I never thought I'd come out to my parents as a prostitute. It happened by mistake. My mom dropped hints on the phone that she knew, my dad did the same by email, and since the cat was out of the bag, I figured we should talk about it. Turned out they were doing a fabulous job living in denial.
I was a typical pink-diaper baby: I sat in on my mom's feminist book clubs, we had family outings to protest U.S. imperialism in El Salvador, and I was into Joan Armatrading while my classmates were obsessed with New Kids on the Block. Fortunately, my crushing unpopularity was alleviated by a wonderful home life. All told, I can safely say I am a product of good parenting. I was encouraged, not coddled. I learned to be responsible at an early age by being given, within limits, a great deal of independence. My appreciation for my family goes well beyond their parenting skills. They aren't guilty liberals who stir into action when an election or a war rolls around; they have always been fully engaged in living and working in radical ways. They never imposed their politics on me — my own politics mirror theirs because they taught me to think critically and set a powerful example of how to live. I'd be embarrassed by my uncanny similarity to my parents if I didn't think they're, well, totally amazing.
We rarely talked about sex, and lord knows I didn't mind. When my kindergarten teacher called home in a huff to report that Marco Torres and I were having a horizontal make-out session in gym class, my parents sat me down and told me I could do whatever I wanted with kids my own age, so long as I didn't do it at school. When I came out as queer in junior high, it was a blip on the family radar, though a few years later my parents felt obligated to ask if I was having safe sex, and then ask me to educate them on how lesbians have safe sex. While discussing non-monogamy a few years ago, my mom casually said "Well, I've never really cared about sex anyway," which raised a host of disquieting questions that will forever go unasked. To each her own, I guess.
I got into sex work for the same reason a lot of women do: the work I enjoy doesn't tend to pay well, and I needed a job that would take up as little of my time as possible so I could concentrate on the work that I actually care about doing. For me, that's writing and drawing, for other women it's raising children or going to grad school. Initially, it just seemed like a decent way to get by in a culture that devalues the work that women and artists do, so I was surprised, from my first client onward, to realize that I loved the job.
I help men feel comfortable with their own desires and comfortable with the desires of their partners, acting as an educator and as a confidante. I have sex with men who have been deemed unattractive because of their size or disability or age; it's striking how often I'm asked, because I've never been "grossed out" by a client's body. I get to snoop around other people's houses and have intimate conversations with strangers, and going to work never feels routine. I occasionally have sex with men I'd sleep with anyway if we'd met under different circumstances. Yes, in the near-decade I've been a sex worker, I have encountered a few clients who made me feel uncomfortable or afraid. In that same time, I've been made to feel uncomfortable or afraid far more often outside of my work. Welcome to womanhood. Working as an independent escort has only two drawbacks for me, the tediousness of putting up ads and answering calls and emails, and the uncertainty of dry spells that leave me short of work. These happen to be the same problems encountered by all types of freelancers. Prostitution isn't something I'm doing "for now." It's something I plan to do for as long as it suits me.
There are some things we're better off not telling our parents. Mom doesn't need to know about your creepy obsession with Chatroulette or your predilection for Sarah Palin porn. And when it comes down to it, talking about your job is (in most cases) the most boring, soul-sucking kind of small talk there is, so it's sort of nice when that's off the table. But hiding your life as a sex worker from your parents doesn't feel like acting on a need-to-know basis. It feels like lying. Deception is a shitty fact of life for a lot of sex workers, and de rigueur for plenty of people who really have nothing to hide. That's not the kind of relationship I want to have with my family, though — and after years of stressing out about what I would do if xyz happened and my parents found out, it was actually something of a relief when they did.
Or when I thought they had, anyway. Whatever we may choose to share or hide, our parents have all kinds of tricks up their sleeves to avoid knowing what they don't want to know about us. Mine had googled my pseudonym a dozen times and decided I was probably writing about prostitution from, you know, a totally abstract, impersonal, or maybe fictional perspective. My dad's idea of a fun night together when I was a kid was talking through the principles of logical reasoning, and here they were totally defying Occam's razor. They didn't let themselves think through the simplest explanation: that I was doing sex work and writing about it. They knew I'd done some foot fetish work when I dropped out of college, and while we hadn't talked about it since then (and mostly-legal fetish work and prostitution are hardly the same thing), it wouldn't have been an enormous leap. I thought I was opening up a conversation about what they already knew and were hesitant to ask about, for the sake of my privacy or their own comfort. Really, I was outing myself as a prostitute and forcing them into a conversation they'd gone through a lot of mental hijinks to prevent.
