Below, four in-person sex working professionals discuss how to maintain boundaries while keeping clients happy, the most common problems that cause conflicts with customers, and what they think professionalism means in the context of a career plagued by stigma and illegality. Part two will be posted tomorrow. The women weighing in are Lori Adorable, Amanda Brooks1, Charlotte Shane, and Tizzy Wall.2
Charlotte: Sex work is very much my primary career, so I tend to think of it as I would any other personal service job, meaning I want a client to “get his money’s worth.” I want him to have the experience he wants to have. But I’ve also developed a pretty strong sense of boundaries over the years, and there are a lot of things I don’t allow and wouldn’t be willing to do no matter how much a client complains or cajoles. Do you think about your work in terms of satisfying the client? How do you negotiate that “the client is always right” mentality (yours or theirs!) with your own boundaries and preferred way of doing things?
Amanda: I’ve never felt I had to do anything the client or strip club customer wanted just because they were paying me. Quite the opposite. (I guess this means I have an “attitude”). However, I do feel they’re paying me to have a good time or have a need met. I consider it my job to give them my full attention and find a way to make them happy. I like making clients happy because it pleases me and offers personal satisfaction in my work. By “happy,” I don’t mean I do everything they’ve ever dreamed of. There’s always a middle ground.
Of course there have been times when I’ve shut off that inner voice and allowed a boundary to be pushed because of the money — but it always snaps back into place naturally, damn the consequences. I’m not someone who responds well to being told what to do or having my sense of privacy invaded. Add my stubborn refusal to fake it and it becomes a real mess, especially when I end up doing something I really don’t want (like have sex) just because I know it’s expected. Not to derail this into issues of consent; this is about personal satisfaction and playing a particular role that doesn’t fit me as well as it used to. As most service-industry workers probably feel, the less happy I am, the more I should be paid.
Tizz: Being that I still feel like a baby in the industry—I’ve been here for two years, with one short hiatus—and I only recently went independent, I’m still figuring a lot of this out. When I was working in a house, I was too far on the side of “the client is right,” and recently I’ve actually been too far on the opposite side: too harsh, with boundaries that are perhaps unnecessarily high. I don’t think the balance is ultimately much different than balancing any other customer service position. (Well, with higher stakes, surely). While I want to please my customers, I’m not willing to sacrifice my overall safety and well-being.
Pleasing clients is definitely a priority. Balancing that while still maintaining the persona crucial to my business (in particular, maintaining the authority that draws people to BDSM/power exchange/kink) is really difficult, and has made figuring out how harshly I need to enforce which boundaries tough. I would be curious to know: Is that easier with full service SW, since you can present a sort of accommodating persona in your work? Or does that make it harder, since you have the opposite problem of balancing being accommodating while saying no?
Lori: I can’t speak to the full-service work experience, but I’ve found offering pro-sub services has had a huge effect on how accommodating I am. Dominant clients simply can’t be approached with the “customer is always right” attitude, and this goes doubly for Dom clients who expect me to offer genital contact, which is most of them. I tried the “whatever you say, Sir” approach for a brief period of time when I first started and was desperate for cash, but I learned almost immediately that that was not sustainable. My safety needs to come first. It’s a very difficult dynamic to have to police my boundaries and the client’s skills so strictly while seemingly deferring to him. Sometimes, as with genital contact, it’s impossible to maintain, and a strict “no” is the only thing that works.
The kind of work I do isn’t the only thing that influences my approach to client satisfaction, though. I treat my sub clients with a “the customer is probably wrong” attitude as well. Part of it could be my misandrist core (half kidding), part of it could be previous work experiences. I’ve formerly walked dogs at an animal shelter and fundraised door-to-door, so I came to sex work already used to the notion that I might get seriously injured on the job (special shout-out to Rocky the German Shepherd and that guy in Suffolk County who answered his door wearing a “Boobs Make Me Smile” t-shirt.) I also had one very brief, nightmarish previous attempt at entering the pro-BDSM biz, involving Craigslist, a dark apartment that smelled like garbage, and a guy with a missing tooth who wouldn’t let me talk to the other girls and took all my money.
