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.
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.
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.
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.