In a season one episode of Donald Glover’s hit TV show Atlanta, the female protagonist, Van, meets up with an old friend for dinner. While the friend has led Van to believe that they’ll be enjoying a private meal, it’s not long before the women are greeted by two men. One is Van’s friend’s boyfriend, and the other is the blind date Van’s friend nonconsensually arranged for her. We watch Van struggle, irritated, to adjust to the unexpected presence now draping an arm over her shoulder and telling her how beautiful she is, all the while feeling obligated to tolerate the attention. Sitting in bed with my boyfriend, I cringed and hissed audibly as the action unfolded.
“I’ve never been set up on a blind date,” I grimaced, “But she should at least be getting paid for that shit.”
It doesn’t take a whole lot of empathy for most of us to put ourselves in Van’s shoes. Many of us have been placed in a situation where we’ve felt the responsibility to perform intimacy, either out of politeness, regard for the other party’s feelings, or commitment to a greater agenda. It can feel forced, strained, exhausting and uncomfortable. Now, imagine that the person you’re stuck performing intimacy with is a different gender than the one(s) you are attracted to. Then imagine that the performing of intimacy has to extend to interacting sexually with that person. Oh, and it has to be 100% believable as an authentic connection.
Sounds like a bit of a nightmare, am I right? For many sex workers, heterosexual or queer, it’s just another day at the office.
“When I worked for an escort agency, I would frequently get calls for two-girl shows, or to work with couples. It’s something that a lot of people are interested in, but it has a high price,” says Zoey, a South Carolina-based escort in her late twenties who identifies as straight. “At the agency I actually would go on two-girl shows with my good friend. We are both straight but we had the act down. We worked well together, and it was always good to hang out and get paid. We could talk before and come up with a game plan. We both hated performing oral sex on other women, so we had a way of faking it so it still looked authentic.”
“When I work with couples, it is about as awkward as you would expect,” says Zoey. “I would say many women in couples are doing this for the guy. There is a lot of exaggerating reactions and responses. You can kind of read each other. I do not really like it, but I will do it. I hate to lose a good client over not wanting to do a two-girl show. I pretty much won't eat another girl out for more than a few seconds. I will try to play with her breast. I will let her eat me out if she wants. I don't care for it, but I don't mind it, either.”
Blake is a twenty-three year old gay male escort who occasionally goes “bi for pay” when a male client wants to hire him to have a threesome with him and a woman, otherwise known as a request for “MMW.”
“When I get MMW scenes, it's almost always faux intimacy between the female coworker and I. The woman is usually also an escort, and we fake the sexual parts when we can. I really have no interest in women sexually. Afterwards we usually joke about it and talk about how convincing a performance it was.”
While many sex workers find the performative nature of their work challenging, others are able — and game — to create actual connections with their clients, discovering common ground on which to build real intimacy. In some cases workers even derive sexual satisfaction from the paid encounters.
Nico is a San Francisco-based escort in his early thirties. He identifies as a queer pre-op trans man and undergoes dramatic gender transformations for work. He’s no stranger to having orgasms with his clients.
“I frequently go ‘straight for pay,'” he explains. “I do not engage in paid activities with cisgender women or other female-bodied folks. I mainly engage with straight or ‘downlow’ cisgender men. This includes shaving my body, wearing women's clothing, referring to my genitalia by female terms, using a voice that is higher than my current natural voice, and occasionally wearing makeup.”
“My level of connection varies. There are some people I genuinely enjoy spending time with, who satisfy me on enough intellectual levels that it makes the play-acting as female unimportant. Otherwise, my goal is some level of sexual satisfaction. I totally get off with clients. I’m on testosterone, and the male hormones have changed my sexual responsiveness in various ways, most notably the speed with which I can reach orgasm if my dick is pressed up against another body while being fucked. I have very sensitive and responsive anatomy, and very much enjoy getting off with clients.”
Domme Danielle is a pansexual dominatrix operating out of Denver, Colorado.
“If I feel the desire to have an orgasm during my session, I do,” she explains, “At first, years ago, I felt guilty for allowing myself to receive pleasure, but that had nothing to do with being a sex worker and had all to do with being raised Catholic. Since having done the psychological work around religious oppression and shame, I no longer feel guilty for receiving pleasure. I have both emotional and physical intimacy with my clients, and how deep they want to go — either emotionally or physically — is the space in which we interact. I get off emotionally from the power, trust and expression that are exchanged in my sessions.”
In some circumstances, sex workers who are not authentically attracted to the gender of their clientele will find strategic ways to insert other workers they are attracted to into the negotiated sessions. For example, when I’m dating or hooking up with another sex worker, I’ll be sure to take advantage of the relationship and market the two of us as a duo, emphasizing how “hot” we are together. Having multiple providers in a session can lessen each individual provider’s burden to constantly engage with the client, and can also add a layer of levity and real sexual fulfillment to a scene that would otherwise be entirely performative.
Carmen is a 36-year-old Canadian dominatrix and sensual masseuse. She identifies as a lesbian whose client base is exclusively male, so she regularly performs as bisexual.
