‘I don’t regret selling sex. It’s allowed me to meet many good men.’
I was in my early 20s, teaching undergrads in the morning, taking graduate classes in the afternoon, and selling nighttime webcam sex shows on a site that regularly featured professional porn stars like Jenna Jameson. The man watching me that night bought 90 minutes, which would have cost him nearly $600. I’d landed a big fish, and I didn’t want to lose it. But when he told me his request, I froze.
“Why don’t you take a nap?” he wrote.
It was the most unusual request I’d ever received. And, as you probably know, people feel free to get very unusual when they’re anonymous online.
“You look like you could use some sleep,” he continued.
“Don’t you want to tell me your real name?” I asked, smiling, shaking the ends of my wig around my face. I doubted my sleeping would actually keep him interested.
“We can get to that later,” he replied. “Just nap a little for now. And put some clothes on, or you’ll get cold.”
I arranged my body in a flattering position and laid my head on a pillow. What is with this guy? I thought.
I wouldn’t figure it out until much later.
Disclaimer: coercion is wrong, kidnapping is wrong, and hiring someone underage is wrong. There are men (and women) in the world who want to inflict suffering on others, and hiring a sex worker gives them an easy way to do it.
But I’m tired of seeing men and women buy into the lie that male sexuality is inherently violent and sadistic. My experience as sex worker has taught me the opposite.
When I first began working in the sex industry, I believed the cultural script about the men who made it profitable. Male sexual desire consisted of seeing thin young women naked and suffering, handled roughly, used callously. I read and trusted every word by Andrea Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon. There was so much evidence to support their theories of how male hatred of women was expressed through abusive sex.
Frankly, men terrified me. I suspected they were incapable of compassion. To get them off, I thought, they all needed cruelty.
I started working online during the peak years of anal-sex mania, and requests of ass-to-mouth (ATM) and double penetration (DP) with toys were common—not that I (always) honored them. One of the pleasant things about webcam was that it was possible to fake almost anything, especially penetration.
On the webcam site, non-paying visitors could type anything they wanted into the un-moderated chat windows: “Your family must hate you.” “I bet you have AIDS.” “You’re a fat whore.”
But not every man treated me this way, even with the luxury of complete anonymity. My first regular client was a man who talked with me for up to an hour before asking me to bring myself to orgasm. He wanted to see an orgasm, and he didn’t make demands about how I achieved it. Then came another regular who had only days earlier attempted suicide after a breakup with his fiancée. A year after we first met, he told me that our friendship—which many people would dismiss as illusory and degrading—was sometimes all that kept him from making a second attempt.
One young man in particular left a deep impression. He was younger than I was, working a blue-collar job in New Jersey, and he couldn’t afford much private time. But he would stay at his computer for as much of my shift as he could, cracking inside jokes and distracting me from other users’ insults while I was in free chat waiting for someone to pay for a show. We talked about music, his puppy, and the girls he was dating.
In this strange cyber world, he became a dear friend. And years after I retired from webcam, we still occasionally reached out to each other through email. Once he wrote, “It’s funny, you used to be this sexual icon that I would never have. Now it’s just like you’re an old friend I haven’t talked to in a long time and all I wanna do is catch up.”
I began to attract more and more men who wanted conversation, who bought me gifts and sent postcards and told me about their lives. They wanted to see me play with myself; they didn’t want to see me hurt. I became more vocal about what I did and didn’t like—in part because, for the first time, I was figuring out what I did and didn’t like. When someone told me to do something I didn’t want to do, I would refuse. I started countering requests for anal with “I will if you will.” It was possible to engage with them. It was astounding to me how many men would listen and suggest something else if I told them what I was doing hurt. They were free to leave and spend their money elsewhere, but few did.
It occurred to me that many men had trouble expressing empathy because no one had ever taught them how. Most were clueless, not brutal—although some were both. Lots of these guys had grown up so confused and undereducated about the female anatomy that they hardly even had a sense of what sensations might feel best or what activities were most satisfying.
The more men I talked to, the more sympathetic I felt. I was approaching the biggest epiphany of my life: men had as much anxiety and shame around sex as women did. We were all in this together, and any ideology that couldn’t admit as much was doomed to fail.
