Getting Out of Sex Work

The sex industry is an undesirable solution to problems, but it’s a solution just the same. Those problems can’t be cured overnight.
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The sex industry is an undesirable solution to problems, but it’s a solution just the same. Those problems can’t be cured overnight.
The 2011 NYC Pride parade. (Photo: Jason Pier in DC/Flickr)

The 2011 NYC Pride parade. (Photo: Jason Pier in DC/Flickr)

The last time I was offered sex for money was a little over a year after I appeared on the cover of the New York Post, five years after I had stopped selling sex. I was speaking on a panel of sex writers when a fellow panelist and friend casually asked if I knew anyone who'd be interested in a "job." It was her boyfriend's best friend’s birthday and it had been a while since he'd gotten laid. "He's good looking," she told me. "Just too busy to date." They could pay $1,000.

I knew someone. I was someone.

I was single at the time, some months out of an abusive relationship that had taken six years to end. I left him once, abandoning the rent-controlled apartment that was in my name that he refused to vacate. I had just begun to re-build my life when I lost my job as a public school teacher after being outed by the Post for writing and speaking openly about my sex work past. My ex and I reconciled, due in large part to my need for emotional support. Unable to find work and no longer able to afford my apartment, six months after that headline ran, he and I had moved back under the same roof.

It took another two years to leave the second time. I was struggling with my sense of self, and struggling to build a career as a freelance writer, having just given up on finding more work as a teacher. That month, specifically though not unusually, I remember I was trying to figure out how to cover rent. $1,000 was no less than a miracle. In the Huffington Post article that cost me my career I had described my experiences as a sex worker as “physically demanding, emotionally taxing and spiritually bankrupting.” Times like these, as it had happened, sex work seemed “not so bad.” Certainly, compared to the desperate feeling of being unable to pay one’s bills and feed oneself, it isn’t.

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I thought of all this when I first heard of the A&E reality show 8 Minutes, which has since been taken off the air. The show featured a pastor-turned-cop named Kevin Brown who would lure sex workers to hotel rooms, claiming to be a client, only to ambush them with hidden cameras and a sermon on why they should leave the life—as if there aren’t enough social messages and punitive legal consequences in place to discourage a woman from cashing in on what some of us have been taught from birth to view as our greatest and sometimes only source of capital.

Transitioning from sex work is made all the more difficult by the stigmatized identity imposed upon us by our professions. Critics say people should get out of the sex industry but then shun former sex workers when we do make the transition.

The show was taken off the air after a barrage of criticism from advocates of sex workers and sex workers themselves, duly condemning the production by pointing out its ironies. By subjecting so-called victims to a “shock treatment” while purporting to remove them from coercive situations—as well as the exploitation of filming sex workers without their consent—the show did more harm than good. The show’s critics argued that a majority of women participate in the sex industry for socio-economic factors, and that imploring women to leave sex work while ignoring the very real economic consequences does little to improve the lives and experiences of individuals who choose sex work as the best option given the options they perceive as available to them.

For sex-worker advocates, 8 Minutes was emblematic of the rescue industry and its willfully ignorant refusal to acknowledge the complicated factors behind a woman’s decision to sell sex. Even anti-trafficking agencies—rightly viewed by sex-worker advocates as culpable for the conflation of sex work and sex trafficking—criticized the production for the participants’ lack of training and the potential harm of intervening and then offering nothing of substance.

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The term “sex work” was first coined in 1979, the year I was born. Introduced by writer, activist, and self-identified sex worker Carol Leigh, it is an umbrella term used to describe any type of sexual service exchanged for financial gain. Anything from working as a phone sex operator or stripper to working in porn or as a prostitute could be classified as “sex work.” Activists like Leigh argue that the term locates sex work in the realm of work, similar in some ways and dissimilar in others to any other form of labor. Sex work, these activists argue, is work and—like any other job—people do it for the money.

