Representations of sex work tend to focus on either titillation or exploitation. But for many escorts, inadequate regulation of the industry both reflects and enforces the ongoing stigma they face.
It’s a discreet building in the city, between a nightclub and a Vodafone. It smells of cigarettes, and a perfume or body spray that is plasticky and vaguely abject. There is an office, a kitchen, and a small lounge room with leather couches and a large TV. All the walls are lined with mirrors. The three receptionists (there are always three) glance up and smile as I knock on their open door. The one who takes me inside calls me ‘darling’ and ‘babe’. The endearments do what they’re supposed to do. They relax me. I’m their new best friend.
The interview questions are curt, dry:
‘Have you ever done this work before? Your height? Eye colour? Bisexual? Couples? Toys? Anal?’
I answer and they write my responses down on my profile card.
‘And can you start tonight?’
I think of the $48.50 in my bank account and say yes.
‘Do you have a name picked out?’ the receptionists ask.
I tell them. It is rejected. I give another. And another, but they are all rejected. They suggest one. I go to reject it, but they’re already writing it down on my card. I am ‘Sienna’.
‘Your old name is dead now,’ they say.
I’m no stranger to dead and new names; I’ve been collecting them for years like winter coats. Birth name, chosen name, pen name, and now escort name. Later, when clients begin asking me what my ‘real name’ is, I’ll add another fake name to the list. Ask my parents about my flair for the dramatic and they’ll tell you how I was always dressing up, I was never myself. When I was nine I begged to be sent to ballet lessons. They sent me to drama school instead, which lasted ten years longer than ballet ever would have. If I’m good at anything, I’m good at being other people.
I’ve prepared myself for being treated like a cis-woman, being unknowingly misgendered by every person I work with, by thinking of my escort identity as a role in a play. It sparks dysphoria at first, but I ease into it quickly. It’s less exhausting and safer than having ‘that conversation’ with every client. And cis women make far more money. Months into the job, often drunk, sleep-deprived and exhausted from emotional labour, I will take my makeup off and say my own name to my reflection, like a Bloody Mary incantation.
When I arrive for my first shift, Secret Diary of a Call Girl is playing on the TV. A Sex in the City box set sits on the shelf beside Pretty Woman. Two women chat and watch the show; I try and study. I gather from the conversation that one is on her second shift, and the other has been working for months. The newer one picks through her larger bag, decanting items (lipstick, a hairbrush, clean underwear) into a smaller clutch.
I give up trying to highlight snippets of literary theory. ‘What’s the worst booking you’ve ever done?’ I ask.
The more experienced woman thinks for a minute.
‘I don’t think I’ve ever really had a worst one. You find something to like about each guy.’
Too-perfectly on cue, a woman in a hot pink dress sashays in and flops dramatically onto the couch. ‘Oh my god, I just got pissed all over for an hour.’ We all make noises of sympathetic disgust. She gives a little wave of her hand. ‘He’s one of my regulars, he has pancreatic cancer,’ she continues. ‘I’ve been seeing him every week for months, and he has so much trouble getting an erection. But he’s such a sweetie, I love him.’
Often I drive past the apartment where I had my first booking and can’t stop myself from looking over at it, looking to see if the light is on, remembering with photographic detail walking up the steps and pressing the doorbell. We drink vodka with orange juice and smoke on opposite sides of the kitchen counter. I swivel anxiously on the bar stool; take note of the skulls he has as decoration (we have similar taste in décor). I tell him he’s my first client. He says I seem so confident/am I nervous/tell him if there’s anything I’m not comfortable with. I am grateful, think he’s sweet. He asks if it would make me uncomfortable if he had some cocaine. I say not at all, go ahead. He asks if I want any, then quickly adds that he doesn’t mean to pressure me but thought it polite to offer. I laugh and say no thank you. He snorts the cocaine through a sterile straw – the cash thing, he says, is a bit gross.
Realistic representations of working in the sex industry are rare. Narratives such as Secret Diary of a Call Girl (2007) and Lisa Lou’s Red Velvet: Memoirs of a Working Girl (New Holland, 2006) cater to an audience that desires titillation, exhibiting the glamour and risqué aspects of the work. The ‘secret’ and ‘luxurious’ temptations are present in the titles and the marketing; Red Velvet’s cover, unsurprisingly, matches the title, with cursive text, and a red satin and black lace garter looped around the book to up the intrigue. Secret Diary of a Call Girl’s opening title is close-up after close-up of Belle getting ready for a booking: applying makeup, rolling up stockings, putting on high heels and jewellery.
