Love in the time of sex work: dating as a sex worker

 

We can all agree that Pretty Woman does not offer realistic sex worker dating advice – that is hard to find in any film – but for me, Jane Fonda as Bree in Klute comes close. Granted, Klute is a thriller, not a romantic comedy, but sex worker Bree stands her ground, articulates her feelings and needs, and makes no promise that she will leave sex work. Genuine sex worker romance on screen is very limited, and when it does appear tends to reflect the belief that long term monogamous relationships are the pinnacle of intimacy and romantic fulfilment, and that it’s cool to date a sex worker as long as they ultimately leave sex work behind. This isn’t a novel critique, but when thinking about sex work and dating, I find it useful to first acknowledge our individual and societal values around romance and relationship forms.

I thought about splitting this article into two sections – the first for monogamous, more heterosexual dating, the other for the more queer, polyamory aligned. Of course there are plenty of LGBTQ+ monogamous relationships too, making the division somewhat arbitrary. I’ve done a lot of all the above, and the bad news is that people with otherwise radical sexual politics can be just as problematic as anyone else when it comes to their partner having sex with others as part of their job. The good news is that the mess of love, sex, and partnerships does not discriminate between straight and gay, open or closed, and if we can all get the mess, we can all get the joy as well. 

This brief introduction to dating for sex workers is mostly based on my experiences rather than a comprehensive study. Your mileage may vary. It is here to illuminate some common problem zones and strategies to navigate them, because sex work can bring up contradictory feelings for people. Whorephobia can hide itself, even if someone wants to be an ally on a conscious level, or thinks dating a sex worker is cool or scores them points in some way. We are cool, but that isn’t a reason to date us. 

I’ve split this post into sections: coming out, communication, sex, and break ups 

Coming out to a crush/date/lover

People in queer spaces have an advantage here, as more people tend to be out as sex workers in queer communities. Potential dates may well know other sex workers, or even already know that you are a sex worker (gossip is real). But that doesn’t mean you have to tell a potential partner straight away about your work, or its specifics. 

If your social circle doesn’t seem to include other sex workers, know that this doesn’t mean people will react badly, or that they don’t know other sex workers. We are everywhere. Nonetheless, coming out as a sex worker can be incredibly scary, and is always an act of faith. In that case testing the waters before going all in is a good option. Be it watching a film together with sex worker characters, and asking probing questions, or taking someone on a date to Wellington Museum, lingering by Dame Catherine Healy’s Umbrella. Once a dear friend, 65 years old and religious, asked me if I would ever be an escort – it was an invitation to say yes that I was truly grateful for. This kind of question is equally effective if turned around to scope out the terrain. 

No one is obliged to out themselves, but the reality is that fear of disclosure can coexist with strong desire to do so. This is where it can be helpful to think early in the piece about what you want from a relationship or date, what kind of relationship it is now and what it could be, how you feel about keeping secrets, how big a part of your life sex work is, and how much emotion and intimacy you want to share before talking about sex work. 

Sharing this part of your life also requires a discussion about what can be shared with others. I’ve had a partner who was proud to tell their mates I was a sex worker, for example, but refused to tell their family because they thought their family would think less of them (them!). Conversely, I’ve had someone tell their family without talking to me first about it. Both their families were fine about it –  I was not fine with either of my partners, both of whom definitely knew better. None of this was the end of the world, but a reminder nonetheless to spell out boundaries and expectations with people you have confided in. 

Communication

Prejudice around sex work can be really ingrained, and most people haven’t had to do the work of  undoing that. People can be on board with the idea of their partner being a sex worker as long as it is theoretical, or as long as it is ‘just’ massage, or domination, or if they don’t offer the ‘girlfriend experience’. This reflects the idea that penis-in-vagina sex is the most real, intimate form of sex. It also stems from centuries of anti-sex worker stigma, which equates receiving payment for sex as a kind of loss of value, as well as casting the sex worker as a fundamentally performative person. This stigma can be felt  in queer relationships too, where insecurities can still exist even if they are expressed in different ways, or stem from different fears about sex work. 

Countering internalised stigma in partners requires some proactive and committed communication. Some tips:

  • Take conversations gently and slow, but put boundaries in place around what you will or won’t talk about if need be.

  • If you can, schedule harder conversations about sex work to a time and space which is not sex adjacent. If something comes up during sex, for either or you, say so, or take a break. And if it doesn’t feel safe saying why, you don’t have to. Feeling comfortable interrupting sex can take some practice, but is worth it.

  • Don’t take insecurity or jealousy personally. It is not yours to carry. This isn’t the same as letting someone treat you badly.

  • Do set limits on what you will or won’t do to make things easier for the other person, including how much emotional labour or education you are willing to provide, and for how long.

  • Encourage your partner /date to do their own work on their issues with sex work, without you. See the end of this post for some good resources for partners.

  • Check in with yourself on a regular basis if conflict or more subtle pressure around sex work doesn’t seem to be shifting in a positive direction.

