What It's Like to Come Out of the Hooker Closet

The most powerful reaction I've heard when coming out has been, "OMG, me, too!" I've found this connection with friends I've known for years and strangers within minutes of meeting each other.

Nov 26, 2012 at 3:00pm | Leave a comment

I've been coming out for decades now, and still do quite frequently. I come out as queer, depressed and as an activist, among other things. Instead of a single coming out story, I have a collection.

These days I come out most frequently as a sex worker. I was a prostitute for about four years. It's not the most interesting thing about me, but it is what I am most often defined by.

image

I started coming out as bisexual when I was 15. It's been an ongoing process ever since. First I came out to my friends, then the internet, and over the course of several years my family. Sometimes I forget that I don't have a flashing "QUEER!" sign over my head and come out again when people assume I'm straight. This is a fairly common occurrence because my partner is a dude.

Coming out as a sex worker has likewise been a continuous process, and it began in roughly the same order: first my partner, then friends, strangers and eventually family. Despite all my practice, coming out is always stressful. xoJane readers know from Melissa Petro that coming out as a current or former sex worker can be at the cost of current and future employment. While my own experiences have been less dramatic, some have been acutely painful. Others have just been bizarre.

image

Because of my work with Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP), I talk about sex work A LOT. I am routinely asked inappropriate personal questions and told intensely personal confidences. One man at a conference told me about his wife's fantasies of being a webcam girl within seconds of being introduced. I politely suggested that his wife might not appreciate having her fantasies shared with a stranger, but added that if she was serious about webcam work she would only keep 35% of her earnings from some sites. It was the most graceful way I could think of to shift the focus back to sex workers rights, which is why I was there.

For me, coming out has always been intimately tied to my politics, which does not always ease the process. Self-proclaimed feminists have informed me that anyone who works in the sex industry is perpetuating the rape and abuse of all women. These conversations are intellectually infuriating and gut-wrenchingly painful for me. I strongly resent the implication that sex workers are too stupid or deluded to understand our own lives. Dismissing stories from the sex trades that do not fit a particular model actually obstructs any attempts to improve those industries, including helping people leave them.

Negative reactions also come from places of love. My stepfather is still disappointed in my degrading and decidedly un-progressive behavior. My best friend was justifiably furious at me for lying to her and putting myself in unnecessary danger. For people hearing about the risks I took for the first time, the news is fresh and alarming. I relive events with them that I have long since come to terms with.

I wish I had reassurance to offer those retroactively concerned for my safety, but I made some stupid and risky decisions as a sex worker. I like to think talking to other sex workers would have taught me better practices, and I also like to think my work helps prevent others from making similar mistakes. Admitting my mistakes isn't easy, but is an important part of the coming out process.

image

Posters by St. James Infirmary.

I have not always had a choice in that process, however. Long before I was out publicly, somebody close to me outed me without my knowledge or permission as an escort to her friends. She claimed it was because she was proud of me, and wanted to brag about how strong I was. Besides being deeply hurt by the betrayal of trust, I was horrified to lose what little control I had over information that could potentially jeopardize my life choices and ambitions. While the only major consequence was the damage to our friendship, it was a harsh reminder of the risks that coming out entails.

Pervasive stigma against sex workers increases the challenges that we face individually and collectively. It leads to the institutionalized violence against people in the sex industries, which disproportionately affects low income communities, people of color, and trans people. Patterns of violence and abuse informed by stigma against sex work deserves its own space and analysis, but is a constant shadow in any discussion about sex workers. For now, I cannot emphasize enough how the systematic silencing of sex workers contributes directly to the violence and institutional harms that we face.

Sex work is part of every community. Listening to more sex workers' perspectives and lived experiences can help reverse bad policies and dramatically shift cultural assumptions. I sincerely hope that every time I come out it contributes to this larger project.

I have benefitted far more than I have suffered through coming out. I have grown happier and more resilient throughout the process. And I am part of a network of sex workers and activists who are deeply committed to supporting ALL the communities we belong to as friends, coworkers and neighbors.

My best friend who was so angry initially later declared that she will always love and support me unconditionally, unless I kill her cat. I would never trade my current relationships or community ties for the presumed security I felt when I lived in secrecy.

image

The most powerful reaction I've heard when coming out has been, "OMG, me, too!" I've found this connection with friends I've known for years and strangers within minutes of meeting each other.

When I see expressions of joy and wonder on the faces of people finding support and solidarity for the very first time, I know it reflects my own from three-and-a-half years ago. And it inspires me to continually burst out of the proverbial hooker closet.