Supposedly sex work is “easy money,” but as long as our society remains hung up about money and sex, it’s going to be hard work. Most people might think of sex work as a physical grind, but usually it’s not especially challenging. Besides, most job titles require our bodies do things they don’t want to do, whether it’s cutting hair, writing code, or mining coal. No, the toll sex work takes, the heavy lifting it requires, is emotional. Our job is managing stress, anxiety, anguish, loneliness, lust, and rage—other people’s and our own. Emotional labor can be defined as the effort workers put into checking their emotional reactions within a professionally acceptable range. In sex work, that expands to account for a sex worker’s responsibility for the positive emotional state of their clients, as well.
That makes for a whole lot of crazy, no way around it. Let’s start with the fact that sex work can be intoxicating—after all, we’re selling pleasure. Our job is to dress up naughty, strip down naked, and talk dirty. We experience the rush of turning people on. For many of us, the fast money and easy sensuality can make the normal world seem deadly dull.
At the same time, while we’re in that exposed, unsettled state, we navigate weirdness, negativity, and potential violence. Our workplaces are unnatural, time bending, and boundary-warping. Dungeons, strip clubs, and brothels are soaked in drugs, alcohol, loud music, and bad behavior. We face hypocrisy, bigotry, and slut-shaming on a daily basis. We’re casualties of our culture’s warped ideas about beauty and pleasure and fantasy, and what they’re “worth.” Most of us don’t get much support, living in secrecy and silence with few role models. It can be hard to find people to talk to who can fully relate. No question, sex work can be scary, disgusting, lonely, shaming, and thankless.
Well, that is just not okay. Sex workers deserve better. Here’s what I want for you:
- To love the work you’re doing. Most days, in most ways, I want fulfillment for your body, heart, mind, soul, and bank account.
- To have a retirement plan. You can only do this work voluntarily if you have the choice not to do it. And when/if you do leave, I’d like you to transition gracefully into something that genuinely inspires you.
If either of those goals seems impossible, let’s stop for a moment. Why do you think that? What’s holding you back? What’s poisoning your happiness? How is this work possible with more comfort and ease? This book will explore these questions from every angle, because sex work shouldn’t just be survivable, but thrivable. (Not a word, but shouldn’t it be?)
Thriving in Sex Work
“Thriving” can be a loaded term, so let me be clear about how I’m using it. The goal of this book is to address well-being in all aspects of our lives, including feeling healthy, financially secure, at peace with ourselves, and connected to loved ones. When I talk about thriving in sex work, I mean:
1. You love yourself; you love your life.
2. You take care of your health and have interest in physical pleasure.
3. You have time and energy for outside interests.
4. You have love in your life.
5. You have a personal support network that gets you and your decision to be a sex worker.
6. You have a professional support network.
7. Your clients provide you with the money and gratification you deserve.
8. You understand, weigh, and make conscious decisions about the risks you take.
9. You have a financial plan.
10. You choose to do sex work.
These are lofty goals, and I don’t want this list to feel like The Big Impossible. As they say, you can have everything you want in life; you just can’t have it all at once. You are not a failure if you don’t have everything all figured out right now. My hope is this book helps you get to where you want to go.
Overview of Thriving in Sex Work
Before we can discuss the life we want, first we have to get clear about the challenges we face. As I mentioned before, the job is profoundly emotional—at any given moment, sex work can trigger fear, shame, low self-esteem, anger, and envy in our coworkers, our clients, and ourselves. I call those negative emotions “demons.”
In Part One of this book, I discuss the dynamics of each of these demons beginning with fear, because no joy is possible without safety. It’s important to make friends with fear, to harness it to work for us, rather than against us. I’ll take you step-by-step through basic self-care of mind and body. Next we’ll turn to shame and stigma, examining why sexuality can make us feel so bad about ourselves. We’ll tackle low self-esteem, insecurities, and feelings of being old and ugly. Then we’ll look at anger, which can feel delicious and energizing, but has the power to take over our lives. We’ll finish with envy, an emotion so taboo that we hardly ever talk about it, but wanting what somebody else has drives all kinds of terrible behavior in the sex industry. Along the way, I’ll share stories and provide exercises. If nothing else, know that you’re not the only one to feel these things, and that there are ways to get to the other side.
In Part Two, I turn to what I call the “tools of the trade.” Money, clients, and the industry itself can stir all kinds of emotions. I’ll explore how money impacts us emotionally, how to manage time, and how to attract great clients. I’ll offer advice on budgeting, keeping your money safe, and not letting technology drive you crazy, as well as dispel some of the most destructive myths of the industry.
In Part Three, I’ll cover self-care and managing life’s ups and downs. Our bodies are our livelihood, so we need strategies for those times when we get hungry, tired, lonely, bored, and depressed, as well as getting through the winter holidays and other slowdown periods. Part Four is dedicated to navigating the special challenges of romantic relationships, and I make a special plea to never forget that pleasure is our birthright.
