What I Learned from Sex Work
Image by Maddy Pease
Most of us, in our college careers, have seen our bank account go to zero. We deal with it in different ways, whether it’s getting a second job or taking out a loan, and in a way I did the former. When my bank account hit zero, I did something I had always wanted to do: I started selling nudes.
Sex work gets a bad name. It conjures up images of scantily clad girls on street corners leaning into faceless men’s cars, and while that may be part of it, it’s definitely not the whole picture. According to the Open Society Foundation, sex workers are “adults who receive money or goods in exchange for consensual sexual services or erotic performances, either regularly or occasionally.” Sex work includes porn, webcamming, findomme, stripping, prostitution, sugar babying, and yes, even selling feet pictures.
Contrary to what many people believe, sex work is a legitimate career, albeit it’s not for everyone. Sex work is work. It’s not just casually meeting an older man who wants to give you money, or selling a few feet pictures on the internet, but rather a very complex and multifaceted area of work in which it can take years to become successful. For a lot of us, it’s how we pay our medical bills or college tuition, and like any job, it’s an essential aspect of our lives.
Sex work in the U.S. is dangerous. The criminalization of forms of sex work has led to higher rates of assault and violence against sex workers, with as much as a 75% chance of an assault occurring sometime in their career. Compared to the U.K., where some forms of sex work are legal, the U.S. has up to four times more violent sex work encounters. People are more likely to victim-blame if the victim happens to be a sex worker. Whether it’s doing porn, stripping, or phone sex, working in a field where your sexuality is the main focus point makes many people think you’ve lost the privilege to decide what to do with your own body. Biases, even in the courtroom, are held against us, and most states allow previous sex work to be used as character evidence against victims of sexual violence. The idea here seems to be that because we use our bodies as a money-making tool, we somehow consent to its abuse.
Even feminism has, some of the time, failed us. The focal point in feminist theory and activism surrounding sex work seems to often be about getting women out of it, rather than supporting women who are in it. While it’s important to stop sex trafficking and the coercion of women into the sex industry, it’s also just as important to create a safe world for workers of all genders who choose to do sex work.
I didn’t know all of this when I started selling nudes. I was ignorant, greedy, and barely 18, and I wanted to think my life could be like Pretty Woman. I thought I would be safe just selling nudes, because I could be anonymous and untouchable. I saw it as an easy way to make money, not as something potentially dangerous.
I built my clientele through Tumblr, where I posted nudes and advertised my premium Snapchat. On my Snapchat, you got to see masturbation, shower pictures, sexual encounters, and a plethora of other things I won’t mention to keep this from getting too explicit. Monthly subscriptions ranged from $10-$20, depending on the type of service desired, but I know girls who charged up to $100 per month. If you could get enough clients, it paid well to do something that most of us were already doing for free.
It wasn’t all rainbows and roses. Of course there were the creeps. There were plenty of men who obsessively messaged me every day, or who flashed me dick pics when I least expected them. I always had to be careful not to show my face, or any marker that could hint at my location. This meant filming in untraceable bathroom stalls or posing in front of a blank wall in my dorm room.
I had become an entertainer. Sexting was part of the service, and it became exhausting having to remember to reply to five or ten people all waiting for my response with their pants down. Even worse were the people who used me as a therapist, pretending to be my friend and then using me as an emotional crutch. They thought because I had shared my body with them that I was now emotionally vulnerable and open, while I was actually more guarded than ever. The influx of attention was both gratifying and scary, and my life began to revolve around my career as a sex worker.
My sex life was affected; I no longer sent my significant other nudes because it somehow felt dirty and wrong to share with them something I was selling on the internet. I became obsessed with how I looked. Were my tan lines right? Was I skinny enough? Was my hair too short? These were all things that either brought customers in or pushed them away, and I was becoming dependent on the steady stream of income I got from my work. I was beginning to think that I didn’t even need a college degree if I had so much potential doing pornography. It was easy to get sucked in.
I knew I had spiralled too far when I accepted $1,000 to have sex with one of my clients. I respect women who are able to do that type of sex work, and I would never say that what they do is wrong, but for me it felt wrong. I spent the whole time lying there, uncomfortable and afraid, replaying episodes of “CSI” where the victim of a serial killer is a sex worker over and over in my head. I had gone too far, pushing the boundaries of what I was okay with because I had let the money and attention blind me from the dangers. I hadn’t told anyone where I was going or what I was doing, and had allowed myself to enter a situation I might not have left alive.
Who was going to cry for the poor little sex worker when she was hurt or even killed doing her job? The statistics say no one.
I stopped selling nudes after that. Not because I suddenly saw the error in my ways, or found some sort of confidence in myself like the protagonist in a movie, but because I was afraid. There are so many sex worker rights issues and so few people attempting to fix them, and I knew that I had to put my safety before a job that had become a huge part of my life.
I don’t regret a single decision I made. I am fortunate to be financially stable enough to leave the sex industry, but that is not the case for a lot of people. Sex work is work, and we need to start caring.