In a recent survey about trustworthy professions, Australians ranked sex workers at number 40 of 45, which means we beat out journalists and real estate agents but not bankers(34) or lawyers (33.) I sort of expected myself to be outraged by this, but for once, I didn’t think it was a matter of stigma unfairly steering people’s opinions.
It’s bad—really, really bad—if these respondents meant that they wouldn’t trust sex workers who say they’ve been assaulted, or wouldn’t trust sex workers who were testifying in a criminal trial. But I don’t think that’s what they meant at all. The survey was presented in way that inspired client vs. professional thinking, and professionals in all service industries have a vested interest in keeping their clients happy. That often manifests in the form of little white lies.
I’m always skeptical, for instance, when the woman at the spa says, “you have such beautiful skin!” and I’m equally skeptical when she tells me “you really need X product to protect from further sun damage.” That’s not because I think she’s an outright evil charlatan. I just know that, even if it’s unconscious, she’s probably influenced by the hope of a good tip or commission for a $150 tub of goo.
Many sex workers understand themselves as being paid to deliver a fantasy, and that fantasy usually doesn’t include disclosure of their aching feet, their wicked period cramps, their husband of five years, or their complete lack of attraction to the man who’s going down on them. Clients need to do their part and show up with a willing suspension of disbelief so that when some doe-eyed beauty says, “yes, I’m single,” they allow that comment to enhance their enjoyment of the moment— and don’t submit their sex worker to an interrogation. I’ve yet to meet a single sex worker who feels appreciative of, let alone comfortable with, a client’s agressive demands for “honesty.” If someone asks me “but what’s your real name” on a first date, I usually elect to never see them again. We get a pass for lying to someone who’s being pushy and practically coercing a certain response out of us.
So there’s that. Sex workers may lie 1) for your pleasure or 2) for their protection or 3) for both of those reasons at the same time. I’ve said before: “If you can’t handle the thought that a sex worker might be smiling in your face while calling you names in her head, you maybe should take a break” from hiring sex workers. I stand by that. If you accept that you’re paying for a fantasy and this other person is good enough to indulge that fantasy within her or his boundaries, you’ll probably have a fine time. (And if you don’t want to be lied to, don’t put your sex worker in a situation where she feels compelled to lie. In other words, don’t ask her prying personal questions and don’t fish for flattery.) Plenty of people perform their demanding and occasionally unpleasant jobs with a smile and we don’t regard them as collectively dishonest. Think of how many customer service reps and sales associates have to pretend they’re completely unfazed by or even sympathetic with the stranger who’s yelling in their ear.
Then there are some sex workers whose lies are not so white. In a recently published sex worker roundtable, Mariko Passion says
I mostly victimize my clients by taking advantage of their impulsive and unhealthy behaviors and use them for my financial gain. This is not the same as robbing them, though, as I am taking their money with their consent. Their consent, of course, is weakened by my hustling skills […. M]y way of working is one level above the streets, and can be grimy and unfair to the guy at times, but I am okay with that.
Mariko doesn’t use the word “lie” anywhere here, but she does use an even scarier word: “victimize.” Honesty doesn’t start and stop with what someone tells you. Frankly, most decent sex workers could hustle without telling a single lie—it’s all about body language, delivery, and what truths s/he omits. Trust also has to do with how someone treats you. Mariko admits that clients shouldn’t trust her because she doesn’t have their interests at heart and she’s ok with not working ethically. Some sex workers would probably think she’s justified in doing what she needs to do to make money; others, like me, find the idea of purposefully “victimizing” anyone appalling.
When it comes to sex workers—and politicians and lawyers and journalists and any other professional whose paycheck rests on presenting a certain version of reality that may or may not be as complete as possible—clients have to trust their intuition and judge each person on an individual basis rather than with blanket assumptions. It’s good to give another person the benefit of the doubt. But sometimes a healthy dose of skepticism is in order.