Home Politics A Tunnel, Not A Door: Exiting Conditioned, Generational Sex Work

A Tunnel, Not A Door: Exiting Conditioned, Generational Sex Work

One of Lime Jello's ancestors?  (Image via Wikipedia Commons)
One of Lime Jello’s ancestors? (Image via Wikipedia Commons)

This piece is adapted from a December 17th speech the author gave this year.

“You’re so lazy, you’ll never be anything but a whore. And you won’t even be a good whore because nobody wants to fuck a girl with a book in front of her face.”

When I was about twelve, as I lay on my bed reading, my father walked into my bedroom. When he saw me reclining and reading, that was what he told me. Funny thing, though: the student schtick really sells. Clients like to think they’re “funding” something worthwhile, like my education and not my drug habit. (I have both.)

My point is this: entry into and tenure in the sex industry is both constrained and conditioned by personal, historical and socio-economic contexts. In the movement, we talk about constraint whenever we talk about poverty. I think we avoid talking about conditioning, however, lest we reinforce stereotypes about hookers who were abused as children. But I don’t believe I became a sex worker by accident. I think I was conditioned, and I want to talk about it.

A census record much like the one Lime Jello gleaned facts about her forebears from. (Photo via Wikipedia Commons)
A census record much like the one Lime Jello gleaned facts about her forebears from. (Photo via Wikipedia Commons)

The Beginning

My sex working story doesn’t actually begin with me. Instead, it begins in England in the 19th century with two women, distant relatives on my mother’s side. The first woman was a single mother who lived in a port town and was listed as a seamstress in the census records. She never married. My family suspects that she was a prostitute, as it was common at the time to list prostitutes as seamstresses in censuses, and for prostitutes to in fact also be seamstresses, and washerwomen, and whatever other jobs they could find. The second woman, named Sarah Jones, lived a little bit later in that century. She was also a single mother for most of her life, kept by an army officer who could not marry her because she was a working class woman. Eventually, the relationship soured, money changed hands, and Sarah was married off to another man of a lower station.

Around the turn of the century, it was my great grandmother’s turn at single parenthood. With two little boys and a dead husband, she needed an income fast. So she answered an ad in the newspaper for a wife to help work a farm. In return for the marriage, she received passage from England to Canada. She was, essentially, a mail-order bride.

I could go on: my grandmother wrote love poetry to her female friends, yet she married a man 20 years her senior; my mother lived in a series of abusive relationships and fended off would be tricks while panhandling her way across Canada; my sister worked as both an escort and a street worker, experiencing both a relatively unconstrained decision to do sex work and the hell of being forced to work by a boyfriend who fed her crack until she relented. Meanwhile, on my father’s side of the family, my father learned to be violent from his father, who learned from my father’s grandfather, a man who once punched his wife so hard that he put out her eye.

My family’s history is one in which women had few expectations for quality of life and in which sexual exploitation was not the exception but the rule. This is why I say that the fact that I became a whore was no accident. Whoring, in one way or another, is just what the women in my family do to survive. It is a testament not only to our victimization, but also to our resourcefulness.

We All Work for the Same People

I was born in 1985, a child of marital rape despite Canada’s then-new sexual assault law of 1983, which criminalized rape within marriages. The home I was born into was extremely violent and dirt poor. I was afraid of being raped before I even knew the word for what I was afraid of, and by the time I was 13, I was certain that I would have to leave or I would be killed. After I ran away, I lived with a series of family members and a foster family. By 14, I was experiencing symptoms of depression, post-traumatic stress and ADHD, although it would be more than a few years before I gained access to necessary mental health care.

In short: my childhood sucked, and it made me crazy. It also made me aware that compromising my autonomy or safety would sometimes be necessary for my survival, and that I would often have little choice in the matter of whether or not this happened.

