A Day In The Life Of A Sex Worker — 18 Photos That Will Challenge Your Prejudices

Photo: Alicia Vera
This story was originally published on December 7, 2015.

When Alicia Vera set out to document the life of "Eden," a stripper who became a sex worker, she didn't realize how much the pair would have in common. Vera met Eden while working as a sort of marketing assistant for strip clubs in San Francisco, photographing the strippers on the side. Vera said that Eden "just had this energy about her" when they met.

"I went up to her, and I told her [about] the project I was doing, and we instantly became friends," Vera told Refinery29. Vera eventually based an entire photography project exclusively on Eden, but, she said, "I don't think it's completed at all. It's something that I want to continue for the rest of my life."

Vera said that while she was photographing Eden, she was surprised at how much Eden's work seemed like an office job: Most of Eden's time was spent on adverting and business organization. "The sex was, like, the least part of it," Vera said. "It lasted, what, 10, 15 minutes? And then they were gone, and the rest of the time she was posting ads again."

Sex work and sex-worker rights have been heavily debated in recent years. Although there are many feminists who believe that sex work should be abolished, sex workers in many different parts of the world have organized to advocate for themselves, and some countries have made large-scale changes to prostitution and sex-work laws.

In August, Amnesty International formally adopted a policy that advocates for what it calls "the decriminalization of all aspects of consensual adult sex — sex work that does not involve coercion, exploitation, or abuse," a position supported by global public-health groups. U.S. lawmakers have not been nearly as progressive in recent attempts to legislate prostitution. But sex workers are speaking out and banding together more often, and it could have a big impact on how society treats them.

Whatever your opinion of the sex industry, Vera wants her project to illustrate the normal nature of sex workers' lives. "I don't see it as a project about a prostitute, I see it as a project about a woman who's trying to find herself," Vera said. "No matter what path you decide to take, we're all human, and we all experience the same emotions, whether you have this 9-to-5 office job, or you're a prostitute. We all experience the same feelings."

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Photo: Alicia Vera
"It all started when I was still in Miami, and I took my first black-and-white printing class," Vera says of her interest in documenting the lives of strippers and sex workers. "And my teacher was very much a documentary photographer, and so he assigned us to shoot a project during the entire semester. And the first thing that popped into my mind was strippers."

Eden had always dreamed of going to Paris. Her grandparents surprised her with a trip on her 16th birthday. While there, she took Polaroids and later hung them up in her bedroom.
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Photo: Alicia Vera
"No matter what path you decide to take, we're all human, and we all experience the same emotions," Vera said.

Eden's mother kisses her on the head and reassures her that she still loves her despite her profession.
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Photo: Alicia Vera
"I don't see it as a project about a prostitute, I see it as a project about a woman who's trying to find herself," Vera said of Eden.

Tensions are high when Eden confronts her mother about her work as a prostitute. It was the first time they discussed her profession at length.
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Photo: Alicia Vera
"To have empathy for her, and for women in general," Vera said, when asked what she hopes people will gain from her project.

Eden sunbathes nude in her backyard in San Francisco.
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Photo: Alicia Vera
"It was so, I guess, business-y," Vera said, when asked what surprised her about Eden's day-to-day life. "I thought it was gonna be, you know, what you'd expect, or what you see in movies."

Eden starts her work day by counting the money she made in the past week.
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Photo: Alicia Vera
"I was surprised that she spent her time posting ads, taking phone calls, just being around, being bored, reading, writing — it just felt like an office job to me, you know?" Vera said. "The sex was, like, the least part of it."

Eden sits with her childhood dolls in her old room in Lancaster, VA.
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Photo: Alicia Vera
"Eden just sort of walked in, and she just had this energy about her," Vera said. "And I went up to her, and I told her the project I was doing [on strippers], and we instantly became friends."

Eden paints her nails in the morning light of her hotel room in King of Prussia, PA.
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Photo: Alicia Vera
"She's living and breathing, just like the rest of us, and going through good times, going through bad times, just like all of us do," Vera said of Eden.

Eden hangs up her work clothes to dry on a tree in her mother's backyard.
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Photo: Alicia Vera
"You expect it to be this grungy, dark hotel room, with drugs and money," Vera said. "That's just the way the media portrays it, I think."

Eden tries on clothing she left behind when she moved to San Francisco.
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Photo: Alicia Vera
"Whether you have this 9-to-5 office job or you're a prostitute, we all experience the same feelings," Vera said.

Eden has sex with a customer in her hotel room in King of Prussia, PA.
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Photo: Alicia Vera
"In some way, I identified with these women. They're sort of rebels of society, you know?" Vera said of the strippers and sex workers she's known. "Getting naked for people they don't know…I just felt like I could identify with that sort of rebellion."

Eden has sex with a customer in her hotel room in King of Prussia, PA.
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Photo: Alicia Vera
"Eden did go through a rough patch," Vera said. "She had a pimp for a little bit and quit, and then she decided to become independent and was better off, but she still had things happen, as I'm sure has happened to a lot of other women."

The prosecutor explains the court procedures to Eden and lets her know that she may postpone the hearing if she elects to hire a lawyer. She decides against it.
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Photo: Alicia Vera
"I want people to see that she's not just a sex worker," Vera said of Eden.

Weekends are the slowest days of the week because customers find it hard to get away from their responsibilities. When not reading or writing, Eden often finds herself bored and alone in her hotel room.
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Photo: Alicia Vera
"When she was working, she was pretty much up in a hotel room all day. So she didn't really have interaction with the outside world," Vera said of Eden, explaining that she didn't see Eden experience discrimination based on her career. "I mean, we did go out to eat once or twice, and she just was like any other person, and no one even knew."

Because of Eden's unconventional work schedule, she takes frequent naps throughout the day in order to get rest. Her cell phone is always within reach so she doesn't miss a customer's call.
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Photo: Alicia Vera
"Even as a stripper, I think she mostly hung around other dancers, because I guess she was scared that people would look down on her," Vera says of Eden, who is no longer a sex worker.

Eden nervously waits outside of the courtroom as she rereads a speech she has prepared for the hearing.
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Photo: Alicia Vera
"I think every girl's, or every prostitute's, experience is really different, you know?" Vera said of her time shooting Eden. "I just want to make that clear, because a lot of people are like, 'Well, you’re completely for prostitution,' and its like, every woman has her own thing."

Perched on the windowsill of her hotel room, Eden smokes a cigarette.
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Photo: Alicia Vera
"She's not a sex worker anymore," Vera said of Eden, who now works at a bakery in San Francisco.

Eden lays on the rooftop of her mother's home to reflect on old times in Lancaster, VA, and contemplate the possibility of going to jail.
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Photo: Alicia Vera
"I don't think it's completed at all," Vera said of the "Eden" photography project. "It's something that I want to continue for the rest of my life."

Eden takes a bath after a long day of work.
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