A few months ago, during one Sunday brunch, my boyfriend of nearly two years and I had a difficult conversation. I expressed my desire to get married, and he admitted his reluctance to propose. “It’s not that I don’t love you and want us to spend the rest of our lives together,” Arran gently began—in fact, some months earlier, he reminded me, he’d suggested that maybe it was time for us to start a family. “I’m just not crazy about the idea of marriage.”
I avoided the eyes of the waiter as he set my plate of eggs down in front of me. Gone went my appetite. This was not at all the conversation I’d expected. I tried to stay calm as Arran talked through reasons which, in retrospect, all sound quite reasonable. He’d been married before. That obviously hadn’t worked out. How would getting married change our relationship? Then, there were the logistics. Would I want a “real” wedding?
“And I’m assuming you’d expect a ring...”
This conversation was a not-unusual scenario in the grand scheme of relationships. What made it feel unusual, for me, was my status as a former sex worker.
I’ve written before of the obvious discrimination current and former sex workers face when it comes to things like employment, housing, and childcare. I’ve written ad nauseum of how I lost my job as a public school teacher when it became front page news I was writing and sharing stories about my sex work past. But I’m only beginning to address, to myself and more publicly, the soft discrimination sex workers feel being shut out of private relationships as well, either before or as a result of our participation in the sex trade.
As is obvious by what I went through publicly in 2010, being a former sex worker has affected my career choices. It’s also affected who and how I love, and how that love is expressed.
Arran and I met two years ago on OkCupid. He was thirty-eight years old with blue-black hair going gray and dark facial hair and brown-black eyes. Intelligent and creative, his profile boasted a great job in political media. I liked his British accent and the fact we could talk about anything. Our sexual chemistry was intense.
In the beginning, I trusted him. I recognized potential “issues” and I liked that he had them. When he told me that he suffered from anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder—of how he counts the five knobs on the stove in sets of whatever and then shuts and opens and opens and shuts and shuts the door and then sometimes comes back up to check the door is locked—I thought, yes, exactly. Having my own, his anxiety made sense.
I trusted what was familiar. His “damage”—and we’ve all got it—made me feel safe.
I trusted him until the time he asked me how my meal was, on our third date, and I said, “I need ketchup” and, just like that, he sprung up to get it for me. Another time early in our relationship, I yelled at him for being too nice— I told him I found it “suspicious.” He said, “no offense, Melissa, but it’s nothing personal.” It wasn’t; Arran was a genuinely nice guy.
I wasn’t used to nice guys. The fact that he sent me poems and flowers, when he told me I was beautiful— when he didn’t go away— at first, I did not trust this. The first time Arran showed up at my door with an armful of roses, an easy smile spread across his face, I felt a strong sense of aversion. His kindness made me uncomfortable. Wholeheartedness wasn’t something I was accustomed to. It became a practice to not pull away.
Last year, I wrote a piece for Salon they titled “Intimacy After the Call Girl Years,” all about my and Arran’s first six months or so of dating. One of my favorite comments I received on the piece was by a sex worker on Twitter who said something along the lines of “these are some First World stripper problems right here.” It’s true. So long as I worked in the industry, I didn’t worry about whether or not I was “present” during sex. Things like “insecure attachment,” “repetition compulsion” or even cumulative trauma didn’t feel as pressing as my need to make my rent. It was only after I left that these issues started to crop up for me.
When you first tell someone you’re a sex worker, you get the same uneasy reactions. Most people will try—and fail, miserably—to not react at all. Some people are titillated. Others, disgusted. Certain audiences feel sorry for you. Due to all these reactions, so long as I worked in the industry, I mostly kept my occupation to myself. Or, I lied. I told some version of the truth that I thought people could handle. I was rarely, if ever, myself.
An undergraduate at the ultra-liberal Antioch College, on campus and among my more progressive friends, I sold myself as an “empowered” sex worker, even though the idea that I was empowered by my occupation as a stripper was not exactly true. For one, I’ve never really been what one would call “sex positive.” While at the time I would have happily embraced the belief that all consensual sexual activities were fundamentally healthy and pleasurable, that wasn’t what I’d been raised by my Catholic mother to believe.
Certainly, for me, sex work hadn’t begun as a political statement. I’d started stripping because I needed the money, and the fact that I enjoyed the work, and had been curious before trying it and wanted to keep doing it still after I “needed” to only confused me.
Years later, the men I dated seemed equally confused. Most assumed I’d been a victim. Sexually, they’d handle me with kid gloves, fearful of offending me. Then there were the guys who’d expect to get cirque de so-laid, as if we’re all experts at everything just because we’ve worked in the sex trades.
For the most part, Arran didn’t have an issue with my past as a sex worker—which is a good thing, because by the time I met him, my attitude was that he wasn’t allowed to.
Our second date, we walked his dog through the cool summer evening in Cobble Hill. We talked about my past, all the more complicated by the fact that I was a writer. “Any guy I date,” I gently explained, “would have to understand.”
I’d grown used to awkward silences after this monologue. But with Arran, there was no awkward silence. Intellectually, he got it.
And yet, he did have feelings. Truth be told, I had feelings too. They reared up in strange ways.
Picture us a month or so later: we’re watching TV— just flipping through the channels, when we land on The Hangover. In this movie (which I don’t recommend) there’s an extended hooker joke that starts when one of the characters, Stu, wakes up with a missing tooth and a sex worker for a bride. The premise is implicit: no one would intentionally marry a sex worker. Even though the character (played by Heather Graham) challenges stereotypes, she is first met with derision and never not viewed with apprehension. I sat there, a former sex worker with my new boyfriend, wanting to be taken seriously, watching a character with my experiences be played as the butt of a joke.
