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In a recent op-ed, attorney Jamie Quient exhibited confirmation bias when she reached out to a number of sex-trafficked women and concluded that “regardless of whether someone sees him or herself as a victim or voluntary sex worker, we must look at the factors that lead someone to become a sex worker and/or to be sexually exploited.”
Had she reached out to sex workers in general rather than only to trafficking survivors, Quient would have encountered stories that challenged her views.
I know this because I am a sex worker, and I have personal experience with other sex workers. Very few of us are “sexually exploited.”
In Quient’s view of my line of work, sex workers are not just survivors of sexual exploitation but survivors of other trauma such as child abuse, rape and domestic violence, and frequently they are runaways or victims of the foster system. She suggests that survivors are almost always coerced and have to give most or all of their earnings to someone else. While this type of exploitation does exist, most sex workers are independent adults who want to be left in peace as much as any other worker.
I used to think like the majority of people. My idea of sex work was formed from movies and television, so I thought nearly all sex workers were addicts and faced constant threats of physical violence and verbal abuse from pimps. It certainly wasn’t something anyone would ever wish to do. Then, while browsing popular blogs, I stumbled across “Diary of a London Call Girl” by Belle de Jour. Her openness about sex work was quite intriguing to me. Today, we know it was written by Dr. Brooke Magnanti while she was both working as a call girl and completing her Ph.D.
For me, it was an enlightening moment. As someone who was raised in a very strict religious environment, I was exploring my own sexuality and questioning the whys and wherefores of what I thought was right and wrong and even what was attractive or not. Her blog exposed a completely different side to sex work than I had imagined, and it challenged my idea that sex work was inherently awful. De Jour clearly did not think her work was disgusting or degrading, but rather she found it alternated between surprisingly mundane and incredibly fascinating.
Learning how other people viewed sex and sex work helped me realize that it’s only disgusting to most of us for purely cultural or religious reasons rather than because of more objective standards. We recoil because as a society, we’re either obsessed with female sexual purity on the one side or patriarchy on the other. Some are disgusted by the intimacy required, but as jobs go, there are certainly a lot of other jobs that deal with intimate bodily functions. Caring for the very sick, disabled, or elderly often directly involves contact with the genitalia. Those types of jobs aren’t considered degrading because they care for basic biological needs and health, but we ignore that sex is also a very important biological need for most. We’re wired for sex, some more so than others. It’s a drive that can be as important to mental health as food is to physical health, yet we limit fulfillment of sexual needs to traditional relationships even when it’s clear that model doesn’t work for everyone.
Until my 40s, I lived what most people would consider a normal life trajectory: college, marriage, grad school, kid and, sadly, a divorce. After my divorce, I was disillusioned with my career, tired of watching talented people get chewed up by the system and seeing others succeed only with personal sacrifice. As a single woman again, I was also bored with my sex life. After recollecting the blog, I toyed with the idea of becoming a sex worker since coping with job stress didn’t leave me equipped to be the parent that I wanted to be. I finally got over my inhibitions and hesitations and took the plunge. I haven’t ever regretted it.
Sex work has been a wonderful experience for me. I have used my work to explore my own sexuality, and as a result, I have more confidence now than ever before. I significantly reduced my work hours, and I have control over my schedule. I’ve learned to be much better at setting boundaries, something I wasn’t always skilled at in prior relationships. I make people happy, and not merely in a salacious way; most of sex work is actually emotional labor. I’ve met some wonderful, truly fascinating clients; the stereotype of the misogynistic or abusive client is not something I encounter in person. Since I no longer work grueling hours, my stress level is at an all-time low. Even my health improved as a result. Most importantly to me, I can be an involved parent and provide a good life for my child.
Speaking out on these issues is more complicated than one would initially assume. One of the biggest reasons sex workers aren’t heard more often is that we face arrest, stalkers, violence and community stigmatization.
I am aware of the possible repercussions of writing this. Correcting the myths about sex work, however, is imperative if the aim is to reduce violence against sex workers rather than enforce sexual purity. Unless current sex workers can talk openly at the table, resources will continue to be misdirected to those who do not need rescuing while actual victims continue to suffer.
Kerri McChristy is a sex worker living in San Diego. Voice of San Diego agreed to identify her by her stage name so she could write openly about her experience.