Last week, federal agents arrested the founder and five staffers of male escort site Rentboy.com. Two days later, GQ published “The Real Life of a Sugar Daddy,” a feature on SeekingArrangement.com’s buyers and sellers of sex. Here, Charlotte Shane, who’s been a sex worker for 11 years and a writer under this name for five, weighs in on the public allocation of stigma when it comes to sex work—where it lands, and why.
1. The only time what sex workers say is relevant to a public audience is when it can be used against us or when it can be used to entertain. Often those times coincide.
2. Before I was a sex worker, I was a fresh feminist who didn’t like sex work. Or rather, I thought I didn’t like sex work—I don’t think I was entirely clear on what sexual labor could entail. But thanks to second-wavers like Andrea Dworkin, Catharine MacKinnon, and Susan Brownmiller, I knew pornography was bad; adult male desire was rapacious and sadistic; patriarchy incentivized women to either accommodate degrading lust or else be forced to. I knew sexual desirability, our only true currency, was a system rigged so no woman could win. There is no such thing as hot enough, and the hottest among us conscript themselves to nothing more than fading glory and perishable rewards. Women who worked hard to be lusted after were pitiable. But what became of women who opted out of the desirability game altogether, I wondered. They worked harder, received less appreciation, struggled to find a mate, and their consolation prize was mere righteousness? The world felt like a very scary place.
3. GQ recently published a piece on sugarbaby/sugardaddy relationships—just a handful of them, uncontextualized by numbers or governing facts or cited expertise. Within it, Taffy Brodesser-Akner takes a narrative position of superiority to her subjects, whose egotism and foolishness is maximized to cartoonish effect. The men are selfish, immature, crude and buffoonish; the women are younger, poorer, vapid, and facile.
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The tone posits that men who want responsibility-free sex are gross, but the women who provide it (for a price) are grosser. One young woman profiled, who recently lived in a homeless shelter, is given the fake name “Kitten Babypuss.” She’s trying to put herself through school and was once fired from her straight job because her sugar dating came to light. But these details fade under the description of her fake furs and trashy lip liner, infinitely truer to stereotype. We are meant to recognize this woman as a slut first and foremost.
A different woman, also covering her own tuition by sugar dating, is introduced through a litany of the sex acts she performed on each day of one week. (“Keep in mind, it’s only Wednesday,” the author interjects wryly in the middle, amazed at the other woman’s stamina for taking dick.) Later, Brodesser-Akner indulges in a bit of self-deprecating self-aggrandizement by saying she herself has “spent far more time and energy writing this story than a commensurate amount of blow jobs would require.” She also tweeted that when her mother found out her daughter had to write about sugar dating, she said, “Life is a series of small degradations.” Just being near these people was an affront to her dignity.
4. Women opposed to sex work even in a disguised and ostensibly innocuous way focus a lot on penises—how many a woman interacts with in a day, what that interaction entails. If a woman isn’t “penetrated” by a penis, is she allowed to speak as a sex worker? “Sucking dick” is an especially popular point of attention, and it’s usually referenced as the most disgusting act a human being could endure. It’s shorthand both for how illegitimate sex work is—can you imagine, treating a blowjob as real work?—and also how degrading, how dehumanizing. Here, women who want to eliminate prostitutes evince the same attitude a lot of the men hiring us do: it’s the easiest money one could ever make. You need only be a body to do it.
5. A few days before the GQ article came out, federal authorities raided Rentboy, the largest American site for advertising male escort services. This bust came 13 months after the MyRedbook bust, a takedown of a site in California that primarily featured independently working women. “It is unknown why authorities took action after the site operated for years,” one outlet said of the MyRedbook arrests. The site had been online for over a decade. Rentboy is over two decades old.
Authorities have tirelessly harassed female escort ad sites in recent years, most notably Craigslist’s Adult Services section and Backpage. In our contemporary context of anti-sex worker sentiment disguised by “sex trafficking” hysteria, neither bust is surprising, although both landed like a punch to the face. To sex workers, it’s just more evidence of the campaign against us. But, unlike any response to the FBI’s targeting of women selling sex, the backlash against Rentboy’s bust was so powerful that Manhattan’s DA asked to have his name removed from the press release, and the New York Times ran a story on gay activists’ outrage.
My fellow sex workers and I took note of the bald sexism. We saw this as a reminder of how vulnerable we are, that it is only a matter of time before the sites we use are next or we ourselves are arrested, and we watched as the country decided working men are worth speaking up for but the rest of us are not. Not the women. Not the whores.
6. Among those arrested in the Rentboy raid was Hawk Kinkaid, a lovely, kind activist I’ve met once or twice. In the wake of the bust, some people began sharing his post on sex workers’ roles in advancing gay rights. The piece ran on Tits and Sass, a site for and by sex workers that I co-founded in 2011, at which point I’d been a sex worker for seven years.
