Earlier this week, we put out a Peepshow Podcast episode featuring 16 sex workers talking about the challenges that the COVID-19 pandemic has created for them. Their stories ranged from struggling to perform sexiness while stuck at home, to staving off anxiety and depression, to clients placing a heavier-than-usual emotional burden on their shoulders, to trying to pivot from in-person business to online (where the norms and pay is markedly different).
When putting together this episode, I was struck by the emotional honestly and range that the sex workers who contributed these stories exhibited. The reason this was so striking, in part, is because there are very few spaces where we, as sex workers, feel comfortable speaking honestly about the challenges of our job. As I see it, there are two main reasons for this:
First, because of its stigmatized status, sex work is held to standards that other forms of labor are not, wherein anything negative we say about our profession is seen as evidence of its intrinsic harm.
But second (and more pertinent to this essay), much of our public discourse is client facing (particularly on social media), causing us to think twice before saying things that may alienate our clients. This, after all, is our livelihood, and we are reticent to do anything that would turn clients away.
To this latter point, in the days since the episode has posted, I have received several messages from clients (some mine, and some clients of other sex workers) who have expressed anxiety and discomfort in hearing a chorus of sex workers talking about their work as work (and particularly difficult work during a time of crisis).
In a sense, these stories break the fourth wall: When we are doing our jobs well, we pull our clients into a fantasy, we create an experience for them that makes them feel things they want or need to feel. And, this performance is more powerful when the work that goes into creating it is invisible.
It’s good for business when my clients think that I wake up sexy and am always horny. It’s less good for business if they know that, right before seeing them, I was fighting with my kids about their school work, frantically cleaning my house, or stressing about how I was going to pay my mortgage. And, it’s terrible for business if I give them the impression that they are the ones stressing me out.
This highlights a unique problem for sex workers: Our political activism is often in tension with our marketing. The work we do to humanize ourselves and destigmatize our work can also demystify the personas we so carefully craft.
This would be less of a problem if clients themselves recognized and accepted that the relationships are asymmetrical. While we sometimes enjoy our encounters with clients, and while we often have affection for them, our interactions do not feed us in the same way that they do them.
While these transactions literally feed us, they seldom meet our emotional and sexual needs. There is little space for our own desires to be met when the singular focus of our job is meeting the needs of our clients.
I think there is value in being able to express to each other, and civilians, what makes our jobs hard, what makes it a craft. It helps us feel solidarity, it allows us to feel less alone in our feelings (particularly in job that can be very lonely), and it humanizes us to people who can’t imagine our lives outside of the fantasies they project onto us. But there is also a danger in doing so. If nothing else, it highlights a tension between our public facing sex work personas, and our backstage labor. I suppose those of us who continue to engage in these conversations will have to decide if they are worth it. I think that they are, but I also know I pay a price for it.
Jessie Sage is a sex worker and writer based in Pittsburgh, PA. She’s also the co-founder of Peepshow Magazine and the co-host of the Peepshow Podcast. Her words can be found in the Washington Post, VICE’s Motherboard, Hustler Magazine, Men’s Health, BuzzFeed, and more. She’s currently writing a book on sex work, motherhood, and illness called An Unexpected Place (forthcoming on West Virginia University Press).