In which Slixa's resident sex and relationship expert, Andre Shakti, talks with the clients of different kinds of sex workers about their experiences with stigmatization, acceptance, and healing.
A first visit to the Dominatrix
Dominic first started thinking about hiring a sex worker after going through a challenging breakup. He had only ever explored consensual BDSM play with his most recent ex, though he had taken to it like a fish to water. Moving forward he knew that any future romantic partners would have to embrace his submissive kinky side, but he had some real concerns about his safety.
“As a transgender man, I was afraid to search for dates in public,” Dominic said. “Dating apps boasted plenty of people that were interested in BDSM, but while I did chat with some, in the end the idea of meeting someone I didn't know off the internet to dominate me or potentially restrain me was terrifying.”
Dominic’s gender identity gives him an additional layer of risk to mitigate when connecting intimately with new people. A May 2018 study published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships shows that most cisgender people won’t even consider dating someone if they know they’re transgender. Transgender folks are disproportionately vulnerable to bullying, harassment and assault, and they’re just as likely to be victims of intimate partner violence as they are to be targeted by complete strangers. If a trans person chooses not to disclose their gender identity to a potential partner - and even if they do! - there’s always the risk of that person reacting aggressively once they find out. Dominic had a very solid argument for not wanting to put someone he didn’t implicitly trust in a hypersexualized position of power over him; these environments can quickly escalate and become deadly for trans people. So, he began searching for a sex worker.
“I feel like my first impression of sex work was more positive than most,” he shared. “Someone I was dating introduced me to a professional dominatrix. The three of us were all hanging out at her house one day when she mentioned she was expecting a client, and asked if I was okay with it. The next thing I knew, a strange man entered the home. After making sure his attire was deemed ‘acceptable’ by the pro domme, he proceeded to clean her house wearing only an apron, then paid her before leaving. Seemed like a win-win situation.”
Indeed, Dominic’s first exposure to sex work was in a setting far more normalizing than the stereotypical “victim vs. criminal” narratives so often seen in mainstream media and pop culture. While it's become common to make a direct correlation between sex work and prostitution, “full service work” is but a single genre of a highly dynamic industry. Jobs one might hold under the umbrella of “sex work” include webcam model, professional dominant or submissive, sensual or erotic masseuse, fetish model, porn performer, dirty panties peddler, stripper, and many, many more.
Although our country is currently seeing an unprecedented push for sex work to be recognized as legitimate labor - with multiple Democratic nominees for president presently promoting decriminalization in their platforms - we still have a long way to go when it comes to destigmatizing sex work. Until then, the general public continues to be told very specific stories about who sex workers are – “addicts,” “whores,” “abused,” “trafficked,” – in order to dehumanize us and make it easier to hinder regulatory reform. Decades-long misinformation campaigns spread by those in power detract from how complex and nuanced sex work is, and sex workers aren’t the only victims of this rampant misrepresentation and slander.
The incalculable value of intimate connection
“My first impression of people who purchased the services of sex workers was governed to a great extent by family and religion,” said Samuel, a white gay man in his early sixties, “They were lonely loser-type guys who couldn’t resist temptation.”
Samuel first hired sex workers in his late forties. “The major factor for me was the fact that I had accepted myself as gay and wanted to experiment and experience sexual contact with another guy. When I first hooked up it was by finding an ad in a gay paper and then making a phone call. I started out hiring masseurs and then progressed from there.” However, it soon became clear that the interactions carried much more value than that inherent in physical pleasure.
“The most rewarding thing for me is the friendships that I've established with some of the guys that I've met. While I've definitely enjoyed what goes on in the bedroom, I also like just being with another person in an intimate way. For me being with a sex worker is as much therapeutic as it is anything else.”
Society often demonizes those who purchase sexual services to paint as unsavory a profile as possible. We’re routinely told that men who pay for sex are immoral degenerates; that they’re pathetic, hideous, socially-inept abusers and objectifiers of women who must not be able to get sex “for free.” The reality is that many men who purchase sex are likely none of these things. Rather, there are complex sociological, cultural, and psychological factors that lead men to purchase sex.
False narratives are the underpinnings of End Demand decrim
One example of how society often aligns consumption of sexual services with criminality can be seen within the concept of End Demand. The End Demand approach to sex work – sometimes called the Nordic or Swedish model – makes it a crime to pay for sex in the hope of dissuading men from engaging in the world’s oldest profession. Advocates in favor of End Demand policies claim that they “help” sex workers by targeting the market for sex work instead of the sex workers themselves, all under the assumption that sex work is inherently “bad” and that sex workers are universally victims being exploited by “bad men”.
Unsurprisingly, the End Demand model is deeply flawed and largely unsupported by the sex worker community at large. An alternative – and widely celebrated – approach to regulating the sex industry could very well come with full decriminalization, which would remove criminal penalties for sex work and provide sex workers with protections and recognitions equal to workers in other industries.
Paid interactions can seem emotionally safer
Marty*, a straight white man in his early forties, had been aware of sex work as a profession since he was a teenager, although he didn’t grasp a true understanding of it until a decade ago:
“I thought all people who hired sex workers were all male perverts, who couldn't find a sexual partner because they were either physically or personally repulsive.”