Hawk’s personal history was cited by the DHS in light of the bust. They pointed to interviews in which he identified as a prostitute and claims he referred to Rentboy as part of “the sex industry.” In the $pread anthology, Hawk contributes a sensitive reflection on his emotional state while working (and not working.) He writes, “Like everyone, I wanted not only to be adored, but to be important to someone.”
7. I don’t want to work as an escort anymore, but I continue to see a few clients for financial reasons. I’ve fallen in love with a man I hope will become my husband. I never wanted to get married to someone before, so this is a novel experience for me. Also new is the desire to have sex with only him. Physical intimacy wasn’t something I was sentimental about in the past; monogamy was not my natural orientation. To now be governed by these somewhat conservative urges excites me. It feels beautiful and pure to be devoted to him so completely in every dimension.
Allowing men access to my body wore thin before I met the man I’m in love with. But since being with him, it is an increasingly unappealing situation. When I work, no one tries to cause me pain or discomfort; I am not asked to participate in anything unusual or harmful. If something physical happens, I endure it, it ends, I’m ok. I just want it to stop soon. I want this chapter of my life to be over. But if “this chapter” is understood to be earning income through any labor as opposed to specifically earning income through sex, I will have to wait many years for it to end.
8. A few years ago, an editor emailed Tits and Sass looking for a New York City escort to write a piece about the city’s hotels. He admitted he was unclear about what exactly his publication wanted, and I told him I would not write something titillating, along the lines of “this hotel is CRAWLING with hookers.” We batted back ideas about a specific angle, and eventually he mentioned he wanted anecdotes involving clients, which I flat-out said I would not do. He backpedaled, while continuing to shoot down my suggestions.
Our exchange nosedived to its conclusion when he mentioned doormen and mattresses, and other “things that would be specific to my line of work.” For me, there was nowhere to go with the knowledge that he imagined me nervously eying hotel staff every time I entered a lobby, petrified of being thrown out on my whorish ass, or making mental notes about wallpaper while bouncing up and down over a businessman. When I said he had expectations about my experiences that didn’t align with reality, he responded we had “different visions” for the piece. But “vision” is not how I’d describe the force behind stories catering to what non sex workers imagine happens on the job.
When I told this story to the man I love, I felt shame flooding me at the point when I’d said too much to stop yet hadn’t gotten to the worst part. I realized I made a mistake; I didn’t want him to hear about this. I started sharing because I was trying to explain what it feels like to pitch and write while I know this is what editors really want to run, what readers want to read. How thoroughly degraded and humiliated I felt by the email exchange. And how I felt that way all over again, talking now about hotel mattresses, about how this stranger saw me and what he asked of me, how other strangers might see me. How he himself, this man I loved, might see me regardless of everything else I am.
9. I’ve spent only a short amount of time throwing myself into networking and pitching and attempting to jump-start a career as a freelancer. But already, on multiple occasions, I’ve thought it would be less degrading to keep selling sex.
I’m not making a comment on how alienating or exploitative it is to sell labor, period, or talking about how people mistakenly focus on sex work as having a high potential for mistreatment while giving a pass to so many low-paying jobs. I’m thinking about the way most people in media think of sex workers, the type of content they find acceptable to run and solicit, and how they respond to criticisms about the real harm that these pieces do to all the people trading or selling sexual services. Stigma’s effects are active; almost all media is complicit in further entrenching and normalizing it. This is all a way of saying selling sex may be the career that allows me to keep my integrity, if selling my writing proves to make self-respect impossible.
10. The first time I performed sex work I was 20 years old. I used dating sites to try to find a sugar daddy situation like the ones detailed in the GQ article. I wasn’t in New York, which that made the search harder. When I finally found someone who seemed like a good candidate, I traveled there at my own expense to meet him. I was so naïve.
What happened could have been worse, much worse. But it wasn’t good. I’ve still never written about it, only told some sex-working friends when our conversation turned to how sex work itself has hurt us. We don’t say this much publicly because it will only be used against us and others like us to drown out everything else we say. In the court of public opinion, conveniently, some of what we say is truer than the rest. Or rather, some of what we say about our own lives is relevant but most is not.
I remember sitting in the train station afterwards, too cold in my dress, feeling like I had failed at something and yet been subtly transformed in the mere attempt. Not substantially—I wasn’t a different or lesser me than I had been that morning. But it was like having a neck tattoo. I’d broken a barrier that could not be restored. This would be with me forever.
11. The root of contemporary feminist antipathy towards sex work concerns male entitlement. Thus it seems ironic to me that you can’t talk about the needs of people who sell sex without a self-identified feminist demanding that men who buy it occupy equal space in the conversation. You can observe this in the insistence of those who opposed Amnesty International’s vote in support of decriminalization. They maintained the proposition enshrined the “right” of men to buy sex, when in fact the policy centered the safety of those who sell.