I went independent one year ago, and I remain vigilant even though I now have a lot of control over who I see. Interestingly, I think my cautiousness and skepticism have made me more professional. I approach each new client as needing a consultation of his desires, so I can see how they match up with my limits and assess whether we’d get along. I screen him, I have him fill out a questionnaire, and if he wants to dominate me, I have him join me for a BDSM lesson, wherein I make sure he knows what the fuck he’s doing. All of this goes over surprisingly well; he appreciates my thorough approach, and I appreciate the sense of security. In short, I think I’ve found a way to have my clients’ satisfaction and my safety go hand-in-hand, and both of those things make me feel much better about a job that I took on as a last resort and which still functions as a stopgap measure.
I am lucky in a lot of ways to be able to be so persnickety about client compatibility and still make an okay living. A lot of women in this industry have to either be more flexible or charge lower rates (that is, undervalue themselves) due to racism and cissexism and sizeism, and I think that’s another factor that will affect how a worker balances client satisfaction with personal satisfaction.
Amanda: The general openness to boundaries in BDSM work seems to be a perk for the worker. So far, I’m hearing it’s easier to navigate the work because a discussion of boundaries are part of it. Not saying bad experiences don’t happen to BDSM workers or that ya’ll don’t encounter the same cloudy-boundary issues. Strip club customers and escort clients mostly feel “boundary” is a very bad word. I’ve never had an upfront discussion about boundaries with a client and I think it would have made me much happier on many occasions.
As for undervaluing, it doesn’t have to be “caused” by any -ism (except sometimes classism). It can be caused by lack of self-esteem, lack of experience in the job, or be as simple as not having any business sense, as shown by the new trend of advertising free sessions on Backpage. This is going on in one city that I know of: established girls offer “first time free” sessions in the deranged hopes of getting business or living off generous tips. They’re paying to advertise for non-paid professional work. That’s undervaluing (not to mention confusing: are you a sex worker if you don’t charge?).
The scramble to the bottom on BP, or at the brothel I worked at, or plenty of other places, has nothing to with -isms. It’s bad business decisions by people who don’t have the sense or courage to charge more. Most girls undervalue themselves and clients certainly encourage that. It’s pretty rare that someone overshoots the market but it’s certainly obvious to them when they do. Most of the time, girls making good money do so simply because they ask for it and get it.
Lori: I definitely value being able to have the boundary discussions with clients, but it’s been my experience that the more boundaries you have, the more boundaries some asshole has to ignore or or to push. Boundary-pushing isn’t unique to any one form of sex work, though. Whatever you offer, there will be some client trying to get more, sometimes sheerly for the power trip. I’ve straight-up asked some clients, “Why don’t you see an escort?” And most of them reply, “Oh, I could never do that.” Except they are doing that– they’re trying to force me to be an escort instead of finding a woman who wants to do it, because that just wouldn’t be as much of a rush. Those are the really dangerous ones.
And no, undervaluing doesn’t have to be caused by systemic discrimination, but it often is. It’s impossible to ignore the average difference in rates between younger workers and older workers, white women and Black women. I’ve also seen it so many times personally, anecdotally: most women would begin as Dommes not offering extras, and the ones who couldn’t attract a reasonable number of clients– usually Black women and heavier women– would start offering them in order to compete. Because houses don’t advertise to attract clients who want these ‘niche’ women. Of course, women of all races and ages and sizes often find they’re comfortable offering more or offering less and still manage to do fine financially, but it would be wrong to ignore how the prejudices in this industry affect who does what and where and for how much, as that will have a major impact on a worker’s approach to client satisfaction in relation to her boundaries.
Charlotte: My mind is blown with that “first time free” thing! I’ve found that some professional and successful escorts who are used to being very high volume are petrified by the notion of not seeing tons of men per week, even if rationally they understand that charging more and working less can work out to the same profit.
I’ve been thinking a lot about how firm I am about boundaries now as opposed to when I first started. I know part of that is age and maturity and experience, but I also began work through an agent, and that dramatically shaped client interactions. I wasn’t doing my own marketing or my own screening, which meant there were no opportunities for the client and I to talk about expectations and protocol in advance. And I loved my agent, but I know for a fact she was one of those “yeah yeah, whatever” types who had no interest in matching clients to certain workers for mutual comfort and satisfaction.
To get back to Tizz’s question, I find full service escorting easier than jack shack work, since the jack shack guys were far more wheedling and coercive and entitled. (Part of that was probably my rates, though, set by the agent; the cheaper a client is, the worse he behaves, in my experience.) With full service, I think most clients come in with the expectation that they are going to get what they want, whereas body rub (and equivalent) clients might come in with the idea that they *might* get more than they’ve agreed to if they just whine or pressure or tip well enough. I still have boundaries, a lot of them, but since they aren’t so obviously physical, they don’t explicitly come up as much.
