The business of pleasure: sex work is real work

When people think about love, sex work may not immediately come to mind. While it’s not entirely based on the concept of love, sex work is deeply rooted in intimacy, vulnerability and acceptance.

Activists have been fighting for legitimacy and decriminalization of sex work for decades, but there is still a lot of stigma surrounding the industry. The term ‘sex work’ encompasses many different jobs, both legal and illegal. Sex workers are just like everyone else with regular jobs, except they get to mix business with pleasure.

Sophie Saint Thomas is a professional sex writer who has been featured in publications such as Allure Magazine, Playboy and Forbes. Saint Thomas said that sex work can include a range of jobs including strippers, professional dominants (or pro-dommes), adult film actors, escorts, nude models, erotic massage therapists and more. Generally, it’s up to the workers’ discretion whether they consider themselves a sex worker.

Saint Thomas explained that it’s becoming more common for workers who don’t actually have sex with their clients, like pro-dommes, to still call themselves sex workers.

“Neither strippers nor pro-dommes will have sex with their clients,” she said.“They more and more consider themselves sex workers because there’s an undeniable element of sexual gratification that is part of the job.”

Although not a sex worker herself, but someone closely affiliated with the industry, Saint Thomas has observed what she considers an “unfair hierarchy” in the industry; a number of sex workers all provide similar services, but because these occupations may be classified under different titles, some are considered more appropriate than others.

Websites that provide the setups, such as SeekingArrangement, are intentionally created to provide protective loopholes in regards to this. So instead of the word ‘escort,’ they’ll choose ‘sugar baby’ instead.

“For instance, someone who calls themselves a sugar baby and has a sugar daddy, and is paid through gifts or through living arrangements, may be hesitant to call themselves a sex worker,” Saint Thomas said. “Where other escorts will be like, ‘What you’re doing isn’t really any different than I’m doing.’”

Saint Thomas even acknowledged that her privilege as a sex writer for esteemed publications keeps her from being known specifically as a sex worker because of the companies’ positive reputations.

“I mean, it helps that I’m a cis-white woman, but yeah, I do think a lot about–if I’m testing a sex toy and then writing about it, I wonder how different that is than a cam girl using a sex toy as people watch,” she said.

“I love my job,” Saint Thomas continued, “and I’m incredibly grateful for it, but I wish that sex workers were treated with the same respect because it’s not a profession that’s ever going to go away.”

Though the types of relationships between sex workers and clients vary, many have a very intimate connection. Some sex workers even describe their work as a kind of therapy for people who may not be able to form these connections elsewhere.

“I know that whether you’re a stripper, or a cam girl, or a pro-domme, or an escort, or a sugar baby, a lot of these relationships with clients can last for a really long time,” Saint Thomas said. “Emotional connections are formed, and when they end, it can be emotionally painful.”

Despite the occasional reluctance to embrace the label of sex worker, Saint Thomas said she’s recently observed a general increase in support throughout the sex work community.

“A trend as a sex writer who writes about the subject is that I’ve noticed that more and more people of all these various trades have become comfortable saying ‘I am a sex worker.’”

Saint Thomas attributes this change to the introduction of SESTA-FOSTA.

SESTA (Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act) and FOSTA (Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act) were two separate bills that were combined to create the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act of 2017, or SESTA-FOSTA. It was signed into law in April 2018.

SESTA-FOSTA prohibits websites from displaying content with the intent to “promote or facilitate the prostitution of another person.” However, it has received huge amounts of backlash from the sex work community. Its critics argue that the bill makes it more dangerous for legal sex workers to operate, and that it violates the First Amendment.

“The bill is intentionally incredibly vague, and despite [being] labeled an anti-sex trafficking bill, all it does is hold websites accountable for any content posted by anyone,” she said. “So, for instance, the creators of Backpage [a popular website shut down after SESTA-FOSTA because it helped sex workers promote their services] are all facing up to 10 years in federal prison because people have used their website to post ads.”

Saint Thomas said that SESTA-FOSTA is “specifically being wielded against sex workers” and its consequences are especially hard on workers from marginalized communities, who use free websites to advertise their services.

“Just to be very blunt about it, a Black trans woman is going to have a harder time making money than a white cis woman,” Saint Thomas said. “Since [these sites] have been shutting down, [these workers] are actually going back to street sex work, where it is really dangerous.”

The law also prevents sex workers from being able to share lists of clients who are safe to work with, and of clients who are abusive.

Beyond its effects on the sex work industry, many believe SESTA-FOSTA affects the whole country by unconstitutionally restricting freedom of expression.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to “defending digital privacy, free speech, and innovation,” is representing a number of plaintiffs challenging the U.S. government over SESTA-FOSTA in the case Woodhull Freedom Foundation et al. v. United States.

The plaintiffs include the human rights organizations Woodhull Freedom Foundation and Human Rights Watch, nonprofit and digital library The Internet Archive, licensed massage therapist Eric Koszyck and sex workers’ rights activist Alex Andrews.

They argue that SESTA-FOSTA violates the First Amendment by targeting specific kinds of speech (“including expressing certain viewpoints that advocate for decriminalization of sex work”) and that it is not narrowly tailored. They also argue the the law is overly vague and doesn’t explicitly define what it prohibits, violating the Fifth Amendment’s Due Process Clause.

