“Aren’t you afraid of running into your clients?”
I hear some variation on “clients are scary dangerous creeps, you are always at risk of victimization” from just about everyone. It’s a wholly inaccurate but nevertheless totally pervasive stereotype. Stereotypes about my safety and the (completely misperceived) risks of my job are my #1 frustration about being a sex worker. In fact this makes me so angry that I haven’t been able to publish anything about it until now.
Meet My Client
He is a walk in the park. I’m a woman providing a hands-on service so yes, they’re sometimes annoying or demanding but mostly I have fun with guys who are sweet and amusingly different than anyone else in my life. What’s so scary about giving a handjob to a 22 year old virgin while talking about the economic theories of Milton Friedman? (That was Jonathan, client #2 last Friday night).
Clients are usually intimidated or at least polite and friendly. Some are outright worshipful. It can be a relief to spend time with someone who just hands their power over to me. I have something they want and can refuse to provide it. Perhaps unlike their wives or girlfriends, I set limits, refuse requests, make demands or sweetly manipulate the bill$ right out of them. Afraid of clients? Please. These dudes have just put down somewhere between $150-1000 in the hopes of having a nice time. At least they know that they can kiss their girlfriends. Whereas with us hos, ya never know. Some will break your heart with their beauty and tenderness, some will tell you to go fuck yourself for thinking you could touch their breasts. More than anything, clients desperately want you to sincerely like and desire them. For that and a host of other reasons, they are a bit (or very) afraid of us. I monitor and manage my client’s behaviour and I have no fear of them whatsoever.
When I worked in Canada, I was definitely more nervous about doing outcalls where I couldn’t control or predict the environment. Because I knew sex workers who’d been assaulted, I was aware of the risk of violence—but I also knew it was a small risk. When I work in Canada again, I’ll likely do incalls as I know the risks are smaller. Here in Australia, I just don’t give it a second thought. I feel safe. I know that at some point I might have a physically coercive experience but my chances are much lower than if I were in nursing or home care—or married. Why? Because JUST LIKE YOU my work is safe or dangerous in direct proportion the amount of control I have over it and THAT usually maps closely along lines of social and economic privilege I have. As a white working class cis woman who is not poor and is housed and works indoors, I get more say over my work. (Outdoor workers face a *fuckton* more police abuse where I’m from). So I get more safety.
But no matter how many times I say “actually, clients are nice”, there remains this self-serving misunderstanding about who is a danger to me and other sex workers. It’s everyone but my clients that I fear. There is nothing intrinsically exploitative about sex when it’s paid and nothing intrinsically dangerous about our clients.
Meet The Rest Of The World
Here in Australia, far from home, I come out to folks all the time about being a sex worker. I love how coming out instantly and massively transforms the person’s ideas about sex workers—but it’s a seriously emotionally confronting experience. Everything stops. They don’t believe me, their eyes bug out and their mouths fall open, they can’t speak. It’s full on. The stronger their stereotypes about sex workers, the more intense the shock and disbelief. The funniest part is when I have to convince people. (“No, I’m serious. I really am a hooker.”)
Whenever this happens, I am taking a risk and sometimes it fails. I’ve had people freak out, walk away and most commonly, ask me disgusting, insulting, invasive and hurtful questions. People break up with me, my mom found out and notified other family members that I was a drug addict now (and so what if I was? why would this make worth less?) and on an on. This is a reminder: As far as “risk” goes, my non sex-working friends, lovers, activist communities, colleagues, doctors, journalists, and strangers are the real danger to me. It’s cops, government, whore-hatin’ prohibitionist feminists and policy makers. It’s academics who think it appropriate to speak on our behalf, racist immigration officials who conduct raids to “rescue” (aka arrest) Asian women only, children’s “protection” agencies who take the kids of sex workers, public health officials who patronize us even though we practice safer sex than non-sex workers, it’s the dangerous benevolence of aid agencies like the UN who claim that migrant sex workers are incapable of consenting to sex work (!!!)
My friends, family and lovers—you are the most important people to me. It’s precisely because I feel so connected to you, because I value our relationships so much that this is where the real risk lies for me. If a client kind of annoys me, I forget about it minutes later. But what you think, say and do matters to me. A client has never refused to kiss me because I might be contagious-dirty-ho or asked me if I find my work disgusting or degrading. Friends have. A radio interview once took me days to recover from. I’m still a bit irritated by comments that lovers made nearly two years ago and if my dad doesn’t email me back quickly enough I worry that he’s avoiding me because he disapproves (I came out to him last year).
Most of the time I feel amazingly supported and understood by the folks around me. I am so grateful that my friends get it (or want to get it) and I can relax and forget about how weird and alien I am to everyone else. How many hookers get to come out to their dad?! And queer sex workers are my saving grace. I can come home and talk about work. I can make jokes about how I’m supposed to arrange the towels at my brothel or scoring money for extras. It’s part the luck of being queer and part that I have crafted this community around me.