The next day, we went to meet a group of his friends for the first time. That morning, whatever we fought about on the surface wasn’t what we were really fighting about. By then, I felt serious about Arran. I hoped Arran felt as seriously about me as he said he did, but I had my doubts. That stupid movie was an unwanted reminder of what society—read Arran’s friends, possibly—thought of me, a former sex worker: sex workers are disposable. We are worth a fuck, but not a relationship. We are victims at best or villains at worst. In all cases, we are broken or fucked up. We didn’t end up meeting his friends for brunch that day. Instead, we argued all the way to Brooklyn, where we turned around and (separately) went home.
We talked about it later, and would continue to at various points, because in the beginning, stuff like this came up a lot. For the first year, dealing with my past became a constant struggle. It was sometimes exhausting; why would anyone put up with something so difficult? I often wondered to myself.
There are a lot of misconceptions about sex work and the women who do it. The reality is that our experiences may be positive, negative or (very frequently) neutral. For me, the hardest part of being in any relationship is when people assume my story fits into any one stereotype.
Instead, like most sex workers I imagine, my experiences varied. A year or so into the industry, sex work became less an act of rebellion and more, as it was for my coworkers, a means to an end. Oftentimes, the job felt routine. Like any job, there were aspects I didn’t particularly enjoy. Some men told me I was beautiful and paid just to be near me. Others rejected me or called me names. Some nights, I felt a pressure to earn money. I felt ambivalent when I broke the club’s rules, and even more confused when I broke my own. My boundaries weren’t always honored. There were times I was touched without my permission. If I reacted negatively, I got in trouble.
There was one time I was walking through the club and a customer grabbed my ass. Without thinking, I swung around and slapped him. He slapped me back, hard. I’d never been hit before, except as a child by my father. The feeling of violation hurt more than being hit. Just then, security stepped in and the issue was brought to management. I expected the man would be ejected; instead, I was dismissed for the night.
Another time, during a private dance, an old man pulled out his dick and—before I even knew what was happening—he had come on me. I didn’t know how to handle this. Do you just wipe it off and pretend that never happened? Because that’s what I did. I felt humiliated, but I assumed most girls endured worse—and many did—and so I kept my humiliations to myself.
When I left the industry, I grew to respect the impact of these and other experiences. Though I’d entered the industry consensually, I reluctantly began to admit that a lot of what I’d experienced was out of my control. Recovery from my past also meant taking responsibility. In some ways, I had to admit, it had been more comfortable for me to be seen as a sex object—as opposed to a subject with feelings, and needs. Being paid was about more than just the money. I had to own the fact that it had felt validating, which was not really a problem so long as I worked in the industry, but now that I’m getting older and I don’t have the body of a twenty-something stripper anymore—and being that I’m in a committed monogamous relationship—that validation has stopped.
Sometimes, a certain touch will trigger a memory. I have no-go zones due to bad experiences. Sometimes, I don’t even realize it until it’s happening. Arran’s gone somewhere where someone else once went, uninvited, and now I’m turned off.
For awhile, I got what some might consider “sex negative.” I was wary and sometimes openly hostile towards anyone that I feared was sexualizing me, even my partner. I wanted to experience what radical feminists would describe as a “sex purified of violence.” I wanted to “make love.” I resented and regretted the fact that I’d ever had sex for money, fearing the stereotype was true: these experiences had irrevocably fucked me up. I feared that I’d never get to experience what I assumed other women took for granted.
After that difficult conversation that morning at brunch, Arran and I tabled the issue of marriage. Silent on the matter, I thought long and hard about what the institution meant to me. I realized that a big reason getting married was important to me is because I still feared that the non-traditional choices I made in my twenties, including my former occupation, would somehow disqualify me from traditional choices for the rest of my life. I realized that in many ways and in spite (or maybe even because) of my provocative past, I am traditional at heart.
Some nights later, over the phone, I told Arran as much. In tears, I told him everything I was thinking and how worried I felt about our future. I loved him, and I wanted to spend my life with him. For me, that meant marriage. Sex work had eroded my feeling over time that I was worth getting attached to. In the years since exiting the sex industry, I had reclaimed my self-worth as a relationship partner and not just as a sex object. I had reclaimed that thanks in large part to Arran. I had learned how to listen to my needs, and ask that they be met. I needed a partner who would continue to do that work with me— someone who would stick around and commit to me and in a deep and meaningful way. I worried that Arran might no longer be that partner.
“You don’t have to worry,” he said, but hearing that didn’t help.
The next weekend, Arran and I took a trip out of the city. The day we arrived was sunny and mild. We walked around talking as we do, about everything. About work and friendship and our bodies and growing older. When I brought up our future I felt Arran shy away until I began to sense something was going unsaid, which made me afraid. This is the end, I thought, and braced myself. This relationship has reached its natural conclusion. That night while we had sex, my body felt distracted, as it often does. As he came, he reached for me, eyes closed. He opened his eyes and asked me what I was thinking. I told him, “Nothing” just like I sometimes say if I’m remembering something from my past. But in that moment, I was thinking of him, and worrying about our future.
In the end, my view on marriage did not change. His didn’t either. Even so, later that weekend, Arran proposed. Getting married may not be very important to him, but I am.
Melissa Petro is a freelance writer and writing instructor living in New York City. Her work has appeared in Marie Claire, NY Magazine, Pacific Standard Magazine, Cosmopolitan.com, Salon, Broadly, The Establishment, Daily Dot and elsewhere. Follow her on Twitter. She got married earlier this month.