Written with Sonora Grace
I’ve never been a single sex worker. I became a sex worker with my now-husband—first, camming as a couple and, later, venturing out into solo work.
My regulars are aware that I’m married—something I am quite open about—and they are often friendly with my partner. New clients, however, will notice my ring and ask if I’m married. When I answer “yes,” they almost inevitably follow up with a hushed, “Does he know?”
At this point in my life, I’m a career sex worker, something that would be almost impossible to hide from my partner that I live with. Additionally, while I am the face of the “Jessie Sage” brand, so much of our work is produced together; I couldn’t possibly manage the workload on my own. And, quite honestly, I don’t have the technical skills for much of the audio/video production that the porn side of my work requires.
Working in the sex industry is so integrated into our lives that I don’t know what our relationship would look like outside of it. I have grown accustomed to scrolling my Twitter feed and seeing images of him having sex with other performers, and he has become used to me leaving mid-conversation to do spur-of-the-moment Skype shows with clients or sexting with them through our movie nights while I rub his feet. Being in a romantic relationship as sex workers is relatively easy for us because our relationship grew in conjunction with our sex work careers; they have always been intertwined.
Given my own personal history, I’ve never had to “come out” as a sex worker to someone I was dating. But, I recognize my experience isn’t the norm, and this became even more clear in a conversation with one of my colleagues, Sonora Grace, who has recently started a new relationship, years into her sex work career.
New Orleans based sex worker and somatic sex educator, Sonora had been doing sex work for ten years (full-time for the last five) when she met her current partner on a Zoom call in the middle of the pandemic (so apropos).
While she has dated other people over her 10 years in the industry, she quickly discovered that there was something different about their dynamic. “This relationship is already putting my other relationships to shame,” she told me over the phone. “It feels serious or like it is building to something big.”
The fact that the relationship felt big made Sonora want to talk about her work before she became too invested in the relationship. “After I realized I was interested in this person and we were going to go somewhere I wanted to bring it up right away,” she commented. “If [my sex work] is a deal-breaker, I wanted to know.”
When Sonora told previous partners about her work, they would often respond in one of two (extreme) ways: with excessive excitement or complete disinterest. She said, “There were some people I’ve dated, and it was like they were overly excited about my work in a way that fetishized it.” She went on, “My ex admitted that he had ‘street cred’ dating me.” She emphasized the fact that he is an ex.
On the opposite extreme, she says that the people who acted like it didn’t matter, who responded with a “whatever,” also seemed like a problem. She says, “Are they ‘whatever’ about it because they are hiding the fact that they are scared? Or they don’t understand? Or that they are emotionally not okay?” While sex work is work, it is work that requires us to be intimate with other people, and in our mono-normative culture, this is something that partners are likely to have some feelings about.
Sonora’s new partner didn’t react in either of these ways. Instead, he approached it with emotional honesty and said, “I have questions because this is new to me.” Most of his questions boiled down to what the work was like for her, and what she got out of it (and not primarily about the clients or the specifics of what she did with them–sexual or otherwise). These questions made her reflect and think hard about her own relationship with the work. The conversation that these questions fostered, according to Sonora, “allowed me to hone in on the aspects of my work that I really do love.” And for him, understanding what she got out of her work and why she did it “gave him a sense of where I was coming from and deflated some of his fears.”
As their relationship has progressed, they are learning to communicate about her work in a way that they are both comfortable with. This also means, though, that they have to take time to adjust to their feelings as things come up. She says, “I notice what comes up is little moments where he is still learning what my life is like.” For example, once she casually mentioned having dinner with a client, and it hadn’t occurred to her partner that she did that.
They have had discussions about the boundaries they are comfortable with, the way they navigate their personal sex life alongside her work, and more. She recognizes that being in a serious relationship with someone requires some compromise, especially when it comes to intimacy, and this may impact her work in some ways.
And yet, sex work by itself requires navigating boundaries and sexual health so she feels well equipped to do this. She comments, “Navigating my work and my relationships, it always comes back to being a question of learning my own boundaries. When I’m single I also have to navigate this.” She continues, “Having an additional person to think about, it becomes a really good opportunity to navigate my boundaries, my communication skills, and to be clear about what I want.”
