Harlotry: better than sex work

Cathryn Berarovich is something of a renaissance sex worker; she was until recently employed as a stripper but has held numerous interesting jobs in the industry (and she’s currently an excellent columnist on this very website). Each week, she shares her stories in Harlotry.

Ever since I decided to be a sex worker, people have been telling me that I’m ‘too good’ for this profession. It started when I came out to a friend, it intensified when my mother figured out I was a sex worker, and it continued when I chose to briefly retire from the industry. When I returned, first to stripping and then to light fetish work, the protests, mostly from my family and commenters on my last few columns, only got louder.

I am somewhat anomalous in that I’ve been almost entirely open with my family about what it is that I do. While my parents are, for the most part, extremely supportive, they do not offer their support with total approval. My father calls my work ‘unskillful’ and my mother says it’s degrading.

The main arguments people make against my various forays into harlotry is that I am ‘too smart for that,’ ‘a remarkable young woman,’ and ‘better than things like that.’ This is all delivered in a disdainful tone, as if I were little more than a garbage picker or sewage worker (all due respect to garbage pickers and sewage workers, I could never do their jobs and admire them for it) the implication of all of such arguments is that sex work is degrading and degrading work is for people who are somehow less awesome than I. It’s flattering, and I understand that when people encourage me to quit the industry it comes from a good place, but it’s completely untrue that I’m somehow better than my chosen work.

I am not better than sex work, not even a little bit.

I don’t say this because I lack self worth or self-respect, quite the opposite. I say this because I fucking love sex work. I am good at this work and I enjoy it, therefore it is absolutely good enough for me. One of the common arguments people make against my doing sex work is that I’m a smart girl and therefore deserve something better than a career that will bring me endless social hardship. Intelligence should bring social prestige!

The thing is, I don’t really care about social prestige. Yes, it would be really nice to be able to put all my work experience on a resume and to be able to talk about the various life skills I learned from prostitution, domming, and stripping in job interviews. That would be super cool, but so far I’ve managed to make do without that luxury and I’m probably going to have to continue to do so for the rest of my life. The only kind of jobs my sex work is likely to help me get are writing jobs like this one, and there are plenty of people who don’t even consider writing to be a ‘real’ job.

There’s an assumption in all of these well-meaning admonitions that a normal job, one that people will say, “good for you!” about, is a golden ticket to happiness. People have suggested I pursue everything from graphic design to medicine without considering whether or not these respectable fields would make me happy or entertaining the notion that for now at least, the two fields that make me happiest are sex work and writing and are therefore the two fields I will pursue.

Perhaps it’s naïve to insist on work that I find completely fulfilling. I often joke that while sex work hasn’t ruined me in any of the ways people usually mean when they speak of ruined women, it absolutely has ruined me when it comes to normal work. This is not a very funny joke, but it’s a very true statement.

Because of my experience in the sex industry I find it very difficult to accept normal wages and work schedules (I can only think of how much more money I would earn in less time if I were naked) and I find it nearly impossible to engage myself in work that doesn’t require the use of my entire mind, or a least a large part of it. I absolutely understand that most people don’t have the privilege of being so picky about what they do and do not do to keep a roof over their head, but since I am lucky enough to have that privilege I see nothing wrong with exercising it.

This shouldn’t be a problem. I’m not hurting anyone, and it could even be argued that I’m helping people. I’m secure in my choices and happy with my life. I know very well that I can’t do sex work forever, but that isn’t any reason to not do it now. There are plenty of jobs which most people can’t perform beyond the very beginning of middle age. The main difference between sex work and, say, working in the military, is that sex work carries a massive social stigma only attached to military in certain circles.

The stigma is the problem, not the work itself. Sure, if sex work were viewed the way people view any other job there would still be people who found it abhorrent. That’s the way things work, my own mother has told both my sister and me that if either of us ever decides to become a career politician, she will have only one child from that day forward and I’m pretty sure she’s serious. Her prejudices, however, are examined. She doesn’t mistrust politicians because it’s the popular opinion and the general view of her society, she mistrusts them because as a public librarian, she has had far too much experience with the frequently twisted and corrupt politics of Illinois in general and Chicago in particular.

It seems to me as if most people’s prejudices against sex work are largely unfounded. They boil down to either a lack of knowledge about how much thought and effort is required to hack it in the industry or to a simple inability to ever imagine doing what I do. I like to think that if more people thought about why they consider sex work to be dirty work, they’d realize their reasons weren’t all that well defined and the prejudice against sex workers and the work we do would slowly die.

I’m not a very political person. I vote early and often, even in primaries and local elections, but that’s about where it ends. I don’t have much to do with protests beyond sometimes observing them, but the one piece of tiny activism I do engage in is being out as a sex worker as much as possible. If it comes up in conversation and doesn’t seem likely to cause a scene, I’ll readily admit to having done pretty much everything except porn and cheerfully answer any questions and correct any misconceptions my conversation partners may have. I may not be working much these days, but I’ll always be proud of my past in the sex industry and unless it’s absolutely necessary I will never, ever conceal it.