Liara Roux opens her book, Whore of New York: A Confession, with a question she’s been asked many times: “When did you first think of starting sex work?” Her answer, in part, is to reflect on her conservative Christian upbringing. Roux recalls lying in bed at a young age and praying to God: “Please don’t ever let me stop believing in You. I know that otherwise I would do a lot of drugs, convert to communism, and become a prostitute.” As an academically gifted bookworm whom adults viewed as “monstrously precocious,” she considered various careers: quantum physicist, electrical engineer, academic. “But I would lie awake at night thinking of whores,” Roux writes.
In considering the question of “when,” she also entertains an implicit “why.” Roux explains that she has long taken pleasure in giving pleasure, even non-sexually: her first word was “kitty” and one of her earliest memories is petting her cats and delighting in making them purr. Roux says that her favorite part of sex work is “making my clients feel pleasure.”
The pleasure she takes arises, too, from knowing people more deeply. There’s an element of voyeurism in intimately glimpsing another person’s private self, she explains. “Sex can be... about seeing into someone,” she writes. “I’m the type of sex worker, and there are many of us, who delight in strange requests from clients, who read about psychology and sexuality and apply it all in our bookings, approaching the work almost as a type of therapy,” writes Roux. She speaks of the “privilege” to “coax tears out of those who haven’t cried in decades,” spending time “rubbing backs, cooing, reassuring people that it’s ok to cry. Teaching them what it means to be soothed, not hit.” She continues: “I love making people feel cared for.”
Roux has not always felt cared for herself: As a child, her father abused her. Growing up, she experienced excruciating pain from recurrent cluster headaches, which her parents neglected to address. As an adult, she writes of her wife’s many abuses, including subjecting her to “the most painful sex” of her life. Sex work at times seems to take the form of safe harbor from these personal abuses: “While escorting, I felt more able to set boundaries. I felt comfortable telling my clients to slow down or to touch me differently because I wasn’t as worried about being rejected by them. I didn’t need their love,” she writes.
Although Roux entertains the questions of “when” and “why,” Whore of New York is not defensive about sex work. Instead, it describes a broader orientation that unties sex from its many frequent constraints: “For me personally, sex is something that is less emotional than it is for most.” Roux details her first-hand experiences with the erotic possibilities of friendship, writing of one particular romp with a couple pals in a hotel bathtub as “beautiful, soft, fun, all entangled and warm and wet, sticky. All of us moaning together.” Roux is dubious about monogamy, skeptical of “conservative and puritan” American culture. She understands why her clients want an “easy, fun fling with no strings attached,” even if they are married, and even if happily so. “Not every act of fucking has to be this cosmic, spiritual love making act! Sometimes you just want your nut,” she writes.
Any sex work memoir is likely to be seized upon for conservative political ends, but Roux refuses to strategically temper her account, instead allowing for the fullness of her experience. During an intense period, she experienced regular panic attacks before work. “How could I force myself to spend another hour with some gross man’s cock in my mouth?” she writes. She describes men who “acted like any booking with me was like dinner at a buffet.” At the same time, Roux details experiences ranging from easy companionship to total ecstasy. There are tender moments, too, including with a George Clooney look-alike who starts bringing her books written by women after Roux jokes that she has read enough written by white men for this lifetime.
Jezebel spoke with Roux about taking the risk of detailing these nuanced experiences, as well as the possibilities of sex work for both therapy and education. The conversation has been edited for clarity.
JEZEBEL: You’re clear in the book that your interest in giving pleasure is part of what attracted you to sex work. How do you think about the overlaps of pleasure and work?
LIARA ROUX: I think there’s a lot of jobs where pleasure is a major part of the goal. Obviously, some restaurants, it’s about sustenance, just people who want to shovel food into their mouths. On the other hand, there are restaurants where it’s all about giving people this really overwhelmingly pleasurable experience that is going to transport them in some way. I think that’s actually why a lot of food service workers get along well with sex workers. I have a lot of friends who work in the hospitality industry. Both industries have shitty clients that you deal with and you’re working so hard to make them happy, and them flipping out, getting angry at you, becomes so much more personal.
That makes me think about the demands of authenticity in service work—and how you talk about performance in your work. There are many scenes where you illustrate the waxing and waning of performance, where you’re sometimes playing to a client’s fantasy and sometimes experiencing a genuine moment of connection. How did you navigate this flux of performance and feeling?
It’s really powerful and fun when I meet a client who understands that it’s a fantasy that they’re paying for and is just really excited and appreciative of that. It makes it easier for me to be present and enjoy myself. There is less of that neurotic checking in of, “Do you really like me? Do you really care for me?”
Probably restaurant workers feel the same way. If someone is there, really enjoying themselves, not making tons of demands of the people around them, it becomes this really fun, beautiful experience for both people. There’s this shared passion. They let the fantasy become real in a way. If a person goes into a movie and is hyper analyzing the actors—“That actor isn’t really an alien scientist from Mars”—then it’s going to be super annoying to watch that movie with that person. It’s obviously another thing if that actor is not doing a good job.
