I’ve been selling sex in one form or another for nine years, which is a long time. Most people in the sex trade pop in and out as their financial situation warrants, and few think of it as their career. For me, however, among the straight work I’ve pursued concurrently, prostitution is my profession and I’m comfortable with that. I’ve engineered that. My various privileges mean I operate in a way that is about as low-risk and comfy as one can get: I screen extensively, I am my own boss, I request a very high hourly rate, and I don’t see people who are violent or rude. If you asked me if I like it, I would say, “yes, I like it.” I like the people I meet, I like the freedom of schedule, and I like the money I make.
A big part of thinking about escorting as my career means evaluating my work and trying to improve the quality of service I’m offering in the interest of maintaining current clients and attracting new ones. Because it’s my profession, I think about it professionally and seriously, as a business person. It’s during these performance reviews that I might chastise myself for making my unhappiness with the physical interaction transparent, if/when I struggle to hide it. “He can tell I don’t like it,” I’ve thought to myself before, about clients with whom the physical aspect is more challenging, “but he lets me get away with it.” The “it” here means my inability to pretend I enjoy the sex. That’s what he “lets me get away with,” by not demanding his money back, I guess, and by continuing to see me and pay me for my time.
In other words, this man allows me to not to disguise my fundamental lack of desire to have sex with him. I think this feeling of being granted some type of permission to not fake enjoyment isn’t unique to me and isn’t unique to sex workers. I think a lot of women’s heterosexual sex is or has been characterized by negotiating their own lack of “enthusiastic consent,” a relatively new concept aiming to educate in a more nuanced way than “no means no” and “yes means yes.” It’s rare that I give authentic “enthusiastic consent” while I’m working. And that’s how I prefer it.
“Enthusiastic consent” was conceived in an effort to eradicate the so-called gray areas of sexual assault, so it’s hard to talk about without also talking about rape. While I appreciate the centering of desire and consent, it wouldn’t hold that every sexual encounter taking place without the enthusiastic consent of both parties is rape. This is because consent occurring without sexual desire isn’t automatically inauthentic or invalid. Imagine, for instance, a couple struggling with fertility who have dispirited sex in an effort to conceive; this would clearly not be a case of assault. I’ve unenthusiastically consented to sex many times in the past, and my reasons for doing so are myriad: I’ve felt obligated; I knew I would feel closer to my partner afterwards, even if I wasn’t horny in the moment; giving in was easier than having an argument about it; etc. Some of those reasons may be deemed more or less worthy or good than others, but my active consent was present, even if in the form of a less than excited “okay.” In these situations, I wouldn’t say the person I had sex with was coercive (no threats, no emotional abuse) and I wouldn’t call any of those circumstances “rape.” That’s my civilian side speaking.
As a sex worker, I additionally reject the enthusiastic consent yardstick as a determination of rape because there is a stark difference between the times I’ve agreed to (undesired) sex with clients, and the times I haven’t agreed to certain types of sex with clients. Labeling all of those experiences “rape” erases the truth, my reality, and my agency. It also means, as many sex workers have pointed out when dealing with prohibitionist propaganda, that my “yes” and my “no” while I’m working are equally meaningless, so there would be no difference between my experience with a client who respects my boundaries and one who doesn’t. As an adult human being, I assume responsibility for my own best interests. Sometimes I decide those interests are best served by freely consenting to unwanted sex.
To make sure we’re on the same page: I am enthusiastic about earning money, and I want to do the work that will earn me that money, so superficially “enthusiastic consent” and “wanted sex” apply to work sex because work sex is connected to cash. (See also: freely committing to a profession as a sex worker. I wouldn’t have done that unless I wanted to.) But if every client were willing to pay me my full rates for no sexual contact at all, it’s unlikely (read: would not that happen) that I would insist we have sex anyway. Even with clients who I sincerely like and care about, I’ve almost never wanted to have sex or even spend time with them so much that I did it for free. My enthusiasm around work is rarely about the sex itself—though it sometimes can be, if the chemistry is right—but rather about the payment I’ll have afterwards. Maybe 20% of the time I truly hate the sex, 20% of the time I like it, and the other 60% is tolerating it, not minding one way or another but certainly not feeling overwhelmed with enjoyment. I show up willing; I don’t show up wanting.