I first traded sex as a teenager. I didn’t think of it as sex work, nor did I consider it exploitation. If you had approached me with either of those ideas when I was 16 or 17, I would have laughed you out of my house. My first “client” was an illegal taxi driver, who bought me a mickey of whiskey to get me to let him feel my tits. I still think I got the better end of that deal.

When I was 21—having dropped out of university after two and a half years and gotten married to a spouse who couldn’t maintain work—I started escorting for real. By the third client, an elderly man who had forgotten his dentures and had about an inch of shit caked on his ass, I knew I hated it. But it wasn’t until 2009, more than two years later, that I decided I wanted out.

The fat cat boss we all work for. (Image via Wikipedia Commons)
The fat cat boss we all work for. (Image via Wikipedia Commons)

Once I decided to quit, sex work became a living hell. There is a line between doing something that you don’t particularly want to do, and doing something that you particularly don’t want to do. When that line involves sexuality—which carries with it loads of stigma, trauma, shame, expectations, the investment of self-worth and other huge burdens of meaning—the difference can make life seem unbearable.

Since 2009, I have been working towards the goal of never having to sell sex again. My mental health deteriorated when I decided to exit, and so did my marriage. There was no way I could quit sex work while supporting a second person, so I left my spouse and went back to school. I struggled against episodes of depression so severe that I couldn’t get out of bed, thought about suicide constantly and failed to maintain even basic hygiene or nutrition. I had pneumonia over and over. But I still needed to support myself and needed money for tuition more than ever, so I still did sex work.


Content warning: The following contains a graphic depiction of work place rape.

In 2011, I agreed to an outcall date in a nearby city. We were to meet at a restaurant for a drink and get to know each other, then move to his beautiful waterfront condo to fuck. Once inside, the trick pushed another beer on me, and then another. He didn’t pay. He pulled my hair when he kissed me. During sex, he slipped the condom off, pressed his forearm into my throat, stuck his dick in my ass and asked if that’s how I liked it. Afraid of being strangled to death, I said yes.

When I reported the assault to the building’s security desk and asked them to call the police, the guards sent me outside to wait. I watched a couple get out of a cab, running inside the condo lobby without paying. The driver and I stood stupidly and helplessly outside.

Looking at the security guards and the cab driver, I realized something: we all work for the same people.
Five years, a second workplace sexual assault, and an opioid habit later, I am still selling sex. Exit isn’t so much a door as a never-ending tunnel.

Was my time as a sex worker nothing but violence and exploitation? Hardly. But was it free? Did I profit from it? I don’t think I did. Because I wasn’t working for my own benefit. This is the simple fact of the relationship between classes under capitalism: One class is interested in being paid the highest possible wage for the sale of their labor, and another class’ material wealth depends on paying those workers less than they’re worth. Sex workers can be called “reproductive laborers,” not in the sense of giving birth to the next generation, but in the sense of providing the care and comfort that clients need to “reproduce” themselves from day to day — to go on living and thriving. While we provide this labor, our clients’ wealth and well-being depend on paying us less than it is worth. That is, our clients need to profit off of seeing us by getting more care and comfort than they pay for —that’s what makes it “worth it” to buy sex.


I would be lying if I said the sex industry doesn’t produce victims. I have been repeatedly victimized, first in ways that led me to sex work and then as a sex worker. But I would also be lying if I said sex work produced helpless victims. As much as I was constrained by generations of poverty and conditioned by generations of violence, I have also been determined not to stay in those conditions. Sex work is a part of how I broke that cycle.

I am very much moved by the writings of other sex workers, especially writing by those who, like me, have not enjoyed sex work or have not experienced it as a choice. Blogger and sex work activist Emi Koyama writes,

Many people prefer the word “survivor” to “victim” because “survivor” feels strong and proactive. I understand that, as that is precisely how I felt for a long time also, but I started to think that we need to honor and embrace weakness, vulnerability, and passivity as well, or else we end up blaming and invalidating victims (including myself) who do not feel strong some or most of the times.