While “rescue” agencies aren’t acknowledging an individual’s choice, as a former sex worker I sometimes fear the sex-worker rights movement over-emphasizes the notion of choice. Positioning sex work as work, a job like any other, is meant to de-stigmatize individuals currently engaging in sex work as well as those of us with a sex-work past. A lot of my own activism has been focused on imploring sex work as a choice, and invoking our sameness to other workers. Our talking points have been largely in reaction to the conflation of sex work with sex trafficking, and the erasure of our agency, which sex workers resent, and less in service of the complex truth.

People sell sex, quite obviously, for the money. But beyond financial necessity, people become and remain sex workers as a result of institutional and familial rejection, and abuse, factors arguably more complicated to escape than a trafficker or pimp. Sex workers are individuals who’ve been systemically locked out of formal economies. We’ve been shut out of private relationships as well, either before or as a result of our participation in the trade. It is an untidy fact for liberals that women as a gender are conditioned to enter sex work, and further conditioned by our work to stay involved in an industry that leaves most of us more vulnerable than before.

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The phrase “pride identity” was used in a case study of Belarusian woman involved in market trade by researcher Olga Sasunkevich. Used to describe how these women occupying low-status positions represent themselves and construct their sense of self, the phrase describes a communicative strategy directed at overcoming a lack of social status and getting social recognition from the audience of a performance. In my own research interviewing sex workers, in 2001, I began to recognize and became frustrated by the inaccuracies and contradictions in the stories I collected. More troubling, as I began telling my own story, I couldn’t help but see the same inaccuracies and contradictions in the meaning I tried to make of my own life.

As a researcher in Europe, I set out to talk substantively about the forces that harm women in the sex trade and how those women were fighting back, as well as the positive aspects of the work that made it all worth it—including, but not limited to, economic factors; and yet, how the political climate affected the lives and experiences of the women I interviewed would become the inadvertent focus of my research, namely because of how difficult the stigma made it to collect data about anything else. So desiring to think and to project an image of themselves as decent, respectable, free-thinking human beings competent of making decisions and running their own lives, the women I interviewed refused to disclose anything that might be construed as evidence to the contrary. How could I blame them? At this time in my life, I couldn’t have either.

Pride identities are a consequence of and compensation for shame, and are not a phenomenon unique to individuals in the sex industry. Though not always the case, research on domestic violence confirms what I, as someone who has worked in crisis counseling, know anecdotally to be true: Individuals do not identify as victims even as we are being victimized.

To be sure, not all sex workers are victimized. But for as long as I sold sex, it was impossible to articulate the ways the job negatively impacted me. To carry on doing what I felt I had to do, and to feel a sense of dignity while doing so, I couldn't admit to feeling disturbed—not even to myself—not even by what was clearly disturbing.

Some women, sometimes for complicated reasons, claim no desire to leave the life. In our current political climate, even women who do view their work negatively and have a desire to exit the industry have nowhere to turn. Whether sex workers love, hate, or feel ambivalent toward their job, the fact is that most don’t intend to work in the industry forever. But the complicated reasons people sell sex are the same complicated reasons that can make it difficult to stop.

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I’ve told the story many times of how I entered into sex work, how I was a student abroad, living in Oaxaca, Mexico, and out of cash, when my credit card hit its limit. An older man set me up with a job at a strip club. It was not trafficking nor was he my pimp; he profited in no way from my work. I was bored and broke. In my mind then, he was doing me a favor.

It is not unusual, as I found in my research, that a woman turns to sex work in a moment of economic desperation, or that a friend introduces the idea. To be sure, I was not “desperate” in the ways some women are, but none of the women that worked at La Trampa were “victims” like you’d see on a rescue industry poster.

For everyone there, sex work was a means of socioeconomic opportunity. That said, my co-workers were not students abroad, like myself. I was pursuing my first of three degrees; the women I worked with had limited formal education, and had come from surrounding regions in Mexico or elsewhere, places there were little other opportunities, and where low wages and patriarchal attitudes precluded them from other kinds of jobs.

In becoming a sex worker, I was rejecting the role of mujer abnegada—the long-suffering woman who sacrifices her own desires and needs for the good and welfare of her husband and children. I was, in many ways, rejecting the life of my own mother. I was going to college (the first in my family), exploring my budding sexuality, and trangressing social norms as teenagers do. It was all very exciting—at first.

