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Calling My Work What It Is

The difference between “escort” and “prostitute” is that one term relies on euphemistic window dressing while the other is unapologetic and unashamed.
(Photo: joyfull/Shutterstock)

(Photo: joyfull/Shutterstock)

When I began sex work, I was 20 years old. I’d moved away from home to live in a city for the first time, and I wanted a job that would afford me ample hours for writing and completing my graduate school coursework. I also felt the pull to exploit the anonymity and freedom of being away from home, the quintessential American desire to re-make myself. In the small town where I grew up, I’d been regarded as bookish and quiet, predictable and practical. I knew there was more in me than people at home could recognize, and I wanted to prove it. I wanted to experience every glamour and success a city could offer. I wanted to know what it was like to be sexually powerful and I wanted to know what it was like to have men want me.

Admitting as much feels shameful since it denies the primacy of external pressures that might have pushed me toward labor so in demand yet so reviled. The notion of the modern-day happy hooker, the vapid middle-class girl who starts “selling her body” because she thinks it’s fun and harmless, is a mainstream media-spawned nightmare haunting every heated discussion of sex work. I had no dreams of designer handbags or weekends in the Hamptons when I started sex work. I was an awkward near-virgin who had never owned a sex toy and had experienced only a few sexual partners. But I had the instincts of an anthropologist and an inexplicable sense of invincibility—not because I thought I was untouchable or special, but because I simply didn’t register situations as dangerous no matter how shady the circumstances.

So: I was not driven into sex work. I was not destitute and desperate. I had “other options” to earn money while in school. But I chose webcam. I wanted to know what that work felt like, and the only way I would learn was by doing it. So one night, a few days after I auditioned by showing my boss my boobs, I drove back to his house, went upstairs to one of two rooms with a double mattress on the floor against a pink curtain, and logged into my newly made account. In the story I tell myself about my life, this is the most important decision I ever made. It’s the decision from which all other decisions flow.

I worked webcam for two years and, at first, I was awful. I had no idea how to work a camera’s angles, how to tailor my look to what sold best, or how to sass the chat room visitors with the right blend of attitude, playfulness, and solicitousness that won paying customers. But I figured it out. I made more money than I’d ever dreamed of making—approximately that year’s median income for a two-person household—and then I became too bored to continue. I moved to a new city and answered a local alt weekly’s ad for “private viewing” models. The gig turned out to be sensual massage, though the woman running the business was so cagey she didn’t tell me anything useful during my interview. Once again, I figured the only way I’d find out what the job entailed was to actually do it.

I loved working at the massage incall though it was far from problem-free. There were several law enforcement scares, and more than one incident of assault. But I was making even more money than I did on webcam, and I met sincerely fascinating (if not always respectable) people. Working under someone else proved too expensive, as I paid in both stress and confiscated income. I transitioned to a more fetish-oriented service on my own—sensual massage with a kink twist. Finally I went “full service,” or full prostitute—for non-sex workers—when I realized getting men off in the typical way would be less effortful and more financially rewarding. This is what I’ve done for the longest stretch, for more than six years.

During this career evolution, my writing was published for the first time. I usually, though not exclusively, wrote on the topic of sexual labor. I connected with a professor who’d researched the sex trade for years, and he pointed me to $pread magazine. I read, I researched, I worked, and I wrote. These were the activities that gave my life meaning; this was how I found people who gave my life meaning. Three of my closest friends I met through my webcam company. My best friend worked at the private viewing incall. My boyfriend was a former client. My life was saturated with sex work. It defined the only community in which I fully belonged. That’s true even now, when I spend far more time writing and far less time sex working than I once did. My allegiance to other sex workers, to the cause of decriminalizing and de-stigmatizing sex work, remains the strongest loyalty I know.

This doesn’t happen for everyone. Lots of people doing occasional or even regular sex work don’t identify themselves as “sex workers,” or think of their identity as tied to their labor. They’re filling in financial gaps, not selecting a career path: doing a “favor” for a landlord when the rent can’t be paid, picking up one shift a week because of health-care costs, joining a friend for doubles sessions while they look for a new job. This is part of why the language around sexual labor is so fraught. People prefer different labels, if they accept a label at all. But political engagement is not as much of a luxury as anti-prostitution agitators make it out to be. If you’re regularly arrested, raped and robbed by police, and harassed in your attempt to earn a living, activism may become a necessary part of trying to earn a living. Or, to put it another way, merely attempting to earn a living may be understood as a political act.

