In case you missed it, read Part One here.
I am a sex worker who not only hates the sex industry, but, more often than not, sex work itself. At the very least, I am not the Charlotte York of Sex Work and the City; I didn’t set out on my current career path screaming, “I choose my choice!” Rather, I got here mostly through a series of shitty happenstances primarily relating to my mental illness.
I’ve been crazy for the entirety of my life, but I managed my poor mental health well enough for most of it. In what should have been my last year of college, my overall health rapidly declined, aided by a series of sexual assaults. I might have been able to continue school part-time, but the conditions of my scholarship meant that I would lose the remaining $20,000 if I couldn’t manage twelve credits at once. So I chose to take some time off from college and work instead.
I searched for a job for five months. I sent out dozens of applications and got rejected repeatedly, including from being a hostess at restaurants. Given that my peers with BA’s were now desperately applying to the same low-wage jobs, the fact that I was unemployable without a degree shouldn’t have come as a surprise. I might have joined those peers in returning home for a while in debt and defeat, except that I don’t really have that option. I grew up with an abusive father, and I spent most of my teen years dealing with child protective services and the family court system. And so, with two weeks left until I’d have to either move back in with my father or become homeless, I chose to answer an ad on Craigslist about becoming a dominatrix.
That was eighteen months ago, or approximately five years in sex work time. Since then, my health has gotten even worse. I wouldn’t be able to work a full-time job now even if I could find one, so I continue on as a pro domme—a pro switch, actually. I’m pleased to say that the work has proved more enjoyable than I originally anticipated. It’s intellectually challenging, creative, and occasionally fun. Unfortunately, any enjoyment I get out of it is overshadowed by the risks it entails. I’ve already dealt with almost every kind of nastiness at my job, from verbal abuse to grand larceny to petty wage theft to yet more sexual assault to the constant threat of arrest (some things pro switches do are more legal than others). My welfare has improved since transitioning to independent work, but I still spend far too much time worrying about my physical, emotional, and financial security in this job. I want out of this business, sooner rather than later. But I fell stuck for a lack of other options.
Mine is exactly the kind of situation that anti-sex work feminists claim to want to remedy. Their plan for helping me, though, involves not much more than “ending demand” for my services. Even if that were an achievable goal, it would leave me back where I was eighteen months ago: unable to pay rent. Any solution to my dilemma and to the dilemmas of so many sex workers who feel trapped in our work to varying degrees will be far more complex than eliminating our clients. It will need to be systemic and holistic. It will need to attack multiple issues at once, and it will need to be spearheaded by sex workers.
I’ll repeat the disclaimer from part one of this series: I’m not a policy expert, and I didn’t consult many other sex workers in writing this. This essay is meant to spark discussion among sex workers who want to leave the industry, with Antis (and other sex workers!) listening to what we need. Nothing here is a proclamation. Even the two major categories I’ve come up with—immediate, practical solutions and long-term goals—are mutable and up for debate, and they are definitely U.S.- centric. But the conversation has to start somewhere.
What can be done NOW to help sex workers in leaving the industry:
- Establishment of career transition services: Sex workers face a number of largely unique issues when trying to move (back) into different sectors of the job market, not least of all the potentially large gap in our resumes. Career counseling that could help us retool sex work skills like marketing and client relations for vanilla CVs would be tremendously helpful. Sex workers are also likely to lack job connections in the straight world and could use help locating the kind of employment that would provide the flexibility so many of us have come to rely on.
- Creation of scholarship funds and priority job placement: Educational and vocational scholarship funds and job placement priority in certain sectors (like the nonprofit sector that claims to want to help us) may also be crucial in aiding our transition to other work. Like all services tailored to sex workers, these should be provided by nonjudgmental organizations that are not bent on proselytizing or victimizing those of us who seek their help. Of course, obtaining such scholarships or jobs would require us to out ourselves to some degree, and the merits of that are debatable. Decriminalization and destigmatization of our work might have to make more headway before such a thing is widely possible.
- Assistance in obtaining welfare and disability: Although a good number of sex workers are already on government assistance (and working in the industry precisely because they aren’t legally allowed to supplement that income), plenty of others could use help in obtaining it. Working outside the traditional employment system means we’re less likely to know how to obtain things like unemployment or disability benefits.
- Substance abuse treatment, mental health counseling, STI and HIV testing and treatment: There is little sex worker-friendly healthcare to be had, especially when it comes to counseling for mental illness and addiction. STI and HIV testing and treatment is also an especially dire need, given the occupational risk for many workers and the dearth of non-stigmatizing low-cost care that’s available. Better healthcare access is crucial to both sex workers remaining in the industry and those attempting to get to a place health-wise where they feel able to exit and move on. Once again, having resources that neither proselytize to nor victimize sex workers is crucial in our ability to access them.
What needs to be done eventually to make sure no one has to work in the sex industry (or any other industry!) if she doesn’t want to:
- Establishment of accessible, universal healthcare: I have met so many other sex workers with disabilities, women with chronic illnesses who can hardly afford to pay for treatment let alone cover their other living expenses. The Obama reforms haven’t done enough to lower the astronomical costs of healthcare for those with chronic conditions, and the cost of care continues to bankrupt even the people who are able to continue working full time while ill. We need more than clinical care that doesn’t stigmatize sex workers; we need an overhaul of the entire system.
- Decriminalization of drugs: The criminalization of drugs is intimately linked to the criminalization of sex work, as well as the continued failure of the healthcare system and the growing success of privatized prisons. Drug addiction needs to be treated as a health issue instead of a crime if we ever want to make headway against an epidemic of addiction.
- Welfare reform: It’s impossible to separate welfare reform from healthcare reform and the decriminalization of drugs. A comprehensive social safety net is necessary for those who have no private safety nets to fall back on, especially those of us who are struggling with health issues such as addiction.
- Workplace reform (including childcare reform and living wage laws): Most jobs that allow us to ourselves support are accessible only to those who can obtain a degree (see point 6) and work from nine to five, five days a week. Sex work is one of the few alternative options for those who need to get by working part-time or during flexible hours. In order to open up other options, we’ll need to restructure the default workday and the accreditation it requires. Normalizing telecommuting and improving access to and quality of vocational programs are two logical first steps.
- Immigration reform and anti-colonialist advocacy: When access to legal work in America is restricted to mostly upper-middle class immigrants, working in industries that already rely on illegal labor becomes one of few viable options for poorer migrants. Most of them are people of color from the global south, driven to look for work in America because of our neocolonialist foreign policies that destroy the economies of their countries of origin.
- Education reform: Higher education is also necessary to so many kinds of work, even though it remains largely unavailable to poor people and people with disabilities. It needs to be universally accessible and amended with vocational training.
This list, broad as it is, is woefully incomplete. It should be supplemented with the suggestions in Part I of this piece, as well as general activism against the varied forms of racism, sexism, ableism, heterosexism, cissexism and classism that perpetuate the inequality driving terrible social policies. My answer to, “what do you need to leave the sex industry?” isn’t “an end to demand” or even “a clean bill of health.” What I need is dialogue that leads to revolution.