These kinds of representations rely on images of luxury and titillation to seduce an audience into a fantasy of debauchery. On the other end of the scale, there are documentaries such as Tricked (2013), exposing the darker aspects of the industry. These biographies of human trafficking survivors who were forced into the work against their will, important as they are, cater to an entirely different audience wanting entirely different narratives.
Finding a nuanced representation of the industry is difficult, primarily because sex workers are not a homogeneous group, and each sex worker has a different experience. Secret Diary of a Call Girl doesn’t show the grotesque: having sex with someone with poor hygiene, or terrible sex with someone who thinks they’re great, or the constant presence of drugs, or being covered in bodily fluids, or rude and manipulative clients (though it does show a manipulative, exploitative agent, which is far more common). And a documentary like Tricked won’t tell the stories of sex workers who love their jobs, and the nurturing relationships they create with longtime clients they have come to adore.
Finding a nuanced representation of the industry is difficult, because each sex worker has a different experience.
‘I’ve seen a therapist for years, but seeing you girls has helped me feel better than they ever have,’ a client, whose anxiety was so severe he couldn’t leave his house, told me.
Some of the most common clients are people with disabilities or illnesses that impact their sexual and/or social abilities. The arrangement allows them a safe space to connect with another person, and explore their sexual desires without embarrassment or humiliation. While this does raise the issue of men’s entitlement to sex and women’s bodies, the intimacy developed through this kind of relationship can be incredibly deep and healing, and I know of more than one escort who ended up marrying a client she met this way.
‘My brother and I play a game with each other every time we’re here,’ John says. He’s wearing cologne that smells something like leather. ‘We hide these, forget about them and find them later.’
He rummages through every drawer and bookshelf, the fridge, the phonebook, and behind the curtains. I sip my drink, mouth dry and anxious. He finds three tiny zip-lock bags and pours the powder on the black-glass table. He cuts it with his hotel key-card and then licks the residue from the plastic. I try not to think about how unhygienic that is. He does a few lines, then hands me the rolled up five dollar note. I take a smaller-looking line.
‘That’s some good shit, hey,’ John says.
‘Mmm.’ I have no idea if it is good shit or not.
Before I began escorting, I couldn’t have imagined that I would ever be in possession of so much money, or that I would be in a hotel room that had a gold, self-heating toilet seat. I’m flat with this kind of stuff – up until tonight I had not actually seen cocaine before. I decide quickly that I don’t like it; the dehydration and racing-heart affect feels more like an anxiety attack to me, and I’m already anxious enough while sober. The all-over-body dehydration is the last thing you want when you’re trying to make clients believe they’re turning you on. I keep excusing myself to dab more lube on. The job’s half-done if you can fool him into thinking you’re actually wet.
John opens another bottle of champagne, and we dance and drink and lie in the hot tub. Later we lounge in white hotel-crisp robes on leather couches, while he teaches me about betting on horses from his phone. He tells me to pick a horse; I just pick the name I think sounds the best. We don’t have sex, mostly because he’s had too much cocaine to get an erection, and he doesn’t want to wear a condom. He’s asleep on the couch by the time I leave. I shower, spray on a little of his Hugo Boss cologne, and use one of the hotel’s complimentary toothbrushes. I write him a note and leave a business card.
Things clients say to avoid using a condom:
• I’m clean, I promise
• It doesn’t feel as good with one on
• The agency said you do natural sex
• It’ll be better for you too
• It’s like wearing socks in the shower
• Don’t you trust me?
• I’ll pay you extra
• What about just for oral?
• But I’m paying you
Clients with cocaine continue to baffle me. My second night at work I see a man who spends five hours straight insisting he can get it up, while having ‘another sneaky line’ every hour or so. By the end of the booking I am exhausted, and I have been rubbed raw by his badly shaven facial hair.
‘Wouldn’t it make more sense to book the escort and have sex before getting shitfaced?’ I say to another girl in the office lounge room after seeing one such client. She’s polite enough to say nothing of my naivety.
‘It would make much more sense, for them. But don’t go telling them that, our savings accounts love the Cocaine Brats,’ she answers. ‘They usually book at 3 or 4am, when the coke’s kept them awake for hours and hours. It makes them impotent, but so horny and frustrated. Once they get an idea on coke they can’t let it go. They’re always like ‘oh stay another hour, I’m sure I can get it up,’ and you end up staying for four hours and not even having sex. It’s great, think of it as a rest for your vagina. I have gotten lockjaw a few times though…’
The next day I relay this sage information to my sister, who will start working as a stripper just as I stop escorting.
