Shut Up About How I Should Talk About My Sex Work
Often, when I tell someone new that I’m a phone sex operator, they say, “Oh! How long did you do that?” Notice the the use of past tense. The assumption is, of course, that my time in phone sex was in the past, that I am no longer doing it, that I have left it behind and moved on to my obviously successful and lucrative career in playwriting and solo performance.
Pause for laugh break.
Yes. I find that hilarious, too.
I am glad that my profile and branding and visibility is high enough at this point that people think I must doing well, but really … it’s mostly PR. I need to make people think that I’m already big news, so they don’t want to miss me, so they want to book me. This isn’t marketing hyperbole, as much as it is simply my M.O.: I fake it ’til I make it. I am sure a lot of emergent performers do this, putting out their hype just slightly ahead of their performance curve, and stepping up to the plate with a prayer on every slightly shallow breath.
I am also quite sure that my colleagues in performance, those of us hovering around the same level of visibility and exposure and gig income -- most of us have second jobs. Maybe even third jobs, but definitely second ones. Whether it’s the time-honored food-service position, or consulting gigs in tech writing, or office jobs, or arts administrators at various levels, or yes, phone sex, we have to make money somehow while we are striving to make money in some other way.
But not all of these second jobs are treated the same way. People accept without comment that actors might perform and continue to wait tables, or that playwrights would write in the evenings, after they’ve left the office. What is it about phone sex, and sex work in general, that makes it so hard to reconcile with other aspirations?
I don’t have all the answers, I never do. I just have thoughts, and they are these:
First of all, it is a not-unheard-of approach for writers to dip into some exotic field or lifestyle and then dip right back out when they’ve got enough material. I wonder if people assume that naturally I’d have followed that trajectory, because my first play Phone Whore is about phone sex, and, you know … Why would I still be doing phone sex, if I got what I needed from it, i.e. grist for the mill?
Oh, wait. What if I wasn’t doing it for the research? What if I needed the actual money? What if I still need the money? What if this option is, in fact, preferable to other paying-the-bills options?
OK. It has become kind of OK to say, in some circles, that you did a little sex work, if you put it down to fun or research or empowerment. If you did sex work strictly for the money, you can only really admit it if you put it in the past, and remove any element of choice about it, as much as possible. To buy nice clothes? Not desperate enough. We’re talking paying for college, making money after a layoff, getting off the streets. In the past. In the popular cultural understanding, sex work is a last resort, and if it happened in the past, it means that you boot-strapped your way out of a terrible situation and props to you, and now you can leave that all behind you. We can only talk about “degrading situations” if we’ve triumphed over them, or if we’re actively working on getting out. That is the way a feel-good narrative works.
But saying out loud, in a broad-daylight way, that one does sex work for money, that one is currently doing it, that one has no immediate, focused, near-future plans for not doing it… that looks, to the outside eye, suspiciously like “giving up on ourselves.” “Undervaluing ourselves.” Obviously “not motivated enough.” Bleah. You know what? I felt a lot less valued in the office job I got laid off from in 2009, and I was getting a lot less of my own creative work done. But people think “sex work” = “unmotivated”, which doesn’t mesh with how they see me. Not that I need to break stereotypes, but…
POW. Did that hurt when your brain blew out sideways?
The truth is there are many reasons why sex workers are doing the work we do, and as with any profession, some of us desperately want out, some love it, or are just fine with it, and some are doing it, with greater or lesser degrees of enthusiasm, until our other plans pan out.
I fall in this last category, for sure. I do want to make my living writing and performing. But I don’t see what I’m doing as “rescuing myself”. I’m working toward success in performance, not away from some tragically wasted life in phone sex, boo hoo. No. I still do phone sex, and I’m really, really good with doing phone sex right now, and I’m in no particular rush to leave it, BELIEVE IT.
When I “make it,” when I get to the point that I make all my living in performance, I will tell people the periods of my employment in phone sex, if it’s relevant, but I won’t hide this life, or refer to it as a wacky little phase, or a terrible time that I got through. This is a decent fucking job that I’ve held for four years. It can be isolating as hell, and it’s a little marginal right now, but it’s easier on my feet than food service. And doing phone sex does more than pay the bills. It inspired my first play, and feeds my soul and my mind in a way that no other job ever has.
So my question to you is: Why should I be so eager to leave that?