In this mentality, sex work, specifically prostitution, is seen as the logical culmination of all other commodification/commercialization of female sexuality and physicality. It’s a loose chain that starts with Axe ads and the “Blurred Lines” video, links to Hooters restaurants and Girls Gone Wild, and terminates in massage parlors, full-service Vegas bachelor parties, the infamous scene from Requiem For a Dream. The end point is men using women’s bodies for their own sexual pleasure, violently or at least callously. Men consume, women are consumed. This engineered universe circumvents consent by erasing the possibility of no; men are never confronted with denial of sexual gratification because there are endless outlets through which they can purchase it. Money, the story goes, gives the men irrevocable sexual license.
This is a terrifying state of affairs. It’s such a convincing nightmare that merely summarizing it leaves me momentarily paralyzed. And I know that the same emotional reaction swims underneath most feminist contemplation of the sex industry, particularly when they are confronted with a microcosm of it in the form of one night out at the strip club or a conversation with an elderly rich man who rents his girlfriends. We are all acquainted with malicious men who revel in their privilege. Catching a whiff of one can deliver us into hopelessness.
But here are some other things I know. Laws against sex work are used to control and punish already marginalized women. They are tools for enforcing poverty and state violence. Prostitution is illegal, and rape is still rampant and unpunished. Furthermore, male sexuality does not thrive on violence; it often gravitates toward tenderness and connection. Men are not monsters just because they’re paying, and the men who pay for it are beloved husbands and fathers and sons. Women can successfully subvert systems that would destroy us, but doing so never entails demonizing another group of women in the process, or treating those women as disposable clowns.
12. I don’t want to write about sex work anymore. Every time I start another piece on the topic, I feel as if I’m weighing my pockets with stones and standing before a river. Cementing myself into a one-trick (no pun intended) pony. I want to be known as a writer, not a prostitute. Not because I’m ashamed of my past but because there’s no good reason for my past to eclipse my future. I want to write books on different subjects, in different genres. I want editors to approach me for high-paying profiles, interviews, reviews, and personal essays in which I’m never required to talk about my history of selling sex. This may be the most outlandish dream I could have, but its improbability doesn’t make it any less dear to me.
13. I keep writing about sex work because I keep seeing media that denigrates those who perform it and those who perform or have performed it constitute most of the important people in my life. On whatever level I am personally hurt or afraid, there is always a much larger part of me, even closer to the surface, which rages on behalf of my friends. Though painful, this is clarifying. It reminds me that my principles matter more than professional success in this arena. I think about sex work, the work I emphatically no longer want to do, and I feel grateful that I have it as an option in case the complicity demanded in media becomes unbearable.
14. When I started writing this piece it was because I thought, I know the emotional process that allows women to hate other women for selling sex. If I articulated it, maybe I could disarm it. I thought I could empathize with and therefore evoke change in those who can’t or won’t interrogate their own aversions. I ended up with a list because didn’t know how to fashion an inviting introduction to an essay addressed to would-be peers who despise me. I didn’t know how to disguise how much I, consequently, despise them.
15. I present well enough now that some people incapable of respecting sex workers will treat me nicely to my face. At least four editors I’ve worked with shared the GQ piece approvingly, calling it a masterpiece. Brodesser-Akner defended herself against criticism by saying the women in the piece didn’t identify as sex workers, as if that meaningfully counts as a defense.
Hawk writes, “There must be a reminder that who we are is worth more than the world’s ignorance would have us believe.” My reminder is that I come from the club that produces writing like this, instead of articles that revel in misogyny and scorn. My reminder is that it may feel safer but is never better to laugh and call someone deluded instead of recognizing we are all making compromises to live our best life in a hard world. She’s the dumb one, I’m the smart one. She’s the lazy one, I’m the hard-working one. It’s easy to despise someone for not having more power, or for not responding to their powerlessness the way you think they should. It’s easy to embrace the idea that some people deserve to be exploited by virtue of who they are, or that they’re already less human than you by virtue of being more vulnerable. It’s how I feel about jokes about sex workers being molested: thank you for mining my life “in search of reasons for my vileness.” Tell me more about why I’m pathetic, and you’re definitely not.
In the conclusion of the GQ article, Brodesser-Akner writes, “You can tell yourself whatever story you want, and eventually you forget you’re telling a story and you’ll find yourself in the parking lot of a Pizzeria Uno getting sucked off by someone who thinks she’s getting the better end of the deal. And she’ll give you that blow job, all the while wondering how she could get so lucky.” Like “luck” and “wonder” are the dominant thoughts in the head of any woman trying to pay her tuition. Like she, in her disdain, could manage any insight into what that other woman thinks, or feels.
Charlotte Shane is a writer living in New York and tweeting from @charoshane. Her TinyLetter is famous among those who love emotions and long emails.
Illustration by Jim Cooke