‘Men are so weak,’ she cackles.
At the interview, overwhelmed at the prospect of starting that night, I forget to ask what the cut is. No one tells me either. And no one tells me to pay my driver until I say ‘thank you’ and jump out of his car, and he yells after me, ‘Oi bitch, where’s my money?’
‘That’s what they do,’ a more experienced escort tells me. ‘They get you hooked on the money. They make more off you than you do off them. Don’t ever believe them if they say they’ve got no one else on for that night and need you to come in. It’s bullshit.’
‘Don’t ever believe them if they say they’ve got no one else on for that night and need you to come in.’
In the final episode of Secret Diary of A Call Girl’s first season, Belle leaves her villainous, smirking agent, Stephanie, to work privately. In season three, when Belle has written a best-selling book on her career, Stephanie confronts Belle for exposing her exploitative business, the main aspect of exploitation being the ‘steep cut’ Stephanie took from escorts, mentioned in the pilot episode as 40%. ‘You’ve been ripping girls off for years,’ Belle says.
My agency took 50-60% depending on the price of the booking. From what was left over they deducted a credit card surcharge, amenities (tea, coffee, water, electricity), and a driver’s fee.
When the agency decided what rate of pay I should be on, they took into account that I was blonde, young, that I was university educated, could speak another language, that I was tall, thin, shaved, dressed well, and spoke a certain way. I was lucky that all of these things meant that I was one of the highest paid escorts with the agency; I had an immense amount of privilege where a lot of sex workers did not. Asian, Brown or Black girls were ‘marketed’ as ‘exotic’. Older women received far smaller rates of pay. Women who ‘looked poor’ received even less per booking. One woman’s rate of pay for an hour was only $100.
‘It’s cause she’s on ice, you can tell by her teeth,’ the other women would say. ‘If she cared about how she looked she’d make more money.’
I spend the day after a night shift recovering, sleeping, steeping in a bath, or curled around heat packs. Being able to work one night a week and have my rent for the next month secure is far preferable to working three days a week on minimum wage, then going to class another three days, and barely making rent. This is what I tell myself as I tuck a heat pack between my legs and another on my abdomen.
Client: I’m not going to hire women anymore. I keep hiring them, spending so much money and resources to train them, and then they keep going and getting pregnant. I know it sounds sexist… but I’m so tired of it. They’re a liability.
Me: [Giving a sensual massage] Mmmm.
While balancing two twelve-hour night shifts a week with classes and sleep deprivation, my university hosts a ‘feminist’ or ‘anti-trafficking’ (but really just anti-sex work) conference titled ‘The World’s Oldest Oppression’. The uni receives buckets of backlash online, but the conference goes ahead. The premise of the conference is that ‘we must work together to save these poor, misled women from the rape of capitalism’. They do not call it ‘sex work’ but ‘prostitution’, ‘human trafficking’, or ‘rape for money’. There are no actual sex workers scheduled to speak at the conference. Around campus I see homemade-looking posters that say things like ‘prostitution is rape’ and ‘money ≠ consent’ and I feel sharp jabs of anger at the infantalisation, that someone else thinks they can decide this for me, my sisters, without asking us. At one poster I take out my pen but, suddenly too overwhelmed to actually write anything legible, I settle for scribbling over the text. When I see others have done the same I feel comforted, validated.
SEX WORK ACT 1994 (Victoria)
S.18A(1): A person must not provide or receive sex work services unless he or she has taken all reasonable steps to ensure a condom or other appropriate barrier is used if that sex work involves vaginal, anal, or oral penetration or another activity with a similar or greater risk of acquiring or transmitting sexually transmissible infections.
Penalty: 20 penalty units.
S.18A(2): A person who provides or receives sex work services must take all reasonable steps to minimise the risk of acquiring or transmitting sexually transmissible infections while providing or receiving those services.
Penalty: 20 penalty units.
S.20(1): A person must not work as a sex worker during any period in which he or she knows that he or she is infected with a sexually transmissible infection.
Penalty: 20 penalty units.
One penalty unit in Victoria is currently $155.46 in fines. Twenty penalty units are equivalent to a fine of $3109.20, or three months imprisonment.