Finally, in Part Five, I discuss life after the Life. What to expect, what to prepare for, how to cope with long-term consequences. How to transition gracefully into other enterprises, translating the skills we’ve acquired in sex work into the rest of our meaningful, rewarding lives.
Strategies for Thriving in Sex Work
Only when we see challenges clearly can we tackle them with skill. As sex workers, we need to pay special attention to our emotional health. A core premise of this book is that when we feel bad, first we have to get our heads right—only then do we take action. We get into trouble when we allow emotions to dominate our decision-making. I was angry and fearful so much of the time I worked—a client or coworker could leave me shaking with a throwaway comment. I look back and realize how destructive all that churning was. My younger self didn’t know how to sit with negative emotions guided by curiosity and self-love. This book offers both practical and heartfelt advice on how to cope better.
I’m a firm believer in boundaries, or the limits one sets on one’s behavior and others in order to maintain one’s dignity and sense of self. These can be consciously stated, such as, “No sex without a condom,” or, “No texts after midnight,” or an unstated, internal limit that is only known once it’s been breached. The sex industry profits from the myth that we’re available for anything, but only by knowing and enforcing our rules can we keep ourselves healthy, protected, and sane.
I talk quite a bit about burnout, and offer ways to keep the work vital and fresh. When we don’t take care of ourselves, we shut down, making the work torture. While I don’t have research to back this up, I believe burnout is one of the top reasons sex workers leave the industry.
Additionally, I believe in setting goals. For the record, I don’t believe positive thinking is the solution to problems. Plenty of bad things happen that we have no control over, and the idea we can avoid them with happy thoughts is magical thinking. However, setting clear objectives through visualization, writing, talking, and making art is like GPS programing, telling our minds where we want to go. Imagining what we want our lives to look like is the first step to realizing those ambitions.
Definitions, Pronouns, and Gendered Terms
This book is for sex professionals, so I presume most of the terms I use will be familiar to you. However, definitions matter. Terms defined in the appendix will be formatted like so: sex worker the first time I use them.
Just so we’re all on the same page, I use the terms “sex worker,” “adult performer,” “erotic laborer,” and “sexy professional” to mean a person of any gender performing sexual services or providing sexual products in exchange for money or other things of value. As a blanket term, “sex worker” includes strippers, BDSM professionals, porn actors and cammers, Sugar Babies, and prostitutes in the aggregate. I name specific occupations when referring to their particular dynamics. I use “sex industry,” “sex trade,” “adult industry,” and “erotic labor,” interchangeably. However, I use the terms “the Biz” and “the Life” specifically: the mindset of living as a sex worker from direct participatory experience, rather than as an abstract concept or observed from a distance. They stand in contrast to the “straight” or “normal” world, meaning life outside the sex industry.
If you’ve ever done sex work or identified as a sex worker, I sincerely hope you find yourself in these pages. I tried to craft each line with every age, gender, orientation, race, class, and ability in mind. Although it would have been easy to refer to sex workers as female and clients as male, that erases the identity spectrum of sex workers and clients alike. Turns out when you address an advice book directly to the reader, there’s a simple solution to the problem of gendered pronouns: eliminate them altogether and use “you(r)(s)” and “we/us/our” instead.
However, certain terms I use are traditionally gendered. “Slut” and “whore” for instance, casually thrown around in queer communities, historically have a special power when directed at cisgender females. Likewise, “Brazen Hussy,” or someone who is out as a sex worker or other sexual minority to engage in activism, doesn’t always translate across genders or sexualities. I use these terms because they connote powerful archetypes that I hope can hold emotional truths for everyone.
Then there’s the question of what to call people who pay for commodified sexuality. Terms like “tricks” or “johns” are often used as slurs, perpetuating the notion that in every sex work transaction, someone is despicable. So, my blanket term for anyone who pays for sexual services is “client.” Strip clubs have “patrons.” Porn stars have “fans.” And while not all clients who use the services of BDSM professionals are submissive, I use the catchall term “sub” for dungeon clientele. Why don’t I use the term “customer”? Customers purchase goods; clients hire service providers. Sex workers offer their time, attention, and performances, not themselves.
As for pronouns for clients, the vast majority of clientele is cisgender male, no question, but plenty of trans* people and cisgender women patronize sex workers. Just as importantly, clients identify in session as gay and straight, trans*, cross-dressers, animals, aliens, even objects. Simply referring to them by their straight world presentation doesn’t capture everything that goes on in pay-for-play exchanges. The trans* community offers many new, exciting pronouns, but I decided “they/their/them” are the most accessible to the average reader. I use them for clients, sex workers, lovers, coworkers, lawyers, police officers, and everyone else in this book. To all you grammarians out there gnashing your teeth, please recognize that our language is changing: thanks to gender radicals, we’re learning that each of us, especially in our sex lives, contains multitudes.
