10 Myths About Sex Work We Need To Stop Believing

For most of my adult life, I’ve been what’s commonly known as “precariously employed.” Whether it was working in a bar where the clients pinched me while I cleared glasses, trying my hand at being a personal assistant (which barely covered my rent while I pulled 12-hour shifts with no paid overtime), or doing administrative work in an office where the staff called me “the temp” to my face, I’ve managed to skate by, supporting myself with poorly paid, insecure jobs.

When I first discovered sex work, I was sure that it was going to be my ticket to riches — after all, I’d seen enough movies to assume that, as an overly educated woman who could code-switch into a posh accent (I’m British), I was going to become an overnight success, a courtesan to the rich and famous. But while my career as a sex worker hasn’t turned me into a multimillionaire, I’ve finally found financial security — without having to work a 90-hour week.

In the past five years, I’ve worked as everything from a cam girl to a full-service escort to a pro domme. While I’m aware of how relatively privileged my position is — and how lucky I am, given that the worst thing I’ve come across has been annoying clients — I can honestly say that sex work hasn’t been traumatic in the slightest. In fact, I felt worse about accepting money from an unethical company for some freelance non-sex work I did recently than I ever did taking money from a client after a blow job.

It was only when I began to tell people what I was doing for a living that I encountered the biggest hardship: the unwarranted judgement and prejudice. Turns out, many people have negative assumptions about sex workers (shocker). So in order to help clear things up, I’ve rounded up 10 common myths about sex work and explained just how misguided these sentiments are.

(Just to be clear: I’m talking about voluntary sex work, not sex trafficking, which is absolutely horrible and “a grave violation of human rights,” according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. Maybe that should be a myth on this list all its own: That sex work automatically means trafficking. It doesn't.)
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People who identify as sex workers can be doing anything from soliciting people for sex on the street to stripping in online chatrooms as cam girls to working as financial dominatrixes (sex workers who control clients’ finances and rarely, if ever, have any sexual contact with clients). Don’t assume that the term “sex worker” always means someone who has sex for money. The reason we use the blanket term is to show solidarity across all areas of the industry and let others know that we’re all in it together.

Related: Saying you’re a sex worker isn’t a cue for people to say, “Wow, that’s hot.” And it’s definitely not an invitation to turn up at someone’s place of work unannounced to “catch the show.” And it’s 100% not meant to provoke a despondent-sounding “Oh.” It’s a job, so treat it with the same respect you would any other career choice.
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My wardrobe contains short skirts, cropped tops, see-through lace leotards, and skintight dresses, yet the dress I wear most often for work is one my mom gave me to wear to an interview for a desk job. It’s a knee-length, long-sleeved, gray shift dress, and it’s served me well during the times I wanted to slink out through a hotel lobby and go home without being noticed. In my boring, black heels and tidy, blowdried hair, I feel like I’m role-playing some sort of bored office drone. And when I’m sitting in a hotel bar with a client making boring small talk, people read me either as a colleague or, if they’re particularly judgmental, a gold digger.

Of course, strippers wouldn’t make much money if they walked on stage dressed up the way I do for work, but there’s no one way to be a sex worker. Every area of sex work has a different “uniform,” so to speak, along with each worker’s personal style preferences.
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The word “pimp” often conjures images of a shadowy figure in a dark alley with brass knuckles, or a man with a jaunty suit and a feather in his hat. I’m sure both of these types of people exist, and I am sure both of them are absolutely terrifying. But is there a clear definition of a pimp? And do most, if not all, sex workers have them? Not exactly.

Many of us do have someone in our lives who supports our work, though they may or may not take a cut of our earnings. A sex worker’s “pimp” might just be a manager at a brothel who makes schedules, screens clients, and ensures everyone turns up for their shift; it could be a sex worker’s partner who’s unemployed and encourages her/him to go to work when she/he isn’t feeling well or isn’t in the mood. Or, it could be a friend who lets a sex worker use their apartment to work from, since it’s safer than being alone. Bottom line: There’s no singular definition of “pimp,” and plenty of sex workers don’t have anyone who even resembles a stereotypical pimp in their lives.
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If hating customers and finding the drudgery of work unbearable were a reason to criminalize an industry, then I don’t know what type of service work would still be legal. Whether I’ve worked in a shop or a design studio, I’ve enjoyed mocking annoying clients and complaining about boredom. We all work to earn money, which helps us pay our bills, put a roof over our heads, and buy fancy things (if we’re lucky). I’d venture to say that most people look forward to the weekend and being free of work and responsibilities for a few days. Sex workers are no different, except sometimes our weekends last all week and sometimes they don’t happen at all.
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For some reason, there are a lot of movies, books, songs, and plays about the trope of the poor prostitute with a heart of gold who just didn’t know what she was getting into and ends up worse off than when she started (if not dead). Unfortunately, while it’s easy for pop culture to re-tread these familiar waters, they don’t always reflect reality. Plenty of women go on to use their experience as sex workers to jump-start new careers. (Journalist Gira Grant and Brazilian activist and political candidate Gabriela Leite come to mind.) Then there are others for whom sex work remains simply one job of many past gigs. (Maya Angelou, Rupert Everett, and Riot Grrrl Kathleen Hanna are some of the most famous people who fit this profile.) For most of us, sex work is just a job, and we carry on living our lives, paying our bills, and trying to find that ever-elusive work-life balance — just like everyone else.
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This one’s particularly harsh, and thankfully, not true at all. My partner knew what my job was before I met him; in fact, I think I told him myself while I was tipsy on our first date. He knows that I have sex for money, and that sometimes it’s fun, even funny, and sometimes it’s gross and depressing. He’s neither a benevolent angel who believes he’s saved me from a lifetime of sin nor a desperate loner who couldn’t date anyone else if he tried. He’s simply a reasonable person and treats my sex work history like any other of the dozen or so low-paying jobs I’ve held.

