Penny, a pseudonymous 40-year-old sex worker from New York, has a stock-like image of her clients’ wives in her head: dyed blonde hair, WASP-y features, flat lips and perpetually dressed for church. She usually hears about them during, as she calls it, “the afterglow of sex,” and more often than not, they’re spoken about as “controlling and punative.” “Based on their husbands’ stories, it’s easy to think of them as villainous caricatures rather than people struggling to make a stable, fulfilling life within the unreasonable bounds of monogamy,” Penny explains.
Sometimes clients don’t bring up their partners — their wedding rings being the only indicator of their existence — but when they do, Penny says they tend to go into depth, “even without encouragement.” She believes they do this because they’re seeking the emotional labor from her that — for whatever reason — they’re not getting from their wives. “With clients like that, the ‘sex’ part of sex work often feels perfunctory,” she adds. “What they’re really looking for is a space where they can be vulnerable.”
Although she “feels a twinge of guilt when [she’s] with a married man,” Penny says she “mostly feels peace.” This is because — unlike many sex workers — Penny has a “tendency to catch feels for the unattached men [she sleeps] with,” but when a man is married, she never starts fantasizing about him in that way. “There’s a clear boundary and, thankfully, my heart knows not to cross it. There’s none of the excitement and anxiety of: maybe?”
While sex workers need not feel responsible for anyone’s feelings except their own — and, to an extent during a session, their client’s — it’s natural to not only feel curious about a client’s life and relationship, but to also wonder how his partner might feel about his extracurricular sex. This was the topic of debate around a recent tweet by a sex worker known as Hooker Barbie Hates Ken, who wrote, “The ‘I don’t feel bad for clients’ wives’ take is very fucked up.” In a follow-up tweet, she offered some context: “I saw a thread today where girls were saying that these women should be thanking us and be happy. Since I know what it’s like to be cheated on, I feel sympathy, and I think their take was beyond bizarre.”
The discussion that followed proved that this anything but a black-and-white topic, and plenty of sex workers responded in disagreement. “I could care less about their marriage/wives,” one explained. “I didn’t take those vows. People have lots of reasons for seeing sex workers. Some are in sexless marriages. Or are caretakers for sick partners. My job is to take care of my client.”
The debate even raged on in my own mentions, when I tweeted that I was writing this piece. “Your entire framing is one of do you feel bad or to your feel nothing,” one sex worker responded, “bringing out the tired trope of making a sex worker responsible for the behaviors of people who consume their media/services.”
Buffy and Heaven, London-based strippers and co-hosts of the Strippers in the Attic podcast, agree with this latter perspective. “I’m offering a service, not a relationship,” Buffy tells me. “Their relationship status is none of my business, so I can’t say I’ve ever spent much time wondering what their partners might be like.” Still, Buffy says most clients don’t actively hide their relationship status, and do tend to openly talk about it.
Heaven says her clients often don’t mention whether they have a partner or not, and that she doesn’t tend to ask “unless it feels appropriate.” “The type of clients I go for sometimes approach the subject, maybe out of relieving some of their unnecessary guilt,” she tells me. “But I like to reassure them that it’s okay to come to a strip club and get a private dance without worrying about their significant other.” Like Buffy, Heaven says she never feels guilty: “Even if visiting a strip club is a no-go in their relationship, it really has nothing to do with me.”
How do digital sex workers feel about this? While most traditionally minded people would regard physical sex as cheating, some would also see their partner as being unfaithful if they subscribed to a specific creator’s OnlyFans. “I personally feel indifferent when my fans or subscribers are in committed relationships, or talk to me about their partner,” says MelRose Michaels, an OnlyFans creator and the founder of Sex Work CEO, an educational platform for sex workers. Michaels also says she rarely discusses how these partners would feel if they knew about the subscription. “They’ve made the choice to be here, so I just assume that they’re respecting their relationship’s boundaries because they know their relationship’s expectations, and I never will,” she explains.
Unlike the other sex workers I spoke to, who’ve never interacted with a client’s other half, Michaels says she has had some partners reach out in the past. “It’s usually women on social media asking me to block their boyfriend or husband,” she tells me. “As long as the request is kind, I oblige.” While Michaels considers her work to be an “interactive type of porn” — she says it’s the back-and-forth messaging and sexting that makes OnlyFans creators content “much more engaging than regular porn on a tube site — she does understand why some people would see this as cheating, more so than if their partner was just watching porn. “As a woman who’s caught my own ex messaging women inappropriately, and being heartbroken over the betrayal of it, I understand why partners define this type of paid [companionship] as cheating.”
But she adds, “Ultimately, it all comes down to the transaction of it all. If someone is paying, the partner can rest assured that the attraction, interest and feelings aren’t being reciprocated.” Michaels says this should be seen as less of a “threat” than if someone is sexting or trading nudes with someone they encounter in real life.
Buffy is particularly pragmatic in her view on what defines cheating when it comes to strip clubs. “I believe everyone has a right to a private fantasy or erotic experience, and that it’s impossible for one person to fulfill their other half’s every needs and desire,” she says. “Strip clubs are a very safe space to explore this. Sex is off the menu, so it’s a visual or low-level contact sport.”
But whether a sex worker sees her client’s actions as cheating on their partner doesn’t really matter — as Heaven and others have pointed out, it’s literally none of their business. Clients are coming to sex workers for a service — it’s not their responsibility to think outside of that specific transaction, and certainly not to feel any kind of way about how someone else might see it. Still, that doesn’t mean some sex workers don’t feel sympathy for scorned partners — in more ways than one.