It’s You I’m Afraid Of
Folks want to be supportive but sometimes they don’t get it and that’s OK. I don’t expect people to know everything—I’m still learning too! But you should know that when you don’t get it, it can really sting or, I’ll be honest, irritate the shit out of me.
So it’s you that I sometimes protect myself from. It’s you who I will avoid or go silent with because I just don’t want to deal with how disappointed I feel. It’s you that I write for and to. It’s you that I want on my side. You are the ones who’s judgments, stereotypes, awkward silences and ill-informed questions I watch out for. It’s you I’m afraid of because you are the dangerous ones.
On Being Safe
I know you want me to be safe because you care about me. But when you say “be safe”, who do you think we sex workers need to protect ourselves from? Were you thinking about all the times we’re beat up by our boy or girlfriends? Tokenized, treated like a pariahs, refused visas, criminalized, researched like a bug, had others speak for us, caricatured in the media, asked totally offensive invasive questions, had our sanity and humanity questioned, our skills erased and ridiculed, risked arrest, deportation, eviction and (in my family) the threat of losing child custody? Were you thinking about the burden of secrecy from my family, or how many times I’ve tried to refute the same stereotypes over and over, and what it’s like to be told by a friend that I’m damaged? Is that what you meant? Did you mean safe from you?
The Imaginary Victimized Sex Worker
Everyone (in particular people who see themselves as sex work allies) wants to find the Imaginary Victimized Sex Worker. If it isn’t me, it must be street workers or youth or people who work for drugs or are trafficked (and of course people imagine sex trafficking is happening ALLTHETIIIIME!!). It isn’t. People are confused about this because they forget about the “work” part and only see the S-E-X part. Think of any other industry, for example the manufacturing, hospitality or agriculture. Some settings are good and respectful. People have their little farms or run a local restaurant chain in ways that are respectful and sustainable. Others are shitty and abusive. Massive agri-corporations poison the shit out of migrant workers (including kids) who’ve been displaced by american capitalist imperialism while allowing them to be deported (or die) when they’re no longer useful. Just like me, alot about how bad or good your work is maps pretty clearly onto your social and economic privilege. But no one says that we ought to outlaw farming or restaurants because these industries are inherently violent and the workers are too clueless to advocate for themselves. Seeing all sex workers as victims–and not workers who experience a range of workplace and non-workplace risks–legitimizes some of the worst abuses sex workers face. It is a strategy governments use all the time to justify increased policing, surveillance and deportations. So don’t take this lightly. Talking about safety and danger is really loaded because the impacts of these stereotypes and mystifications about us range from annoying to life-destroying.
I can be guilty of this too. When a sex work organizer told me about the brothels where mainly Thai and Chinese women work for much discounted rates, I immediately responded negatively. “oh, that sucks for them!”. “No, actually they do fine because at those rates, more clients come in”. And in that instant I could see how my racism and whore-phobia intertwined. Here they were—the Imaginary Victimized Sex Workers! And of course, they’re not white or western! Do I think the Chinese woman who offers cheaper pedicures in my neighborhood is victimized? No. I know that patriarchal anti-Asian racism are why her skills are less valued than the expensive white-owned salons. I also don’t erase her agency in choosing the best work for herself. I’m a privileged worker. This does not make me the only sex worker who exercises any agency in my work and is not victimized by my clients. In capitalist economies we all work within the limits on our consent. WE ARE WORKERS, NOT VICTIMS.
High Risk Lifestyles of the Married and Cohabitating
What is demonstrably more dangerous than sex work is intimate partnership. Domestic violence by men is the number one cause of death and injury to Australian women. This affects sex workers too. Though I know many sex workers who have never experienced client violence, but of the women sex workers I know who date men, we have ALL experienced male partner violence. So when your sister tells you that she’s moving in with her boyfriend, do you tell her to “be safe”? Would you refuse to have your friend’s wedding at your home given how you know domestic partnership to be a proven “high-risk lifestyle”? Would you let me work out of your guest room? Would you drive me to a call? Would you be my security back up without assuming I’m about to go see an axe-murderer? Would you be comfortable if my clients knew where you lived? If not, why not? If I could do any of this with a new lover but not a client, why do you think that only money makes these men dangerous? I’d like to hear your explanation.
I don’t love my clients but they’re fine. (Actually, the question of love is a complicated one but for now, we’ll keep it simple). They’re just like every other dude, except that they consider my time and sexual skill worth hundreds of dollars—making them in fact better than your average guy. Non sex workers sometimes insist that their brother/friend/teacher/boss would never be a client. They’re dreaming. That’s precisely who my clients are. So if you don’t fear them then you’ll understand why I don’t either.