For my co-workers, sex work was considered an undesirable but viable way to support themselves and their families. Eighty percent of prostitutes in Mexico are mothers. Had they the opportunity, the women I worked with would have much preferred the life of the sanctified mujer abnegada. Selling sex was as close to this role as they could come.

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For the past four years, I’ve taught creative writing to individuals with experiences in the sex trade, including women who’d identify themselves as victims of trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation. In their stories, I see myself. In many ways, we are very different. Many of my students’ lives are defined by their lack of education. They’re entangled in the system, looking for work. Their housing is precarious. Some are in codependent relationships with men they support. Most are women of color. Some are trans. Though they’re not privileged enough to have been handed careers like the one I had five years ago when I stopped selling sex, some are the same age I was when I made a decision that would define me. They dream of boyfriends and talk of keeping the focus on themselves. Most are mothers, many of whom have lost custody as a result of their involvement in a legal system that views them as criminals. Most weren’t making a political statement; they just wanted to live normal lives.

This is what I've wanted for the past decade. But at 19, the idea of sex work as a subversive and transgressive act—which emerged as part of a series of discourses glorifying sexual practices which were seen to destabilize or “trouble” the categories of sex—was a theory that enticed me. Pro sex industry rhetoric was an improvement on radical feminism’s representation of sex workers as disempowered victims, which fails to recognize women as agents in their own right. For me, claiming that sex work was transgressive was a way of reconciling my identity as a feminist with my chosen occupation.

And yet, I failed to take into account the truth of my experience. For starters, I didn’t make a lot of money as a stripper, I realize today—only a couple hundred dollars a night. Beyond this, the work hadn’t been easy. Whereas I experienced what Foucoult would describe as “moments” of transgression, my experience as a sex worker was that these moments became fewer and farther between. More often, it was, well, as I described in the Huffington Post article—physically demanding and emotionally taxing. Within weeks what was once exciting had turned boringly routine.

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Selling sex is difficult work. Like most service professions, it requires a management of customer’s impressions, and a suppression of one’s self and one’s own needs. As Joanna Brewis and Stephen Linstead articulate in their two-part qualitative study, the boundaries between work and other kinds of intimacy are permeable, and require constant attention. For me, the management of personal and professional identity—along with the emotional expense of keeping my occupation a secret—took a great toll.

Sex workers learn strategies of distancing, disengagement, dissociation, and disembodiment to allow for the separation of their work from their self. This is according to researchers such as Wendy Chapkis and Teela Sanders, and interpreted by the sex workers rights movement as a defense that sex work is non-affecting. Only since transitioning out of the sex industry have I learned that disembodiment is not a good thing. These "coping mechanisms" are maladaptive and consequential. For starters, they're the same instincts that kick in when we experience trauma. And they are "easier" for people who've experienced trauma in the past. If you've experienced sexual assault, it's a lot easier to "shut off" your body.

Without the skills or resources of a supportive community, it became my second job as a sex worker to cope with my sexualized and stigmatized profession—an all-consuming and impossible goal to differentiate my “real” versus “performative” self. Less fortunate sex workers experience overt abuse, while sex workers of all stripes tolerate the rigors of the work, along with the isolation and alienation that comes with the stigma imposed upon us by our professions.

I wrote for Al Jazeera about how, as a sex worker, I had shut down a part of myself in order to survive. In order to find a sense of belonging, I hid aspects of myself and my life from everyone. Whether at work or at home, I was never my true self. Even among other sex workers, I kept negative experiences and aspects of my job that I didn’t like to myself. This is what I thought it meant to be a “sex worker.”

