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. For this week’s installment, Cate interviewed her mother on what it is like to be the parent of a sex worker.
Cate: Everyone will remember how I was outed to you by a client. What were your feelings when that happened? Did you already suspect something was up?
Mom: Well, I remembered you said you were going to enter the sex industry when you turned 18 because you could get better rates if you were “barely legal.” I figured you had followed through with this plan because you were so adamant that this was what you wanted to do. When I had the truth coming right from a client, I was totally exasperated and could not for the life of me figure out why you would want to waste your life this way. To me, it seemed you could do so much better for yourself than sex work and I was sad you were selling yourself short. It just seemed so stupid and short-sighted. On the other hand, I fully recognized that the more I said about it, the worse the situation was going to be. So we had our conversation on the matter, then I tried to shut up.
Maintaining the relationship with you was more important than pushing my values, and I was concerned that if I said anything or acted in any way that severed our relationship, your new career was sufficiently dangerous that I could well end up attending your funeral sooner than expected. This would have been a terrible blow to your sister as well as me. Therefore, the only course of action was to try to maintain some vestige of rapport and hope that the situation improved.
I was very sad. Part of this was related to the fact I was recovering from my second round of breast cancer and had just had reconstructive surgery. To my mind, I was struggling so hard to put my own life together while you were hell-bent on ripping your own apart. It was not at all even cheerful–let alone happy.
Since I was outed, I’ve been a lot more open with you, both about what I do for work and how I feel about my work. How has that changed your view of the sex industry?
It hasn’t changed my mind much, actually. I think you have been saved from most of the seamier parts of the sex industry and so I tend to think you have a somewhat rosier view of the field than is actually the case. Generally speaking, I still think sex work does nothing for one’s long term financial security and puts many young women at risk for all sorts of dangers that they really should not have to think about or experience. That includes you. It makes me sad.
I do recognize, as I always have, that there are people who choose to work in the sex industry. In some cases, those people–no matter what category of gender identification with which they identify–do moderately well for themselves economically. Still, I suspect most struggle financially and have great difficulty getting work after not so many years.
Basically, I guess I still see the sex industry as a dead-end field, even if entered into willingly. In all cases, whether one is in the sex industry voluntarily or by force, I think it does negative things to one’s emotional and psychological well-being and takes a toll on your body. I also think it serves to only create a negative view of humanity because you are seeing the emotional and psychological dregs of society.
You came of age in the 70s, which was both the era of militant anti-porn feminism and the first time in contemporary history that sex workers started clamoring to have their voices heard. Of course, the anti-porn/anti-sex work feminists were much more visible, especially in places other than San Francisco. The impression I get is that your feelings on sex work were much more influenced by the non-sex workers who believe sex work to be intrinsically exploitative, rather than actual sex workers. How did this influence your feelings about your own daughter choosing sex work for herself?
Well, it’s weird and I might be kidding myself, but I don’t actually think that all the stuff going around in the ether about sex workers had much influence on me. I was more concerned about the person-you, my daughter, the child I had hoped would never know the horrors of poverty that I experienced.
You maybe never heard me tell this story from my high school days, but my family was dirt poor and I wanted to go to college. I went to the career/college counselor to see what I needed to do to get into college. He said, “Oh! You want to go to college? Why? You’re pretty enough you could make more money faster as a street whore.” I was livid! But no one, not even my friends were upset. Everybody knew that poor but pretty girls didn’t go to college. They became whores. Except I wanted something better and I didn’t want to continue to be poor.
When you started in the sex industry, I thought about that little interchange often and deeply. The very thing I had fought so hard to avoid, you were entering into with eagerness. It made no sense to me, and still doesn’t. I guess the short answer to your question is that all that stuff you suggest might have influenced me, didn’t. I had my own referent to use, and it was not a pleasing one. Why would anyone want to be seen as a thing? I had struggled for most of my life, both inside of my family (I was an unwanted child) and in the outside world to be seen as a full person. It seemed you were choosing to be a thing. It was senseless and completely beyond my comprehension.
