What Not To Ask A Sex Worker

Illustrated by Beth Hoeckel
I’ve been a full time sex worker for over a year now – specialising in all things kink and BDSM. Why did I choose to work in the sex industry, probably doing it for the same reason you haul yourself to the office every day: money. It's complicated, but I’ve done all kinds of jobs in the past and this is the one that I’ve ended up sticking with. In this line of work, there are few things I dread more than disclosing my job to new people. It’s not because I’m ashamed of what I do, or that I find it difficult to talk about. It’s because of the inevitable onslaught of predictable questions – the same ones I hear every single time. For many people, their only impressions of the sex industry come from a reductive mash up of Pretty Woman, the Ipswich murders and True Detective. On realising that they know an actual sex worker – or, you know, have unwittingly become friends with one – people have little else to fall back on except those hackneyed stereotypes.
A lack of awareness or understanding is totally understandable. I’d struggle to conceive of what a physicist actually did all day, so I don’t expect anyone else to have an intrinsic understanding of my job. But what’s frustrating is the very limited, and often pretty insulting, nature of the questions I’m asked about what I choose to do. I’m not alone in this. Almost all of my sex working pals can tell you tales of fixing a polite grimace on their face after on being asked, yet again, whether our work is feminist or empowering? Hint: would you ask this of a waitress or a cleaner? As long as it pays the bills, does a job need to be "empowering"? It’s feasible that one day one of your friends will tell you that they do or have done sex work, and at that moment, what they will want most of all is your support. Sharing information like this can be scary due to the stigma attached to sex work, and the way you react to it may have a significant impact on your future relationship. So, with that in mind, here are some questions to avoid.
Can you date? Do you have a girlfriend/boyfriend? Do you fall in love?
Yes. The clue to this one is that sex workers are actual human people just like you. Selling sexual services does not harm our capacity to love or date, in much the same way that casual hook ups don’t damage yours. Plus, when you question whether others could love us, your internalised disgust is visible from outer space. And of course, maybe we don’t want a partner. No woman needs a plus one to make them socially acceptable, and that’s just as true for sex workers as it is for anyone else. What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever seen or done?
Sigh. Always this one. We’re not a cabinet of curiosities to be mined for salacious details, and our job doesn’t exist exclusively for your amusement. I’ve lost track of the time people have felt entitled to demand prurient details from me, as if the only way they can accept my job is to turn me into a freakish oddity. Besides, "normal" and "weird" are very relative terms when it comes to sex. You don’t have to be a sex worker to see that upholding them is pretty oppressive.
What’s the worst thing that’s happened to you at work? How do you keep yourself safe?
Because our work is so stigmatised, sex workers face a far higher rate of violence at work. Our work places are also criminalised, so it’s then hard for us to report this violence to the police. When you casually ask us about our worst day on the job, it’s worth bearing this in mind, as being put on the spot about our first-hand experience of sexual violence is pretty unpleasant. Realistically, if we’re survivors of abuse at work, we’ll share this information with you as and when we want to. We know you care about our welfare, and by reacting positively to our initial disclosure that we’re a sex worker, we’ll feel able to come to you if we want to discuss it. Once an honest, open line of communication is there, we'll also be a lot more receptive when you do express concern.
So you’re a prostitute? Do you have a pimp?
If we’ve used the term "sex worker", it’s pretty likely that that’s the terminology we want you to use. It’s a deliberately broad, catch-all term, and includes anyone working in the sex industry, such as strippers, cam girls, and dominatrixes. Language like “prostitute” can have a lot of derogatory and negative connotations, and many of us prefer language which emphasises the work part of our work. What’s more, the word “pimp” is imbued with incredibly racist connotations, and has long been associated with presentations of black masculinity as violent and abusive. Yes, some sex workers work for other people, but we have "managers". And yeah, sometimes they’re a drag just like your manager. When are you going to quit? Surely you can’t do this long term?
Remember that time we went to Carluccio’s and you moaned for hours about your job in event planning and how annoying your client is? You just wanted someone to listen to your frustrations, right? Not tell you to jack the whole thing in. Similarly, sometimes we want to bitch and moan about work. This doesn’t make us a passive victim in need of saving from the industry; we just want to vent. So please don’t ask us when we’re going to quit. We’ll quit if and when we want to. And actually, I could do sex work for as long as I wanted. The mature market is booming. This is by no means an exhaustive list – all sex workers who are "out" about their jobs get asked a myriad of terrible questions on a daily basis. So what should you ask instead? I’d suggest you steer clear of value judgements, and ask your pal to tell you about their work in their own words. Ask them how it’s going, and just listen to them. Let your buddy know that what they do for a living doesn’t change your relationship. Read up on how to be a good ally to sex workers and familiarise yourself with the legal reforms that we campaign for in order to make our workplaces safer – namely, decriminalisation.