There are a lot of complicated aspects to sex work, but some of the most complicated are those not directly related to the work itself. There are countless pitfalls associated with coming out to family and friends, but perhaps the most difficult problem is how to maintain a monogamous romantic relationship.
The three years that made up the most serious relationship of my short life also overlapped with most of my time as a sex worker. It began while I was still a prostitute, continued through my forays into erotic modeling, stripping and phone sex operating, and its end heralded my return to stripping. I would say being a sex worker and maintaining a relationship wasn’t always easy, but that goes without saying. I don’t think any relationship is always easy, and I was lucky enough to find a man who, despite his many flaws, by and large understood that my work was my work and my pleasure was my pleasure and–aside from the thrill I derived from counting my money–the two did not intersect.
I was, and still am, fiercely proud of my line of work and “Stanley” knew I was a whore from the moment he asked my profession. His absolute lack of shock or titillation was impressive to me. Especially when I was working as a prostitute, men responded to a revelation of my career either with disgust or the assumption that I, as a sex worker and a prostitute at that, had no standards and would sleep with them no questions asked. Neither of those responses are a good beginning to a successful romance. By the time I met Stanley, I’d resigned myself to what I thought was the impossibility of having any but the most casual relationships until whenever I retired.
Our culture is simultaneously obsessed with, terrified, and ashamed of sex… especially as far as women are concerned. We glorify porn performers while we wag our fingers at garden-variety promiscuous women and all the sex workers who have not achieved fame. I was homeschooled as a child and grew up somewhat cloistered; despite the fact that the less fortunate elements of our culture’s views on sex (and how they relate to a woman’s value) were mostly hidden, I still managed to internalize the message that sex work somehow devalued me. I was never ashamed of my profession and always held the view that any man who was bothered by my choice was not a man I wanted… but at the same time I was very much aware that many, if not most men, would think less of me for renting access to my body. While my choice of work confirmed my desirability, it also paradoxically made me untouchable and less of a woman in the eyes of much of the world.
But Stanley wasn’t the rest of the world. As far as I was concerned, he was better than all of them. When he fell into my life, I felt sure I must have done something wonderful to deserve him: I didn’t look for him, I had stopped looking for anyone. I knew his brother, and Stanley found me on that brother’s Myspace page and sent me a message because he thought I looked interesting. I suppose I did; my profile picture was of me with two purple eyeshadow black eyes holding a bottle of whiskey and screaming into the camera and my ‘about me’ section was written with the intention of repelling any potential friends or suitors. I’m sure that if I were to look back on that old profile now I would laugh at how young and childish I was, but there I was, the manic pixie dream girl who inhabits the imaginations of every sweet but deluded twenty one year old man-child looking for a woman to save his soul.
I confess I was very cruel to him when I responded to his first message. To be honest, the only reasons I replied at all were that I was bored and he used mostly correct grammar. Those of you who remember Myspace will remember that spelling out entire words and using both appropriate capitalization and actual punctuation marks were rare qualities to be prized and rewarded. Despite my cruelty, though, Stanley replied to me and we struck up a lively penpalship. Within a few months, we’d exchanged phone numbers and moved from internet friends to text message friends. Within a few weeks of that, we’d moved on to text message flirting. The careful work I had done to guard my heart was failing. Stanley was not like anyone I’d ever encountered and certainly nothing like his brother. He was an army infantryman, yet neither a flag-waver nor a Republican. He had been deployed to Iraq and presumably killed people there (though I thought it would be impolite to ask) yet he didn’t seem racked with guilt or PTSD. He was attractive, funny, and full of interesting opinions, but most importantly he was unfazed by my work.
Perhaps it was his experience in the military, or perhaps it was something else, but he knew the difference between life and work more intimately than any non-sex workers I’ve ever met and it was this ready acceptance of my work that (in part) made me fall in love with him. My work had become something more to me: it symbolized my stubbornness, my pride, and my rejection of conformity. By allowing me to provide for myself using nothing but my brain, my body, and an internet connection, it also symbolized self-sufficiency. By allowing me to set my own rules and rates, it symbolized my individuality and independence.
Symbols can be problematic, though, especially when their complex reality is masked by an a religious quality. Eventually the symbolism will crumble and the truth takes hold: while sex work was (and is) one representation of my pride, stubbornness, nonconformity and independence, it is not those things. Stanley’s acceptance of my profession was not the same as an acceptance of my more difficult characteristics, the very characteristics that contribute to our falling apart.
Despite the fact that I saw sex work as an extension of myself, I knew the labor itself could pull the whole relationship down. Honesty is important in any relationship, but when sex work is thrown into the mix a new level of honesty becomes necessary. I have watched other women in the industry attempt to conceal their professions from their significant others, and whether or not they ever discover what their women are doing for money, the deception always brings about the end of the relationship. Sex work has the potential to be very emotionally draining and difficult, and the support of friends, loved ones, and especially lovers is of utmost importance. I have experienced what it is to have a partner who cannot or will not even try to understand the work and the difficulties involved, and it is a terrifying and incredibly alienating experience. Moreover, it’s deeply inconsiderate to one’s partner to act as if they have no feelings about work that is at least one-sidedly intimate.
During the beginning of our relationship, I tried many times to have conversations with Stanley about his feelings regarding my work. He insisted he couldn’t care less what I did for money and that he would never expect me to quit any job I found fulfilling, particularly not one that gave me a level of financial independence so far above my civilian peers. He never spoke about his personal feelings on the matter, but I was eighteen years old and he was saying all the right things. I continued to work as a prostitute and small-time sugar baby for a little over a month after we officially decided to become a couple. Then I quit entirely, ostensibly for him though I convinced myself that my reasons were more complicated and had nothing at all to do with him.
