The following text was originally published as a zine. I had the pleasure of speaking to the writer of these words on The Vixen Hour. There are scant resources for the partners of sex workers so I am very grateful that someone has made this effort and shared his story. It's with his permission that I am able to share these words with you.
My girlfriend is a sex worker, and I love her deeply.
This article is intended to be a resource for people in or considering a relationship with a sex worker, with advice on the more common difficulties that come up. (Stuff I would have liked to have been told back when I started dating my girlfriend, basically, and couldn't find any advice on the subject.) Most of what's written here translates into relationships of other genders and orientations, but because I'm writing from my own experience, the advice contained here will be primarily directed towards heterosexual cisgender men.
I hope it helps someone get the love they deserve.
1. Talk about it.
This is crucial. A lot of guys, when put in the situation of their partner/crush informing them that they do sex work, will instinctively reach towards some agreement like, “Well … okay ... you can do that, just never mention it to me.” This way lies madness. You'll build the sex work up in your head into something far worse than what it is – which is a job – and give your jealousy a virtually infinite amount of tawdry ammunition to work with. Talking about it will probably be awkward at first, but talk about it anyway. When you're able to discuss her day at work openly, it loses its power over your ego. The unspoken always hurts us more than what's said aloud.
(Note: lots of sex workers might not be immediately keen to volunteer information about their work. Based on prior experience, they may assume that you won't be able to handle it, and frankly, most of the time they'll be right. It will probably be up to you to ask.)
2. If you feel insecure, don't hide it – work through it.
If you've never been in a situation where your partner having sex with someone else isn't cause for IMMEDIATE BETRAYAL-PANIC, feeling jealous (or at least a bit unnerved) is to be expected. Sex is an intimate thing, and there's a panicked little voice in the back of all of our minds that worries that if your partner has sex with other men, even in the most detached way, she'll never be 'fully with you'. That panicked little voice is an idiot. A sex worker can be a fully committed part of a deeply loving relationship – you just need to make sure that your insecurities allow her to be.
Sex workers who've tried to have relationships often have stories about guys who swore that they were fine with her job, only to have it surface later in much uglier ways (i.e. endlessly putting off having her meet their family, or suddenly calling her a “whore” during an argument). Don't be that guy. Don't lie to her, and don't lie to yourself. Jealousy is natural, but it's also conquerable. The most important thing is that you don't pretend that you're okay with it when you're not.
This is the hard part. The internal part. Our culture tells us so much damaging bullshit about sex workers, but do everything you can to block it out. Instead, try and focus on these four basic, golden, obvious truths:
- What other men have to pay tons of money for, she
shares with you for free.
- Not even having sex with those other men – some of
whom can be pretty unpleasant –
puts her off wanting to be with you.
- Work-sex is a performance. With you, she gets to be
herself – animated and vulnerable in a way that she would simply never be at work.
- She didn't choose to be with those guys. She chose you.
Keep those four things in mind, and the prospect of dating a sex worker becomes the exact opposite of emasculating. Even though there are all these men who pay to have just a brief experience of (heavily mediated) intimacy with her, it's you that she wants to share something real with. It's you that she chose.
Don't make her regret it.
3. You shouldn't need her job to suck.
A lot of sex workers love their jobs, and will have some really great, enjoyable sexual experiences there.
This is not a threat to you.
If a client turns out to have been a really amazing lover, you should just be glad that she had a good day at work – the same as you would if she were a teacher, waitress or CEO. If you require her to hide whenever she's had a great time at work, purely to satisfy your insecurity, it's going to drive a wedge between you. When she feels like she can speak openly about her experiences at work (the good stuff and the bad), it will bond you closer.
4. Respect her boundaries.
Crucial advice for any relationship! But particularly so with a sex worker. The 'playing a role' aspect of sex work can be disassociating, and as her partner, part of your role is to know how to make her feel like herself again. Sometimes this might mean giving her time as she adjusts from one sexual environment to another; sometimes this might mean backseating your desires. The idea that sex workers do not have the right to refuse sex is one of the most damaging aspects of the cultural bigotry surrounding them. Everyone has the right to refuse sex. Respecting boundaries doesn't end there, but it's a necessary first step, before any others may be taken.
