I started working as an escort when I was 19. I was in my second year of college and struggling to make ends meet. I knew I didn’t want to take out student loans, but I didn’t really know what else to do. The only jobs I was qualified for paid minimum wage, which at the time was $8 an hour. That just wasn’t going to cut it, especially since I was in school full-time and could only work part-time.
I thought about all my options, but it didn’t seem like I had very many. I couldn’t bring myself to do porn, and I knew wasn’t talented enough to be a stripper. I figured I could try being an escort. It turned out to be pretty easy work for me, and I only needed to see clients one or two days a week to cover my expenses.
At first, I was quite open about my job. When I met people at parties and the “so, what do you do?” question came up, I’d be honest. I told people that I was a full-time student and a part-time escort. Reactions were so negative, however, that I quickly realized I needed to be more selective about revealing this information.
In my first few months of working as an escort, I was met with enough raised eyebrows, grimaces of disgust, and looks of pity to last a lifetime. Sometimes I received lectures about how I was enabling the patriarchy by choosing to be a sex worker. I was derided and called selfish for choosing a line of work that encourages sexism against women, and I was accused of being a traitor to the feminist cause. On many occasions, I was asked intrusive questions like “has a client ever hit you?” and “what’s the most disgusting thing you’ve ever had to do for a client?”
One friend – or someone I thought was a friend, at the time – told everyone in my social circle that there must be something psychologically wrong with me, because nobody in her right mind would ever choose to be a prostitute. She said she’d read that people in the sex industry are only there because they’ve been forced into it, or because they were sexually abused as children and then make warped decisions about their sexuality as adults. Soon the rumour in my extended group of friends was that I had been sexually abused as a child and that I was mentally unstable. People pitied me. I was humiliated.
The reality is that I had a happy childhood that was completely devoid of abuse of any kind. I grew up in a very ordinary middle class family. My parents cooked dinner for me every night, helped me with my homework, and told me they loved me every single day. My older sister lent me her clothes and let me hang out with her and her friends. I believe I had an incredibly fortunate upbringing – just about the best any child could possibly hope for.
But everyone in my social circle came to think of me as deranged and messed up. I eventually grew apart from those friends. As I met new people, I kept my work a secret. I had become uneasy around strangers. I didn’t trust them. Experience had taught me that people would judge, pity, or lecture me if I was open and honest about my life, and after years of enduring these reactions, I didn’t have the energy to cope with them anymore. So I withdrew.
Today, people are shocked when I tell them I used to be an extrovert. In high school and my first year of college, I was always the life of the party and the center of attention. I was the person who introduced people to other people. I cracked jokes and goofed around. I sang out loud, laughed raucously, and danced wildly. I was outwardly happy and I felt free to express myself. I was never self-conscious.
Now, I go out of my way not to draw attention to myself. I try to blend in, fade into the background. I don’t want to have to explain myself. I don’t want people to know who I am, to find out my secrets. These days, people describe me with adjectives like “quiet” and “shy.” I keep to myself a lot. In my isolation, I am bombarded with negative images about sex work in the media, and that only makes me feel worse.
Sometimes I can shrug a lot of this off. It’s not like I’m depressed all the time. I have three really supportive friends in my life who know what I do and accept me the way I am. I also have a handful of work friends that can empathize with my struggles and offer helpful advice. I can go months at a time without getting down about any of this. But lately, I've really been struggling with the stigma, and I’ve been feeling hopeless and uncertain about my future.
I think I’ve internalized the societal hatred of sex workers. I am embarrassed to be a sex worker, even though I like my job, I’m good at it, and I’ve made exceptional progress in my career over the past few years. Despite all my accomplishments, I feel like a loser. Sometimes I jokingly refer to myself as a "whore" or a "hooker" to try to re-claim these derogatory terms, but I often find myself thinking of myself as "just a whore."
After almost a decade of doing this work and hearing all the negative messages about sex workers and getting bad reactions from people when I tell them what I do, I sometimes wonder if there is something wrong with me. Maybe everyone is right. Maybe I am deranged.
The terrible irony is that I have a graduate degree in sociology. I, of all people, should know better than to think like this. I spent years of my life learning about how socialization works. My master’s thesis drew heavily on Goffman – one of the first scholars to investigate stigma. I am intimately familiar with how social norms develop and change over time, and how and why discrimination occurs against various groups of people. I guess it just goes to show how intense social conditioning really is; all the book-learning in the world is not enough to combat the weight of social norms.
I wish I could feel proud of who I am and what I do. I’m tired of feeling embarrassed and ashamed. I wish other people could see me for everything that I am, and not focus so much on this one aspect of my identity. There are so many things that make me who I am. I love animals, horror movies, and going on road trips. I’m passionate about gender equality and LGBTQ rights. I’m interested in politics and current events. I do yoga, I read a lot, and I stay in close touch with my family. But these traits are overshadowed by the fact that I am a prostitute. I don’t feel like anybody cares about any of these characteristics – all they would see is a whore.
Lately, I’ve been wondering how I could ever date someone again. It’s been three years since my last relationship. My ex-boyfriend knew me before I became an escort, and my work was never an issue with him. Now, I’m afraid to tell potential partners about what I do, because I’m nervous that they will make all kinds of awful assumptions about me. I worry that they will think I’m some kind of hyper-sexual nympho (I’m not), that I’ll sleep with them on the first date (I prefer to take it slow), or that I’m damaged and need to be treated like I’m fragile (which would be terribly patronizing and unpleasant).
I also wonder what any potential boyfriend would say to his friends and family about his relationship with me. How would the conversation go?
“I’m dating this girl I just met. She’s pretty great.”
“Oh, cool. How did you meet?”
“Nice. And what does she do?”
“Oh, you know. She’s a hooker.”
I know I don’t have to come out as a sex worker; I do have a mainstream part-time job. I use it as a cover, so that I don’t have to reveal my occupation as an escort unless I feel comfortable doing so. The job is loosely related to my academic field of study. But the fact that I pretend this part-time job is my full-time job makes me feel like a liar. I hate lying. I’m a very honest person by nature, and I desperately want to connect with people in a genuine and authentic way.
When I do muster up enough courage to tell people about my escort work, I notice myself glossing over it very quickly and hurriedly steering the topic of conversation toward my graduate degree instead. I hype it up and draw attention to it, as if to say, “yes, I’m a whore, but I’m also smart and normal, really, I promise!”
I find it pretentious and annoying when other people talk excessively about their university educations, and I hate it that I have become one of those people. However, I feel an urgent need to communicate that I am more than “just a whore.”
In my darkest moments I am desperately overwhelmed with feelings of despair, and fear that I have made myself unlovable. Sometimes I think the only way out of this mess it to stop working as an escort and leave the sex industry behind. It would be hard to quit, though, because the work is relatively easy, my schedule is flexible, and I make twice as much money doing sex work as I could doing any other job I’m qualified for. Besides, I can never take back what I’ve done. I will always have a history as a prostitute. I will always be seen as damaged goods, whether I am a current sex worker or a former one. So I might as well just keep going, right?
I don’t feel strong enough to cope with society’s condemnation, but there’s nothing I can do about it now. I wish I’d known what I was getting myself into before I jumped into this line of work. But most of all, I wish I’d never become a prostitute in the first place.