What makes a job “real”? What are the necessary qualifications for a line of work to be considered legitimate? Well, generally speaking, the basic job structure involves: employing a staff of individuals who are hard-working and driven, ones who are consistently acquiring new skills and techniques, and those who implement that expertise to achieve repeat business.
Although different careers come with their own set of unique requirements, depending on the field, in a broad sense, they are all essentially the same— employees do the work expected of them and then get paid for it.
So, why is it then that sex work— while meeting the above criteria of what constitutes a “real” job— is not treated as such according to societal standards?
Well, as most female-identifying people are aware (just by merely existing in a male-dominated world), the negative stigmas surrounding any and all forms of sex work have been perpetuated by the patriarchal standards of what have been deemed as “appropriate” or “inappropriate” for a woman to do.
I’m not insinuating that just because someone is a woman, they are automatically pro-sex work. Unfortunately, we all have inherent biases that developed from the gender inequalities we grew up witnessing and experiencing— preconceived, skewed notions of what is “acceptable” for how a woman should behave, dress and act.
This internalized sexism that all women hold, whether aware of it or not, derives from a long history of inequality. Women have been treated like objects for centuries, and sadly, there have not been significant improvements in terms of how women are viewed in our society today. It is devastating that as women, we have grown accustomed to experiencing uncomfortable encounters with men— we even expect them to occur. Before even leaving our homes to go out in public, we must mentally prepare ourselves for the inevitable sexualization of our bodies: the grotesque male-gaze, the vulgar cat-calling, the unwanted advancements, and the inappropriate comments thrown our way.
This crude behavior occurs regardless of what a woman is wearing— contrary to what many misogynistic men (law enforcement included) have claimed, in an effort to victim-blame and shame the woman, whilst validating the violence and sexual harassment committed against them by men.
Here I’ll share a personal anecdote, only one of the countless others I’ve experienced, that confirms this behavior: I was walking home from the gym one evening, when I noticed I was being followed and cat-called by a random man on the street. I was wearing an oversized hoodie, long leggings, completely drenched in sweat, and in no way looking “sexy.” But that did not stop him from harassing me. When I pretended that I couldn’t hear him as he shouted sexual comments in my direction from behind me, that was when I noticed the sound of his footsteps rapidly accelerating toward me. I peeked over my shoulder, and that was when I realized...he was chasing me. I immediately bolted— running for my life (literally), and luckily, was able to escape. What I wasn’t able to escape from was the thought of what could have happened to me, had I not gotten away quick enough, which continues to haunt me to this day.
Admittedly, when I am in a full face of makeup with my hair done and wearing a cute dress, I do fear being subjected to a more aggressive level of sexual harassment from men. I remember being at a club a few years back, and this guy at the bar offered to buy me a drink. I accepted, but after I was halfway finished with the drink, I told him I needed to go find my friends. But he was very persistent that I stay and drink more with him, to which I declined. I knew his intentions were not to just have a genuine, friendly conversation with no expectations attached. I intuitively knew that his thought process was that just because he bought me that one cocktail, he earned an entitlement to my body and was granted permission to sleep with me. Once I firmly told him I wasn’t interested in continuing our interaction, his entire demeanor changed. Just a mere ten minutes earlier, he was showering me with compliments on my outfit and appearance, but once he realized that I definitely wasn’t going to hook up with him, guess what he called me? A slut.
Isn’t it ironic that when a woman unapologetically and openly embraces her sexuality by confidently rocking clothes deemed as being “too sexy,” she is labeled as a “slut,” and oftentimes by the same men who go out every weekend with the sole intent of “getting lucky,” those who regularly consume pornography, frequently attend strip clubs, and drool over Instagram models?
What a woman chooses to wear and do with her body is no one’s decision but hers, and hers alone, but even in 2020, lingering remnants of outdated sexist standards continue to permeate society. Although some are subtle, these patriarchal attitudes continue to dictate how women are expected to conduct themselves in relationships, within the workplace, in social situations, and basically in all other areas of their lives.
The women who choose to go against stereotypical standards and instead make the decision to pursue a more unconventional lifestyle are often subjected to enormous amounts of scrutiny and judgement by others— those who don’t understand and/or disagree with these lifestyle choices.
This is especially true for sex workers. With so many misconceptions surrounding the field of sex work, many people outside of the industry are quick to jump to their own false conclusions and make inaccurate assumptions about what sex work really entails.
Former sex workers, Maya and Stella (names changed to protect privacy), provided their thoughts and feedback involving some of the hypocrisies and common misunderstandings about the sex work industry.
For Maya, sexist double standards are what she believes to be a major culprit behind the hypocrisy surrounding sex work.
“Mainstream porn can be quite misogynistic and toxic, dominated primarily by cisgender men,” she said. “So, men who consume this kind of pornography may be triggered by the idea of other men ‘simping’ over high end escorts, sugar babies and digital sex workers, as it brings value and some kind of personal exchange into a formerly corrupt space.”