So, back to (sexual) desire at work. There have been periods when my libido was so high that being horny during and for work was fairly regular. Even now, when my libido is in a serious slump, there are times when I look forward to a date because of the sex it will entail. Sometimes this is because I’m seeing a regular who I know I have good chemistry with, but other times it’s a hope I have when someone is new and there’s the possibility—which more often than not, doesn’t become a reality—that we’ll be sexually compatible. I’ve never been one of those escorts who raves about how she gets to have sex for a living, or is paid for orgasms. (Yes, they most definitely do exist, and good for them.) I have had absolutely fantastic, incredibly hot sex with clients, but it’s not the norm and it’s not what I expect or even want out of my job.
I don’t teach clients how to “pleasure” me; that is far too intimate and a boundary I don’t cross. Sometimes I resent any sexual pleasure I feel, either because I find the guy irritating and enjoying his cock is like a compliment I don’t want to give, or because I’m not in a “sexy” headspace. Audacia Ray and Michelle Tea have written about the feelings of self-betrayal, horror, and general displeasure that can accompany orgasming with a client; I’ve been right there with them. I’ve mostly gotten over revulsion towards my own body’s responses, probably because I’m better at controlling those responses now. But I still usually want to maintain a distance while I work. I want to maintain my sexual privacy which can be done even while having intercourse. I’m not there for my own sexual pleasure or fulfillment and I don’t like pretending that I am.
Then again, pretending is a substantial part of what I’m hired for and I usually oblige. Faking sexual pleasure makes my job easier. It makes clients happier, it makes them come faster, and it makes them more likely to see me again. Win/win/win. Every now and then, though, it’s one of my duties that I can’t or won’t complete. In fact, the clients who I have the hardest time doing my job with are the ones who make the biggest deal out of having my enthusiastic consent. Maybe they want me to tell them what I want (which should more honestly be described as what they want me to want) or maybe they ask for constant feedback on their cunnilingus skills. Maybe they refer to how they were driving me crazy, when I was really writhing in pain thanks to their untrimmed fingernails, and I have to bite my tongue and let them expound on their delusion. Maybe, as was the case with one guy, he takes me on dates where nothing physical happens because when we finally have sex, he wants to “know” it’s because I “want” him, not because he’s paying me. I don’t expect non sex workers to understand this, but I bet many other sex workers reading this feels down to her bones what a grotesque demand that was. Some clients want a good-natured disposition, pleasant company, and a willingness to indulge them physically. They understand the terms of the transaction, and they’re happy to behave accordingly. Other men are so desperately lonely, so insecure, and so floundering in their lives and in themselves, that they want a piece of your soul. (“What’s your real name? Do you like that, (real name)?”)
Explicit instructions that I be enthusiastic on top of being willing is one of the worst parts of the job for me. It’s the closest I ever come to feeling humiliated while working, because my enthusiasm in this case isn’t about me at all; it’s about their egos and their need to feel desired. But I’m a real human being, and my personal, authentic desires deserve better than to be exploited by a man I’ve just met. It’s easier for me to fake enjoyment with a man who assumes it, since I feel we’re both implicitly joining in on the fantasy that he’s bought. The man who must make it explicit, who needs me to initiate every time, who has to be told I want him—he’s the one who asks too much.
Having consensual but unwanted sex is not necessarily a big deal for me. I will more often feel empty or sad after agreeing to sex I don’t want with an unpaid partner than I do with a client. Work can be compartmentalized and forgotten. But I still turn over plenty of work-related questions in my head: what does it mean for a man to keep paying to have sex with a woman who doesn’t give signs of enjoying it? (I’m reminded of Chester Brown praising a woman’s “honesty” for pulling a dead fish while he fucks her.) Am I giving these clients too much credit for an awareness they don’t have? I’d like it if we asked questions like these in larger sex worker communities as opposed to only posing them to ourselves or to our immediate friends. I honestly don’t think the general public is ready to consider much if any of these nuances, but it would be nice if they were. Our public conversations about consent and about sex still need more calibration, more sensitivity, and more imagination, and sex workers could play an important role in developing that.