I always try to do a great job. Even if someone isn’t 1,000 percent the person I would pick up at a bar, I’m going to give it the best go. I think it’s similar to what actors experience on-stage where the audience is enjoying it and reacting, the energy, it becomes that much easier to do that performance.
You take a lot of satisfaction from the emotional and psychological aspects of the job. The opportunities to be more of a therapeutic ear.
It feels really special to be able to hold space for people when they’re in the middle of that. Obviously, it doesn’t happen all the time. Sex is such an intimate thing and can be triggering in so many different ways. A lot of people might not even bring these things up with me, but maybe I see something on their face and ask a question digging a little to see if they want to talk about it. For some people, it’s just that maybe they’ve never been asked or had a real opportunity to talk about it. It feels like such an honor to see everything that a person is thinking about and experiencing, maybe help them move through it or be someone who listens and witnesses. A lot of men opened up to me about their experiences of prior sexual assault. A lot of it was from older men in their lives and I imagine they never told anyone. You know that person has been holding onto that for forever.
You write that, for you, “sex is something that is less emotional than it is for most,” that you’d “rather have bad sex than a bad haircut.” How come?
By bad sex, I’m not talking about sexual assault, just a consensual experience that is not great. Maybe it’s because I’m experienced enough to know how to curtail it or elegantly figure out a way to segue from the sex. When I’m getting a haircut, I’m sitting in the chair, watching what’s happening and you don’t really know what it’s like until it’s blow-dried at the end. I’m one of those people when, even if I hate it, it’s so hard for me to tell someone. Do I trust them to fix it? What if they make it worse? It’s such an exercise of trust to put myself in someone else’s hands like that. It’s something that is with you every day thereafter, whereas bad sex is a brief experience and then it’s over.
The book is full of moments of fun, pleasure, and sensuality; there are also moments of violation and pain. You note with some surprise that it was possible to have free, pleasurable, boundaried sex with clients, while at home your wife was pressuring you into “the most painful sex” of your life. What do you make of those contrasts?
I didn’t care too much if clients were upset about me asserting boundaries. I learned very quickly, if you are not firm with people, they will push and push and push until the end of time, especially if you give them anything from the pushing. It’s like a dog barking, you don’t give them anything, because otherwise, they’ll remember that the barking gave them a treat. I had to be very careful with that in my work.
I totally let my wife push me into doing things, and obviously, she should not have been pushing, but, at the end of the relationship, it was a total shock to her when I stopped accepting certain behaviors from her because it had worked for so long. When you’re in such an imitate relationship with someone, for me, it’s a lot harder to be harsh with them about boundaries.
You note having married clients who talk about their wives, their relationships. Have you learned anything from this particular perspective on heterosexual marriages?
I think it’s made me just assume that most men are cheaters. I don’t know how true that is, but just because of how many of the heterosexual men I interacted with were actively cheating on their girlfriends or wives, I assume people are not going to remain faithful. If you’re in a monogamous relationship with a man, especially if he’s very successful and has a lot of money, it’s almost inevitable that they would cheat, in my mind. The psychology of people that are really obsessed with chasing money and success and power, they are often going to want to do whatever the fuck they want.
You’re somewhat skeptical of monogamy in general, right?
Personally, I don’t care too much if anyone I’m dating wants to be monogamous. I just want the other person to be chill about it. If my partner is sleeping with someone else, I want that person to be able to come over for dinner and the two of us to have a friendly conversation. Some people can get really weird about sex. “You’re my competition.” “You’re not gonna like me because I’ve fucked your wife.” Maybe not! Maybe we can just be friends, we don’t have to be besties and calling each other all the time, but we can have a civil friendship. That’s my ground rule, at least. I don’t want to be exposed to unnecessary fighting or drama. Other than that, go hog wild.
You provided a certain kind of sex education for clients—like the client who, in your words, had an “absolutely massive cock” and lamented that his wife experienced pain during sex. You recommended he try lube and foreplay, which he had not even considered. What do you think of the kinds of sex education needs that you ran into?
I think there was a lot of misunderstanding of vaginas and how they work, what feels good. There’s definitely a lot of people who watched a lot of porn, which, porn is great, I love porn, but if that’s how you’re getting all your sex tips, you might have some funny ideas about how vaginas work. Discussing lube was really interesting. Sometimes I would pull it out and use it during sex and people would be like, “Oh, does that mean you’re not turned on?” And I’m like, “I am turned on, but this just makes it more fun.” Or, especially with older clients, walking them through cock rings if they’re having trouble getting hard.