The more I dug into sex positive theory, the more I got to know other workers, and the longer I worked in the sex industry, the harder it became for me to advance the “free choice” paradigm without feeling like a liar. I don’t like sex work. And nor do most of the other workers I’ve met along my way. That may not hold true for every sex worker ever —in fact, I’m certain that it doesn’t—but among the hos I know, the dominant experience is of selling sex as the most viable of an overwhelmingly limited set of options.

That metaphorical, endless tunnel. (Photo by Andrew Bossi of the Harbor Tunnel in Baltimore, via Wikipedia)
That metaphorical, endless tunnel. (Photo by Andrew Bossi of the Harbor Tunnel in Baltimore, via Wikipedia)

Of course, I can’t speak for the sex workers for whom “choice” is the most appropriate narrative. I don’t intend to. They are welcome to their stories, but this story—my story— is not about them. It’s about those of us for whom “free choice” wasn’t a factor in our decisions to sell sex.

But my experience does impact how I think of “choice.” The “happy hooker”/helpless victim dichotomy doesn’t work for me. As blogger Hadil Habiba writes, “There are just as many people who are in danger in the sex trade as there are people who aren’t, and sometimes that’s the same person at different times.” It makes sense to me to think of “choice” as a spectrum of constraints and conditions that make some people more or less likely to be faced with the decision to do, or not do, sex work. Different people are at different places on the spectrum, and some people, like my sister, are at different places at different times in their lives.

While it is risky to tell any personal story about sex work, it seems particularly risky to tell a negative one. A negative story makes me personally vulnerable, and it chances both rejection by “my side” — the movement for decriminalization —and co-option by prohibitionists and abolitionists. And to some extent, my argument is an abolitionist argument.

Hear me out:

I oppose both the criminalization, and the industrialization, of sex work. That doesn’t mean I think people should be stopped from selling sex. I believe many people would continue to sell sex, from time to time or as a profession, in the absence of an industry dedicated to the conversion of sexual labor to commodity for the profit of people other than sex workers (i.e., bosses and clients). As far as I can tell, the sex industry, as such, is designed to capitalize on the generations of poverty and violence that put me on an all-but-inevitable course towards selling sex. I don’t want to decriminalize because I think that exploitation is a legitimate business model. I want to decriminalize because I think decriminalization is the best policy—from legal, worker health and safety, and public health perspectives—available at this time.

I don’t think “end demand” legislation will help to deindustrialize sex work, so much as it will drive workers underground and into greater danger, so I support what I like to think of as an “end supply” model. If we had legislation and social programs attacking poverty, drug criminalization, mental health issues, violence against women and other “push” factors as aggressively as prohibitionists currently hope to attack the sale and purchase of sex, then there wouldn’t be much of a sex industry to worry about. And from there, deindustrialization could be made a priority, for example by subsidizing the existence of small owner-operated brothels and prohibiting exploitative worker-manager relationships.

I decided to do sex work, and I think I made a good decision. But what I take away from my own story of intergenerational poverty and violence is not that I chose the sex industry, but rather that the sex industry chose me. When I advocate for decriminalization, it’s because I know that the sex industry does victimize people, and I don’t see how criminalization helps us fight that victimization. Ending demand, even if it could be done, would not address the factors that pushed me into prostitution, and it wouldn’t stop industry from capitalizing on my situation. The only real solution is to end supply.


  1. What a brave amazing story! Thank you so much for weathering the intense pressure within the sex worker movement to share this. I think there are so many people within and outside the sex worker rights movement who would identify a great deal. There is so much of importance here…I wanted to look at once small aspect (but I want to acknowledge the large scope of issues that you address here that would invite so much thinking and discussion).

    One thing I am thinking about a lot that you bring up is about the way sex work is characterized as ‘choice’ by some sex workers and in some rhetoric. As a long time activist I have seen that, most often as a reaction to this idea that often repeated idea, that ‘ a woman would never choose to be a prostitute.’