And right now, what she wants is to be a sex worker in a stable, healthy relationship.
Being a sex worker in a relationship, especially with someone who isn’t a sex worker and doesn’t have an intuitive understanding of what it is like to do sex work, requires empathy on both sides, and empathy requires understanding.
In order to understand how other couples work through the issues that arise for couples in the sex industry, Sonora and I decided that it would be interesting to turn our look away from our own perspectives and toward those of the partners of sex workers.
Together we interviewed 5 partners of sex workers about how they navigate their boundaries, communication, and relationship with their sex working partners.
Being new to the world of sex work
Like Sonora’s partner, several of the people we interviewed had never been in a relationship with a sex worker prior to their current relationship and had some initial questions and reservations. Nick, for example, started dating his partner, a full-service sex worker, 3 years ago. While her career is now just a normal part of their lives, he does remember his initial apprehension. “I had not known people in sex work before,” he reflects. “At first I thought it might be a problem in terms of jealousy.”
Pan, who started dating their current partner–a porn performer and producer–a year and a half ago, says that they considered whether they were equipped for a relationship with a porn star prior to meeting them. “I knew the tenor of their work just from following them on Twitter and seeing their clips go by, I knew what kind of scenes they were shooting.” Given this knowledge, Pan did some introspection before even beginning the relationship. They say, “I asked myself if this is something that is going to be okay with me and I knew the answer had to be yes.”
Similarly, when Sinc’s wife, who was his girlfriend at the time, came to him and told him that she was interested in cam modeling. He recalls having to think about it, “I analyzed the situation in my mind. I have always been sex work-positive and sex-positive. I was open to the sex industry as a whole.” Nevertheless, “I had my reservations, but I dealt with them.”
Part of the reservations of most of the people we talked to were tied to notions of monogamy, even if they didn’t consider themselves strictly monogamous. Partnering with a sex worker, afterall, means being in a relationship with someone whose job it is to be intimate with other people (in whatever form that takes). They were concerned, in other words, about jealousy.
Sinc says that at the beginning he was more jealous than he is now. “It is a matter of building trust,” he comments. For him, the jealousy wasn’t so much a fear of losing his wife to a customer, but rather, a fear of missing out. “Every once in a while when she did girl/girl cam shows or girl/girl shoots, I wanted to be involved, too,” he said. “I wanted to be involved, but it wasn’t about me.”
For Pan, their jealousy only flared up when their partner shot a scene with one of the most famous porn stars in the world. “I feel like my fears were more about the scope of [the scene] and its reach,” they comment. “Is this going to change our lives? Is this going to go from anonymity to something different?”
Nick says that the fear of jealousy put more strain on their relationship at the beginning, but over time he recognized that his relationship with his partner is very different than the ones that she has with her clients. He jokes that it was reassuring to know that many of her clients mostly annoyed her. He says, “That doesn’t inspire jealousy.”
For Sinc, it wasn’t so much that his wife was annoyed by her viewers and customers, but rather that she was good at communicating and reassuring him when he was feeling overwhelmed by her career. “Assertion of love is what got me through it,” he says. “I needed a, ‘this is a job, this is something that I am doing,’” followed with a reminder of her commitment to him.
Dealing with sex work stigma
Another stressor for most of the people who we interviewed was taking on the anti-sex work stigma of friends and family, and figuing out how and when to talk about their partners’ careers.
Sinc’s wife is out to their friends and his parents, but not to her parents. Thankfully, his parents understand this and respect her privacy. He says, “We have her mom over for dinners and Thanksgiving. My parents know her cover-up story.”
While Nick’s girlfriend is also out to a lot of people, she is not out to either of their parents. “It’s not a big issue on a daily basis,” he says, “but it can be a bit stressful. There are still a few people who don’t know and it’s a lot of stress maintaining a lie.”