Tizz: I agree that not offering full-service somehow suggests there’s a certain level of flexibility that is unspoken, and I’ve had many, many clients be very disappointed that their offers are rejected. Even amongst patrons of sex workers, there is a stigma attached to going to someone explicitly for sex. Also, I think a lot of those boundary pushers get a thrill out of getting something extra out of someone; they think that they are some sort of PUA God who managed to out-savvy their chosen provider although, realistically, it’s more likely that the provider probably offers those extra services as a way to make extra cash. Having that explicit pre-session conversation does not necessarily mean that someone is actively engaging with you, or even cares about the conversation that you’ve had. And this seems somewhat parallel with what both Lori and Charlotte were saying about working in a house and with an agent (respectively): Being able to do your own screening and assessment of clients makes this process a lot easier, especially as your intuition develops.
As for -isms, as a woman who started in the industry as a size 6/8 and is currently a size 14, it definitely affects your clientele as well as the way wankers respond to you. Being able to demand a high wage is great, but it is definitely a privilege afforded based on certain superficial factors that some things (like, for example, being fat) does not necessarily provide. Or, well, you can do it, but it means you lose clients. I charge a high hourly wage and screen stringently because I have another income right now. When I didn’t, I was taking bigger risks and really couldn’t charge more.
Lori: That sort of experience is exactly what I was referring to when discussing women being undervalued by this industry. I mean, your dress size has increased but you’re just as pretty, and you’ve increased your expertise as well. Men should be paying you more, but, in the words of my favorite protest sign, shit is fucked up and shit.
Amanda: Success isn’t solely high rates. Every person sets their own standard of success. Nor do rates have to be “high” to be good for you. Some girls would much rather have the volume at a mid-range rather than do multi-hours at high rates with fewer clients. Some want a big savings account, others only want the bills paid and plenty of free time to do whatever else they want.
Realistically, if you’re a size 14, you’re not going to be able to charge what you did at a size 6 unless your rates were in the low to mid-range to begin with. But are you still charging what you can, or are you leaving money on the table due to your own feelings about your weight? That’s undervaluing. (It doesn’t sound like you’re in that position, Tizzy, but I don’t know how many others reading this may be. If they can get better clients or better rates by re-assessing how they view their own worth, then I hope they do.) It’s attitude-based, not appearance-based.
Sure, society and men are eager to limit sex workers all they can, but don’t create a self-imposed limit by believing in that crap. There’s always an intersection point where desired income and what the market will bear, meet. It may not be the ideal but it’s likely higher than what others think that point is.
Charlotte: I’m trying to think of an analogy for a straight field of work that mimics some of the dynamics between full service sex work to non-full service sex work…. Is there another profession where a service provider’s clients regularly try to cajole him or her into performing a different service they don’t offer? Obviously there are a LOT of professional situations where a client might try to get someone they’ve hired for some other purpose to have sex with them (personal trainer, therapist, etc.) but I can’t find the perfect comparison here. Asking the person who cuts your hair to wax your pubes? Asking a dermatologist to diagnosis something based on internal symptoms? Obviously, customers in all fields can be obnoxious and rude, and will try to get free services, pay less, overstay their time, and so on, but I think this is an instance when the sexual component of our labor adds a certain uniqueness to it.
Not to mention that most people, including our clients, have trouble recognizing various sex acts *as* professional services because theoretically, anyone can have PIV sex or give a blow job or allow someone else to lick their asshole (etc. etc.) So while it’s obviously crazy to, say, ask a taxi driver to fly an airplane by reasoning that it’s all transportation, men don’t think anything of asking a stripper to have a threesome with him and his buddy because “you’ve got the body, I’ve got money; what’s the problem?” And it goes both ways—that’s the funny thing. I’ve had guys try to hire me for bachelor parties back when I advertised as a fetish provider. Just a few months ago, a guy I used to see during my massage days (who knows I’m a full service escort now) asked if I would strip at a birthday party he was throwing for a friend. Of course, in those examples I’m really not offended and don’t feel pressured, whereas, back when I worked for the agent, the stakes felt a lot higher when a client was shoving my head towards his erection, telling me to lick it or kiss it a little.