This book is all about messy stuff like sex, money, and emotions, so somewhere along the way, something I say will likely strike a nerve and hurt, frighten, or anger you. Things to keep in mind:
- Sex work varies wildly from person to person, and there is no “right” way to talk about or do sex work. There is no universal understanding of the work or the industry. I’ve tried to make my observations as broad as possible, but there will be times when you don’t see yourself reflected here.
- I was a highly privileged sex worker. My observations and advice will most likely be most relevant to those with similar advantages: working voluntarily, independently, indoors, with disposable income, internet access, and community.
- I won’t have all the answers. What worked for me may not work for you. My analyses, opinions, and suggestions may seem completely off the mark, and that’s valid.
Everything I offer is in the spirit of starting a conversation as a peer, not dictating as an expert. Take what’s helpful, and by all means, set the rest aside.
Be warned—I’ll repeat certain advice again and again: Trust your instincts. Save your money. Happy clients equal a happy business. Self-care is essential. Don’t beat yourself up. I do this because some of you will hop around and won’t read this cover-to-cover, and I don’t want anyone to miss out. Just as important, there are some messages we can never hear enough.
Sex Work and Consent
This book is intended for adults engaged in safe, sane, and consensual (SSCA) sex work, with an emphasis on consensual. I don’t presume to advise victims of sex trafficking, people pimped under fear of violence or deportation, or anyone working to feed a habit.
The concept of consensuality in sex work is contested; it certainly isn’t black-and-white. Many of us grind along in jobs we hate because of limited employment options, and there is no way to argue survival sex is voluntary. But some see no possibility for consent in sex work ever. Anti-prostitution activists insist all sex work is exploitation by definition: because the work can be dangerous, stigmatized, degrading, and dehumanizing, it can never be compensated for like a straight job.
I believe blanket exploitation arguments are misguided. Sex work doesn’t inherently harm, degrade, or otherwise diminish anyone. As I see it, sex is a normal human function. It’s not intrinsically bad or dirty. Adults should have the right to be sexual however and with whomever they please. At the same time, no one should have sex with anyone they don’t want to. Some people need or want to pay for sexuality; others are willing to provide it. As long as both client and sex worker act freely, whatever they negotiate is simply a labor exchange, not exploitation.
Sex work in all its forms, including prostitution, should be legal, meaning decriminalized. At the same time, I believe there ought to be fearsome laws fully enforced against anyone who profits off someone else’s sexuality without their consent: nonconsensual sex work is commodified rape. I acknowledge there is tension in those two positions, but they aren’t incompatible. Voluntary sex workers should enjoy the full protection of the law; traffickers deserve to rot in prison. I stand in solidarity with all sex workers, and hold a special place in my heart for those working against their will. I look to the day when we all can work free of intimidation and recrimination.
Who is a “Sex Worker,” What It Means, Where We Meet
“Sex worker” and “sex work” were terms coined around 1979 by activist Carol Leigh, also known as the Scarlot Harlot, Unrepentant Whore. Defining prostitution and pornography as the labor of sex was a radical notion at the time. When I first entered the adult industry in 1990, it hadn’t caught on yet. If anyone used “sex worker” at all, it meant “prostitute.”
There was good reason for that. In that era, workers in the adult industry tended to be loyal only to their own. Strippers insisted on the term “exotic dancers,” thank you very much. Porn actors affiliated with the film industry. Pro doms held themselves out as different because they kept their clothes on, but to much of the rest of the world, they were deviant freaks. And everyone shunned the prostitutes. Even if you worked in a strip joint or made pornos, by god, at least you weren’t a whore.
Happily, in the past twenty-five years, there is greater solidarity throughout the industry. One measure of that trend is the term “sex worker” now does the political lifting that “queer” does in the LGBTQ community. It takes on stigma from across the spectrum. It’s a label that says, Think what you want about “People Like That.” I’m one of them, too. Of course, divisions and distrust still remain. Deep rifts run along race, gender, and class lines, as well as the ability to conform to beauty norms. We ignore and talk past one another. And prostitution remains taboo, especially working outside.
Additionally, there are many other sex industry-related job titles: adult video store employee, dildo maker, fetish designer, porn producer, phone sex operator, erotica writer, condom tester, and so on. These workers may face stigma and danger due to their job titles, but may not be readily included in discussions of sex work concerns. Whether or not you identify as a sex worker, if you work in the Biz and grapple with negative consequences, I hope my advice is helpful.
I’m always so proud to hear fellow sex workers come out, telling their stories; however, many of us don’t have that freedom. Most writings on sex work are by white, diplomaed, able-bodied, conforming, cisgender female authors like myself. I promise to always try to be mindful of my privilege, aware that not everyone is in a position to follow my advice.
Having said that, if you picked up this book, you must have seen something of yourself in the title. Let me meet you there, in that place where we are not the same, but can share. May you find something you’re looking for.