It's been ten years that sex work and I have been bedfellows, and I'm looking at formally hanging up my uncomfortable heels to put it behind me. Turns out, though, it's easier said than done.
I came up with the name Kitty Stryker when flying from Boston, Massachusetts to California. Over the seven hours I was cramped into an airplane seat, I pored over my name, deciding what made Kitty Stryker different from the name I was leaving behind, Katy. Katy was dorky, not very popular, struggled in crowds of people, and was suicidally depressed. Katy couldn't step out from under the shadow of her teenage years. In contrast, Kitty was sexy, flirty and confident. Kitty was politically active and internet savvy, had a lot of friends and was popular. Kitty was going West, to seek her fortune by doing things she loved that also increased her awareness. And in order for this dream to come true, I had to embrace Kitty Stryker wholeheartedly and push away the tendrils of Katy in order to fully bloom.
And bloom I did. I started going to university, dating actively, and I went out to clubs and danced. Putting my past behind me was easy, because there was very little social media to haunt me, no real name policies to worry about. Struggling to find a job that paid better than retail, I scanned Craigslist and found an opportunity to work as a professional Domme. As someone who loved kink, this seemed like an ideal situation for me. It wasn't, granted -- the woman in charge hated fat people, hated her clients, hated kinky sex as far as I could tell. I left and went independent, fumbling my way, talking to people on forums to figure out what to do. Sex work came naturally to me, and I felt like it was my calling, plus I could continue my studies.
As a white, cisgender, female-identified indoor worker I felt reasonably safe when I started, both as it related to police and client behaviour, even though the work I did was not always strictly legal. For me, becoming a sex worker was part survival and part career path, as I had been working three jobs at a mall for very little and knew it wasn’t sustainable. I brainstormed how I’d transition from one aspect to another, taught myself marketing strategies, learned how to best utilize social media in order to connect to clients. I expected that I would stay in the industry for quite a while, either as a worker or an organizer.
I enjoyed my work (most of the time), speaking publicly and without shame about it at universities, on television, online, and over the airwaves. Internet-savvy, I blogged regularly, used online advertising, branded myself on social media. I called out documentaries I was in when they misrepresented me, and made demands of journalists about how they could tell my story. While conscious of keeping my real name away from my sex work name, I didn’t worry overmuch about photos or video being attached to my nom de plume. I figured whatever I did with the rest of my life, I was likely going to be entwining sex, if not sex work, into it, so why be paranoid? Being a professional pervert was my career goal and I figured I wouldn’t ever desire to stray.
Turns out I was wrong. I burned out on sex work over time, tired of serving others desires and needing a break. Returning to San Francisco after working in London, England was pretty difficult for me. There were many differences: In London, I could be open about being a sex worker and was usually treated with respect, my fat body was a thing of desire, and the legality of my work meant I could call the police for support. In stark contrast, I found myself opened up to all sorts of critique and abuse when I didn’t take a client on in San Francisco, and the illegal, stigmatized status of sex work meant that I had little recourse. I felt emotionally exhausted with the hustling process of getting new clients, and was finding myself enjoying the sessions themselves less and less. I tried to talk to other sex workers about my experience but felt alienated; as the one fat girl in the group, they didn’t really understand the issues I was facing. Then when I came out of an abusive relationship I felt a lot of the people who were my fellow sex worker activists and, I thought, my friends, withdraw from me. I felt abandoned and alone, and questioning why I was staying in this industry when it was now making me feel disassociated.
Having been firmly an anti-institution, anti-capitalism activist, I didn’t know what to do with myself when I was no longer desiring to be outside the system. Having been an independent provider, I was living a rather privileged life when it came to my clients; I could pick and choose as it suited me and was very honest with those I worked with about my politics. Reading articles about the work environment for women in tech industries made me worry about my brave new future. I knew that working within an environment that was racist, sexist or transphobic was going to be incredibly difficult for me. I have a hard time biting my tongue, and many people within office culture are uninterested in anti-oppression work. I felt intimidated by the need to perform in a completely different way.
Not only that, but sex work had provided me some safety for my mental health needs. If I needed a day or two off, I made enough to be able to afford it and have some rest and relaxation. Making space for my anxiety was important if I was to be an effective worker, but I didn’t know how I was going to navigate that when I would be expected to work forty hour weeks, commuting every day. I knew that corporate vacation time was precious… and I’d be lucky to get a week of it my first year with a company.
I tried working as a social media marketer, and am still scraping by on that and writing. I had seen it happen to other women. I was (and still am) somewhat embattled about whether or not I want to leave the sex industry. I know I don't have the energy for it anymore, on the one hand, but I don't know if I can get started anywhere else. I was outed under my legal name for a piece I wrote about Porn Wikileaks, so it's not easy but is possible to link my legal name to my adult one. If an employer Googles my name, they'll find my "sordid past", and then will it matter how many Twitter followers I have or the success of my blog? Even if hired, I could be subsequently fired for having been in porn or written about dildos. What do you do when your brand is adult-based and all your best connections, writing, and media appearances relate not to SEO but SEX?