My life before and after starting sex work has been normal: I went to university, got a degree, realized the job market was dire, hung out with my family, went on vacation sometimes, spent too much money on hair products, and hemorrhaged money on rent. When I reflect on my sex work, I don’t feel dirty or ashamed, I don’t feel like it makes me less worthy of love, and I don’t recoil when someone touches me. Luckily, the only long-lasting effect — for me, at least — has been acquiring a hatred of making small talk with middle-aged men, and an appreciation that my time is worth money. Never again will I do an internship for free.
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Just as pop culture dictates that sex work often ends tragically, it also reinforces the trope of the high-flying courtesan who wears only Agent Provocateur lingerie and won’t get out of bed for more than $1,000 an hour. That’s certainly not true for most sex workers, either.

When I started stripping on camera, I definitely believed in the stereotype of the giggling cam girl who just twirled around and flashed her nipples sometimes and made bank. It didn’t take long to realize that those girls are one in a million, and everyone else is pasting on a smile and luring people to the pay-per-minute areas of chat rooms, where they strip, use sex toys, and hope that the client doesn’t log off before they hit their daily earnings target.

Like in any industry, there are ranges in sex workers’ income levels. Think about it like this: The catering industry contains everyone from Gordon Ramsey to your local sandwich artist. So, the next time you’re at dinner with your stripper pal, don’t push her/him the check, since she/he might not have picked up any shifts in a while. (Or your friend might just not want to pay for your freeloading butt.)
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Yes, I am a survivor of sexual abuse. If I had a penny for everyone who’s ever implied this is the reason I did sex work, I could retire tomorrow. This presumption is both insulting and patronizing, since it not only assumes that I couldn’t overcome my abuse, but also that my decision-making is so impaired by it that I have no free will of my own.

The UN Women’s council estimates that one in three women has experienced physical or sexual violence; RAINN estimates that one in six women have been the victim of attempted or completed rape. These women don’t all become sex workers. When you start to talk to the women around you, you’ll see that violence against women is endemic in every society and walk of life. Sex workers are as likely to be survivors of sexual abuse as the woman who works at your local supermarket — or your mother, or your best friend. As Rebecca Solnit wrote, “Violence doesn’t have a race, a class, a religion, or a nationality, but it does have a gender.”
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Any physically demanding job is going to be easier for young people, since they are generally fitter, more flexible, and more energetic. As for attractiveness, even outside of the sex industry, pop culture dictates that once you reach a certain age, your sexual mystique diminishes. Again, these are unfortunate barriers that affect people in a vast range of industries.

Sure, when we see media scandals involving sex workers, they’re generally the young, photogenic ones. But dig a little deeper, and you’ll see that sex work is open to people of all ages. Legendary madame Cynthia Payne was 48 when she was raided by the police and made headlines; Angela Villon is a sex worker and political candidate in Peru, as well as a 51-year-old mother of four. And if nothing else, the proliferation of “MILF” videos on every porn site should tell you that a sex worker’s career can carry on a lot longer than people often imagine.
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Depending on where a sex worker lives and what her/his particular circumstances are, it might be. Lying to your friends and family is tiring and can be a drain on your mental health. Carrying around a secret that you worry will ruin your life if it’s exposed is certainly isolating. But it doesn’t have to be so lonely. If you’re lucky enough to have the internet at your disposal and the time to think up a fun fake name (you may not believe this, but Mitzi is not the name on my passport), then you have the possibility of connecting with thousands of sex workers all across the world.

Through the internet, I’ve been able to make friends, learn how to work safely while earning as much money as possible, talk through bad situations, and laugh until I cried discussing the time I wet my pants for a client, then slipped in the pool of pee and completely wiped out. Not every sex worker you meet online or at sex worker-only spaces will want to be your best friend (there are good and bad people in every line of work), but those who do will understand that we need to bond together and create a community where we have each other’s backs — no matter what happens.
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