I really didn’t even know much about prostitutes, except that they existed, when I was in high school. Children and teenagers were well shielded from people who worked in the sex industry. I didn’t even know homosexuality existed until college, when I got a better sense of what a whore was because they were in the bars where I hustled pinball. I do think aspects of the sex industry are exploitative, but not all of them. I tend to think those who have pimps are exploited, but that people who work for themselves are not. The former is clearly forced; the latter is probably not. I wondered who was exploited and who volunteered, as it were, because I knew some women chose to enter prostitution (and I assumed they had no idea what they were getting into or how little money they would make) while others were tricked into it.
In all cases, I thought it was a sorry, tawdry business with no future. Totally dead-end and filled with deadbeats. Not to mention at the time, too strongly accompanied by too many drugs and too much alcohol. And remember, AIDS was just entering the picture. People in the sex industry were dying horrible deaths, as were some of my friends. So to me, only fools would willingly choose sex work, or those with a death wish because they were so unhappy with life. Even the porn stars had horror stories of what happened to them, so clearly there was some level of exploitation for everyone. While I fully recognize that every job has some level of exploitation, the exploitation in sex work, when it exists, seems so much worse and far more psychologically and emotionally damaging.
Also–and this is an important point–right up there with the advent of AIDS and coming from poverty myself, I had/have no idea why anyone would willingly enter a profession with no long-term future–except in a very few cases. Why not just get a series of steady jobs with a decent income that you could do until you retired? Why would anyone choose a profession for which you were basically washed-up at 30? Sure, some people make money that will hold them for awhile, but most don’t. Only a ridiculously small percentage can stay in the industry all their working lives or make enough money to support a long retirement. I guess those are the kinds of things that influenced my thinking, far more than whatever was going on among the sex workers.
As I’ve discussed the political aspects of sex work with you, have your views on criminalization versus legalization or decriminalization changed?
I don’t really think decriminalization will help the youngest sex workers, who are also the ones who are most likely to be exploited in the sex industry. It might help the ones who are willing prostitutes and who do not have pimps, but I don’t really see that it will do much for the other workers. Besides, you are unhappy with the European legislation [the Nordic Model] we have discussed, so while I think it makes sense to decriminalize prostitution, I don’t think it will help all the workers–just the upper crust ones.
How do you feel about my work now? How and why, if at all, has that changed over the years?
Oh, I still don’t think it’s wise. I still think this is a dead-end job. I still wonder what you are going to do when you can no longer be involved in sex work-which is not too much longer. I still think this is a short-sighted career. I still think it is dangerous and that it puts strain on your relationships-except your relationships with your fellow sex workers. I know it takes its toll on me, and I worry about your safety. I am concerned about your financial security over the long haul, however, I try to remember to accept the person, even if I don’t like the life choices. It’s my own take on the ‘Love the sinner: hate the sin’ message. Yeah, my Christian faith carries me far in this one.
Over the years, I guess I would say all that has happened is that I have figured out how to let you just live your life. That is what good parents do. I may love you fiercely, but I have not much love for your career choice. I don’t worry quite as much as I did, most of the time. I hope you are being as safe as you can in a field with high suicide and murder rates. And I hope you find a secure way to support yourself when you have to leave the sex industry.
Do you have anything you want to add?
I guess the only point I would add is that I wish the world was a different place so that no one needed to be in the sex industry. That is definitely never going to be the case, so many people within a small age group will always have work, however unsafe it might be. I should clarify that my wish for there to be no need for a sex industry has to do with sex partners feeling more free to communicate what they really want, as well as the problem of people being isolated and having to pay for sexual services. Sex is not meant to be based on a financial transaction. It is supposed to be consensual between caring partners. Call me old, but really I do believe this. That is part of the reason those hired to provide sex also have to at least pretend to like and have affection for the person who just paid them lots of money for sexual gratification.
Even though I am not completely happy about the fact I have a daughter in the sex industry, I admire your pluck and innovation in doing what is needed to support yourself. I will probably always wish you could manage to do this through other means, but have to accept that is not going to happen now. I am always concerned about your safety (the survival statistics are pretty dismal), but I also know there is nothing I can do about that. You are strongly independent and you have a strong sense of survival. You are very smart. You are successful at your chosen occupation. These are all things I wanted for my daughters (unless they decided to go into politics, in that case I wanted you both to experience absolute failure) so I accept your choices and am proud of what you have accomplished, even though I wish your accomplishments were different ones.