Sep 3 2016, 12:00am
Illustration by Stephanie Santillan
It was July 20, and I had just arrived at my hotel in Washington, DC. I'm a professional dominatrix, and I had set high financial expectations for this work trip.
For my own sanity, I traveled with another sex worker. While I booked appointments, my friend flipped on the Republican National Convention. We're liberals and took comfort in knowing we'd find fewer diehard conservatives in the capital during the convention.
I called an older man from Virginia who had expressed interest in booking strap-on play.
"Sam," I intoned, "what time works for you tomorrow?"
"Baby, whenever you want me," he rasped. "As long as we don't miss our next president's speech. Are you watching? This disgusting woman just stood up waving a rainbow flag, disrupting the whole thing. What a piece of work. I can't wait until America is great again! Oh, and can you wear latex?"
I was only able to continue by imagining whipping Sam to tears while screaming at him about reproductive health rights. My imagination is my favorite coping mechanism for difficult clients.
Sex workers are often asked by laypeople how they navigate emotional vulnerability under trying conditions: clients who start sentences with, "I'm not racist, but"; those who won't stop talking about the "hideous" vulvas of other providers they've seen; guys who spend the entire time you're fucking them in the ass warning that you'd better not think they're gay. These encounters represent perhaps 10 to 20 percent of my clients. Most just want someone to listen to them, including conversations about religious, political, and ethical beliefs. So what happens when these conversations take a turn that sex workers are uncomfortable with?
"It's rare that a client and I hold similar life perspectives, which can be problematic, as clients like to be agreed with," said Jaden, a genderqueer sex worker in their mid 20s, who asked that VICE not use their real name. "Often I just quietly agree with their sentiments on how poor people are 'living off the government,' or how they, in their rich whiteness, are 'discriminated against.' These opinions strike an especially personal chord, as I grew up in a poor, single parent home."
Of course, not all forms of sex work require this kind of vulnerability. But for jobs like escorting, the emotional labor can be intense. Clients seek validation, affection, approval, and release. They're purchasing intimacy, and it takes an artist to sustain a consumable, believable connection—especially if they're someone you would hasten to escape a conversation with at a party.
"I was raised Roman Catholic in a small Midwestern town," Calliope Fire, a cisgender escort in her late 30s, told VICE. "Many folks with my background end up rebelling against religion, but I never thought twice about going into sex work while maintaining a strong faith. It's caused commotion with my sex-worker peers. I never thought it would be detrimental to my work, though—many clients have strong faiths.
"I have this MILF image going on, so I tend to attract younger men," she continued. "And sometimes their distaste for not only the idea of God, but for people who believe in God is disarming. I think they assume I'm a non-believer because of my work. I also can't do religious-themed role play—it's a hard boundary that I deeply resent having pushed.
"After dealing with a particularly troubling client, I try to essentially leave my negative emotions at 'the office,'" Jaden said. "I'll usually take time to journal once I'm home; then I often talk with other sex worker friends either in person or via online forums about my experience. I was raised—reluctantly—in fundamentalism, so if I encounter a client who is particularly religious and need to work through my sensitive feelings specific to religion after working with them, I have a group of queer friends who were all formerly a part of fundamental religions that I can process with. It's very healing."
While some sex workers loathe "teachable moments" with clients, others revel in the opportunity to engage in respectful dialogues with those who initiate them.
"Every so often, I get a client who is truly open to education," Ginger Snap, a cisgender escort and porn performer, told VICE. "But I have to judge both my client and the conversation in these moments. Will it be safe or beneficial for both of us to continue this conversation, on topics so near and dear to my heart? If this person is paying me money—for a specific experience—will this conversation fall under that purview?
"I have to be wary of everything from my language to my tone," she continued. "I don't want to seem condescending, nor like I'm lecturing, and I want to keep it light and fun. This is his time—it's my responsibility to ensure it doesn't become inflammatory. As an educator, I frequently have to switch off my 'angry activist brain' in favor of a more sympathetic and impartial approach with clients. It's practically a study in being non-reactive."
It's about deciding—with intention—how vulnerable we want to be, while understanding that vulnerability is not always something we can control. Sex workers must realize that it can be hard to be vulnerable with difficult clients and even compromise the quality of our services, which leaves lasting negative impressions of our work.
Acknowledging and appreciating the clients who do seek to use sex workers to broaden their own viewpoints can be refreshing and remind us why we do the work that we do. Clients who respectfully engage in dialogues with their sex workers, especially if our opinions are mismatched, and who recognize the incalculable value we bring to the world, are incalculably valuable. Let us, as sexual professionals, seek to manifest as many of these relationships as possible.
Andre Shakti is a sex worker, educator, and writer. Follow her on Twitter.