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In her 2000 study, “Feminism, Queer Theory, and the Politics of Transgression,” Elisa Glick investigates the importance of “sex positivity” and transgression as a conceptual feature of feminist and queer discourses, ultimately calling for a new focus on the political and material effects of pro-sexuality. According to Glick, anti-pornographers’ quest for a politically correct “feminist sexuality”—defined as a sexuality purified of male violence and aggression—was replaced by a quest for a sexuality one might deem as politically incorrect. Extrapolating this theory, we may recognize that, while sex work and sex workers were re-valued by pro sex industry rhetoric, the political and economic conditions responsible for the sex worker’s devaluation—including the reasons that brought individuals to sell sex—remain unchallenged.

When pro sex industry feminists speak of sex work as radical or transgressive, the liberation of sex remains positioned as the ultimate feminist goal. Sex-positive sex worker rights organizations inadvertently make sex the issue, instead of focusing on political systems that lead individuals to sell sex. This is the climate within which I became an activist. These are the politics I was given to understand my experience selling sex.

Today’s valorization of sex work among progressives is emblematic of a postmodernist valorization of fragmentation and spectacle, Glick might say, apropos of a capitalistic focus on the individual—“a personal politics that is centered on who we are and how we appear but refuses to acknowledge institutional systems that dominate us.” Indeed, theorists critical of sex positivity argue the sex-positive discourse often reflects its own power and privilege and, at its worst, can be a what bell hooks would call a “celebration of whiteness.” It is also worth highlighting—as Carole-Ann Tyler does, in her essays on camp from Inside/Out: Lesbian Theories, Gay Theories—that what counts as subversive depends on who performs the act.

By ignoring the political and material effects of women’s participation in sex work, and conditions which mediate our experience, rhetoric that describes sex work as empowering and for the political good valorizes an industry at the expense of its workers. Ultimately, I suppressed the negative aspects of my own experience at my own expense.

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At 22, I tried to transition out of sex work for the first time. It was 2002. By all outside appearances, my transition was successful. I had a good job working for a prestigious non-profit. I was in the monogamous relationship I desired. I had earned my degree (thanks, in great part, to stripping).

And yet, even though I had quit dancing and was technically no longer a sex worker, the “sex worker” identity lingered. Inside, I felt dirty, malignant.

I tried to intellectualize these negative feelings away. Morally, I knew there was nothing wrong with sex work. Sex work was not inherently wrong. Sex work is not inherently dangerous. Sex workers don’t deserve to be hurt. But sex workers are hurt, I failed to acknowledge. Sex workers suffer. I was suffering, and by not acknowledging my negative feelings, I was making it worse.

Experts say that human beings experience shame as trauma. If something shaming happens to us, there is an impact on the prefrontal cortex where we think and organize, as well as in the limbic system. “When something shaming happens, time slows down,” writes empathy expert Brene Brown. “Our rational mind abandons us. We become the children we once were.” These feelings, she says, stay with us long after the event.

When my mom had first found out I was working in the sex industry, she confronted me in an email. She said she was humiliated. Whereas a supportive response may have mitigated the impact of my experiences in the industry, my mother’s response was hostile, negative, and shaming. The fear, distrust, and isolation I was already experiencing as an individual working in the sex industry was compounded. My sense of self was shattered. My sense of trust in my mother was irreparably destroyed.

My mother’s withholding of acceptance and support had created within me great feelings of vulnerability and sadness. I lived in constant fear that the man I was currently dating would find out about my past. He and everyone else would discover who I really was, and when they did, I would be rejected.

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Studies describe women in the sex industry as struggling with emotional turmoil, drug and alcohol addiction, poverty, and spiritual disillusionment. Their lived experiences as stigmatized individuals engender feelings of powerlessness, which inhibits their attempts to leave the sex industry. Though not everybody’s experience, this was the case for me. Of course, if anyone had presented me with a study of this nature while I was working in the industry, or even in the first years after I had quit, I would have not so kindly told them to fuck off.

It was after a difficult break-up with a long-term boyfriend that I returned to sex work in 2006, this time as a call girl on Craigslist. At 26, there was nothing rational, economically speaking, about my decision to sell sex. I had a decent job at the time that would have led to even better opportunities had I not quit to become a full-time sex worker. I was emotionally unstable, and frequently disconnected from reality. Shut down and depressed, and having no other strategies for coping, alcohol-fueled sex had become my only mechanism of escape.

