Cate is something of a renaissance sex worker and has held numerous interesting jobs in the adult industry. Each week, she shares her stories in Harlotry.
We all have needs. Abraham Maslow identified a whole hierarchy of them in 1943. Breathing, food, water, sex, sleep, shelter, employment, friends and family, among other things make it onto that famous list. What isn’t on the list, however, is honesty, though it’s just as important as most of the other needs listed. I’ve written about sex work and honesty before, both in the ways having a sex worker community gives us a place to be honest and when I wrote about the little lies we tell people to escape judgment.
I go through cycles of working very frequently, subsequently starting to burn out, then dialing things way, way back, and finally ramping up my schedule when the burnout decreases. What I’ve noticed is that the more I’m working, the more I require raw, honest spaces; the less access I have to those spaces, the more quickly I burn out. The sad truth is that there are a lot of aspects of my work that are dishonest. I dishonestly use a false name, I dishonestly pretend to be turned on by clients or activities that hold little appeal for me, I dishonestly portray myself as ecstatically happy even when I’m in the throes of severe depressive episodes.
A few weeks ago a new client told me that he enjoys paying sex workers because it is “the most honest interaction two people can have, you don’t have any reason to pretend you like me.” That client was so incredibly, enragingly wrong, I wanted to punch him in a violent, nonconsensual way.
In any service relationship, not least of all a relationship between a sex worker and a client, the exchange of money places a burden on the service worker to at least halfway pretend that they’d be providing the service whether or not they were being paid. A good waiter will pretend to genuinely care for the comfort of the people at his tables so as to get a superior tip, a good sex worker will pretend to genuinely want to suck, fuck, pinch, or poke her clients so as to encourage the client to return to her. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the waiter or the sex worker hates their job, it simply means they wouldn’t work for free.
A few weeks later, a client who had just seen me mentioned, as he was getting dressed, that he loves seeing me because I’m “so genuinely happy. So few people are happy these days.” I wanted to laugh. At this point in my life I’m about as far from “genuinely happy” as one can get. I’m horrifically depressed.
Everything is exhausting. Pretty much the only reason I can find to get out of bed, take a shower, and answer my phone every day is that getting out of bed will make me money. And money, while it may be the root of all evil, is one of the few things that reliably bring me some sort of joy.
It isn’t just clients either. Much of the world wants to paint me as either a tragic, trafficked slave, a victim of internalized oppression, an oversexed, over-sensual wanton, or some kind of cold, predatory woman out to get what she can. None of these things are true–though the oversexed wanton and cold predatory bitch are somewhat closer to the truth than either of the victim stories–and it gets so exhausting to essentially give up my personhood the minute people find out I’m a sex worker.
It seems like everyone hears “sex worker” and immediately starts seeing only what they want to see. If they’re putting money in my hand they see “the most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen,” who is “genuinely happy,” and are so psyched that I “really share [their] fetish.” These are all real quotes and none of them are even remotely close to reality. If they aren’t paying me there’s a good chance they see me as a victim or either a pimp, internalized oppression, or some assumed abuse from my childhood. It’s exhausting to never be truly seen, except by other sex workers.
Because really, it sometimes feels like other sex workers are some of the only people who seem to have any desire to understand my experience. And sure, it’s great to be able to talk about your trials and tribulations with people who have a similar experience, but it would be nice to be able to vent to civilians about annoying clients or just a bad day without hearing, “So why don’t you just quit?” It’s a question I hear from non-sex workers all the time, as if a bad day or irritating client is grounds for quitting jobs in any other field.
It is very rare that I’m able to speak openly and honestly to civilians about my work without people thinking less of me, tokenizing me, or jumping to conclusions. When I actually am able to make my voice heard it’s an incredible luxury, it’s like cleaning the light fixtures in your house: things are brighter and my faith in the human race is somewhat restored.
I really hope I one day live in a world where this is the norm, where saying, “I’m a sex worker” in response to the eternal question “what do you do?” is considered as normal as saying, “I’m in marketing,” or “I’m an accountant.” Sure, everyone has a few preconceived notions about almost every profession. People believe accountants are boring, waiters are just working a day job, flight attendants are slutty, whatever, but those notions are generally less set in stone than the beliefs people hold about sex workers, and that needs to change.
Sex workers’ rights are human rights, and our rights aren’t only about having the ability to work safely and legally, they’re also about being able to say what you do for a living without losing your humanity. Sure, we peddle fantasy and most clients will probably never see us as we really are, nor do most of us want them to, but if clients can’t give us the honest spaces everyone needs, can’t other people? I don’t think it’s too much to ask.