Recently I was standing in the kitchen making dinner when one of my kids turned away from his video game and Discord chat, and, seemingly out of nowhere, asked “Mom, what kind of sex work have you done?”
This question stopped me in my tracks, not because I was under the illusion that he didn’t know about my job (I told him myself that I was a sex worker), but because it forced me to confront the fact that I wasn’t quite ready to disclose my work history to my kids, and I didn’t know how to navigate that.
Years ago, I told my kids that I am a phone sex operator, and they also know that I write a sex column and host a podcast about the sex industry. They know many of my friends are strippers and have worked at the club down the street from their school. But, when he jokingly asked if the podcast has its own Onlyfans and I said yes, I neglected to mention that I also have one, and it’s much sexier than the podcast’s. They know I talk to clients about sex, but I was reticent to talk to them about my relationship to camming and porn or about the nature of my other interactions with clients.
Part of this is a product of healthy parent/child boundaries. Kids rarely want the details about their parents’ sex lives. And, sex working parents’ sex lives are further complicated by stigmatized—and in some cases, criminalized—labor. Like most parents, we don’t want our kids to worry about us or feel like they have to take care of us, even if the dangers we face are real.
When I didn’t know how to answer this question on the spot, I did something that I’m not proud of: I said I can’t answer his questions with his friends on Discord, even though I was quite certain that he wouldn’t ask that if his friends could hear. And, when he told me that he had logged off and no one was listening, I still weaseled out of the conversation.
I say I’m not proud of this, not because I think that this is information that he absolutely needs to know, but rather because I know that my own anxiety about the stigma I face as a sex working mother caused me to shut down a question that could have otherwise been the opening to an important conversation. Moreover, I made it clear that I didn’t want him to ask me about my work history, potentially giving him the impression that I am ashamed (and I am not).
This scene, however, points to the complex nature of the intersection of sex work and parenting. Parenting is hard and talking to your kids about sex is hard. Being an out sex working parent is complex in a way that makes these conversations even more delicate.
This particular conversation was a parenting fail. When I look back I think about all of the ways that I could have handled it better. I could have had an honest conversation and answered the questions directly, or if I didn’t think he was ready for that, I could have told him why. I could have explained that it was okay to come to me with whatever question he has, but that as a parent I will still use my discretion in how and when to answer them.
But this is only one instance, and parents aren’t perfect. We all shut our kids down from time to time when we are uncomfortable or unable to answer their questions, or simply when we don’t have the bandwidth to do so at any given time.
This moment stands out to me because by and large, working in the sex industry has given me a fluency and ease in talking about sexuality that has made it seem natural and normal for my kids to ask me questions like this one in the first place. It is rare that I don’t answer their questions in a straightforward and honest way, or that I exhibit the shame that many parents do when talking to their kids about sex.
Recently, while having lunch with my oldest son, who is now a young adult, sexual consent came up in conversation. I mentioned that I once had a phone sex client who was young and was asking me how to navigate his first gay sexual experience. I told my son that the client talked about being afraid of reaching the point of no return and doing something that he was uncomfortable with. I also told my son that one of the main things I impressed upon my client is that the point of no return doesn’t exist, you can withdraw consent at any time. Saying yes to a kiss isn’t an implicit yes to a blow job. And a yes to a blowjob isn’t an implicit yes to mutual masturbation or penetrative sex. We can do what we are comfortable with, and wait on things we aren’t (or simply never do them).
My son chimed in and said, “You know, most of my friends didn’t understand or know this because no one ever told them.” And then he added, “I have known this since I was 12 or 13 because you told me.” He went on to say that most of his friends didn’t have parents who cared to talk about the emotional or relational aspects of sex, which are actually harder to navigate than the logistics of accessing contraceptives or the mechanics of using condoms for STI protection.
I don’t remember having this conversation with him years ago, but this is perhaps because discussing relationships, sexuality, and bodily autonomy is woven into the way I live my life and interact with my kids (at age-appropriate levels, of course).
While folks want to shame and condemn parents for working in the sex industry (and out parents for not being more secretive about it), what I can say for myself and my kids is that despite doing it imperfectly, I have managed to create an environment where my kids feel comfortable coming to me with their concerns and questions. Being an out sex worker has helped, not hindered, that. The stigma that sex working parents face is ironic because we have skills that other parents should emulate.
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).