It wouldn’t be until years later that I’d begin to recognize how the choices I’ve made in my lifetime are related to my earlier trauma, evidence of a characteristic propensity to re-expose myself as if this time I might master new versions of my earlier pain. Substance abuse, compulsivity, promiscuity, and sex work—excessiveness in all respects, recklessness in every way imaginable—“choices” I made were expressions of fear, mistrust, and self-loathing.

To a certain extent, performing my role as a sex worker felt freeing. And yet, this freedom felt disturbingly familiar. Only when examined years later, years after I left sex work, could I begin to recognize how the freedom of sex work was not unlike the freedom I’d experienced as a kid, being raised by an emotionally absent father and a mother overly concerned by constantly mounting debts, the death of her own mother, and by her failing marriage. The get-rich-quick feeling I got from trading sex for cash reminded me of my upbringing and the warm, excited feeling we’d get when my father came home after a lucky day at the track. The secrecy required of a sex worker mirrored the don’t ask, don’t tell environment I’d grown up in.

Indeed, the degradations of sex work, including the experience of being sexualized, and the otherwise negative experiences I endured as part of the job did not feel that different from how I had been treated at any other time in my life. For me to pretend that this was an act of transgression was, as Glick might refer to it, part passing and part privilege and pathology “masquerading as politics.”

I transitioned out of sex work the second time with the care and support of a 12-step program and therapy, as well as a therapeutic impact of my new career as a public school teacher, which allowed me to work in a desexualized environment while I continued to work at making sense of my experience.

To be sure, there are sex workers who have powerfully strong and authentic social networks. During the time I sold sex, there were and are organizations that present themselves as representing sex workers’ psycho-spiritual needs. There are sex workers who have family, friends, and others that they can be honest with. And yes, I did have some friends who tried to understand. I had many meaningful conversations with co-workers and other women in the industry, including the women I interviewed. In more recent years, I’ve discovered created communities where sex workers’ experiences can be looked at both critically and compassionately. I understand now that these communities probably existed then, but I was not a part of them—and most sex workers, I’d say, aren’t.

Most current, former, and transitioning sex workers are isolated. We are isolated geographically, as well as isolated because of the criminalized and stigmatized nature of the industry. Given the competitive and stigmatized nature of their working environments, few sex workers I met described positive relationships with their peers. Most did not have friends or family aware of their occupations, let alone supportive. Sex workers are set apart from own another and ourselves by internalized stigma and fear. This isolation is affecting in very real ways.

Transitioning from sex work is made all the more difficult by the stigmatized identity imposed upon us by our professions. Critics say people should get out of the sex industry but then shun former sex workers when we do make the transition. We receive little sympathy when we are outed and it is received even more negatively when, as in my case, we out ourselves. But making meaning of our experiences by telling our stories is integral.

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Returning and remaining present in my body, nearly a decade later, is still a daily practice. For a long time, it was no small effort to believe in my self and my worth. When the world has decided you are a whore, and it has no idea what that word really means, it’s a lot easier to accept this than to fight all by yourself for something else.

That was how I must’ve felt when I said, Yeah, sure, I’ll do it. In my mind, I had already spent the money I’d earned. Some weeks in advance of the night I was supposed to meet my friend’s boyfriend’s best friend and have sex for $1,000, they re-scheduled. They re-scheduled for a night I had a third date planned with a guy I had just started seeing. He was someone I was excited to be potentially starting a relationship with, a relationship that would have been greatly compromised if I had canceled to have sex with someone else. Even so, I said yes. I just won’t tell him, I figured. But they canceled again, this time for good.

I want to say that—eight years after the last time I had sex for money—I wouldn’t consider another offer under any circumstances, but that’s just not true. If I found myself desperate, as I have felt at other times in my life—unable to house and feed myself—I would go back to sex work. In a second. That is the reality of the sex industry for many. It is an undesirable solution to problems, but it’s a solution just the same. Those problems can’t be cured in eight minutes. Even with all my advantages, it has taken me eight years.

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