    I think of that issue of ‘choice’ as a red herring when looking at all the structural factors, reading your story… It always seemed ‘reactive’ to me when sex workers emphasize their ‘choice,’ and I always feel sad about that. But I also feel like all the factors and pressures make it hard for sex workers to really express what they mean. Your contribution is so valuable here in that way.

    In the 2005 European sex worker rights document, the term ‘sex work’ is actually defined as explicitly ‘voluntary.’ I would love to see international research in the area of sex worker understandings of the relationship of ‘choice’ and ‘decision’ to sex work. I don’t think I have seen that, but if anyone has….

    I know some sex workers are trying to ‘steer the ship’ away from that reductive way of discussing ‘choice’ and I am so glad there is a solid discourse about that, and your writing is so important. That corner for many sex workers is so tight. I am glad sex workers are creating and supporting space for more complex understandings about choice. The down side is that these are some pretty complicated ideas and sensitivities that sex worker activists need to look and internalize….especially while there is so much pressure and restriction. My personal issue is to support caring communication among sex workers as we move towards more intersectional understandings.

    Thanks again for this important and timely contribution!

  2. Gt at read. Thanks. I know all too well opiate dependance mixed with sex work. I was for many years a happy adult industry worker. Then the past 3 years were not so happy with drug dependence.

  3. Your “end supply” idea is essentially “end demand for money”. I fully agree that seems like a much more productive approach than trying to end demand for sex. I don’t think ending demand for money will end the supply of prostitution, but it’ll certainly remove much of the undesirable supply: Those who have no other choice.

  4. Thank you.

    As someone often caught in the happy hooker/survivist narrative and having to be the together, pretty face, I empathize with parts of your story.

    I wasn’t always the sex worker I am today, yet private and external pressures have meant I am in a cycle of survivalism myself due to deteriorating mental health.

    I don’t know the answer. But as a beautiful, thankfully still alive soul I met in NY who had an ability to write like you, she said always go for the fucking throat.

    Hats off to you lady, in your power, turning tragedy porn on its fucking head and being in your own truth.

    As someone that quietly, think my grandmother and her matriarchial line on my fathers side has whored for socio-economic and survival.

    We are the best. We are better. The closer to the truth we speak for them the more we take their stigma as well as their own.

    No sex work is not always fun. But it keeps us alive and I am very grateful for you sharing this.

  5. So grateful for your honesty, vulnerability, and willingness to look at the complexities and contradictions we sometimes experience in our time in the industry. So much of your story reminds me of my own… Keep sharing, keep writing. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

  6. Excellent piece. I love that sex worker stories on “this side” are beginning to more accurately reflect the true diversity of experiences. Thank you for your bravery! And I hope you’re able to transition into something that is equally independent and financially rewarding, but that you can embrace with all of you.

  7. Thank you for this gut wrenching, soul description of what sex work is like, can be like, will continue to be like for others and myself. I often find myself talking to myself in traffic, telling myself the old sex work stories of my past in order to reconstruct them and make them whole. It is easy to forget when you are in a good place about the things that are darker and more raw, I choose not to forget and that is my strength. Thank you for helping me embrace the raw elements of this work with your piece. I will share this with others. Blessings to you! ~Ren Ren

  8. Thank you so much! It likely took much courage to tell this very important story.

    I LOVE LOVE LOVE the idea of #End Supply:
    “If we had legislation and social programs attacking poverty, drug criminalization, mental health issues, violence against women and other “push” factors as aggressively as prohibitionists currently hope to attack the sale and purchase of sex, then there wouldn’t be much of a sex industry to worry about.”
    This addresses so many of the systemic factors that sex workers keep talking about and presents a rallying cry to use against the End Demand slogan.

    Also, a term I came across in the last couple of years is “rational choice”. It is, to me, a simple term that describes in two words what usually takes a sentence: the whole idea of making a best available choice out of constraints and limited options. It gets us away from the whole harmful dichotomy of free choice/victim. And yet, I’ve seen it in some nuanced academic literature on sex work, but never outside of it.