Because he was stationed in Georgia and had not yet been discharged from the army, the first six months of my relationship with Stanley was long distance. I managed to support myself on savings, fetish work, and art modeling during the time we were apart, but after the six months were over and we moved too quickly into a shared apartment, it became clear that my small jobs were not enough for two people who desired any degree of comfort. When I suggested that I go back to prostitution, Stanley continued to say all the right things, but was visibly uncomfortable with the idea. He kept telling me that if I wanted to go back, he wouldn’t stop me, but his aversion to the idea was written on his face. I sucked it up, swallowed the bitterness of poverty, and didn’t go back. My sacrifices in the name of love had begun.
During our first year together, I was the most casual of all sex workers. I did some small fetish work, but mostly I modeled for photographers and hoped ends would meet. I spent my time trying to shore up the bliss of our honeymoon period and fighting the sense that I’d lost something. I tried not to remember the feeling that I could take on the world after I burned a man’s feet with cigarettes.
By the end of the first month of living together, things were no longer going so well. While I hadn’t become a prostitute again, Stanley had still managed to develop a jealous streak a mile wide. I found myself constantly reminded of Desdemona–‘Alas the day! I never gave him cause.’ But jealous souls will not be answered so and over and over again I cried, my heart breaking as he raged at me for imagined slights and infidelities. I don’t know if his assumptions were based on my former profession or not, but with the faith of first, desperate love I made excuse after excuse for his frankly inexcusable behavior. I told myself that it was understandable, considering his history of relationships with faithless women and his abusive mother. I told myself that he would eventually see that I was faithful and devoted and because I could not find it in my heart to turn him out of our house and onto the street I stayed. Then, for a while, things got a little better.
We had been together a little over a year when I took a job at a peep show and Stanley started talking about going back to active duty service. We decided that if the army took him back, it would be best for us to get married. I thought of a house and steady money and pretty dresses and possibly children and convinced myself that my heart didn’t sink a little bit when I considered leaving the sleazy little peep show with its closet-sized dressing room full of girls talking shit and sneaking cigarettes. I wanted to marry Stanley one day and I did want to make a life with him, but I wasn’t sure that this was how I wanted to do it and I was frightened by the prospect of being ripped from my life, my friends, and my work in Chicago and suddenly forced into the full-blown adulthood of marriage, a house, and a family. I was nineteen years old, and while I thought I was much more grown up than I really was, I knew on some level that I was not ready for a truly adult life and I certainly wasn’t ready to spend my life waiting for the man I loved so desperately to come home from a foreign country, hoping he would return in one piece.
Stanley eventually changed his mind about going back to active duty and we never married, but the peep show did close. I discovered how much I loved stripping, but I moved on to phone sex when Stanley expressed his discomfort at my moving on to a normal club where I would be giving lap dances. I hated phone sex and missed stripping, but I was determined to make as many sacrifices as were necessary to keep the relationship going. I loved him so much, and I had convinced myself that the only way to show that was to give things up until there was nothing left to give. I told myself that I would be rewarded for my self-immolation. There was no way I couldn’t be.
Things went steadily downhill for a year and a half. Without a job or a career, I descended into the Feminine Mystique: already a somewhat depressive person, the inactivity of housewifery plunged me into despair. I tried going to school, plodding through my studies with good grades, but taking no joy in most of my classes. I tried cooking, but most of the dishes I cooked were unacceptable to Stanley’s unsophisticated palate and I eventually gave up. If I couldn’t do the work I loved and I couldn’t even please the man I loved, what was the point? I looked for straight jobs and ached to return to sex work but I couldn’t or wouldn’t allow myself to see everything that was wrong. I had embarked, unbidden, on a quest to be what society considers to be a real girl and in the process I had apologized for things I had no reason to be sorry for and given up too much. I expected Stanley to see that something was wrong, to fix it or at least help me fix it, but when I told him how sad I was he merely told me I had nothing to be sad about.
Instead of finding the words to talk to him about what was so wrong and working through it together, I grew to resent him and his blindness, despite the fact that I had it blindness myself. I knew that something had been changing in me over our three years together and that I was no longer what he wanted, yet I was still prepared to give up everything for him. I understood how wrong this impulse was and I was ashamed of myself for feeling it and bitter towards him for inspiring it in me.
Several months ago Stanley and I broke up. We did so calmly, sweetly even, but I was shocked at how painful it was. By the time it happened, I had convinced myself that I no longer loved him, that I could never have loved someone for whom I made so many sacrifices and from whom I received so little thanks, but when things ended I realized how very dishonest I had been with myself. Still more shocking than the realization that I still loved this man for whom I had sacrificed so much was the realization that the one thing that cheered me up even somewhat was the fact that I could finally go back to stripping without guilt or concern, something I did almost immediately. The first night I spent in my new club reminded me of my power. I was free again and more than that, I was invincible again.
I’m in no hurry to find someone else, but I know when I do it’s very likely that the gentleman could take issue with the fact that I wear small amounts of clothing and grind on strangers to pay my bills. I’ve learned from Stanley, though: I know the importance of compromise, but I also know the evil of total sacrifice. I didn’t realize at the time how unhappy my sacrifices were making me, and I certainly didn’t understand how miserable they would make me in the future, but I know now that for the time being, sex work is too important to give up for anyone. I won’t always be a sex worker, but for now I am a proud one. When someone new comes along I know I’ll have to learn to deal with that fact with that person, rather than give it all up.
Cathryn Berarovich is a bit of a renaissance sex worker; she’s currently employed as a stripper (and writer) but has held numerous interesting jobs in the industry. Each week, she shares her stories in Harlotry.