joke that we're naked therapists. Because my time is expensive and, uh, something else has to happen too, people often start the story in the middle, or the emotional middle, anyway. Without background or context, I need to respond without missteps. So I just listen, and get them to keep talking. Eventually they will feel better, and I will better understand what the fuck they are talking about, and that's usually all anyone wants (conversationally, anyway).
If a sex worker brings up something that you don't understand or feel unmoored by, it can be hard to know how to react. Is she deeply upset? Is she talking about rape? Is she simply annoyed? If you can't figure it out, go with, "And then what happened?" Or just nod encouragingly! Eventually you will get the drift, and their brain will move on, and best of all, they won't feel like they tried to open up and you freaked out and then they had to calm you down.
IF YOU WANT TO KEEP YOUR KID OUT OF THE BUSINESS, START A COLLEGE FUND
I'm thinking back to my weekend with Friend Not Rapist, and I'm thinking of his questions. He has children, and I think he was trying to figure out where my cracks came from, how to keep my reality away from people he holds dear. Welp, I can tell you that all the people I know who got into sex work early had one thing in common: financial instability. They don't all have daddy issues, sexual abuse, or early childhood divorce in their backgrounds (I don't have any of those). I had a choice: hooking or drop out of college.
I'm glad I chose how I did. I would do it again.
My advice, if you want Darling Offspring never to know what I'm talking about? Get a good accountant and start saving your pennies. It's that simple, and that banal.
I'm don't want to indicate that this is one size fits all. I realize that I'm a very privileged sex worker: I use the term sex worker, have a love/hate/open your legs relationship with higher education, and discuss stigma over cleverly reimagined eggs benedict. My experience isn't representative, but I think general rules apply. Respect the decisions you haven't made, assume as little as possible, and accord people basic dignity, no matter what.
I'm not saying I'm a Hooker with a Heart of Gold, but I would like to be treated like one.
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