  9. I’m still forming the words to express my profound appreciation of this personal essay. Damn. For now I’ll simply say thank you and respect.

    • I’ll delete it now–it was a long comment and I may have missed that part. I found his POV ridiculous and offensive but I didn’t want to censor it if it was presented civilly.

      • yeah understand that, but there were “if your story is true” comments hidden amidst the bollocks. It didnt even look like he had read LJ;s piece since he made claims about them “hating every client” ect.
        I despair of us ever moving beyond the happy hooker/tragic victim binary when we have privileged male sex workers like fox reinforcing the binary!

        Oh and thanks for all your moderation work, understand it must be a pretty thankless task

  10. Thank you all. I’m so happy to have connected with so many others who feel the things I feel and have lived some of the experiences I’ve lived. I’m honoured by your kind comments.

  11. I’ve been meaning to read this piece for weeks but was avoiding sitting down and reading the whole thing because I knew it would be triggering for me. Just read it now, and wanted to thank you so much LJ. It’s beautifully done and actually didn’t trigger me much at all. I had a very similar rape experience to yours with a particular asshole client, and I so respect your take on what has happened to you within the industry and empathize strongly. Super <3's

  12. I’ve been thinking about this ever since it was posted, and I still don’t have the right words to tell you how grateful I am that you wrote this and how much I admire you. Also I think you’re a genius.

    I hope this is just the beginning of you writing about these things.

  13. I’m not yelling using caps I have a weird habit of accentuating words because it’s text not audio.

    THANK YOU for publishing this I very much appreciate it for a number of reasons. Your writing inspired the following thought process and I hope everyone will be lenient on me for its length.

    You hit the nail squarely on the head here regarding where societal priorities should be, I couldn’t agree more:
    “If we had legislation and social programs attacking poverty, drug criminalization, mental health issues, violence against women and other “push” factors as aggressively as prohibitionists currently hope to attack the sale and purchase of sex, then there wouldn’t be much of a sex industry to worry about.”

    I wish!! Boy do I wish. In my perfect world too, one I often dream of.

    I do believe there is a healthy platform for sexual services as a therapeutic modality however. If humans (in particular the wealthy elitists driving everything) prioritized attacking poverty etc., if human culture prioritized self actualization awareness and empowerment through consciousness (spirit)- over consumerism and capitalism (material), I see a place for therapeutic sexual services that could serve to enhance such priorities, of course requiring people who really do want to provide the services. I am one of those people and I know I’m not alone.

    It’s tricky at times to present this (sex work in a positive framework as therapeutic modality, or as labor rights based platform which is required thanks to the way the establishment and infrastructure of law has been set up) up against or alongside rather- (it’s hard to tell the difference sometimes) everything and everyone at stake.

    You don’t want to minimize or be insensitive to people in a different process with different experiences- but at the same time we need to push ideas forward in the hopes of changing laws and establishing a protection of our human rights (a HUGE uphill undertaking as it stands) within the establishment (which isn’t going away from what I can tell no matter how long I stand here with my fist clenched).

    I read and hear loud and clear Carol Leigh’s comment about “supporting communications as we move towards intersectional understanding” but I’m curious how this is actually being implemented if at all.

    I can say from experience in the last four- almost five years I’ve been involved actively in the sex worker rights movement that there’s been quite a bit of unnecessary nastiness, exclusion and at times a ‘competitiveness’ rather than a wholehearted push for solidarity. If you don’t completely agree with someone’s chosen declarations (through Facebook or twitter or up close and personal) a wall is put up and the wagons circle (advocates pushing against advocates who ultimately want the same things they just might not agree on how to get there). I would love to see a more cohesive galvanization throughout the movement. Goddess knows there are many of us all over the planet. We could have huge lobbying power even without money if we had that level of cohesiveness.

