So Your Character Is a Sex Worker…

I read a lot of romance novels, particularly queer romance novels, since the publishing companies I copyedit for primarily publish those sorts of books.

I also go through phases where I read a lot of fan fic in my spare time, the highly erotic, kinda weird stuff that people usually have in mind when they say “fan fiction” with derision in their tone.

I’ve learned a lot of things from both of these activities, but one has been standing out a lot this week: people are very, very interested in sex work despite clearly not knowing anything about it.

So, to all the authors who decide to include a sex worker in their novels, let me give you a few tips based on my experiences.

My very first avatar on my sex work Twitter, and now my favorite picture of myself. Not the best branding though…

Stereotypes hurt.

The LGBTQ community is (rightfully) critical of gay men in fictional media who are portrayed as flamboyant or “feminine” for humor, just as the black community is (rightfully) critical of black female characters who basically function as nonstop sass machines.

So too am I, and other sex workers, critical of media featuring either a drug-addled, uneducated street walker or a character who feels shame and misery after being compelled into sex work during hard times.

All of these are stereotypes. Sure, flamboyant gay men exist, as do black women who are quite sassy, and some sex workers are homeless and addicted to drugs or do feel shame about what they do. And, sure, you can write about any of these if you so choose.

But do you really want to be perpetuating harmful stereotypes, contributing to the problem of straight people thinking of gay men as jokes for their entertainment, of a white person dismissing a black woman’s anger as “sass,” or of politicians conflating sex work and trafficking and passing laws that hurt us all? Think about that before you start writing.

Sex work is not trafficking.

Speaking of conflating sex work and sex trafficking: don’t. I’m not going to go into detail here, since many experts have argued this point more effectively than I could, but seriously: don’t.

A lot of sex workers are members of marginalized groups.

Consider some of the benefits of sex work. You choose your own hours and your own rates. You are your own boss: you can’t be fired, and you set your goals and rewards. I can keep going, but for the sake of time and space, let’s just focus on these.

Now consider what groups of people benefit most from these.

Choosing your own hours? Single parents (who have to schedule their day around childcare); people who are disabled, mentally ill, or chronically ill (whose ability to work varies a great deal depending on how their health is on any given day).

Choosing your own rates, setting your own goals and rewards? People who are underpaid and overlooked in the traditional workforce, like women and people of color.

You can’t be fired? The LGBTQ community, particularly the trans community. (Remember that in many states, sexual orientation and gender identity are not protected classes. You can be fired for being gay or trans, and employers can refuse to hire you in the first place.)

Certain members of marginalized groups find it difficult, if not impossible, to succeed in a traditional work environment. As a result, they choose sex work, where they have more flexibility and control.

Sex work is just work—really.

You have good days and you have bad days. You have coworkers or customers/clients you like and others you hate. Really, if you ignore the sex and potential nudity—hard to do for many, I know, but just go with me here—it literally is just like any other job.

I read a novel the other day where one character said to a sex worker something like “You have to admit your job isn’t like a day at the office,” and I thought Really? It isn’t? Because it kind of feels like it is.

There’s a part of every evening where my wife and I whine to each other about not wanting to work the next day. “I don’t want to [do this one task] tomorrow,” she’ll say, and I’ll always answer, “Yeah, I don’t want to edit tomorrow,” except for Wednesday nights when my reply becomes “Yeah, I don’t want to film tomorrow” (Thursdays are my porn-filming days).

That’s how it feels for me. Interchangeable with any other type of job. That’s how it feels for a lot of sex workers.

And as for the whole exploitation aspect… I don’t feel like I “sell my body” any more than a construction worker, or a member of the military, or the retail workers who aren’t allowed to sit while they cashier. I feel a hell of a lot less exploited now than I did as a college adjunct instructor or a marketing copywriter.

We’re all being exploited in this late-stage capitalist society, sex workers no more so than anyone else. That’s just, unfortunately, the reality, and sex workers are very well aware of it and use it to their advantage.

A lot of sex workers are in relationships—and our partners are fine with what we do.

The “no one will love me because I’m a sex worker” trope makes me rage. This is mostly because of the implication that sex worker equals unlovable, but it also just doesn’t fit with the reality that I know.

Most of the sex workers I interact with on a regular basis are married or in long-term relationships. And not only do their spouses and partners know what they do for a living, but they support them! I know, crazy, right?

I consulted my wife before I started filming kink videos, and she encouraged me to do what I wanted to do. She encouraged me to keep going when I felt dejected about failures or slow periods. She helps me respond to difficult customers. She even donned a strap-on while being my cameraman for a few early videos.

Sure, there are still a lot of sex workers who are single and unhappy about that—and others who are single and happy about that—but that’s true of non-sex workers as well. I haven’t noticed any difference in the ratio of partnered to unpartnered between sex workers and everyone else.

Sex work isn’t easy work for the dumb and unskilled.

Acting. Makeup and wardrobe. Photo lighting and photography. Camerawork and filming. Video, photo, and sound editing. Marketing. Web design. Graphic design. Copywriting. Social media. Customer service. Data collection and analysis. Public relations. Working knowledge of copyright law, contract law, computers and IT issues… Again, I could keep going, but hopefully you get the picture.

Especially for independent sex workers—which make up the majority of sex workers—this shit ain’t easy.

You think an escort just has to lie there and get fucked? To even get to that point, they have to get a client, which requires branding and marketing know-how, plus advanced conversational and social skills.

You think cam models just log on, masturbate, and get paid? Ohhhh no. They spend hours online attracting viewers to their rooms, cultivating a repertoire with their audience, keeping their viewers engaged, and converting casual (non-paying) viewers into customers who like them enough to tip.

Even if some sex workers don’t have a formal education—although many of us do, and have at least one college degree—they aren’t stupid. They have tons of self-taught knowledge, a business mindset, and a natural drive and ability to succeed. If they didn’t, they’d have failed and quit in their first month.

They’re also, hands down, some of the most creative people I’ve ever met. Just saying.

Research is important.

Above all else, if you’re going to write about a sex worker in your novel, do some fucking research about the world of sex work. Learn the language. (For example, “prostitute” is considered by many to be as good as a slur now. The term is “full-service sex work,” or just “full-service” or “FSSW.” The term “porn star” is starting to go the same route too, by the way.) Visit the sites sex workers use. Talk to actual sex workers or read their interviews or what they’ve written.

Every time I have to read about a pro-Domme texting clients regularly after a session to make sure they aren’t coming without permission (clients pay for a session, the end—do you want to be doing work you aren’t getting paid for?) or an independent cam girl getting paid by the minute just to be online (L O L the 300,000+ models on MyFreeCams wish) or a mega-popular porn performer being glad they got doxxed (“thank goodness all my fans, including the violent and deluded ones, know who I am and how to find not just me but my whole family,” said no one ever), I die a little more inside.

Treat sex workers like people when you write about them: worthy of respect (not pity), interesting and unique, fully three-dimensional and dynamic characters rather than tired stereotypes and laughable cliches.

And I promise you, it’ll make your stories more compelling too.

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