How do you sell a fantasy you don’t believe? How do you convince others to pay tens or even hundreds of dollars to watch you strip down to nothing, when you feel too critical of your own body to rewatch the footage before you send it off with a hastily composed email? These are questions I had to confront each day as a sex worker.
As someone who’s struggled with feeling comfortable in my physical form for as long as I can remember, navigating my relationship with my body became infinitely more complex when my image became a source of income. Not only because I frequently put myself in front of a camera, but because the perceptions of my body were being echoed back to me in ways that often did not match what I imagined myself to be. Over and over again, I found myself cast in roles that surprised me, even though they seemed to make perfect sense to my clients and customers. They often described my body in ways that completely broke down the ideas I had about the objectivity of beauty—mine or otherwise. The parts of myself that I would try to hide away in photos or sessions became requested highlights, asked for by name, spoken about with adoration I didn’t believe I’d ever be able to feel.
When you’re in the fantasy business, patrons often assume you prefer to create scenarios that mirror your own desires. Yet for me, this couldn’t be further from the truth. I have found infinite ways to sidestep questions about what I prefer—“I prefer you tell me what you like,” being a personal favorite. I do this not just for privacy reasons, but also because it isn’t my job to solve the puzzle of how my desires fit with theirs; I’m a contracted laborer, not their partner.
It is rare for someone to approach me with an idea that speaks to my personal sexual desires. Nevertheless, I regularly encountered clients who anticipated having my desires overlap with theirs, who expected that this was not only possible, but common. The assumptions my clients made about my desires were rooted in their perceptions of my body—what it must feel like to have a body that looks like mine, how I would want to share it with a lover. These assumptions about my body spilled over into presumptions about my brand—a brand that I was shocked to learn, over the course of my work, I had very little say in.
At 21, I was diagnosed with a thyroid disorder after gaining nearly 50 pounds in six months, a number which felt like it was creeping up on me until a client I knew well joked about how my changing body was acceptable (how generous of him!) because he was “starting to look for some fat-girl fun.” At that moment, the weight gain hit me all at once. No, no, I thought, just a year into my eating disorder recovery. That’s not me, my brand is Co-Ed, my brand is Girl Next Door, my brand is…
He began paying me more, and I found the money made the idea of submitting my body to the scrutiny of someone else less objectionable. Sitting on the floor of my college dorm room, counting twenty dollar bills which lay spread on the blue carpet between my fat thighs, I considered for the first time that I had a chance to explore new ways for my body to exist and be adored—fifty percent of the cash into my wallet, fifty percent into the second drawer in my dresser.
I lingered in front of my full length mirror, wearing hideous babydoll lingerie that had been purchased for me, and I smiled at a body that I don’t know if I had ever really looked at before. I said the words he used to describe me out loud, rolled them around in my mouth like pearls, heard them click against the other words from other clients which I verbalized in the same way—in front of the same mirror. I needed to hear them in my own voice in order to decide on their weight and meaning outside of the context of men who thought I gave a shit if they played the romantic during our time together. I am being given a paid opportunity, I thought, to figure out how the fuck I’m supposed to love myself.
Yet learning to love myself—especially when that sentiment was borrowed from clients and customers—wasn’t as easy as it sounds. I couldn’t just adopt their feelings without a fight. There were days where I was in the middle of war with my body, and yet the two of us, my body and me inside it, had to present a unified front. I like to think I was able to trick most clients. I pulled off false self-confidence so well that I was almost threatened with the label of narcissist. The ability to project “why wouldn’t you want this?” while asking myself “who would?” often made my head spin, unable to differentiate my own feelings about my body from the narrative I peddled. Sometimes, those wires got crossed.
Once, on a day where I lost the fight against compartmentalization, I had a video request land in my inbox. I was sweet and welcoming; I offered rates and asked for details on the clip to see if it was something feasible. The request was: “Can you talk about your boobs?” The timing of this message and my personal feelings about my body could not have collided in a more damaging way. I asked the commissioner what he would like me to say about them; he told me to talk about how they made me feel. Oh you want to know how they make me feel? I thought, before firing a message I dared not take the time to reconsider. In it, I asked if he wanted to know how the burden of 34Fs weighed on me physically and emotionally each day, how I had a heating pad for my back by age 18, how I cried the first time I put on a binder and realized that androgyny was a cruel fantasy for anyone born with a body like mine.
I asked if he was curious about the ways that I felt objectified long before I reclaimed what it meant to profit from my own body, given that I was wearing a bra by 5th grade and pretending to ignore predatory glances from men by 6th grade. I asked if he was really curious about the way that I once bound my chest so tight that I bruised a rib and then poked at the bruise for weeks, equating the ache of pressure on this delicate internal hematoma with gender euphoria.
Uhh… not exactly like that… was the essence of his reply. How I managed to save that commission is still a mystery to me, but that interaction so succinctly summarizes that chasm that exists between a client’s fantasies and my own, largely based on the ways each of us are interpreting my body. I am a creative, a seductress, but I am not a mind reader. I know this more now than ever—I cannot predict how my body will be reacted to, how it will fit into fantasies that my clients had been concocting for years before meeting me.
One night, I met with a client who waxed poetic about the ratio of my waist to hips the entirety of our four paid hours together, even through dinner. I’m sure I was glowing with pride; I allowed him to continue rambling. The following night, I was privy to the details of how enamored another client was with my stomach. At the time, I clenched my jaw but tried to appear as though I hadn’t. I attempted to smile politely, went to move his hands from where they were resting on either side of my belly button, then settled mine on top instead to seem more agreeable and appreciative.
It took me a long time to see that both of their perceptions can be right, that I am not better nor worse for being seen through any particular lens of desire, and that these lenses do not have to change the way I look at myself when it is just the two of us—my body and I. In a job where there is no shortage of feedback on my image—solicited or otherwise—I found maintaining a relationship with myself led me to recognize that I am allowed, though not at all required, to love whichever version of myself I see staring back at me in the eyes of my clients.
T.K. is a nonbinary retired sex worker with two cats and a bit of a baking problem. They are committed to making the world a better place by continually educating themselves and others, building community, and advocating for a fierce yet enduring version of self love.
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