    When I see a sex worker on twitter, I follow. Even if I don’t agree with every point they make- even if I vehemently disagree with some of their views. We should be able to agree on the primary point of establishing HARM REDUCTION as immediately as possible. One would hope that logic and reason can lead the way regarding how this is achieved under the circumstances. I want to do everything in my power to support the algorithm of the movement (ALL OF US) because it plays a huge part in our work. Without the millions which abolitionists have- we’ve got to be the resourceful people WE ARE and be smart not working against ourselves out of what often appears to be pettiness.

    I grew up poor and in a very violent abusive household. I didn’t enter the sex industry until I was 36 years old. After experiencing numerous traumatic events and having no support system I began to self medicate leading to severe addiction. I believed my life was over and I was waiting to die. I entered the industry street level, was a junkie, and homeless, I was close to death. It is a miracle I am alive today as I don’t doubt many can relate to.

    From age 21 through until the traumatic experiences that pushed me into hitting bottom, I had worked in holistic medicine as an apprenticed licensed massage therapist- the non erotic type. Before the AMTA (American massage therapy Association) monopolized and effectively industrialized the massage industry you could enter that vocation for less than $300 and offer a worthwhile service. I think it’s interesting to note that ironically I was marginalized as a prostitute constantly for many years as a massage therapist before entering the adult industry.

    It was my many years in holistic medicine and massage therapy that allowed me a framework to build upon, but once I decided I was not going to die- I was going to fight for my life- as I established my recovery from addiction I knew I would have to find a healthy platform for sex work- or not do it anymore for the sake of my well being and recovery.

    I can honestly say, that sex work has played a big part in my healing process. Many times however, I wonder how I would have fared had I been arrested which fortunately didn’t happen especially at crucial points in my process where such a circumstance would have crippled me. I was marginalized severely along my recovery path no less- by treatment providers and doctors of course. When I hit bottom I kept waiting for someone to love me enough to come save me. No one was coming. Somehow (I don’t even know how) I realized that the only one going to save me was ME; I was going to have be the one to love me enough to save me. And despite the best efforts of marginalizing treatment providers to keep me in treatment ($$$) rather than recovery- I made it out alive and into recovery. I also established a healthy platform from which to do sex work. Admittedly many things changed- as in establishing a variety of hard boundaries that I have refused to compromise no matter what my circumstances are. These boundaries are crucial.

    It’s never been easy. It’s been an uphill battle from day fucking one.

    I too have feelings and opinions about sex work, the industry, etc., that I know will (and have) garnered flack and rolling eyes from within the sex worker movement. Some of them could easily be co-opted by abolitionists I’m certain. Those wretched souls are going to do what they’re going to do, aren’t they?

    None of us should allow ANYONE to stop us from sharing our experiences and perspectives. There ARE many negatives and to deny they exist in the name of narratives would be an injustice.

    I realize each person is in their own process and we need to be sensitive and willing to understand and empathize with other people who have their unique process. Especially when our actions will impact other people’s lives. Isn’t this what we are angry about abolitionists not doing in our behalf?

    I live by the tenant that I should constantly challenge my understanding and perceptions in particular those perceptions which involve other people’s experiences (it’s much easier to accurately understand oneself, provided you are honest with yourself that is).

    These are complex issues. There is no simple here.

    I am still learning.

    When digging deep for the truth (without it you cannot establish justice) you’ve got to get dirty.

    Perhaps in some ways we can see each other as coal. Without friction the coals would never become diamonds.

    I am rooting for US. ALL OF US. We can teach each other so much if people are willing to learn. I am!!

  14. What a brilliant piece of work. Thank you. I’m not even sure how you found the time to write it, let alone work the theory that expresses so well what I have mostly thought over the years, but not been able to express. In a word, it’s complicated. And even in the field of Domination, (where I am out as a sex worker in an attempt to show solidarity within the various classes within sex work that largely go undiscussed), I have spoken outwardly against the pro sex work “feminist” notion of “choice.” It’s just not that simple. And most people don’t want to know your background or why you “chose” sex work. Once again, I cannot put it into words at the moment, but you have. So thank you.


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