John has known his girlfriend–a former stripper and current dominatrix and sugarbaby– most of his life, but they have only been dating the last two years. While he doesn’t hold a sex work stigma, he is aware others do. “It has never occurred to me that [sex work] was strange,” he says. “I do know to be careful around relatives and strangers about it but other than that, it was never something I thought twice about.”
And James, who has been in a 3-year relationship with a part-time dominatrix, phone sex operator, and content creator, says he at times catches himself worrying about what others will think. “Sometimes the insecure part of me thinks of some imaginary other judging me,” he says. But he adds, “I kind of wish people would see just how exciting it is to have a partner who is just happy with themselves and finding creative fulfillment in a really unique way.”
Nick, despite being careful around both of their parents, has come to a place where he is less and less worried about perception. He comments, “If someone does have an issue with this, then they are probably a dick, so whatever.”
All of the partners that we interviewed talked about being partnered with a sex worker in a positive light. Pan says, “I like the community of it.” Sinc agrees, saying, “I love seeing how the girls interact with each other, it’s a nice little community. There are a lot of girls we have met who are family to us now.” Nick has had a similar experience. He reflects, “I have met a lot of other sex workers through my partner, and the community is cool.”
Pan has also experienced the excitement of seeing their partner work, and that lens has only deepened their feelings for them. “There was one moment [when they were shooting a scene] where they topped another performer when I had a burst of pride,” they recall. “I thought, ‘wow, that’s hot,’ because they were manifesting so much power in that scene.”
Sinc also feels like seeing the creativity that his wife brings to her career is really attractive. He says, “Watching her be creative and watching how much art she puts into things… she is passionate, and I am passionate, and I am happy to be a part of it.”
James expresses a similar sentiment. He says, “Sex work is soemthing that makes someone I love excited. I can’t see a lot of good reasons to not be excited about it. I love watching her creatively express herself and her eyes light up when she figures out a new angle to her hustle.”
Nick, in addition to finding the stories and experiences his partner brings home interesting, feels grateful to be with someone who is brave enough to live her life the way she wants to. He says, “I’m impressed by my partner going into sex work, having that level of independence and non-conformity.”
There is some selection bias at work here given that it was only those people who successfully navigated relationships with sex workers–and continue to do so–that opted to be interviewed. But it is precisely these people who are best positioned to give folks who are new to having a relationship with a sex worker advice.
For Sinc, communication is key. He simply states, “Be patient, be communicative, and listen.” John echoes this sentiment, saying, “Be constantly honest with how you feel and communicate it as best you can.”
While Pan agrees that communication is key, they also believe that it isn’t the job of the sex worker to baby their partner. As such, they try to work through as many of their feelings on their own before bringing them up. They say, “You have to take each moment as it comes, and when it does you need to sit with things and do some pondering before laying it on the other person.” This requires being in touch with your own feelings. They continue, “If you are apprehensive, perhaps listen to that, or at the very least do some exploring.”
In addition to good communication and self-knowledge and care, Nick suggests that new partners shouldn’t put too much weight on how they feel at the beginning when everything is still new. He recalls, “The things I found were strange have disappeared to me.” And moreover, “You come to realize it’s a normal job just like any other.”
Pan agrees, closing out our interview by saying, “I kind of return to the phrase, ‘The whole thing is remarkable in its unremarkableness.’”
Sonora Grace is a Sex Worker, Certified Somatic Sex Educator, Therapeutic Yoga Instructor, and Re-Evaluation Counselor. Sonora offers trauma-informed, pleasure-centered one on one coaching and group workshops to nurture, deepen and awaken the erotic self.
Her life’s work is centered on healing sexual trauma and empowering other survivors through embodiment and choice. As an artist and cultural worker, she produces events and artwork that cultivate communities of care and compassion, and fosters connection to the erotic self.
She has led workshops for sex workers, healthcare providers, and sex industry professionals across the South. She believes whole-heartedly that our erotic liberation is the antitode to a capitalist, racist, patriarchal, heterosexist state. She is regularly found rolling around the floor, writing, sipping tea and communing with plants.
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).