I’ve called myself a prostitute for about as long as I’ve been one. I can’t remember exactly when I adopted the name but I know it felt like the most accurate term given the service I provide, and I like the solidarity of it, the refusal to kowtow to class-related stigma or what is sometimes called the “whorearchy” inside the sex industry. I don’t mean I identified myself to potential clients this way or put this word on my ads. But it’s how I thought of myself in terms of my work, and for a long time it was in my Twitter profile and writer bio. It remains in the name of my TinyLetter. I like it for its plain, immediate truth. I imagined readers who encountered it at the end of my essays—”Charlotte Shane is a prostitute”— might wait for a punchline or metaphor that never comes, and find themselves pulled up short. As I’ve said elsewhere, I believe the difference between “escort” and “prostitute” is that one term relies on euphemistic window dressing while the other is unapologetic and unashamed. It’s usually bracketed by large amounts of clothed or non-physical time, but I sell the promise of heterosexual, penetrative sex.

As many forces work to collapse all sex work into trafficking in both the eyes of the public and the actions of the state, the word prostitute feels increasingly defiant. (Yup, that’s right, I think, when I imagine those same confounded article readers. You heard me.) It’s one of the most effective, uncompromising ways to resist someone else’s decision about where I or any/all sex workers should be placed on a spectrum of exploitation simply by virtue of our jobs. And I can’t think about my work without also thinking about how my work is treated, discussed, and (mis)understood by the many non-sex workers who legislate, pontificate, or otherwise opine on it. I can’t think about my work without thinking about the other people performing work like it all around the world. The contingent of feminists and right-wing Christians who want to eradicate the entire sex trade tend to rely heavily on the phrase “prostituted woman” to indicate a woman’s helplessness in the hands of her situation. Taking out the passivity and asserting my agency in the matter feels powerful and important. It’s a way of refusing to let them tell me about myself and my own life. My various privileges afford me this defiance, and I want to take advantage of it on behalf of the women who can’t.

I’m at odds with the party line in this stance, though, and that aspect doesn’t feel good. Increasingly, prostitute is treated as the equivalent of “whore” by sex workers themselves, and regarded as a slur. Last year, sex workers in the United States made a push for the Associated Press to take “prostitute” out of its style book, and they had a slew of sound reasons. It’s an excellent guideline for reporters—and everyone else—to refrain from calling someone a prostitute unless that person has approved that term. But I don’t think that means we have to accept that “prostitute” is an insult or a dirty word.

Terms like “call girl” and “escort” and even “full-service sex worker” were created and adopted for protection against our criminalized status. They constitute a creative but hobbled vocabulary that reflects the ways we’re policed more than the truth of our labor, which is inextricably bound up in the assurance of intimate access to our bodies, and our willingness to interact with another’s. The nitpicking around this point is just that. I know some women will rush to point out that they won’t follow through on physical intimacy with some particularly unpleasant or suspect clients. Others demand their emotional labor, the time spent talking and entertaining, be taken into account. I understand all this because I’ve been through it all. The clients I see now are older men who often bypass sex entirely during our dates, but I wouldn’t have met them if I wasn’t selling it, if I didn’t still get naked with them when they’re in the mood. To claim otherwise would be to let fear speak louder than honesty.

Taking euphemisms on permanently and in a political context, outside of marketing material or work-related correspondence, feels to me like ceding way too much power. The state forces me to use certain language to protect myself in some contexts; I don’t want to willingly employ that language in all others. Even the deservedly revered Carol Leigh, who coined the phrase “sex work,” used “prostitute” to describe her past work, and continues to use it in a variety of the media she creates.

