“Sex work is work,” is a common refrain of sex workers, and for good reason. Many folks, myself included, make their full-time living through sex work, and a good many more turn to sex work when more conventional forms of employment are undesirable, inaccessible, or unavailable.
In this way, sex work serves as both a backup plan to earn much-needed cash, as well as a career path; it’s a job like other jobs.
When sex workers say that sex work is work, they are rightfully fighting to be recognized as laborers, and also to have the emotional labor that they pour into their relationships with clients recognized as valuable.
And yet, what is missing when we say that sex work is work, is the acknowledgment that sex work is also different from other forms of labor. Sex work is work, but it is also sex. And sex, as we know, can get messy.
Particularly complicated in the sex worker/client dynamic is the asymmetry of our respective relationships to both the sex and the work of sex work.
Sex workers, by and large, engage sexually with clients as their job. It may be pleasurable work (or not – depending on the dynamic), but it is work, nonetheless. When I am working, regardless of what kind of sex work I am doing, I am creating a fantasy for my clients. I am listening to both what they say (and what they leave unsaid) in order to create the experience that they need or want–the one that they are paying for. Sometimes those fantasy experiences line up with my own desires, but often they don’t. Either way, I take my clients and their desires seriously and try to perform my job well.
On the other hand, clients and customers come to me with their fantasies, their desires, and their longing. It isn’t work for them, it’s often an escape and a refuge from their lives, one that I create for them. For this reason, I am often taken aback when my clients ask me what my fantasies and desires are because the space that we have created isn’t about me, and moreover, I don’t want it to be. For me, the most emotionally draining clients are the ones who are very eager to please me or to give me what they think I want. I typically just want happy customers who return for more services–after all, this is a business. My own sexual fantasies and needs are met in other places. This isn’t to say that I don’t have real orgasms or enjoy my experiences. I often do. But that’s a job perk, not my primary motivation.
At the risk of oversimplifying a very complicated dynamic, sex workers are relating to sexual encounters with their clients as work, and their clients are relating to it as sex.
This becomes very clear to me when new or potential customers ask shyly if it is okay if they purchase my porn. I want my videos to be consumed in the same way I want my articles to be read, and my podcasts to be listened to. My porn is part of my body of work (and less about my actual body), I put it into the world with the intention of having it consumed. How customers engage with it or interact with it on their own time isn’t really my concern, and whatever emotional weight they place on seeing me naked or watching me have sex is theirs alone.
But the above example is rather banal. This dynamic becomes trickier when clients start to feel like the relationship that they have with us is detrimental to their own wellbeing. It is impossible to do this work for long without being able to recognize a particular pattern. Typically, it is the clients who come in with a lot of energy, excitement, and money. They drop money quickly, express emotional confusion about the relationship, mistake catering sessions to their fantasies for an intense bond that they don’t have with other partners, and then feel guilty and overwhelmed and break things off. It is also these same clients who return again after a few weeks, months, or years, only to repeat this cycle over again.
It is when this type of client starts to express that they wish that they could have a partner like me that red flags start to go up. My own partner doesn’t have a “partner like me,” or rather, I don’t relate to my partner in the way that I do with clients. My partner has a wife who isn’t catering to him, whose desires sometimes conflict with his, and who hasn’t made it her job to make sure that all of his fantasies are fulfilled.
I care about my clients, I care about my work, and I strive to be a source of positive energy in my clients’ lives. I think sex is important, and I think that our fantasy lives can give us access to parts of ourselves that are otherwise inaccessible. For this reason, I think sex work is a valuable service.
But sex work is a service. And no one is obligated to continue to pay for a service if it is not meeting their needs or if they no longer feel good about it. When clients disappear, as they often do, I assume that they are busy, have run low on funds, have relationship commitments that preclude them from engaging in our services or have simply lost desire to do so. All of those are perfectly valid reasons to no longer buy sex workers’ services.
Terminating a relationship with a sex worker can be as simple as providing any one of those reasons. Or not providing one at all! This is our job, while we grow affection for many of our clients, we also understand that clients come and go for myriad reasons.
What is unnecessary is emotionally charged goodbyes, pushing sex workers to enact a break-up ritual, pushing arguments to end the dynamic, and blaming sex workers for excessive spending or obsessive thoughts and attachments.
Sex workers are doing a job, a job that clients create a market for. It’s a necessary and important job, one that can benefit both sex workers and their clients; one that creates a much-needed imaginative playspace where suspension of disbelief is part of the magic. Clients would be more satisfied in these interactions if they could appreciate the work that goes into that fantasy creation and revel in it rather than trying to turn it into something it isn’t and shouldn’t be.
The Peepshow Column is a weekly sex column that focuses on relationships and sexuality, sex work and reproductive politics, parenting, and feminism. It is currently in syndication from Peepshow Media. For more information, reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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).