The original lawsuit was filed in June 2018 but was dismissed by a federal court in September. They filed for an appeal in February 2019.

Many people have a hard time empathizing with sex workers because they’re unfamiliar with what sex work truly is, or they can’t understand why anyone would choose this profession. That’s why I spoke to Mandy, a student at UNC-Chapel Hill who has been a stripper since she was 18.

Even though she asked to be identified only as Mandy, her stage name, she made it very clear that this anonymity doesn’t come from a place of shame; it’s simply because her father still doesn’t know she is a stripper, and she’s not ready for him to find out yet.

Mandy met me for a late brunch the day after her first night dancing at a new club. As she sipped her iced coffee, she told me all about why she started stripping, her favorite parts of the job and some of her funniest stories.

“I feel like it’s like the typical story,” she said of how she got started. “Me and my friend were both having money problems. We were broke college kids. We couldn’t even afford to eat Chipotle once a week. That’s how broke we were!”

Mandy, now 20 years old, is from a small town in New Jersey. Before attending UNC-CH, she went to New York University for two years. After a couple of her friends tried dancing at the club and liked it, Mandy decided she’d give it a shot. She started at a club called Lace in Wayne, New Jersey, and after her first time, she was hooked.

“It’s fun, and also you kind of get addicted to the income, as weird as that sounds,” she said. “You just get accustomed to like, having a certain amount of money always, and so you just keep doing it because you’re like, ‘I need more money.’”

She said most of her income comes from dancing, and that dancers almost always get to keep all of the tips they make dancing. Dancers also have the option to do private rooms with customers, in which they can make more, but she said most clubs take a cut of money from rooms.

“Generally, you’re only recognized as an independent contractor,” she said. “Usually when you go into a club, you’ll sign a contract saying, basically, the club is not responsible if you, like, fall and break your face if you fall off the stage. They don’t have healthcare, nothing like that. So everything that you make is from dances and rooms.”

Even though Mandy really enjoyed her time dancing in New Jersey, her club wasn’t far from where her dad lived and she was afraid he would find out.

“That was a constant anxiety for me, and that’s part of the reasons why I switched clubs,” she said.

Mandy decided to leave the club in New Jersey and move to one in New York City. She ended up at Sapphire 39 in Midtown Manhattan.

Once she was in New York full time, Mandy established a routine that balanced school and work. She only worked weekends, which included Thursday, Friday and Saturday.

Describing her day-to-day routine, Mandy said she would “go to class, eat, study. Normal school things. And then 8 o’clock rolls around. If you’re broke and you need money and you’re done with your work, then yeah, you just go to work.”

Mandy said that she felt really lucky with her experience at Sapphire 39, and she always felt safe and comfortable. But, eventually, being in New York took a toll on her mental health.

“NYU was my dream school for as long as I can remember. I was like ‘It’s gonna be like Gossip Girl, like Sex and the City! I’m gonna be like Carrie and find my Mr. Big! Um, it was not like that,” she said with a laugh. “I was very depressed…It didn’t feel like [the city] was fostering an environment of like, ‘I’m going to grow better as a person.’ If anything, I feel like it was just like making me a worse person, in a sense.”

Mandy explained that being a stripper is incredibly emotionally taxing because of the constant confidence and strong mental health required. So, she decided to take some time off to focus on herself.

“It does take a toll on you emotionally, I will say,” she said. “Taking your clothes off every night in front of all these random men, and then having them touch you and say things to you and living out their fantasies in the club with you, it does–it’s very emotional. And last year, I think I was just in a really bad place, too, and so I couldn’t handle going back to work I don’t think.”

That’s when she decided she needed a change. Although she didn’t enjoy New York City anymore, she loved her time at NYU. She wanted to go somewhere just as academically rigorous, so she transferred to UNC-CH to pursue a degree in Advertising and Public Relations.

When Mandy first moved to North Carolina, she didn’t plan on stripping again.

“I made a promise to Jesus,” she said with a big laugh, “and I was like, ‘Jesus, if I get into UNC, I will never, ever strip again, ever in my life.’ So it really was not my intention, but I’ve just been really tight on money lately.”

In addition to dancing at a club in Durham, Mandy picked up a waitressing job at a local taco restaurant. Despite her hesitation to start dancing again, she said that since she’s in a much better place now with her mental health, she has no problems with it.

“Now I’m in a better place, and I’m more confident, and I’m feeling good again. I think that I’m back to being me.”

Mandy said she hopes that by being open about sex work, some of the stigma surrounding it will be broken down.

“I think that one misconception that people have the most is that we’re all drug addicts, or stupid and like–no. We’re not,” she said. “A lot of women have kids that they can’t support on their teaching salary. A lot of girls are putting themselves through school, or trying to buy themselves a car, or just got out of a bad relationship and don’t have money to get away from their boyfriend. So it’s stuff like that, I think. That’s what bothers me.”

Mandy said one of the other common responses she gets that bothers her is when people tell her things like she’s “too smart” or “too pretty” to be in that line of work. But those kinds of comments only build her confidence.

“I’m like, ‘I am beautiful. I am smart. And that’s why I am doing this–to take advantage of that.’”

Mandy is smart, hardworking and sure of herself. She is a proud sex worker, and she hopes that people will understand and be more accepting of sex workers of all kinds.

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