Since then, Marty has employed escorts on an occasional basis and has observed his opinions change drastically with increased exposure to workers. “You are with someone who accepts a part of you that you are certain the rest of society rejects,” he reflected appreciatively. “It takes some of the anxiety out of sexual experiences. Most sex workers are genuinely cool people.”
People purchase sexual services for a variety of reasons. Sometimes it’s loneliness, a craving for human touch and connection. Sometimes it’s to feel validated about a part of themselves they’ve been ridiculed for in the past, whether related to their physical appearance, ability, or what/who they desire. Sometimes it’s because they crave a variety in their sexual partners that they feel can’t be ethically met by traditional dating. And sometimes they just want someone to talk to! It sounds a bit ridiculous, but our society often informs men that it is more acceptable (read: masculine) to purchase sex than it is to purchase mental health services.
Sex workers spend just as much time listening to, advising, and holding space for their clients as they do performing their advertised activities, yet their services are rarely acknowledged as being therapeutic.
Clients can be so much more than just “male perverts”
While we have largely been conflating “men” with “those who consume sexual services” – cisgender men do make up the majority client/customer/fan demographic – this is not to say that women, transgender and non-binary folks don’t also seek out sex workers with regularity. As with Dominic’s story, intersecting levels of marginalization and vulnerability can contribute to a desire for sensual experiences that are more structured and potentially pose less risk than “muggle” interactions.
“With a sex worker, I know they won't force anything on me that I don't want, and there’s a certain level of preexisting knowledge and experience that’s comforting,” Dominic explained, “I also got to find [a professional dominatrix] that was queer like me and that had worked with trans people before. That was really important to me. If they’re a sex worker, I know they understand consent. I know they won't cross boundaries.”
Helen is an Australian woman in her late thirties who identifies as being sexually fluid. Around seven years ago Helen found herself coming out of a marriage and questioning what intimacy was going to look like for her moving forward. In part, it involved hiring a sex worker.
“I was quite heartbroken but also aware that I had issues with trust, intimacy and vulnerability, especially with cis men. I had disconnected my sexual pleasure from my emotions and that disconnection had caused my libido to drop and my orgasms to be harder to achieve and less powerful,” Helen recalled.
“I heard that a man I had met in a tantra workshop offered psycho-sexual counseling and erotic bodywork around trauma, vulnerability and intimacy. I knew him from tantric community and he was open minded, LGBTQ-inclusive and non-binary. Plus his story had significant similarities to my own and I trusted him. Initial contact was easy and we established hopes, needs, expectations and boundaries.”
Helen and her bodyworker went on “a sexual and emotional journey together over several sessions that was transformational and very healing.” Through their work together, she was also able to pinpoint certain performative and approval-seeking behaviors that had contributed to a hypersexuality that didn’t quite resonate with her.
“I had developed a mental knee-jerk “yes” to sexual experiences without listening when my body was not authentically desiring those experiences,” she explained, “So working through sessions with a sex worker saying “no” and saying “yes” through various sexual acts whilst paying very focused attention to how my body was responding and how I was feeling was critical... Also feeling free to say ‘more’ or ‘less’ or asking for something entirely different without having to worry that the other person would feel they were being criticized.”
Additionally, while most demand for sexual services comes from solo parties, it’s not unusual for couples to hire a sex worker together. For example, AJ and her husband purchased the services of a sex worker while on vacation in Amsterdam. A proud intersectional feminist, AJ spoke candidly about the experience:
“My husband and I walked around the red light district, mostly wandering and browsing the sex shops, the food, and the scantily-clad women looking out through the glass doors of their place of business. After completing a walk around, we discovered that we were both attracted to the same sex worker... so we decided to inquire about purchasing her services. It was all so easy.
She was lovely and we got to talk to her a bit about her life. She was beautiful and sexy and I could be with her just the way I was, without having to engage with the rest of the world in our seclusion. I hadn't been with many women at that point, but I didn't have to worry about my skills - I didn't need to please her in a particular way. I just had to be respectful and enjoy her as well as I would any willing lover. It removed a lot of performance anxiety, and it was a great sexy bonding experience with my husband.”
Narratives of sex work as despicable, sex workers as disposable, and those who consume sex work as degenerates are heavily steeped in our cultural imagination. Without question, stigma isolates those it seeks to illuminate.
But stigma is heavy and exhausting and comes with serious consequences for one’s mental health. By continuing to define clients of sex workers narrowly and shame them indiscriminately – without any thought to the value of the varied services provided by the professionals in which they place their trust – we encourage a sex-negative environment that inhibits the sexual autonomy and agency of ALL people.
“I wish people knew that people who seek out sex workers are the exact same people as them. Just people looking for something; a human connection, an experience, intimacy, whatever,” emphasized Shaun, a white non-binary person in their late thirties.
“Maybe they don’t want to date in the traditional sense, or are afraid of rejection, or a myriad of other reasons they aren’t getting their needs met. And that there’s these incredible people out there filling those needs and so much more. I wish people knew that people who purchase sexual services aren’t deviants, or sex addicts, or somehow less than. That they are simply regular people seeking a service that someone is providing. I wish the shame and stigma was erased, that sex wasn’t seen as this taboo thing. That sex can be just that, sex.”
*Names indicated with an asterisk have been changed at the request of those individuals.