  • Active communication can produce stronger emotional intimacy and beautiful relationships. But all the conversations in the world are not enough if change is not happening. 

Sometimes the impediment to healthy communication in relationships is not a raging argument about postponing dinner to take a booking, for example, but pressure to not talk about work at all, or pressure to disclose less or more than what you feel comfortable doing. If someone has a challenging day at a vanilla job, or a really good day, it is generally a solid expectation to be able to talk about it. Sex workers deserve to have someone ask about their day and mean it, which is why sex worker community is so important, and why a good brothel is a godsend. Colleague support notwithstanding, sex workers deserve to have romantic relationships where they don’t have to hide or play down their experiences and feelings. 

This should be differentiated from the pressure to talk about potentially traumatising events, or  excessive sexual detail. Just like paramedics shouldn’t be asked about the worst accident they have attended, sex workers don’t owe anyone stories.

Personal Sex VS Work Sex 

A romantic relationship doesn’t need to be defined by sex. But let’s acknowledge it can be a critical part of the whole, and that, as a sex worker, there can be heightened pressure to have instantly great sex, to be ‘good’ at it, and to have a lot of it. That pressure can come from us, but it can also come from our lovers.

A few years ago Scarlet Alliance in Australia made a video about dating sex workers (see links below), where someone said “No matter how many times I say yes to an appointment, yes to a client, or yes to certain sex acts with my clients, I still have a right to say no to you”. This has stuck with me, because I’ve seen this play out in so many relationships, both queer and straight.  

While it is true that learning to communicate around sexual desires at work can be hugely beneficial to personal relationships, sex workers don’t owe dates or partners sex, or a particular kind or frequency of sex. Yes, sex work can change personal sex drive, but not in a fixed or universal way. Sometimes it can increase it, other times, someone might not want sexual intimacy at all for a certain amount of time. What matters is how desire is talked about between partners, and if a ‘no’ is respected and met with care, and whether or not whorephobia is used against a person asserting sexual boundaries. 

Sex drives shift in all relationships, that isn’t unique to sex workers. Physical intimacy and sensual touch is also a varied thing. What do you need after work? A massage? A run or a bath? Sex? Food? Some solitude? Limits and wants can be very different at work than at home, and that doesn’t make one kind of sex or physical intimacy better than another. Sex workers are good at approaching sex with curiosity and non-judgement, but it can be hard to include our own desires and drives in that. 

This self-empathetic curiosity might look like asking yourself if you need different kinds of sex in your personal life to that with clients. This includes needs to do with the physical and psychological spaces surrounding sex. I.e. Some people find different lighting and scents effective in producing a psychological shift, while others don’t need that at all. Conversely, it’s not unusual to have similar sexual likes and dislikes across work and personal sex life, because kissing someone in a casual encounter at work is not the same as kissing a lover, even if both are good. This is probably one of the biggest points that dates or partners might just not get – unless the partner is also a sex worker. 

Safer sex can also be an area where whorephobia is projected. The conflation of sex workers with infection is really, really old and persistent, even though sex workers are more invested than anyone in safer sex. This is particularly frustrating when many of those questioning the practices and sexual health status of a sex worker do not get regular checks themselves. All the above can make navigating sexual health conversations incredibly frustrating, but can also be used as an opportunity to discuss what your safer sex boundaries are in a personal relationship, and to get partners to take a proactive approach to their own sexual health. STIs are not a personal failure, the issues are that they put a sex worker out of being able to work while being treated, and that not knowing about exposure to an infection means delay in treatment, which can have serious consequences. So talk about safer sex expectations with your lovers, including the responsibility for all sexual partners to get tested on a regular basis, not just the sex workers. It doesn’t hurt, honestly.

Break ups

This is very intentionally not a guide telling you to break up with your lover if they do XYZ. That advice doesn’t work anyway. Nonetheless I urge everyone, no matter the context, to be brave, to trust and honour yourself if you recognise something has to change.

And if you do want or need to break it off with someone, don’t hesitate to get support if you need it, even if it is a counsellor (the NZPC will be able to suggest some sex worker friendly ones) rather than a friend. 

Finally, be aware that even if someone has been ‘OK’ with sex work during a relationship, it doesn’t mean they will be afterwards. Whorephobia is an easy way to lash out after a break up, for one. If you are worried, please reach out to friends, sex worker colleagues, or the NZPC.

Further reading / viewing:  

Ho Lover, a zine made in the UK, can be downloaded from The Sex Worker Advocacy and Resistance Movement website. While it is aimed at lovers and friends of sex workers, it is a pretty good resource for sex workers too.   (https://www.swarmcollective.org/zine)

Every Ho I Know Says So, Scarlet Alliance https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FTdBXLCo1Qk

Wendy-o-matic’s ‘Redefining Our Relationships: Guidelines for Responsible Open Relationships’ is a classic book on open relationships, with some practical advice around communication, jealousy, and boundaries.  I recommend it for sex workers too, even though, and I cannot stress this enough, sex work itself does not render a relationship open. 

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