The revelation itself, after years of white lies and what-ifs, was strangely uneventful, characterized by anxious silence. My mom had called to say that she'd run into so-and-so who told her about my "pornographic slide show," a presentation of text and drawings about working as a prostitute that I'd performed a few nights prior. The woman, an art professor, had talked to me about the piece afterward, and I had no idea that she knew my mom. I would've given this woman the benefit of the doubt, assumed she'd mentioned seeing me perform while omitting the subject of the performance, if it weren't for the ambiguous email my dad had sent earlier that week that already had me reeling, convinced that they knew. A friend of mine was over for drinks, so I gulped my way off of the phone to sort things out. We drank, we talked, and when she left I gathered my whiskey-courage and called my parents.
So... I'm pretty sure you know about the thing I haven't told you about... so I'm calling to see if you want to talk about it.
What thing? What don't we know about that we're supposed to know about?
Uhh I mean you know...
There just wasn't any getting out of it. Odd how something you've said casually to pretty much everyone you know can get trapped mid-larynx when your parents are waiting silently on the line.
Well, I work as an escort.
And it was followed by the longest silence ever. And then one of them said, "Why don't we think about this and call you soon," probably the best response they could've given me, and also the most difficult. The silence extended through the week, and then the real work came along.
My mom started sobbing, uncharacteristically, the first time we saw each other after my revelation. She blames herself for permissiveness or some kind of abstract "bad parenting" that made me this way. Her perspective insists that there's something inherently unhealthy about doing sex work, and that she is at fault for decisions that I know are mine. She'd be horrified by the same narrative if it were applied to a queer coming out story, though I don't point that out because it would only make her feel worse. It's not easy to assure your mom that you think she did an incredible job of raising you when she thinks your perspective is warped. Fortunately, since that initial encounter she has slipped back into Don't Ask, Don't Tell; telling was way too rough on both of us. I felt guilty, she felt guilty, and we're both better off feeling guilty privately and moving on with the rest of our relationship.
I take after my dad in my conviction that if you don't like a feeling, you can just out-reason it. So every few years, he brings this up and we have a deeply uncomfortable discussion to try to make sense of the whole prostitute daughter thing. No tears, no guilt — just enough awkwardness to make me shudder for weeks. There was the time I tried to reassure him that my clients weren't misogynist assholes by saying, "They're really just like you," meaning that they're mostly kind, intelligent men but coming across as "I have daddy issues." Ewwww.
In our most recent attempt at The Talk, he told me he just couldn't help thinking of prostitution as inherently exploitative, and then I finally got pissed.
"You've known me for 28 years. When have I ever struck you as someone who would choose a demeaning profession? I can sort of understand the fucked up reasoning that makes Catherine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin look at me and tell me I'm being exploited whether I think so or not, but you should know better."
And then we finally started getting somewhere. What I've never understood is why my parents can't wrap their heads around the idea that sex work might be a healthy, positive choice for me, and why they haven't worked harder over the years to try. I understand why my parents are concerned for my safety. I'm concerned for my safety too, and have a better grasp on what I need to do to keep myself safe than they do. But understanding sex work on a conceptual level seems like something they could handle. Maybe they could read everything ever written by every sex workers' rights activist from Priscilla Alexander to Carol Leigh and still think that sex work is degrading towards women-towards me. I really don't think so. They're too smart for that. It hadn't occurred to me that they were too emotionally involved in this to even consider rethinking it abstractly. Allowing my own anger to come through, insisting that he work toward a different understanding, affected my dad much more than any cautious explanation of my work ever had: a week later, he asked me to put together a reading list of essays by and about sex workers. While they may never be completely comfortable with my job, it's a fine place to start.
Some friends have told me that I should be grateful to have parents that support and love me despite knowing that I'm a sex worker. I am incredibly grateful that I have supportive, loving parents. I am fortunate that my family hasn't disowned me or physically harmed me or reacted in any other number of physically and emotionally violent ways to learning that I'm a sex worker, but I shouldn't be expected to be grateful for that. No one should. I am grateful that this is something I learned from them.
Robin Hustle is a writer, artist, and musician living in Chicago. She is the editor of the Land Line, a collaborative print journal, and self-publishes the zines Curdled Milk, Leftovers Again?! and Mirror Tricks. Her writing has appeared in $PREAD Magazine, Vice, and the Journal of Radical Shimming, and her visual art has been exhibited in group shows at Woman Made Gallery, Roots and Culture, and Gallery 400. She archives her writing and drawings at robinhustle.blogspot.com.