Victoria’s Sex Work Act of 1994 should be there to protect sex workers, but the ambiguity of the 18A phrasing ‘must not give or receive’ unprotected sexual acts is problematic, particularly in the face of clients who just don’t care about the livelihood or health of the woman they’re paying. Section 20 of the Act also states that a sex worker found to be working while infected with an STI will be charged 20 penalty units. The wording of s18a(2), ‘provides or receives’, frames the client as passive rather than an active participant. He is ‘receiving’, having sex work done to him, as opposed to ‘purchasing’ or ‘participating in’ the service). It implies that clients only have a responsibility to protect themselves from the sex worker. The client does not share an equal responsibility to protect the person they hire from themselves in turn. This displaces any consequences of unprotected services onto the sex worker.
[The Act] implies that clients only have a responsibility to protect themselves from the sex worker.
The imbalance is stark: the client may get an STI and may be charged, but the sex worker may get an STI, get pregnant, be charged, lose her job, and be barred from working in the sex industry. It’s not just her health, but her livelihood, her rent, her food. This kind of client has gone to a sex worker because this way he doesn’t have to act on a false pretense. An escort is a fantasy to play out his desires on, without consequences for him. Even the use of a work name helps him to distance himself from her personhood. And those who are more likely to give in when pressured by clients to give ‘natural sex’ are those who are most in need of any extra cash they have been promised.
Anti-sex work rhetoric often centers on ‘vulnerable women’ forced into the industry, overlooking how and why these women choose sex work over any other kind of work, willingly or not; economic structures prevent people in poverty from breaking the cycle.
In Red Velvet, Lisa Lou writes about leaving her abusive husband and children, being evicted from her house and finding herself destitute and living on friend’s couches. It was the early 90s, and the recession made jobs scarce. Having been financially dependent on her husband for years, there was nothing recent on her resume that would make an employer take a second look.
An older woman in the office tells me how she works nights so she can be with her children during the day. Some of the younger women, students of journalism, psychology, medicine, tell me they chose the work for the flexibility around their classes and other part time work.
‘I’m not going to do this for very long,’ one woman tells me. ‘Maybe just tonight and tomorrow. I just need to save enough for next month’s rent because my day job isn’t giving me enough hours.’
Another tells me she works to go travelling between semesters. Another, in her mid-twenties and in for a longer haul, has almost saved enough for a house deposit. Another has been sleeping on the streets for a few days.
You don’t need any experience or qualifications to work in the sex industry, save a sexual health certificate that you can get on the same day. The agency or brothel will give you lube and condoms. You just need a body. It means that if you really need money, all you need to do is have an interview and be working that night. But it also means that you’re thrown in the deep end. There’s no training, no safety information to prepare you. Once you’ve checked in with the agency it’s just you and the client, alone for an hour.
I want to be very clear that I’m not anti-sex work. My criticisms of the industry arise from the scarcity of legal regulation that would ensure more protection from exploitation – a cap on how many hours at a time you can work at a time, how many hours you can work without a break, a cap on the percentage an agency or the like can take. It’s this laissez-faire attitude to the industry – if a woman has chosen to put herself in this position, why should we be responsible for her safety? – that contributes to the ongoing stigma and danger sex workers face.
One agency I know of, Mona Lisa Models, insists on specialised training, and offers ‘guaranteed safety, trustworthy clients and drug-free environments’. Their 3000-word employment information includes the following:
Another agency, coincidentally also called Mona Lisa Escorts, says this:
That the agencies who offer these guarantees – training, a ‘safe’ environment, strict rules for clients – are the ones who only insist on a very particular standard of class and appearance, means that those who don’t fit the mold are more frequently put in uncomfortable or dangerous circumstances; as though only women from ‘good families’ deserve higher standards of protection, hygiene and comfort.
There’s a distinct difference in the perception of sex workers depending on where they fit into the class system. Sex work is okay, fun and luxurious even, if the sex worker in question (such as Secret Diary of a Call Girl‘s Belle) didn’t have to choose the work for a lack of other options. Why is the autonomy of sex workers from poorer backgrounds considered illegitimate?
Recently, the Australian media seized on alleged drug smuggler Cassie Sainsbury’s history of sex work, exploiting this information to delegitimise her claims and further criminalise her in the eyes of the public. Sainsbury is hardly the first woman to have aspects of her past employment or sexual history be used against her. Engagement with the sex industry alone is enough to make any legal claim by a woman, particularly in civil cases, untrustworthy.
Months after leaving the industry, I find myself having flashbacks of clients I thought I had forgotten. Most invasive are the flashes that sprout up during sex with my partner. Every time it happens my appetites slip into nausea. I avoid giving head whenever I can, ask him to avoid certain words and phrases, or touching me a certain way.