I’m really struggling to think of any other industry where the distinction between various forms of work is so porous. (Not that it’s a bad thing; the flexibility is what a lot of us like about it.) Maybe personal assistants are the closest cousin? Like, they go into the job thinking they’ll be filing and answering phones and organizing travel but then suddenly they’re taking the dog to get groomed, and doing laundry, and babysitting?
Which brings me to something I am really eager to hear all your thoughts on: do you think there are unique challenges to being professional as a sex worker? (I think it’s worth pointing out here that someone can very clearly be A professional—like, a professional entertainer a la Charlie Sheen—and yet not behave in professional way.) Do you think the stigma and illegality surrounding our work affects how solicitous you are, whether that means you’re more guarded or more accommodating?
Amanda: When I’ve discussed my boundaries with civilians, all but one have had no problem respecting them. It does seem to be the money part of the equation that screws it up for men, something I’ve been noticing in my own work the past couple years. I have much less tolerance for boundary-pushing now than when I was younger.
Men self-create problems by not recognizing sex work as work. It also creates a problem for the worker; too many times I see girls brainwashed by review boards into calling their work a “hobby” or denying that it’s a job when it is their entire livelihood. It never does them any favors to deny their own need for professionalism.
One of the challenges to being a professional is that there is no standard definition of professional. And the whole “it’s not real work” thing. I think intercourse-based sex work gets this the worst. At least most people acknowledge the need for some physical ability with stripping or some sort of training for BDSM work. I bet webcam and phone sex are also fields where the perception is the same as intercourse-based sex work: anyone can do it and it requires no training or natural ability. (Professional freelance writers get the whole “anyone can write, why should I pay you for it?” thing too.)
I know that criminalization stifles how upfront I can be with clients. It would make life easier for my clients and me if I didn’t have to be so vague.
Criminalization affects my work greatly but I’m not sure it affects me that much aside from causing more paranoia than I would normally have. It affects US clients a lot. The prevailing attitude is deplorable and confused; fear, loathing, need, and desire all swirling around. In the NV brothel where I briefly worked, being legal meant a much easier time with some key client interactions: condom use, time limits, the men came in knowing their patronage was public knowledge (more or less),and the majority didn’t expect me to fall in love with them or want me to be their free girlfriend. Sometimes being a prostitute is much simpler than being an escort, only we can’t be self-identified prostitutes in the US outside of the brothels.
Social status can matter a lot too. Being of a lower class can mean poor treatment, even in countries where prostitution is legal/decriminalized. Or, in countries where hiring prostitutes is a legal and very normalized activity for men, they have very few hangups and know the rules because they’ve been properly socialized. They recognize sex workers are workers like anyone else. I daresay the legal status of prostitution changes the perceptions of the client more than the worker. Which, of course, is why it’s so important to get the laws changed here. Sex workers face a huge amount of client-based problems in the US.
Lori: Charlotte talked about finding civilian analogies for our work. I often try to do that, but I think it always falls short. Sexual activity is unique physically and socially and sometimes psychologically. It’s hard to talk about a hairdresser being asked to wax pubes, because (even though it involves pubes) waxing just does not evoke the same kinds of responses in people as sex does. I might feel pretty weird about being expected to walk a dog as a personal assistant, but I wouldn’t be upset in the same way I was upset when a big-spending client expected me to perform sexual activities that weren’t on the table. Even if I did feel the two situations were comparable, well, no one else does, including the cops. So, yes, there are unique challenges to being a sex worker and being a professional as a sex worker, because there are unique challenges to sex + sexuality. And the legal prohibition doesn’t help.
Amanda: That entitled mindset “I pay you and I own you” isn’t restricted to men who pay lots of money. It’s endemic to lower-end discussion board guys. I’ve heard a number of escorts who feel that higher rates entitle the guy to ask more but in my experience, men willing to pay a lot of money generally aren’t like that. They have certain demands and needs that can be annoying (like their need for excessive faking), but very few think they have actually bought you.
1. Amanda Brooks has spent significant time working as a stripper and then indepedent escort. She has written two books for escorts (EscortMBA.com) and has blogged since 2005 at her own site. She comments often here on Tits and Sass, and has contributed to a couple of pieces.↩
2. Tizzy Wall is an California-based sex worker (more specifically, a pro-domme and PSO), product reviewer, and writer. When she isn’t writing for Slixa, attending some nifty conference or lurking on Twitter, she is either cuddling with her cat or wearing festive accoutrements as she seeks the best $1 oyster happy hour in whatever town she is in.↩