5. Don't tell other people she's a sex worker without permission.
A minority of sex workers are completely 'out' to everyone they meet, but most are somewhere on a spectrum between 'my friends know' and 'you're the first person in my real life I've told'. It is not up to you to decide who else gets to know. In certain circles, telling people that you're dating a sex worker might get you appreciative gasps of shock, a smattering of activist/feminist cred – whatever, it doesn't matter. It's her choice who she lets know what she does.
(And none of that “telling someone but making them swear they won't tell anyone else” bullshit. What was true in primary school is true now: when you do that, it gives implicit permission for the person you told to do the exact same thing you just did – that is: tell one other person – and before you know it, everyone knows and you no longer have a girlfriend.)
The ideal thing would be if our whole society grew the fuck up and let sex work be seen as a regular, respectable profession, but we're a long way from that. Pressuring her to be more 'out' than she's comfortable with is exactly as bad as pressuring her to hide her profession more than she wants to. These are her decisions, and you need to respect them.
6. Don't tell her to stop.
When she's had a bad day at work – the clients were annoying, one guy's dick was uncomfortably big, she forgot her lip balm, et cetera – the correct response is not “You should quit.” Everyone has bad days at work sometimes, and it's wrong to use those days as evidence that she should stop working, when bad days are accepted as inevitable in other professions.
There's a tendency in some guys to try and 'save' women from sex work, which is a devastatingly condescending attitude when the work is freely chosen. If the respect you have for a person doesn't include room for their autonomy, that isn't real respect. (This is why “I respect you too much to let you do this kind of work” is a bullshit, paradoxical position. “Let”?) As with #5, the important thing is to respect her capacity to make decisions about her own life.
7. Be on her team.
If you're anything like me, after you start dating a sex worker you'll start to notice disparaging comments made about them everywhere. All of the fashion advice that's based on not looking like a streetwalker; all of the jokes that treat 'dead hooker in the trunk' as an amusingly incidental consequence of a wild night out. Small signals that you don't accept the ignorant and destructive premise of shit like this – even if it's just squeezing her hand when someone in a movie says something stupid – can make her feel a little less attacked by them. It's a way of showing that you're on her team: of affirming her humanity in the face of a culture that frequently seems intent on taking it away. This is a small, important thing.
8. Listen to what she tells you.
There are lots of different kinds of sex work, and a variety of perspectives and needs held by those that do it. This article was written from my own experience, and it's limited by that. If a sex worker tells you that she's uncomfortable with something because of an experience she had at work, listen to her. If she tells you she loves her job anyway, listen to her. If she tells you to never call her by her work-name (even playfully, because it's a really important way she demarcates between her work and the rest of her life), listen to her. If she tells you that a particular piece of the advice I've given here doesn't apply for her, for fuck's sake listen to her.
There's a lot to unlearn around this stuff, and it hides in the language we use. Sex workers don't 'sell their bodies'; they sell an experience to lonely guys that need it. Their bodies remain their own. We have this received notion that because a sex worker has sex with their clients, they're somehow 'spent' – unavailable to a boyfriend in some crucial and irredeemable way. It's not true, any more than it's true that kindergarten teachers ignore their own children.
The truth is harder to face. The truth is that what most often blocks relationships between men and sex workers is men – our insecurities, jealousies, and need to own the people we love. If you work on yourself and are honest about your needs, there's no reason that your partner doing sex work needs to be an issue. (Honestly, the only times it's still weird that my girlfriend's a sex worker are when we're forced to conceal it in front of people who'd judge her.) The problem isn't that sex workers are incapable of devoted love, but that our masculinity is too scared and anxious to accept that love. The problem isn't sex workers, but the culture that degrades and dehumanises them.
Changing that culture begins with changing ourselves. Go for it.
by anonymous, because #5