Prior to the August 2015 Rentboy.com raid in New York State, human rights organizations, including Amnesty International and the World Health Organization, announced their support for the decriminalization of sex work. In their own words, three sex workers discuss with Glammonitor their business and lifestyles. KLETR/SHUTTERSTOCK
On Aug. 11, 2015 Amnesty International announced its support for the decriminalization of sex work among consenting adults. While Amnesty’s decision followed similar statements made by the World Health Organization and UNAIDS, it has been met with fierce opposition from celebrities and other human rights groups who allege that sex work is a catalyst for human trafficking, violence and assault. A letter signed by a few former sex workers and actors including Meryl Streep and Lena Dunham from the NGO Coalition Against Trafficking in Women argued it “will in effect support a system of gender apartheid.”
According to the Open Society Foundations, “Sex work is criminalized not only through prohibitions on selling sexual services, but also through laws that prohibit the solicitation of sex, living off the earnings of sex work, brothel-keeping, or the purchase of sexual services.” The network asserts that by reducing the freedom of sex workers to negotiate condom use with clients, organize for fair treatment, and publicly advocate for their rights, criminalization and aggressive policing have been shown to increase sex workers’ vulnerability to violence, extortion, and health risks.
Worldwide laws regarding prostitution and other forms of sex work differ by country – some being more conservative than others. Nevada is the only jurisdiction in the U.S. to allow some legal prostitution as eight counties are home to active brothels, allowing for 28 total brothels in the state. Prostitution outside licensed brothels remains illegal in most of Nevada. Another 15 countries around the world, including New Zealand, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Denmark and the Netherlands have legalization, yet its definition is wrought with loopholes that can criminalize certain acts to varying degrees. In Canada the selling of sexual services is currently legal, yet purchasing them became illegal in 2014, putting sex workers at risk for selling their services.
In the U.S., law enforcement continues to crack down on workers in various ways. Most recently in August 2015, CEO Jeffrey Hurant and six other employees from the site Rentboy.com were arrested and charged with violating federal laws for enabling sexual encounters. The website, which earned $10 million in revenue over the past five years by charging escorts to publish their profiles, operated openly for nearly two decades, giving annual parties and even announcing a scholarship contest. The arrests were controversial and many workers feel authorities have not justified devoting such significant public resources to shut down the company. Workers’ rights advocates assert that it provided sex workers with a safer alternative to walking the streets or from relying on pimps and that those arrested have not been directly accused of exploiting sex workers, financial related crimes, featuring minors on the website, or other serious offenses that would warrant the level of prosecution they have received.
IN THEIR WORDS
As policymakers, government officials and society continue debating the rights and wrongs and ins and outs of sex work after Amnesty’s decision, Glammonitor interviewed three U.S.-based sex workers from various areas. Below each discuss in their own words what their work means to them, their clients, society at large and what their interactions and encounters generally entail:
I’ve been an escort for 17 years on and off. As a young teen, I read up on the heroines of ancient Greece who were courtesans. I didn’t think in those days that I had what it took to be one because I was not “beautiful” or “exotic” enough. The first time I took money for sex I was 18 years old and this eventually led to my working as an escort and eventually opening my own agency that became one of the top in New Orleans. There are skills and talents involved in being an escort just like any other job. For some of us it’s more than a job- it’s a calling. This is what I do, it’s what I am good at, and it’s what I know. However, people have peculiar notions about sex even in this day and age when we are supposed to be “liberated” sexually.
I use the term “courtesan” for what I do because I am a girlfriend experience escort (GSE). I provide a level of talking, relating and companionship to clients. While there are some interactions that are simply sex, most ask me to bring the likeness of having a companion or girlfriend who can be a shoulder to cry on or a confidante. For many of my clients, sex is a minor part of the transaction- maybe ten minutes out of two hours. The rest of the time is spent talking and hand-holding. After Hurricane Katrina, for example, the fraction of clients I was having sex with dropped dramatically. One client was head of one of the crews that was pulling bodies out of the wreckage. He just wanted to talk for a while and cuddle. He just wanted to be held. Another client I had was an attorney in the Marine Corp Reserve who was crying because he was being deployed. He came to me because he could not cry in front of his brothers, his wife or fellow Marines, but he could cry in front of me.