Maya also added that these men “realize they’re going to have to offer some value, or the fantasy world they escape to will start crumbling away, and they know it’s a fantasy deep down. They know ten out of ten bombshells would never be all over them in ‘real life.’”
Stella also shared why she believes many people are misinformed when it comes to the sex work industry as a whole.
“I think that what most people get wrong about sex work is that it’s for people who are lazy, or didn’t get a college degree, people unable to land a ‘regular’ job, or for those who just want to make easy money,” Stella said. “No sex worker’s experience is the same, but for me personally, I was charging clients for sex while I was still in college, and then again, after I graduated with a bachelor’s degree and was working a full-time job.”
She also added that sex work is not at all “quick, easy money” like some may believe.
“When you are a sex worker, not only do you have to tap into the desires of the person paying you for your time, but you also have to juggle a sort of balancing act between being authentic and personable, while simultaneously playing the role of your client’s fantasy dream girl,” Stella said. “You really have to have a ton of confidence in yourself and with your body (or at least be good at faking it), be able to hold conversations, as well as put on a performance— otherwise you will NOT be successful, you will lose clients and your earnings will be low.”
For Maya, she believes that many people often confuse sex trafficking or being pimped out for drugs with consensual sex work. Many people also don’t understand that sex work isn’t about “being a prostitute”— which is a term that should never be used when referring to sex workers, as it is an outdated word that dehumanizes sex workers and further perpetuates the stigma of sex work as being an illegitimate job— sex work is composed of a plethora of different subgroups, levels, and tiers: webcamming, selling explicit content online, stripping/dancing, selling used panties, being a sugar baby, escorting, working as a dominatrix or fetish specialist...the list could really go on forever, as there are so many different categories that exist within the sex work industry.
However, not all sex workers are in the industry to live a glamorous lifestyle or go on extravagant vacations— many do so in order to pay their bills and afford basic necessities, because, after all, it is a job— and one that can pay well.
Maya added that what people need to understand is that “willingly choosing to pursue sex work is a luxury.”
Not everyone in the industry is in it because they necessarily enjoy the work, but because they need to financially support themselves and/or their families, and sex work provides them with the opportunity to do so. Just like any job, you may not always enjoy the work, but if you can make a livable wage from it, it is worth sticking around.
When it comes to the negative stigmatization of sex work, Maya believes that it exists, in part, because people don’t want to take accountability for their own actions, or those of their gender. She also stated that those who are vehemently anti-sex work often uphold power struggle ideologies.
“It’s impossible to believe that women can have power over men, without acknowledging the tactics that stemmed from toxic masculinity, which have pushed women to behave in these ways, making men uncomfortable,” she added.
She used an example of a “porn-infatuated frat boy” to further justify her point: “If someone is able to acknowledge an objective power difference, without it taking over their entire life perspective, then they shouldn’t judge sex work as a whole, but rather take it as a case-by-case situation.”
Maya was a sex worker for nearly five years, but quit about a year ago. She initially got her start through a webcamming site when she was 19 years old, in order to financially support herself and afford her lifestyle while taking a break from school.
When asked about her thoughts on why people make remarks along the lines of, “Sex work isn’t real work,” she responded that it is likely a manifestation of their pre-existing ideas and notions about what traditional “work” is supposed to look like.
“These people are subscribed to the rise and grind mentality of society, which only measures success by productivity. While in reality, anything that is a true exchange of value brings productivity and money,” Maya said. “Someone can work hard for ten hours, or even thousands of hours, and get the same results. Some people find this unsettling to their pre-existing mentality. Top that off with a lack of personal sexual liberation, and you get people making these sorts of comments.”
Just like in any job, there are pros and cons— and sex work is no exception.
Current sex worker, Luna (name changed for privacy), who only began this line of work a little over a year ago, provided nothing but positive feedback when it came to describing her job. She has done escorting, platonic meet-ups, sugar daddy situations, camgirling, and OnlyFans, but is looking to expand her network.
“I was so tired of seeing men always have the upper hand. For me, this work is all about empowerment. I refuse to be a pawn in their game,” Luna said. “I am my own person and my body is something to be celebrated. So, if I can make a little money by just being me, then I don’t see any issues with doing sex work.”
Luna added that men hate to see women profit off their good looks.
“We all know sex sells, but they want to be the only ones with their hands in the pot,” she said.
Luna expressed that she is currently very content with her sex work job, and has no plans of quitting anytime soon.
“It’s just a beautiful way of life. You meet really great people who want to seek out like-minded individuals,” Luna said. “You also tend to focus more on honesty and consent.”
For Maya, (who had been in the industry for about four years longer than Luna has), getting into sex work provided her with a sense of freedom, and after experiencing negative sexual encounters with men prior to beginning sex work, she said that she “felt liberated to finally see the ‘power’ my charisma and body could bring.”
