23 Things I Wish I'd Known: #19: Sex Work is Never Just About Sex
At age 22, I started stripping. For the next fifteen years I worked off and on as a dominatrix, porn actress, and escort.
Now I’m 49.
Here are 23 things I know now that I wished I’d known then:
#19 It’s never just about sex. (Well, hardly ever…)
Far more than is popularly realized, sexual activity is the means to gain or maintain important psychological feelings, and a challenge to one’s sexuality is often a personal threat. Self-esteem, closeness, feelings of competence, and well-being— these are the feelings sought from sex during modern times. —Leonore Tiefer, from Sex is Not a Natural Act & Other Essays
When it comes to sex work, many of us can have big blind spots about what truly motivates clients. One of the biggest misunderstandings is that it’s purely about achieving an orgasm—clients want that one thing, that one thing only, and they don’t care about anything else in order to get it. That’s just not the case.
First off, when it comes to the sex industry, by definition the exchange is also about money. So much emotional baggage comes with paying for sexuality. We’re taught from a very young age, over and over again in thousands of different ways, that sexual gratification is something we should get by looking fine, smelling good, and all the rest. To set that conditioning aside to pull out one’s wallet to start shelling out bills is a huge journey in and of itself. But setting that huge topic aside, there is more to paid sexuality than just the giving and the getting of it.
Regardless of what kind of sex work you do, from phone sex to full service and everything in between, one of the most precious things we offer is connection. It’s a vital commodity. Think about for a second just how bizarre it is that there’s a constant need for new porn-- it’s not like there’s anything new under the sun. Who cares if someone is wanking off to a video from 1999 or three weeks ago?
The need for porn-from-the-now is the desire to feel connected to the act, to the people performing it. A scene from two decades ago might be plenty hot, but it loses the possibility that you might ever be lucky enough to walk into it, or tweet to the participants afterwards. The sexual imagination needs to be able to bridge that gulf between what’s actually happening and what might someday, somehow be possible.
Buying sexuality is also about power. After all, when you’re the paying customer, you get to ask for exactly what you want, rather than negotiating with a partner, and can you get any higher than having sex just for yourself?
Finally, there’s this notion that sex work is all about fulfilling fantasies. Clients may be looking for fantasy, sure—they’ll take fantasy, because that’s what we offer, and they’ll take what they can get. But deep down, many clients are on a hunt for the real, albeit in a fantasy, sometimes fantastical, setting. This is why a sex worker’s ability to be present and authentic is so potent, and why clients will pay top dollar for it, regardless of your age or appearance.
There are those times when a client is simply looking for release, and would rather do it with someone else involved, then be done. I call it “emotionally hygienic.” But most often, there are other important motivations at play; understanding them is key to building a loyal clientele.
I’ve got so much more to say on why clients do what they do in my book, Thriving in Sex Work: Heartfelt Advice for Staying Sane in the Sex Industry, out in paperback and as an ebook.
Until next time, be sweet to yourself—
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