There's a chasm between "I've thought about prostitution" and "I think I'd like to start working as a prostitute," namely the difference between wanting to make $300 an hour and wanting to suck strange dick for a living.
I'm frequently bombarded by thinkers who have no intention of becoming doers, who want my advice with no intention of putting it into practice. In a community where sex work is nominally accepted as a legitimate way to make a living, asking for professional guidance is a lazy disguise for prurient interest, so lazy that the questioners themselves often don't consider the difference. When I started working as a prostitute, I dove right in without a clue about how to do it, calling classified listings in a free weekly until I found an agency that felt like a good fit and got hired. After finding my sea legs a few months later, I set out on my own as an independent escort. It's not an impossible business to figure out, but it's nice to have some guidance, so I tend to err on the side of generosity with the would-be pros who come to me for advice, giving them the full hooker-mama treatment. It snaps them into the reality of what sex work actually is, beyond what they want it to be, and as such is a useful education even if it's rarely put into practice.
Why do you want to be a sex worker? If your answer is "I want fast money," and it often is, turn back now. There's nothing inherently unhealthy about sex work, but there's something inherently delusional about get-rich-quick schemes, and if that's what you think you're getting into, it's not a healthy career move. You might make a pile of money tonight, but that doesn't mean you'll make a cent next week, and if you let the Benjamins get to your head you'll be broke more often than you think. Working in a dungeon or massage parlor means spending six hours a day streaming TV shows before you get an hour or two of actual work; whether you're making $75 or $250 a session, it breaks down to a whole lot of nothing per hour.
Wages aside, you probably won't like your job very much. You'll probably make unhealthy choices, like not using protection, not screening, meeting clients who gave you a bad vibe on the phone, or seeing more clients than you can handle.
If you want to be a sex worker because you enjoy work that's physically and intellectually engaging, you like meeting new people and sometimes touching them, you're an exhibitionist or you like to talk dirty or you just don't take sex very seriously, you might be getting somewhere.
Sex workers need to know their boundaries and be willing to evaluate them, to know when to stand by them or change them when they're challenged. Whether you're working as a stripper or an escort or a webcam performer, you'll likely have an encounter that pushes at those boundaries. Know the difference between what you will do and what you prefer to do, what you won't do and what you prefer not to do. I have friends who give happy ending massages and don't let their clients touch them; I prefer clients who want to make out and get me off. As you consider your preferences, you might realize that working as a prostitute isn't for you, and another kind of sex work is just right. One woman I tutored told me she didn't want to be naked, dance, have any sexual contact with her clients, or see anyone else's genitals; she must have been willing to bend on the last part, because she ended up working as a domme. That, or she's cornered the market in forced chastity.
Working independently isn't for everyone. You often spend more hours screening clients, putting up ads, and answering calls than you do in session, and if you find that kind of work draining, you might prefer to work for an agency. Like any other profession, there are unscrupulous managers and jerks who will expect you to always be on call but will rarely give you work. There are others who will screen thoroughly, be considerate of your schedule, and introduce you to terrific clients. I started out working for one of the latter, but learned that I feel much safer and happier when I'm solely responsible for my screening and scheduling. I also prefer to take home all of my earnings after a session.
Female prostitutes contract HIV at a slightly lower rate than women who don't work as prostitutes, because we understand the importance of safer sex and know how to best put it into practice. Of course, there are some women out there who think they're safe because they charge $3000 for bareback sessions and see fewer clients. The choices you make with your body are your own, but the rest of us will think of you as a scab, undermining the safer practices we're fighting for. Assuming you do decide to play safely, and I hope you will, be prepared to encounter men who have a thousand excuses for why they don't want to use condoms. Yes, in 2012. Remind them that if you decide to make an exception for them, you've probably made exceptions before, and you'd be putting them at risk. Remind them of their wives at home. Be firm and be willing to walk out the door. STI transmission rates would probably be cut in half if every woman acquired the authority on safer sex that prostitutes have.
The greatest risk you need to consider is arrest. Getting arrested sucks, and it can impede your ability to enter another profession. A friend of mine got fired from her job at American Girl Place when they did a background check and found she'd been arrested for prostitution, although the charges were dropped. Because, you know, hiring someone who might have worked as a prostitute is a lot more dangerous for children than, say, instilling creepy ideas about gender and race into them in the form of heavily back-storied dolls.
