A couple of months ago I was at auditions for a musical at my community theater, and during the interminable waiting period I found myself chatting with a group of middle-aged women (why not the shy 20-year-old hottie in flannel? Sigh). Easy conversation bumped along, from “what are you singing?” to “I’m such a horrible dancer” to “yes, I am the kind of mom who plunks her kid in front of the TV so I can pee in peace.” Eventually, we were bound to land on work/money, which is a subject I stay pretty quiet about as long as I can, what with being a dirty whore and all.
The women were discussing a man, a local theater staple, who had to move out of town due to financial hardship. They agreed that times are indeed tough, especially in our city, “unless you want to do something somewhat soul-crushing,” one of them said. My ears always perk up at the term “soul-crushing,” yet without missing a beat, the rest of the group groaned aloud in agreement, as if they’d had this exact conversation the day before. “I did that for a while,” the woman continued carefully. The murky reference awarded no response from the others, so I chimed in, “what, like waitressing?”
“Haha!” she laughed. “Yeah … ” she trailed off playfully, not wanting to say it. But I wanted her to say it, because considering how easily she’d offered up this information, I still wasn’t sure slinging things like peanut butter burgers and ass-slappin’ good chicken wings wasn’t the soul-crushing work she was referring to. Sounds pretty awful to me. She did eventually admit, even quieter, “no … like dancing. Stripping.”
“Oh, cool,” I said, giving a friendly nod, hopefully assuring her I thought her soul seemed fine, but really wanting to jump up and down with excitement. She smiled weakly, probably surprised at my genuinely supportive reaction. I was relieved that this woman, this stranger, would come out—however timidly—with her past in a highly stigmatized industry. But before I could find out any more, our audition numbers were called and the mood spiraled into a fresh wave of bumbling small talk and last ditch efforts to center our inner Broadway divas.
Like a champagne bottle in danger of bubbling over, I started leaking the truth about my job to my family, little by little, a few months ago, though I think they’ve sort of “known” ever since I started a few years ago. It was at a family reunion last summer when my two sisters and I were having some drinks (okay, a lot of drinks), and they began probing the shroud of mystery surrounding the “intimacy counseling” sessions I’d told them I offered, the details of which I’d always just swept under the rug. Of course they knew there was some missing element considering the exorbitant rent on my new house and my impressive collection of six-inch stilettos. Well, at this time I had just begun having sex with clients and was excited about the new direction, so with my judgment adequately impaired I confidently admitted this fact to them (I wanted to anyway, drunk or not). And suddenly—WHAM—there it was, the basic truth that their little baby sister was a prostitute. They were fascinated but floundered semi-awkwardly. I’ve always been the boundary-crossing grey sheep of the family, so they couldn’t have been too surprised. There’s something so primal about telling people you deal in sex (shit gets real, real fast), a sensation probably shared by the likes of radical environmentalists who blow up dams on the weekends. Their moral compasses completely thrown off, people aren’t totally sure what they’re supposed to think, which is perhaps more unsettling to them than the reality of the behavior itself.
The subject didn’t come up again until Thanksgiving, when just my oldest sister was visiting. She is a generally freethinking professional artist (and a gay one at that, so I figured she could relate to the whole “coming out” thing), but she’s also nearly 15 years older than me and has always filled the sister-mom role to us younger girls. One night (again, over drinks), conversation burrowed its way into our work lives. Cautiously, she inquired further about what I do, quickly noticing I referenced myself and others as “sex workers,” a broad term she couldn’t ground her comprehension in. She pedaled politely through the conversation, but when I used words she could gauge—escort, and (really pushing it now) even prostitute—her face betrayed her with the most subtle of cringes. Conversation eventually found more neutral topics.
I also have two friends who know my secret, and they are supportive as can be, even going so far as to regularly ask me how work is going (something my sisters probably can’t routinely confront). It is an emotional necessity to have a small support system when I absolutely need it, but at the same time, having people I care about know I am now a salacious salesman of sex galvanizes the reality of my own self-judgments, a reality which is fairly easy to otherwise shelve (like the old “if a tree falls in the forest and no one sees it … ” thing). The truth still hangs in the air when we’re together, and feelings of guilt and shame more readily rear their ugly heads (why can’t I just be a writer or barista or a damn party planner?).
Perhaps this is not a bad thing. Not only does having an outlet prevent me from unnecessarily spilling the beans to strangers (it’s not nearly as liberating and fun as I’d anticipated) or overly divulging personal information to clients, but it’s shown me where my emotional vulnerabilities lie. The reaction I get from exposing my dirty little secret to people is directly related to how I’m seeing myself at the time (it was obvious from the get-go that Belle de Jour didn’t really believe a prostitute could maintain a “real” relationship, hence her continual romantic failures). Of course I cannot necessarily make people see me how I see myself, and all the pregnant silences they won’t fill with questions I’d wish they’d ask make me nervous: What are they really thinking? Are they disappointed in me?
I’ve learned that coming out as a sex worker should be done carefully yet confidently. If you have children or another high-profile job, take extra care to ensure sensitive information isn’t leaked all over the place (scorned lovers and friends can be loose cannons). Though in many cases, civilians deserve more credit than they’re given. Oftentimes awkward and sometimes painful, yes, but not necessarily a deal-breaker if you don’t make it into one. Just beware of all the shit people are bound to say to you!