Here's your place to come talk about sex and love whenever you feel like it.
When I was six years old, I had to go with my mother to the doctor and have my wrist X-rayed. I remember thinking at the time that it was pretty cool (I had to wear a lead apron and the machine made sci-fi noises!). It wasn’t until I was a lot older that I actually asked why I had needed that X-ray, because I didn’t remember actually hurting my arm.
“Oh.” my mother said vaguely, “We were testing you for gigantism because you were so much bigger than all the other kids. But it turned out you were just tall.”
Just tall in my case meant leveling off at 6’1” in my mid-teens, with frizzy hair, feet that only fit men’s shoe sizes and a body that meant shopping in the plus size (AKA “fat old lady”) section of Target. So let’s just say that this article isn’t going to be about my teen dating adventures.
But later on, when I started dating? Oh, I have stories. And like anyone who has ever dated whilst inhabiting a body that is outside the mainstream, I have a lot of stories about being fetishised. Unlike a lot of people though, I know a heck of a lot about fetishes because for two years I worked for an escort agency as a receptionist (translation: phone pimp).
I was good at it, too. My special skill was working out exactly what the client wanted and crafting my descriptions of our “contractors” to what would fit his desires best. (Future article pitch: “IHTM -– My Party Trick Now Helps Me Pick Up At Bars!”) Clients would tell things to me they never would say in a normal setting. Because my agency was escort only, I only ever spoke to clients on the phone to arrange bookings, so perhaps the distance of the phone line was a factor in having people open up to me. Also, prostitution is both legal and regulated in my state in Australia, so there were no legal issues around the requests anyone was making.
Before I started the job, I was worried that working in such a sexist and image-based industry would be bad for my hard earned self-esteem. Funnily enough, it actually turned out to be pretty liberating. It did help that my partner at the time was supportive of my work and that I was secure in our monogamy, and I definitely wouldn’t recommend any aspect of the sex industry as a sure-fire way to help insecurities, but here are a few thoughts I’d like to share:
1. There is a difference between a fetish and a preference.
Most people tend to overuse the term "fetish" with grand hyperbole much like people over self-diagnose OCD. No, you do not have obsessive-compulsive disorder because you like having all your books in order on your shelf. No, you do not have a fetish if you like getting spanked occasionally. Technically speaking a fetish is an object or body part whose presence is psychologically required for sexual gratification. This can sometimes mean that the person can get themselves off in a vanilla sexual encounter by simply fantasizing about the object in question; others absolutely need the involvement of their fetish physically or they won’t be able to orgasm (or perhaps even get aroused).
A strong fetish can absolutely be life-ruining for a person, especially if they haven’t come to terms with it or they’ve ended up forcing themselves into a relationship with someone who isn’t into what they’re into. Or maybe they would be but the person with the fetish is too paralysed by the fear of rejection to bring it up.
2. Sex is about more than sex, even with sex workers.
I had phone calls from immigrants wanting a girl who spoke their native language. Guys who I thought were calling back to cancel but really wanted to find out whether the girl they’d booked with preferred red or white wine, or what flowers they should get her. There were Indian guys whose families wouldn’t let them date outside their race. For a lot of people, seeing a sex worker was about addressing a need or a desire that they couldn’t get in their day to day life. For a lot of people, that was just the desire to be close to someone, and with that kind of client it really wasn’t all about age or looks.
3. Getting "in the door" isn’t always about type.
Unsurprisingly, the easiest sort of sex worker to find work for was young, thin, busty and white. Of course not all of our contractors had this specific look, and in order to land a sale if there wasn’t a client’s "type" available, all of the receptionists got pretty good at cross-selling. As my old manager liked to say “They just have to get in the door.”
For example, we had one contractor, “Miko.” Although her background was Chinese, the go-to description of her was always half Japanese/Spanish (there’s a lot of problematic racial issues in the sex industry). You could book her to any client -- even one who had initially stated they only wanted to see a white girl -- and she’d always get in the door. Keep in mind she looked Chinese and had a thick accent, but she never got turned away. Same deal with “Lacey” -– a size 16 (US 12) brunette who we often sent to clients who had insinuated they didn’t want to go above a size 10 (US 6).
Of course it helped that both of these women were very attractive and charismatic, but it happened so often and with clients who had been so insistent about their “preferences” that it was confusing. Here were people who were paying a lot of money for a specific experience and although we would be euphemistically upbeat about talking them into seeing someone else (“She’s curvy and fun!”) not only would they let them in the door, sometimes they’d even become regulars of the girl that they had to be browbeaten into seeing in the first place.
The takeaway I got from that is that if it’s not a straight-up fetish, most preferences are pretty flexible and mostly socially constructed. The biggest sticklers for size were always douche-y finance types, and for them the looks of the escorts seemed to be more about status then how attracted they were to them personally. A lot of the men who would have no problem with a larger lady on the doorstep would arbitrarily recoil over the phone if you mentioned a clothes size that was in the plus range. I’m sure it’s not news that Western culture is a little unhinged over what clothing sizes and BMI grades actually mean on real bodies, but it was a bit of an eye-opener to see that in practise. (Incidentally, if you can’t or don’t want to work in the sex industry to see this, I recommend looking through Kate Harding’s Illustrated BMI project slideshow)
4. People who reflect on what they want are awesome.
A lot of prospective clients when asked what sort of girl they wanted to see would just answer “hot.” Those were the most boring phone calls, and they were usually status-obsessed or simply young. Not going to lie: They made up the majority of my work. However, the interesting conversations were always to be had with the people who were able to respectfully articulate what they were after. Those were almost always the clients who found unconventional things attractive. I think anyone who has had to define their sexuality for themselves against the status quo has put more thought into it than your average person, and it was pretty encouraging to come into contact with those people. There’s more of them around than you’d think.
Personally I have participated in fetishised sex acts with my partners because it got them off, but there’s a difference between, say, playing rough for fun and just walking around inhabiting a body that someone feels intensely sexual over. I think it’s harder to be a fetish-object for someone because of an innate body feature like race or size. Although for a while when I was coming out of my teen awkwardness I was weirdly grateful for fat fetishist attention as a personal revolution in considering myself desirable, it got old pretty fast. To channel Adventure Time’s Lumpy Space Princess: It’s horrible when people just want you for your lumps.
That being said, just because someone has a fetish doesn’t mean they are their fetish, just like I am more than my booty. I’ve gotten pretty good at weeding out the OKCupid messages with red flags (I think it’s my height, but I tend to attract submissive men as much or more than I attract fat fetishists). These days I’m okay with dating someone who thinks my body is the best type of body, just as long as they don’t get creepy about it.