Words are personal. It’s not for me to prescribe how someone else identifies, especially not now, as I slowly transition out of the work. After over a decade of selling sex, I’m tired of it. I feel allegiance to several of the regulars I’ve been seeing for years, and the income from my time with them is enough to cover my costs of living, but that means I can finally fully devote myself to the pursuit I thought I was prioritizing back when I picked my first stage name so long ago: writing. I’m leaving sex work with no regrets and no bitterness, but with a sense of relief nonetheless. I won’t have to worry about being arrested or outed, stalked by a former client or by an overly worshipful fellow escort. I’ve met a man I never want to be away from, and spending time with him matters more to me than making money. While I once thought the job would be too profitable and too exciting to ever let me go, I’ve been released and left well-positioned to start a different life with a new partner and an old passion.

If I cannot call myself “prostitute,” how can I, someone who sells private, penetrative forms of sex, differentiate myself from other sex workers?

That I soon won’t be a sex worker at all—let alone a prostitute—makes me feel strangely vulnerable. I’m almost unwilling to give the identity up even as I’m ready to stop the work, because it’s been a crucial part of my life for so long and so many of my friends are still in it. Sexual labor forged my sense of self throughout my twenties and shaped my work as a writer. I’ll carry this history with me forever, not only because my portfolio is rife with the evidence but because it continues to influence what matters to me, how I understand the world, and how I exist within it. For years, I’ve texted fellow sex working friends to intervene if I ever follow the path of some former sex workers who forever only reference back to their brief, salacious past instead of moving on to new subjects. Those in the work deserve to be prioritized. Their experiences, needs, and opinions should take precedence over everyone else’s, included the retired. So maybe it’s wise to say this now, before I’m out of the game for good.

I am troubled by both the formal and informal campaigns against the word “prostitute.” If I cannot call myself “prostitute,” how can I, someone who sells private, penetrative forms of sex, differentiate myself from other sex workers? A prostitute does one type of work, while dominatrixes, strippers, webcam performers, or porn creators do others. That differentiation matters because we who primarily sell penetrative sex matter. We have a higher probability for arrest, abuse, exploitation, and harassment—that matters.

Selling sex is nebulous; a dominatrix may get someone off with a hand or a strap-on, a masseuse may offer oral sex as an add on, and an escort may decline to kiss while providing vaginal sex. We all blur the lines. But crowding what I do into the larger umbrella of “sex work,” without its own name, makes it seem as if I’m supposed to experience what I do as shameful. That my specific work can’t have a name; and that I’m supposed to accept the stigma that surrounds prostitution more intensely than any other form of sexual labor by using vague language to try to elide that stigma. It feels too much like an implication that there really is something bad and wrong about charging money to engage directly with someone else’s genitals, so I must never describe it as it is. I’m not OK with that. To make it verboten in public discourse puts us in agreement with those who think it’s a shameful life for shameful people.

Trusting non-sex workers to use the word appropriately and sensitively is, I understand, too optimistic at the moment. Even trusting sex workers to use it sensitively is a dicey proposition, thanks to that aforementioned whorearchy that incentivizes non-prostitutes to distance themselves from us in an effort to skirt the attendant stigma and criminalization. But there’s a very easy rule that eliminates any confusion on this point: Use “sex worker” to describe someone’s work unless you know what they prefer.

Prostitute is a word that sometimes hurts me but only to the extent it reminds me people who wish me harm have power over me because of my occupation. And that’s the real rub. If the word “prostitute” were to disappear tomorrow, I would still be a prostitute, a member of a population that faces disproportionate stigma, danger, and criminalization from all sides, and for whom veiled language does nothing to protect. In a way, identifying myself as a prostitute acts as a litmus test. It defangs those who want to use it as an insult against me while simultaneously revealing those who want to seize it as a weapon, and who think they finally have an excuse to.

A sex-working friend of mine recently told me that a non-sex-working man corrected her repeatedly in conversation when she used the word “prostitute” to describe a sex-working friend who identified as such. His concern, I’m sure, was that this word is offensive in a way that’s unique to the word itself, not dependent on the reality that endures beyond word choice. He’d been taught it’s that easy to dodge the truths of what the “prostitute” label entails. But it isn’t. And while I’m selling the services I sell, I want to call my work exactly what it is without flinching or dissembling. No euphemisms, no generalities, just my dignity and the plain truth. I might not be a prostitute for much longer, but I’ll be honest about it for as long as I am.

The Weekend Essay is a Saturday series edited by Leah Reich.