“I occasionally do a duo or group session with other female workers. I work with some amazing people and I have a genuine connection with them. The sexual parts are still performed to some degree, but they are people I would be — and have been — sexual with outside of work, so it is a lot more fun and authentic than doing a solo session with a client.”
There are a number of hurdles inherent in extending ourselves emotionally, as sex workers, to perform intimacy in situations that would often be foreign, comical or threatening if we decontextualized them. Aside from the exhaustion and potential burn out, there’s the fact that many of us shove ourselves back into the closet to work. Under a Trump presidency, the need for strength in visible queer numbers has never been higher, yet many LGBT sex workers feel as though they can’t be transparent about their true identity without compromising their income.
“I would prefer to be open about being a lesbian [in my sex work], but I know that the clients want to believe that we have a ‘real' connection and that I am genuinely attracted to them — or at least have the potential to be,” says Carmen, “I’ve never been in the closet in my everyday life. I don't like lying. But it’s very much a customer service job, and most of the time the client just wants to feel special. It feels like any other sales position, but with much better pay.”
Cricket is a sensual masseuse in San Diego, California. She is in her early twenties and identifies as a lesbian.
“The hardest part about putting on a charade for clients is remaining depoliticized,” she laments. “I became extremely politically active in college, and my queer identity is a huge part of that. I largely run in intersectional feminist circles, and I have a low tolerance for misogynists. I used to do webcam modeling and had a sizable online presence. I would advertise my shows on social media, but I’d alternate between posting photos of my butt or boobs with posts about current events, and I received a lot of flak for it. Guys sent me messages telling me, ‘Stop pretending you have a brain and just do what you’re good at,’ and calling me a ‘dyke’ if I didn’t respond to them, shit like that. I didn’t want to create this whole oblivious straight girl disguise, but I needed to keep the money coming in.”
In 1994, Hima B. directed and produced a documentary called Straight for the Money that profiled a number of exotic dancers in San Francisco who were queer-identified while predominately servicing male clientele. Hima had been working as a stripper for a little over six months when the idea came to her.
“I didn’t identify as a ‘sex worker’ back then — that was still a new term that was making the rounds. I just knew that I was a stripper, not a prostitute, and I was fine with that,” Hima said, “I got involved in fighting for labor rights pretty early on. The club management started charging the dancers fees to work, which was — and is — illegal, and I found that the queer strippers were the most outraged. Here’s this very heterosexual workplace with such a high percentage of queer workers. Most of the straight dancers didn’t care. We were able to step outside the patriarchal framework and recognize our rights. I don’t think it was a coincidence. Queer women, we’re constantly questioning what it means for men to control our bodies. We became natural allies.”
I was particularly fascinated by Hima’s own sexual identity, an identity she says was directly impacted by her work in the sex industry.
“I was newly out as bisexual when I started dancing,” she remembers, “And I definitely became more dyke-identified over the course of me working. I just felt myself getting increasingly disgusted by men. I actually felt bad for the straight girls — I couldn’t imagine having to cater to men all day, and then go home to a man at night. Once I left the industry and continued my life outside of it, I felt myself sliding comfortably back into a bisexual identity. This was a pretty common trend with the queer women I worked with. A lot of the girls in the documentary, you watch it and see a bunch of hardcore dykes. Now, many of them are married to men.”
In the queer community, there’s a thinly veiled distaste expressed for straight women who cry “lesbian” to thwart a man’s unwanted advances. We’ve all seen lithe young college girls’ eyes widen in panic at the approach of a would-be suitor, their hands fluttering out to grasp a friend’s elbow in mock affection, their shoulders shrugging dramatically as they exclaim, “Sorry, I would totally be down, but I’m gay!” In my experiences as a stripper, I saw many straight dancers turn down “extra services” — whether a proposition for a handjob in the VIP room or a request to go out to dinner — with this same excuse.
“I’m sorry, but my girlfriend just wouldn’t approve!” they’d pout, making a show of checking out another dancer’s ass as she walked by for emphasis.
I couldn’t help but have more empathy for my sex worker sisters in these instances than I’d ever had for those club-hopping collegiates. I wondered, especially after hearing Hima’s account, how many of those women may very well be legitimately wrestling with their formerly strong desire for men. After all, the sex industry doesn’t exactly bring out the best in men. There’s a certain societal entitlement that men already feel around having access to women’s bodies. Put them in a situation where they have to pay for that access — or a situation where that access it outright denied — and it often brings out the worst in them. So how many women slip the identity of “dyke” on in sex worker spaces not just for perceived protection or defense, but because they find themselves legitimately growing less attracted to masculinity as a gender expression?
Hima also witnessed a lot of varied coping behavior from the other queer dancers at her club, and not all of it was healthy.
“Finding and maintaining community was essential,” she says, “Having a support network of friends who had context for the work you were doing and the things you were experiencing was really important. A lot of these girls were battling multiple demons, though. You had your internalized whorephobia — your girls that were already going ‘straight for pay,’ and also had a lot of deep-rooted shame and stigma about being a stripper on top of it. There was a lot of self-medication going on with drugs and alcohol. Substances are so readily accessible in the sex industry, and abuse of those substances so anticipated, it was hard to avoid it. Some girls got sober later on, and some didn’t.”