When Maya moved on to high-end escorting, often marketed as “elite companionship,” (which doesn’t always involve intercourse), but often includes dinners, trips, and other luxurious perks, she mentioned that the primary pro of the job was “being closer to a high-caliber world— one where I could have all the material things I had lacked before, and where I could have intimacy without giving anything of myself.”
Stella similarly got into sex work after experiencing a surplus of unfulfilling sexual engagements in her younger years.
“I was hooking up with all these low-life guys who just made me feel used; only interested in their own pleasure, never mine,” she recalled. “That was when I realized: I could be doing the same exact thing but actually get something of value out of it...money!”
Both Stella and Maya became enamored with the exhilaration of reclaiming their sexuality, and the sense of power and control that accompanied doing sex work. While Maya did sex work for nearly five years as her main source of income, Stella’s work was more for supplemental cash to spend on trips and nights out, lasting on and off for around four years— primarily doing “pay per meets” (where you connect with someone on an online sugar baby/sugar daddy site, meet at a hotel or their home, and get paid anywhere from $600 to over $1,000 per session, depending on the time spent and the client's expectations for the arrangement).
However, both Stella and Maya came to realize that while they were getting compensated for their bodies, they were also paying a price of their own— the expense of their mental health.
“One of the most important lessons I learned during my years of sex work was that you can’t bypass your conscience. I thought I could compartmentalize those parts of my life, but at the end of the day, I’m still human,” Maya said. “I can’t dissociate and try to leave my body while I’m working, and then hope to maintain genuine connections and a true sense of self-love in the other parts of my daily life.”
Throughout her time spent as a sex worker, Maya learned many valuable lessons, one being her realization that people will generally meet you where you meet them.
“Sex work allowed me to open up to many people from different walks of life, whom I would have never have met otherwise— people who genuinely cared about my soul within, albeit from their own lens,” she recalled. “I learned that the more I fed myself the narrative that this was some bad bitch job, that these men were dollar signs and I was the shit, the worse I felt.”
She said that once she was able to reframe her mindset to one of being on a life journey, and that sex work was just a role she was playing for the time being, where she was there to make connections, to learn, grow and reframe past ideas of sex work— that was when she had the most fulfilling time with clients.
But ultimately, because sex work was beginning to interfere with Maya’s personal life to an intolerable degree, she made the decision to leave the profession indefinitely.
“I didn’t start sex work with the purest of intentions, and gradually the associations and shame that came with it overshadowed any sense of liberation or the quick fix rush I initially craved,” she recalled.
The same was true for Stella— what once felt like an act of personal freedom, soon transformed into a source of trauma and the feeling of being degraded. There was one particular encounter, which served as a catalyst in disintegrating her attitude of personal power: she was taken advantage of by a client (pushed way beyond her comfort zone), then was left stranded at the hotel, as the client (who had promised her $900 for an hour of intercourse) snuck out and drove away, without paying her a single dime and leaving her completely alone in an unfamiliar part of town.
Since sex work is not decriminalized in the United States, sex workers can often be put in dangerous situations, just like Stella was. Police officers often target, assault and harass sex workers, predominantly BIPOC and trans women of color, and get off the hook, due to the fear sex workers have of being arrested if they report the abuse— which is why Stella never reported her abuser.
The decriminalization of sex work would not only allow sex workers to report police brutality without fear of arrest, but also protect them from violent, abusive clients. It would also help sex workers receive proper medical care, as many do not have insurance (as sex work is not legally recognized as a legitimate job), which increases the risk of sex workers contracting HIV, along with other sexually transmitted diseases, and being left untreated.
According to SurvivorsAgainstSesta.org, “Sex work criminalization laws impact the whole LGBTQ community because members of the community — particularly LGBTQ people of color, LGBTQ immigrants, and transgender people — are more likely to be sex workers. The passage of anti-sex work laws like SESTA/FOSTA harms the community by dramatically decreasing incomes, which further marginalizes members of the trans community, people of color, or those with low incomes to begin with.”
In addition, the decriminalization of sex work would lower the rates of mass incarceration and racial disparities within the criminal justice system.
“The criminalization of sex work feeds the mass incarceration system by putting more people in jail unnecessarily. Those incarcerated tend to be trans and/or people of color, two groups that are already disproportionately incarcerated,” according to the ACLU. “One in six trans people have been incarcerated, and one in two trans people of color. Incarceration is violent and destructive for everyone, and even more so for trans people. While incarcerated, trans people are often aggressively misgendered, denied health care, punished for expressing their gender identity, and targeted for sexual violence.”
Sex work is real work, and it is about time it is treated as such. Every individual, regardless of their profession, is deserving of equal legal protection. No one should live in fear only because they have willingly chosen a profession that is seen as taboo and “immoral” to the general public. No one should be without access to protective and preventive healthcare. Sex workers deserve to be treated with the same respect and dignity as those working in any other profession in America, because, again:
SEX WORK IS REAL WORK.
For educational resources and information on the fight for sex workers’ rights, please visit: aclu.org.
For donations to support the decriminalization of sex work, please visit: decriminalizesex.work/donate