Current, former and future sex workers are everywhere: Webcam models are serving you coffee at your favorite bistro. Retired porn performers are pulling overnight shifts at veterinary clinics. Strippers are moonlighting as professional ballet dancers. Graduate students are updating their escorting ads in between studying for finals.
People get into sex work for reasons as diverse and unique as their individual personalities, and we’re living in a time when sex-worker narratives are dominating news feeds and magazine covers. Sex work is closer than ever to being universally recognized as viable, respectable labor, and naturally these supportive sentiments are encouraging more and more people to “come out of the closet.”
But just like with any job, engaging in sex work can pose challenges around maintaining a healthy work-life balance, particularly when it comes to romantic and sexual relationships. Issues of disclosure, jealousy, negotiation and boundaries are just some of the topics that a sex worker’s partner should be fluent in. In order to be the best possible partner to your sex worker bae, here are a few tips and tricks — from a sex worker — to sustaining relationships free of stigma, judgment or misplaced good intentions.
1. Be her cheerleader, but not without her permission.
I used to date a guy in college who loved that I was a stripper. Couldn’t get enough of it. I really appreciated his enthusiasm and support, but he had a bad habit of crowing to just about everyone in his life — from his fraternity brothers to his parents — about what I did for a living.
While I was by no means ashamed of the work I was doing, I did have boundaries around who got “full access” to that knowledge, and my boyfriend’s parents definitely were not on that list. Make sure to check in with your partner about how “out” she wants to be about her work before you go shouting it from the rooftops, even if it’s only because you’re so enamored of her. Each sex worker has different boundaries around how public they want their work to be, and those boundaries deserve respect.
2. Don’t treat her like a health risk.
There’s this unfortunate yet prevalent stigma surrounding sex workers that we’re dirty, unclean and specifically riddled with STDs. In reality, sex workers are actually less likely to contract STDs because our work so frequently places us in positions of having to thoroughly educate ourselves on safer sex practices. We’re literally having dialogues about disease, risk and prevention on a daily basis. Not only do we know our bodies really well (and how hot is that?), but we’re damn good at protecting our health, the health of our clients and coworkers, as well as the health of our loved ones. It’s our job as sexuality professionals. So if you’re worried about “catching something” from a sex worker, don’t be — I’d be more concerned about that accountant you don’t remember going home from the bar with last week.
3. Understand the difference between the fantasy and the reality.
Once I was leaving the dressing room after a long night, and some of the girls were teasing our friend Sasha, who was getting ready to go get some booty from a new boyfriend. “Ooh, what are you going to wear?” we asked her, sifting through her bottomless duffel bag of stockings, garters and lace leotards. She snatched her wares back, lifted an eyebrow and responded, “Are you kidding me? This shit is for work! It’s a uniform. When I’m having sex, I’m totally naked. No exceptions.”
The point being that sex workers are human beings, and no human being wants to feel like they have to be “on” 24/7. The next time you’re thinking about asking a sex worker out, imagine her curled up on the couch in sweatpants and no makeup, stuffing her face with nachos and asking you to rub her feet. It’s one thing to pull a T-Pain and fall in love with a stripper. It’s an entirely other thing to get that stripper home and expect her to provide you with an endless supply of batting eyelashes, lap dances and lingerie for the rest of your joint life together.
4. Don’t take a fluctuating sex drive personally.
Imagine you’re a doctor, and you’ve just gotten off a long, grueling shift. You hurry to meet some old college buddies at a bar for some long overdue friendship self-care time. As soon as you get there, one of your friends grabs your lapel and asks you if you’d take a look at a rash on his arm. Another friend chimes in and mentions that he’s had a wet cough for a few days; could it be bronchitis? You spy a sexy woman making eyes at you from the next table over and silently pray she initiates conversation. When she finally approaches, it’s because she overheard that you were a doctor and wants some advice on her mother’s chronic pain. You’d be exhausted and exasperated and desperate for a break from your work, right?
Now apply that same logic to an escort or a porn performer. It is 100 percent possible to get overwhelmed with or bored by sex. When your job involves the constant output of sexual energy, a perfectly reasonable expectation would be to want a break from it during your off-the-clock time. Now, not every sex worker is alike: Some feed off the sexual energy they put out in their work and are more than happy to channel it back to their partner when they get home. But two crucial tools to being a sex worker’s beau are: a) The ability to not internalize days or weeks devoid of sex, and b) A commitment to not making your partner feel shame or guilt about not wanting to be sexually active at home.
5. Be an undercover ally by combating microaggressions at the dinner table.
A microaggression is defined as a subtle but offensive comment or action directed at a marginalized group that unconsciously reinforces a stereotype. Microaggressions may be slight, but they’re pervasive and harmful. Remember the whole “Duke University Porn Star” scandal two years ago?
Student and porn performer Belle Knox was minding her own business, pursuing her formidable degree and working as an adult actress to fund said degree, when she was nonconsensually outed by some peers. A media frenzy ensued.
That Thanksgiving, one of my friends — a porn actor we’ll call Megan — was sitting down to dinner with her supportive boyfriend and her conservative family who didn’t know about Megan’s career. Conversation soon turned to controversy surrounding Knox, with family members tearing into Knox’s decisions. Megan’s boyfriend noticed her discomfort with the conversation, so when an aunt ferociously declared that Knox “should get a real job,” the boyfriend calmly replied, “She has a real job.” The table fell silent. “Well, you, you know what I mean,” the aunt stuttered. “No, I don’t,” the boyfriend responded in between bites of food, “She’s completely independent, and has obviously got a great head for business. How many college freshmen can say the same?” Chastened by his logic, Megan’s family soon moved on to another conversation.
Be one of the good guys: Calmly but intentionally speak up when in the presence of microaggressions against sex workers, particularly if your partner cannot. Any time you hear your brother assert that all strippers have “daddy issues,” or a friend declare that it’s “impossible to rape a prostitute,” challenge them.
6. Address feelings of jealousy early and often, without blame or resentment.
Regardless of what type of sex work your partner does, how often she does it, or what your relationship structure is (monogamous, polyamorous, etc.), feelings of jealousy will emerge. The last thing you want to do is ignore or deny them until the situation becomes unbearable. Instead of avoiding the elephant in the room, acknowledge any fears and insecurities you may have head-on with vulnerability and compassion. Discuss what makes your relationship “special”; what sets “us” apart from what she does with other people. Review how much detail you want to hear about her work when she gets home at the end of the day. For example, do you want to know that she had a “good session with a client,” or do you want to hear all the fun, messy details? If she engages in heavier BDSM work, do you want her to warn you before she comes home with marks on her body, or do you not mind the surprise? All of these boundaries are important to suss out in the beginning, as well as to revisit throughout the relationship.
7. Drop the savior complex.
To put it bluntly, sex workers don’t need you to rescue them. But still, I can’t tell you how often my sex worker peers get approached by guys trying to “save them from the business.” Sometimes this is because people conflate consensual “sex work” with the coercive “sex trafficking” of women into positions they don’t want. Know the difference before you start dating a sex worker, who is likely to not view their chosen occupation as shameful, dangerous, or inherently degrading. If you have concerns about your partner’s work, ask them what they want and need, then listen to and believe them when they tell you. Avoid making assumptions or condescending to them in an “I know best for you” manner.