What is Sex Work?

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A Conversation With My Mom

I do these interviews because I want to talk with other sex workers about our work, and because I think we all have interesting stories. But, after interviewing Matthew and his telling me he was coming out, it occurred to me that I didn’t have to worry about that. I acknowledge that I am very privileged to have a mom who isn’t freaked out by my work, but we’d had very few conversations about how she felt about my work. Actually, we hadn’t had any. I tell her about sessions, and I told her when I started working, but beyond a few mentions here and there that was it. I wanted to know what she thought about my work, and since she’s a preacher, if she thought it clashed with our religion at all. I didn’t know what she was going to say, I swear, but I committed myself to reproducing whatever she said no matter what.

(Obviously this isn't my mom and I.)

Chi-Raq (2015)

(Screenshot from the film)
(Screenshot from the film)

Imagine Lysistrata—the classical play you probably read in Greek Lit class —but in the hood.

In this fictional but all-too-real version of Southside, Chicago, the women of Chi-Raq, lead by Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris), opt to withhold sex as a negotiating method to force an end to the gang related violence their men engage in. Lysistrata is inspired by the story of Leymah Gbowee, a Liberian woman who organized a sex strike amongst her peers to end a gruesome civil war. Her efforts were successful and earned her the Nobel Prize. The purpose of the Chi-Raq women’s strike is not so much to save their men from themselves as it is to bring a stop to the stray bullets that kill innocent children caught in the crossfire. These female revolutionists consider their responsibility to put children first an unwritten condition of womanhood. While Lysistrata herself is not a mother, her solidarity with them over her gang leader boyfriend, whom she loves, is powerful.

Is the labor of the Chi-Raq women’s strike itself a sort of sex work? As a sex worker myself, I have a very liberal definition of what falls under that (red) umbrella. I consider any situation where sex is used as a means of negotiation to be a form of sex work. Cash exchange is not a requirement. This definition can include negotiations between married couples or any suggestion of potential future sex to get what you want in the now—what some might call “flirting.” I understand this is a controversial opinion and an incredibly broad demarcation of sex work. But the reason I keep my definition of sex work so broad is because it normalizes the behavior. The more parallels I can draw between prostitution and sexual labor within civilian relationships, the weaker the arguments for intimate labor being an inherent evil become. This also means that when I work, I feel no guilt over avoiding terms such as “escort”—which would get me targeted by law enforcement—in favor of “sugarbaby” or “spoiled girlfriend”—even though nine times out of 10 they mean same goddamned thing, just without leaving me subject to the same legal implications.

The women of Chi-Raq considered themselves activists, and peaceful ones at that, but they still end up facing federal charges for their disruptive behavior. “Activists” sounds much better than “pissed off girlfriends.” There exists near infinite terminology to frame sexual negotiations depending on the conditions in which you negotiate. As the leader of this unconventional protest, Lysistrata is careful in navigating PR—it is her articulation of the dire circumstances in which the neighborhood lives, in addition to her resolve, that makes her a force to be reckoned with as opposed to being considered a joke, or worse, a terrorist. Different titles for the same actions produce vastly different outcomes.

Talking Dirty with Tonya Jone Miller


I was flipping through BUST magazine last month when I came across a story about a Portland-based phone sex operator who makes all sorts of cash talking about food fetishes. Impressed and intrigued, the first thing that came to my mind was my all-time favorite South Park episode where Stan’s dad gets caught jerking off while watching the Food Network late at night. After his wife blocks the channel, he starts calling the Food Network hotline and talks to a sultry-voiced woman about deglazing and how moist the pan roasted chicken is. So when I heard about Tonya Jone Miller, I was beyond thrilled to think that conversations like this really happen in the non-animated world, and that a real live woman might be getting rich bringing foodie fantasies to life.
To my disappointment, Tonya tells me that the food fetish thing isn’t super-common but was a fun angle for the story, which appeared in BUST’s food issue. She is, however, a successful, full-time indie phone sex operator with plenty to say about her business.

Confessions of a Professional Dater

The term “sex worker” usually makes me cringe. By most people’s standards, as an escort, I certainly fall into that occupational category. Living in a country where prostitution is illegal in all but a single state means that labeling myself a “sex worker” is hardly pragmatic. Besides, to call men like myself (straight male escorts) “sex workers” is almost insulting. How great would my life be if I could just sell sex? I have very few clients whose primary interest in retaining my services is sexual intercourse, or even sexual physical contact. Critics of the show I happen to be a part of have no frame of reference for what my profession entails. I will be the first to admit that the show, with eight 30-minute episodes per season, is not exactly made to be educational. Those critics have said repeatedly that women don’t have to pay to get laid. I have said repeatedly that they are correct, but that both women and men most definitely pay for “sex.”

I was raised on the Discovery Channel. Both of my parents were educators and naturally curious people. In my home growing up, there was no shortage of animals fucking on our TV screen. Those scenes were usually over in a matter of seconds, as compared to the sometimes hours of observation and analysis of the courtship rituals that led up to the act. It’s always been fascinating to me that although sexual intercourse among mammals is pretty much homogeneous, the courtship rituals and mating systems that get individuals to the act are incredibly diverse. That (entire process) is “sex.” Intercourse is by far the least interesting aspect. It’s a series of hip thrusts in a few positions. The mating game that happens before intercourse, on the other hand, is captivating. For us human animals living in the “modern world,” our mating game is the world of dating. I am a sex worker, but I am primarily a “professional dater.”

DuBarry Was a Lady (1943)

Du Barry Was A Lady (1943)

This film! Gene Kelly, Red Skelton, and Lucille Ball (who is a most epic redhead in color, I have to say) star in this musical where a hat check boy busts his head and dreams he is Louis XV, and Lucy is his Madame Du Barry. Sex work is, obviously, never mentioned. I mean, this film was made in 1943 y’all, I’d be expecting quite a lot if I needed them to say she was what she was. But. BUT. Anyone who knows their Ho-story knows that Madame Du Barry was a Courtesan. Courtesans fucked for cash . . . among other things, obviously.