It was this newfound comfort that facilitated my switch to in-person sex work. The vile cesspool that is the Internet made transitioning easy. Refreshingly, I never had a man call me fat, ugly, or diseased while we were standing face to face. And the men I met in person were shockingly tame when it came to sexual quirks.
On webcam, I was asked to play the part of a murderous dominatrix who poisoned her submissive and stood laughing over his grave. One customer wanted to see me tie myself with boat rope in impossibly bizarre configurations. I even had a regular who got off on me fake-sneezing and blowing my nose.
But with escorting, the ATM and DP requests were long gone. In the flesh, men were downright vanilla. Some in-person clients did want to incorporate violence, but only when they were the recipients. (Even the most casual research will bear out the fact while dominatrices can make a good living kicking the shit out of men, female submissives are so rarely in demand that most have to work as a switch in order to stay afloat.)
People who deeply distrust the sex industry—who’ve been personally harmed by it or find it threatening or who associate it only with exploitation—often get very angry when escorts (or academics who study sex workers, like Sudhir Venkatesh) claim some clients don’t want sexual interaction.
But it’s true: some don’t. I’ve been hired by men who never asked me to get naked, never requested that I touch their genitals. There’s always conversation, regardless of the other activities during a date: clients talk to me about their parents (especially their fathers) and about failing marriages or life after divorce. They often show me pictures of their children and, sometimes, spouses.
The longer I’ve worked, the more it seems that the sex is often a front. It’s an entry point that allows men to make their real request (for affection, understanding, and connection) while still satisfying stereotypical ideas of masculinity. What most men want is a great romance or, at the very least, a great friendship. They want to feel like they’re falling in love. They want to feel loved in return.
The clients who do want to have sex—and of course, there are many—don’t want that sex to be uncomfortable or unpleasant for me. They want to me to take pleasure in the act as well. They want to feel attractive and competent and gentle and attentive. Many of them are all of those things. If they express guilt about paying for sex, I don’t try to talk them into feeling otherwise. When one man said he should stop seeing me because the money he spent on our appointments should be going toward his kids’ college funds, I replied, “Well, if it makes you feel any better, it’s going toward mine.” (I never saw him again.)
Yes, I’ve met men who didn’t respect my boundaries and who harmed me, inadvertently or purposefully. But such men were few and far between, and I refused to see them again.
Not every man who visits a strip club, watches a clip of porn, or pays for sexual companionship wants to commit an act of violence against a woman. Rapists and murderers are the ones who want to rape and strangle people; some of them hire escorts, some don’t.
When Melissa Farley tells The Economist that men who hire prostitutes “are not nice guys looking for a normal date. They regularly attempt to rape and strangle women,” she’s not talking about my experience. Farley’s cloudy thinking rests on the belief that a man’s sexual interest in a woman is fundamentally disrespectful, fundamentally abusive, and fundamentally wrong.
But what’s wrong is the stigma surrounding sex work. In the professional world, there is no other service arrangement in which clients are accused of hating those whom they hire. Not janitorial work, furniture moving, notoriously dangerous meat-factory work, or any other job that requires use of the service provider’s body in grueling, unhealthy ways.
In the seven years I’ve known “Napman,” the gentle soul whose strange request opened this piece, he’s yet to let on that he secretly desires to strangle me. He periodically sends me gifts. We email and punctuate our updates with pictures. He knows the names of all of my pets—he even knows where I live. I told him about this article. I came to know him as a man who only wanted what most men want: to do something nice for someone else.
There are many important conversations to be had about the sex industry, but I don’t believe those conversations will be beneficial unless they move beyond cartoonish depictions of villainous, lustful men victimizing innocent and vulnerable women.
I’m not claiming that my experience is representative of all sex workers, or even all sex-working women, but I know my experience is not entirely anomalous. I don’t regret selling sex for a variety of reasons—one of which is that it’s allowed me to meet many good men. And in doing so, it’s forever changed me for the better.
—Photo Alejandra Mavroski/via Flickr