This also applies to disabled men. I had one client who was partially paralyzed as the result of a horrific accident. He drooled out of one side of his mouth and could not control one of his arms. He could afford an escort every two weeks that would spend time with him and make him feel special, so every two weeks he could get a different hot girl. What average woman would ever look at him as a date? Almost none, yet he was still a man, a human being. I even had a client once who was horribly disfigured with burn scars all over his body. He had never experienced a woman before because of how he looked. He was grateful for the experience I provided because underneath that body, a man was inside. Another client I had was a drug addict. When he would use he would get very nervous so he turned to me to babysit him because he liked that I was honest and that I did not do drugs myself. My being there helped calm him.
There are also male clients that are elderly, have medical conditions, scars, or are obese. They may have conditions, but they are people too. They need companionship. Who would give that to them if I did not? In my opinion, the job with the most single overlap to the sex work I do is nursing. This is because nurses are people who are comfortable with the human body. If you can feel comfortable changing bedpans and bathing people, sex work is not much different in terms of bodily interaction.
When people say prostitution should be criminal, they may not realize they are condemning a large number of men who have never had sexual contact in their lives and who have a hard time even finding human contact. The problem with our culture is it fails to recognize sex as a need. Society still divorces sex from its biological roots. I’m an extremely ethical and moral person. I don’t have “daddy issues”, I am not addicted to any illegal drugs, nor was I violated as a child. I am an educated woman who speaks intelligently about my business because this is my business.
I have been working as a dominatrix or pro-domme for 11 years, though I am currently on hiatus. My first job was in erotic massage and I kept getting kinky requests so I transitioned into pro-domming. My clients come to me so they can access sides of themselves that normally have no other outlet in their personal relationships or other aspects of mainstream society. A majority of my clients are men wanting to explore gender and gender roles and even express sides of themselves they may identify as “queer” or emotions society consider to be “feminine”.
Vulnerability is huge in my line of work. My clients express the most vulnerable parts of themselves when they tell me their deepest fantasies. The “domme” archetype is interesting because she is an empowered female- a concept that is still considered to be kinky and taboo even in our modern era. Although women are now starting to claim more dominant roles in society, the notion of a woman being dominant is still a sexual construct. Physical and emotional vulnerability constitute the “femme-domme” in regard to women in power and women in charge. I am a role-player and “fantasy facilitator” because I take things like foot fetishes, fetish fashion, bondage and other obsessions that our culture still considers deviant or weird behavior and bring them out of people. These are core, deep needs that don’t get met in normal relationships or normal life. People suppress their fetishes, causing depression. The depression then translates into other means of coping such as alcohol and drug use. It’s healthy to express what your body and psyche are telling you. Working as a pro-domme is an affirmation type of profession because I am always reassuring my clients that they are not perverts, deviants or weird for the desires they feel. I have found this to be empowering for them.
For some reason violence and control are at the base of a majority of kinky behavior. People who seek such experiences are not predators or dangerous people, but this subject is not easy to discuss openly. There is a lot of violence in society and people often either feel too much control in their lives or not enough so this gravitation toward such behavior does not surprise me. My clients come to me because they want someone else to take the reigns in their life. Experiencing the act of being controlled by another person and the degradation and dehumanization that come with it, believe it or not, is a form of relief to some clients who have too many responsibilities in their normal life. Certain clients even want to be treated as pets or animals so I clean them up and put them in bondage. Some men enjoy this because it is not something they get in our culture – they are generally not used to being praised for their beauty and for their delicateness or vulnerability. I celebrate them on this level, the same way men do with women. Men are kind of tired of being the ones who have to be dominant, make the first move and be assertive. It is a relief for them to let go and let me assume that role. Humans are complicated creatures, we are very erotically creative and we need a space to celebrate that and explore it.