Months after leaving the industry, I find myself having flashbacks of clients I thought I had forgotten.
One client thought he could hypnotise me. He’d slow down his voice and attempt a husky whisper, instructing me to feel the heaviness of my limbs, feel my ‘spaghetti arms, fall deep, deep asleep’. I wonder if he wants to fuck a corpse. I pretend to be passed-out floppy and relaxed, repeating phrases he asks me to say, faking countless orgasms. Often I wonder whether he’s ever seen a woman have a real orgasm. When he kisses he brushes his lips side to side over mine, and when he touches my breasts he grabs them and jiggles them around in a way that makes me feel like pushing him away. I am trying to stay aware of what is happening to my body. He picks my body up and twists it into different positions until it doesn’t feel like mine any more.
One client wants me to suck his fingers and get as much saliva on them as I can.
‘Make it reeeeally sloppy,’ he keeps saying.
Another thinks biting is proper conduct for oral.
One repeats, ‘Oh yeah, suckle me, suckle me,’ as he laps at and sucks and squeezes my breasts.
His daughter comes home before the booking finishes and he clumsily smuggles me out of the back door. I hear her yelling, ‘you promised you wouldn’t do it again’ as I climb into the car.
My body shrinks and curls away at reminders of clients, the intimacy and pleasure of sex leeched from me. Still there is a part of me that is nostalgic for the routine of it all; the smell of the office, the cigarettes in drivers’ cars, the paradox of intimacy with a stranger, the costume, the act, using other people’s expensive shower gels, perfumes or colognes. There is an illusion of glamour about escorting that sometimes glosses over the abject. After a few days break I can come back and slip into the familiarity and feel as though I belong in it.
When balancing uni and night work becomes too overwhelming, I decide to call the agency and tell them I’m leaving. The receptionists ask me to come in and talk about it. In the office the three of them make me a cup of tea and pile on so much flattery that I accept their offer of two weeks leave.
‘They did that to me too,’ a woman about my age says when I tell her about it. ‘I guess they get a lot of girls who are overwhelmed after their first few shifts. I ran out of money by the end so I came back. Which is probably what they were hoping for.’
The second time I decide to leave, I use a different tactic. I tell them I’m going interstate to be with my family for a few months. They still call or text every few days, so I block their number.
But I keep going back – I tell myself that I’m stronger, that I’ve learned to say no to them. I’ve had to. When a client tries to undress me before he’s paid, I say no. When he tells me to do as I’m told, I zip up my dress, tell him that I make the rules and if he speaks to me that way again I’ll leave. He hunches in shame and tips me $200 extra.
I keep going back – I tell myself that I’m stronger, that I’ve learned to say no to them.
My depression and physical pains worsen over the next few months. After spending two days bedridden, I call in sick.
‘Oh babe, we’ve already got bookings for you!’
‘I really can’t make it.’
‘Just one booking? It would mean so much to us.’
I hang up. And for an hour I continue to hang up their calls, that come through every 30 seconds. My throat dries. I turn my phone off, and when I turn it back on two hours later they’re still calling. If I open my mouth I’ll throw up. Instead, I change my phone number.
Months later they haven’t managed to track me down. I’m trying to focus on finishing my degree, an internship with a local arts organisation, and spending time with my cat and my new partner. This is my first healthy relationship in a while, maybe ever. I feel comfortable, safe. We have a quiet domesticity. It feels like exhaling and taking off your high heels after a long, stressful night.
One afternoon after class, I’m in The Reject Shop, looking for jars for the herbs I’ve been drying on my windowsill. I wander around a corner and in front of me is a woman wearing a tracksuit, glasses and her brown hair tied up in a ponytail.
‘Hey how are ya,’ she says in almost one syllable, and hurries on to the checkout.
‘Good thanks how are you,’ I answer in the same way, before I even register where I know her from: one of the receptionists.
I sit down in the stationery aisle, counting my breaths and pinching the skin of my wrist. Will she be waiting outside to ambush me when I leave? Will she ask me where I’ve been, when I’m coming back to work? I remember the rule: no talking to people from the agency outside of work. The worlds are strictly closed off from each other. So much so that I was nearly fired for having the phone number of another escort. Relief for this separation makes my breath long and steady. I buy the jars, as well as some stationery and cat toys, and go home to cook dinner with my partner. Later, we have sex and I don’t have to fake anything.