During the last few years I had been speaking off and on to a woman with a faith based group that helped people both in the industry and wishing to leave it. Many groups that focus on the intersection of sex work and religion (or sex work and radical feminism) talk constantly about how much they want women to leave the industry, how it drains us, how it mistreats us. I had heard their arguments for years but this was the first time I was trying to navigate their unrequested suggestion as a woman who was not ashamed of her sex worker history but did, in fact, feel drained by it. The woman I was speaking to wasn’t the sort to push anyone to stop being in the adult industry, but I knew they did offer support for those transitioning out. Now that I was turning the idea of leaving over in my head, I asked if we could meet up and discuss how one does leave, how I could explain my past work experience to a new potential boss. I didn’t really know anyone who successfully transitioned out and into other workplaces, so I didn’t know where to start.
She was very sweet, but told me that I had two choices: work as a freelancer, continue to hustle and be unabashedly myself...or say goodbye to Kitty Stryker, delete everything related to that name and try to wipe the slate clean. I sat with that for a while, turning over in my head how it would feel to delete a persona I spent 10 years creating, honing, perfecting. I would lose all my contacts, lose all the work I had done in media. I couldn’t tell prospective employers about speaking at South by Southwest if I distanced myself from this persona, because I had done a presentation on sex work under my sex worker name. It would be literally starting over, from scratch, no credit to my name.
A move like this is what’s expected, of course -- that I would want to put the past behind me. She was right, it would probably in many ways be easier to blot out my adult industry past. But I’m quite pleased with the accomplishments I’ve done while being an outspoken sex worker, and I think it would be disingenuous to pretend I’m not. The idea that in order to be a viable employee I have to be broken and ashamed is anathema to me. I desperately wanted a stable income, but the cost was too high. I refused to pretend sex work was not a job for me, one that informed my social media skills and taught me about marketing. And I knew that even if I did take the path of hiding my history, I could still get fired if someone found my porn or discovered I had ever done sex work. The internet never forgets.
Thankfully, the woman I spoke to was very understanding of this pressure, and very supportive. But it makes me really wonder about other rescue industry models. When you have to be penitent and conforming in order to get help, your penitence cannot be seen as genuine. It is coercive.
I'm currently in a place where my partner and I may be homeless for the holidays. Neither of us has been able to find another job, and the federal government is currently not renewing unemployment extensions after December 28th. When up against the wall, would I go back into sex work? If it helped me survive, probably, yes, and I don't feel I, or any other sex worker, should be punished for that. Eric Barry wrote a piece, "Dear God, I Need a Job", that expresses many of the same frustrations and worries. I think he explained the issue perfectly here:
"Nearly every person I've interviewed who's been a sex worker is exceptionally intelligent, well-rounded, and ambitious. But they've all used fake names because they're terrified of what may happen should their personal identity ever be revealed. They're worried they may never find work if they leave the sex industry.
I wanted to change that. I decided to lose the pseudonym and come out publicly about being a straight male who was a gay escort. I wanted to show the world that sex workers can be educated, intelligent, well-adjusted people. People who went to Berkeley. People who worked at Google.
And now that information was out there, at one with the foreverness of the internet. And it was googleable. And that's why I think I was fired."
I wish that people who push for sex workers to leave the industry understood, REALLY understood what they were asking. Sex work isn’t consistent, but for me and many others it’s money, decent money, money that comes without compromising too much of my time, money that's survival. I didn’t have to hide who I was as a prostitute, or as a pro Domme, or as a porn star, or as a phone sex operator. I could be genuine, choose how performative I wanted to be rather than forced into a standard. Asking me to leave that behind? To delete it all? It’s submission to a world’s ideals that women cannot do what they want in their own time with their own bodies, and I just don’t think I can do that. It kills me that men who have worked in the adult industry don't feel as much pressure to hide their past, but it looks more and more clear that I might have to just to get my foot in the door.
I wish that more rescue workers understood that when they tell a sex worker like me to just leave the industry we need endless support, because the odds are stacked against us everywhere we turn. We need career help, we need connections, we need new wardrobes and resume help and technology. Sex work is work far beyond the bedroom, and we’ve been the CEO, CFO, marketing director, PR department, and human resources all on our own. Ex-sex workers have many, many skills, and we know how to do a lot with very little. Acting like we're ashamed of what we’ve learned so we can go work admin somewhere is insulting and ineffective; why earn $300 a week when a sex worker can earn that in an hour? I ask myself that a lot, as it's been several months of jobseeking and I rarely get a call back. I know that if I went back into the industry, it would be about survival, not making the world a better place, and that's a dangerous position to be in. Yet I don't see another way, and that scares me stiff.
I have wished, often, that there were more resources to help sex workers who want to transition out do so while offering a lot of support on how to, not cover up, but embrace our history and weave it into our resumes. Why is this assistance so often the realm of the religious? I don’t want to be preached at and made to feel dirty for getting by the best I can in an era where jobs are hard to come by for everyone, even if they have multiple degrees...while my experience was good, how many other people don't have access to someone in a faith based organization who is also sex worker friendly? I need society to stand with me, with all sex workers, to recognize that sex work is, in fact, work, and that staying employed during hard times is a sign of our resourcefulness in the face of a hostile world that jokes about our murder. In an unsteady economy, is there an employer who couldn't use that kind of steadfastedness? I doubt it.