Some pro-dommes or dominatrices do engage in sex and others do not. The “rules” are set individually and we are in control of our business at all times because we define the services we provide to clients. I define my interaction with each human by our chemistry and connection.
Our personas and the characters we project are deep aspects of our personalities. Humans are like diamonds in the sense that when you place a gemstone in the light and turn it, different sides shine to the world. Some sides do not get the airtime that others do, but we can reign these things in, express them in the right settings and still be complete human beings leading exemplary lives. This line of work is all about outlets.
I worked professionally as a stripper for three years in Missoula, Montana and Seattle, Washington. I was pursuing a degree in theater when I started so I was accustomed to nudity as a form of art. I worked at a club in a truck stop in Montana beginning a month after I graduated college. I lost my job at the time and thought I could make money stripping. I chose to work 60-70 hours a week in Montana, but when I moved to Seattle I worked 1-4 nights a week. Being a stripper can be a full-time engagement like any form of work.
My clients varied based on location and venue. In Montana most of my clients were white, middle-aged, conservative men. We also had biker groups come through in addition to ranchers and older gentleman. In the other club where I worked in Montana we got travelers, students and businessmen. In Seattle it was mostly tourists, some Asian students and European men on holidays or other businessmen. To my clients, my work meant many things – for some to be loved and adored, to be given attention and for others to be entertained. To some, going to sex workers such as myself was very healing. There were guys in Seattle who worked tech or office jobs and had social anxiety or trouble meeting people. When they came to the club, they had a beautiful woman to talk to who would pay attention to them. One stripper I knew who danced in Montana for 15 years had regulars she saw for many years that were more elderly and had certain disabilities that came with age. I had my own set of regulars. In Montana I appealed to middle-aged white men because of my “girl next door” presentation. I also had a couple who came in so the wife could explore her bisexuality. Don’t get me wrong- there are obnoxious men who go into the establishments to harass women, but many of my clients were not exclusively there for only that purpose. They came seeking human contact and attention they were not getting in their everyday lives that I was able to give them.
I think what draws women to stripping is the ideal about making a lot of money. The reality is you don’t always make a lot as your income depends on the city where you work. Seattle is very difficult to make a great living in as a stripper due to legalities, cost of living and other economic factors. However, I think women stay stripping for certain perks: flexible schedule, quick money or your choice of shift. I know single mothers who strip because it gives them the money and flexibility to be with their kids. I have a Bachelor of Arts degree in Theater and I could not think of a better use for my degree. I know how to move my body, apply makeup for stage, maintain my presence on stage and how to improvise.
Of course there is that school of thought that stripping is dirty and immoral and that strippers are low-class. I honestly feel it gives people, dancers and customers, a safe way to explore their sexuality in a controlled venue. I have seen men in their late 20s who are virgins and embarrassed to admit that to anyone else, but they can admit it to me. They pay me to help them work out their insecurities with women because they can rehearse talking to beautiful, intimidating women. There are also men who live in suburbs who have few sexual outlets so coming to me allows them to explore these confidentially. Strip clubs are not just for frat boys, rather a place to express sexuality. They help demystify sex from puritanical beliefs in most societies. They can even help combat rape culture, especially since they give people an outlet and setting to express themselves. Of course strippers are very good about assessing their boundaries because we work on a fine line of boundaries every day. I have been attacked before at work and that is unfortunately bound to happen in such a place. There are good days and bad days like any other job.
Stripping is not decriminalized, it is “legalized”. In some states we have to purchase a business license and get fingerprinted by the police, which is demeaning for someone who has never broken the law. Photos of us are also kept on file.
Everyone knows a sex worker, even if you think you don’t – you at least know someone who has done this to some degree before. We are not an invisible minority; we are part of everyone’s life. We are multifaceted people with layered opinions and experiences.