There were a lot of anatomy lessons, where people didn’t know how the bodies of other people, or even their own bodies, were working, which really speaks to the failed state of American sex education. A lot of people don’t know that much about their bodies in general. Sometimes, there would be grooming things where you’d be like, “You really need to wipe your bottom better, because there’s poop down there.” Or, “Do you floss? That would be a great idea.” There’s a fair amount of helping people get down with the physical realities of their bodies.
A lot of people disassociate during sex. I realized a lot of the men that I was having sex with, especially those with performance anxiety, weren’t in their bodies and experiencing pleasure. They were like, “I have to get hard and fuck her for long enough.” I would have these really strained conversations where I’d have to explain, “You can cum earlier, and then we can do something else for me, it doesn’t just have to be me getting pounded for 30 minutes.” They would say, “Isn’t that what every woman wants?” And I’m like, “Actually, a lot of women can’t cum from penetration, maybe we can add some other tricks to your tool bag.” For people who had trouble getting hard, often I’d just be like, “You don’t have to worry about me being naked and you spontaneously have the most intense erection ever. For a lot of people, that’s not how it works.” And they’d be like, “Oh, but in porn guys are just hard!” I’d be like, “Well, that’s why they’re in porn. Also, there’s stuff off-camera that you don’t see.” It helps them figure out how to connect with their bodies in a more authentic way.
There’s a performative thing, too. I could tell sometimes that clients... it was almost like they wanted to jerk off to this later. They wanted to fuck me in this really porn-style way, like, “I’m gonna think back later how I fucked her like this and then jerk off to it.”
That’s interesting, the idea of not being fully present to experience it in the moment and wanting to create a memory to later revisit, potentially more pleasurably?
Which is something I think guys do without necessarily telling the people they hook up with. Girlfriends will tell me about these really strange experiences that they have, like, “He would go through all these different positions, like he was checking boxes.” He’s not doing it to enjoy it in the moment, it’s a truly performative masturbatory thing, which is a very, very strange way to engage with another person, I think.
You are clear that your experiences in sex work are not universal, that you experienced a high degree of privilege working online. How so?
I started working in an era when advertising online for escorts was super widespread and a really common way of doing business. It was reassuring being able to have clients email me to get all their legal information, screen them online, look them up, make sure they didn’t have any violent assault offenses, see that they were who they said they were. It also provided clients with a sense of, “I can’t do anything to her, what if the cops look in her emails? They would know that I saw her.” It creates more of an atmosphere of trust.
I have friends who either currently or in the past worked on the street and it’s a lot more dangerous. You have to worry about the cops coming by and worry more about violence from the clients as well. It’s common for girls to work together. If someone gets in someone’s car, a friend will write down the license plate number. You really have to use super snap judgment working in those conditions. Do I trust this person, more or less, with my life?
For people who work on the street, almost all of my friends have experienced violence from the police, because they know you’re in this really vulnerable position. They have more power than clients. Not only do they know you’re in this desperate position in need of money, but they are able to threaten you with arrest. What are the cops going to believe at the end of the day: their buddy forced this girl to give him a blow job under threat of arrest or he was making sure she wasn’t doing anything illegal and she made this up to get him in trouble? It’s such a corrupt system. More often than not, cops are most feared by sex workers. When I was working, I was worried about violence from clients but, even more than that, I was worried about a run-in with a cop.
I never even ended up having any real interactions with law enforcement, except when I tried to get into a foreign country and they found out that I do sex work and they rejected me. My rates were so high, I required a deposit from clients, I screened them, I was often scheduled three months in advance, so unless cops were really trying to get me, it wouldn’t make sense. They’re usually so last minute and don’t provide screening information and definitely aren’t going to provide a deposit. They want big arrest numbers. The effort required in trying to get me would be too much.
That raises the question of FOSTA/SESTA, which has made online sex work that much more difficult by shutting down advertising and screening platforms.
Backpage shutting down really hurt a lot of workers, because it was really inexpensive to place ads. It was an accessible way for people to get work. FOSTA/SESTA also resulted in a lot of sites, like Twitter and Instagram, squeezing extra hard and shadow-banning people. On my Twitter, I went from massive reach to basically not getting any exposure. It’s just really damaging, especially as I’m trying to promote this book. Two years ago, it would have been so much easier for me to promote this. So much of the work that I did to build my social media presence is effectively worthless.
Given how divided and politicized conversations about sex work are, and how often arguments around abuse and exploitation are used to curtail sex workers’ rights, were you conflicted about sharing the negative aspects of your experience?
It was something I really thought about. But it’s really important to show that sex work isn’t just a glamorous experience, either. A lot of writers will write about sex work in a really idealized way. I think it’s important to write about how criminalization really does make the work more dangerous. For me, there were a lot of sticky situations I would not have had to go through. Clients knew that I could never call the cops because I could be arrested as well.
The stigma that sex workers face in society makes us a lot more vulnerable. A more honest telling of sex work, and the experience of it, can really capture why it’s so important that sex workers be granted these rights.