Careful screening is the most important thing you can do to protect yourself from arrest and violence. The internet has made screening incredibly straightforward, and you should take advantage of the many blacklists, whitelists, and background checks that are available. Some whitelists don't require clients' real names for membership and use loose screening methods; you're better off doing most of the legwork on your own. Get to know other sex workers in your area. Having a support network feels good; it also helps you access local groups that keep members informed about problem clients and arrest patterns. Many sex workers will only see clients who have two or more verifiable references from other providers. Whatever method you choose, be consistent about using it, and contribute to the community by reporting bad clients and providing references promptly when asked. Use these tools, and trust your gut; intuition is the cornerstone of screening.
You also have to consider the stigma of being outed against your will. When I worked as a nanny, a family I'd been with for several years found out I was also working as an escort. Fortunately, they spoke with their doctor, who assured them that their daughter wouldn't catch anything from me, and with their therapist, who reminded them that I'd been an important part of their child's life and that this didn't change anything. They decided to keep me on, and didn't out me to the other family I worked for. If they'd moved on their first reaction, and if those wonderful professionals hadn't stepped in to set them straight, they could've flipped out and gotten me registered as a sex offender for life.
You need to make decisions about who should know about what you do and how you'll respond if someone else finds out. You'll find that keeping secrets from people you care about can be uncomfortable and damaging, and that honesty is often a risk worth taking.
You'll use another name as a sex worker, but that doesn't mean you'll need another persona. If you enjoy getting into character and being someone else when you work, that might be right for you. It could also make you feel like you're split down the middle. When I work, I wear deodorant and clothes with a minimal coating of cat hair; beyond that, my clients meet the same woman that my friends do. You don't need to conform to mainstream beauty standards to be a successful escort. I don't shave my pubes or armpits, and some of my clients enjoy that but most don't care. That's the strange thing about mainstream beauty standards: in the privacy of their own homes, no one's really that into them. Like anyone else, most clients are looking for a provider who's engaging, genuine, a decent conversationalist, and fun in bed.
Marketing yourself is weird. I don't know anyone who likes writing their ads. It's up to you to decide whether you want to appeal to a general audience or a niche market. Body size and ethnicity could be factors you exploit if you want to see BBW enthusiasts or race fetishists; they can also be parts of you that don't define who you are as a sex worker.
Ads that cost more won't necessarily bring you better clients. They're often not worth it. Play around with different sites until you find what works for you, and remember that you're leaving a trail when you do that will define your working identity. While no website is safe from law enforcement, pay attention to high-profile busts that target specific sites and run the other way. Unfortunately, free and inexpensive classified ads are targeted most often because there's an expectation that women on those sites will screen less carefully.
Your digital slime trail could also screw you out of other jobs. Photos of your face are good for business; they're also hard to erase once you've shifted into a career as an acupuncturist or a teacher. If you consider prostitution your profession, as many of us do, photos of your face are worthwhile. If you're just testing the waters, or think of sex work as a stepping-stone while you make your way through grad school, spare yourself that moment when a boss or colleague asks, "Don't I know you from somewhere?" It begs the question, "Why were you looking?" but it doesn't bode well for your career.
Prostitution is emotional labor, and like nurses and social workers, sex workers deal with burnout. Unlike most jobs, working as a prostitute means that you get to decide when you want a break, and it's up to you to take it. There's a common assumption that needing to take time off of sex work means your job is unhealthy; it really means that you have the sense and ability to tend to your own health in a way that makes other people totally jealous.
The stigma that follows us around forces a lot of former sex workers to denounce their careers. It's a legitimate PR move and a balm for the soul of a woman who's been told she's sick. Most often, it's not prostitution itself that makes former prostitutes feel bad-it's the judgment and shame that's been heaped on them because they chose a job that other people wouldn't choose. Half the time, we can't even complain to our friends about a frustrating day at work because they'll read our annoyance as damage. Stigma works to sever women from their own decisions, to push them into self-denial and split identities. It's the culturally acceptable equivalent of ex-gay brainwashing. It also serves to delegitimize the experiences of former prostitutes who actually encountered violence and abuse, erasing their singular, lived experiences in favor of blanket denouncement. When we become sex workers, we accept the reality of the job, with its ups and downs like any other; we should not be coerced into accepting the meanings and experiences written for us by others.
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.