My girlfriend just got into sex work; does this mean we have to be non-monogamous? | I'm Poly and So Can You
My girlfriend and I have been together for a little over a year, and by far it's the happiest, healthiest relationship I've been in. When we first got together she mentioned that she was thinking about doing some sex work on the side, mostly webcam work and occasional sugar babying. I'd never dated a sex worker before, but I trust her to make good decisions, and it's her body, her choice. What I DIDN'T take into account was whether or not I'd feel jealous about her interactions with other men (I'm a straight guy). She started seeing clients about two months ago, and I've been struggling. We're otherwise monogamous, and recently she suggested opening up the relationship - allowing ME to see other people - to help ease my jealousy. But the only person I want to be with is her. If my girlfriend's a sex worker, is monogamy impossible? Help!
First of all, reader, I want to sincerely thank you for your efforts in trying to be the best ally to your sex worker girlfriend as humanly possible. Because of how society socializes our men, most are trained via mainstream media and relationship modeling to see women as property devoid of sexual agency and autonomy...even if subliminally. These reflexes often rear their ugly heads when women in monogamous relationships set out to do sex work that has them interacting with other men in intimate ways, albeit it under a transactional umbrella.
Because there is an ever-increasing void of information and resources for partners of sex workers (thanks SESTA-FOSTA, you oppressive piece of legislative garbage), it's not as if you can turn to your "How to Be The Best Partner to a Sex Worker" manual or discussion group for advice. Plus, not many mental health professionals are savvy enough to help their clients through issues pertaining to sex work. More often than not the therapist carries an assumption that a sex worker is intrinsically a “damaged” person who needs help, and will try and convince their partner that the sex worker needs to be "cured" in order to save the relationship. With seemingly nowhere to turn for guidance, it's tragically common to feel both helpless and isolated in your struggle
Now, onto your question: No, you absolutely do NOT have to be non-monogamous to be in a relationship with a sex worker. You do, however, need to genuinely be able to distinguish between and accept 1. The authentic intimacy you two share, and 2. The intimacy your girlfriend performs as part of her work.
Here are some strategies to practice to help you and your girlfriend through this transitional period with as much compassion, patience, and kindness as possible:
TALK ABOUT YOUR JEALOUSY. I referenced male socialization earlier; another symptom of the toxic culture scripts men are raised on is the reflex to "bottle up" one's emotions (because emoting is seen as "feminine" and therefore inherently "weak", etc etc). Fight this urge with every fiber of your being. The more often you acknowledge your emotions, the less scary (and more surmountable) they'll seem. Plus, men who admit their vulnerability are sexy AF. Just make sure when you're discussing your feelings with your girlfriend, that you're using "I" statements and not "blaming" her for your strife. DON'T say, "The way you talked about your client yesterday made me feel ______." DO say, "When you told me your client was handsome, I felt _______." No one can MAKE us feel anything without our consent.
Figure out where your boundaries are around what you want to know, what you need to know, and what you don't. A knee-jerk reaction to knowing your partner is a sex worker is to request a "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" (DADT) arrangement, assuming that if you don't hear the dirty details of your partner's work you'll be less likely to be jealous. Trust me, this RARELY works. Our minds are incredibly capable at conjuring up worst case scenarios at a moment's notice, and all that practicing DADT will do is give you more motive to imagine outrageously fictional circumstances your girlfriend could be engaged in. It shrouds the relationship in mystery and increases the feeling of emotional disconnection and detachment between partners.
Now, this doesn't necessarily mean that your girlfriend has to tell you EVERYTHING about her work; for example, there's a big difference between coming home and telling you that she had a really great time with her client versus coming home and raving about how big her client's cock was. But you SHOULD know what kinds of intimate activities she's engaging in with clients so that you two can negotiate - or renegotiate - sexual safety, how she's keeping herself physically and emotionally safe (does she screen her clients ahead of time? where does she see her clients? how does she advertise her services? does she have other sex worker friends to confer with and unload on? etc), AND what you can do to support her on a daily basis.
Do your research and educate yourself about sex work. Read op eds written by sex workers, consume radio and podcast interviews of sex workers, form a keen understanding of the issues presently impacting sex workers...ESPECIALLY before SESTA-FOSTA goes into effect. Seek them out, listen to them, believe them. The more you familiarize yourself with the nuances of the work, the less foreign the work will seem to you - AND the more you and your girlfriend will have to talk about. As per your situation, I recommend following the voices of Siouxsie Q, Tina Horn, Lorelei Lee, Maxine Holloway, and Lola Davina.
Identify kinds of intimacy that are exclusive to what's shared between you and your girlfriend and let them ground you. I love telling the story of how I attended an event a few years back and met someone I wanted to have casual sex with. The person was partnered but in an open relationship, and when I asked them what their boundaries were, they said, "The only thing I'm not allowed to do is get kissed on the forehead; that's something I reserve for my partner." I almost melted from the sweetness of it, and had no problem whatsoever abiding by that boundary. So, based on the reality of what your girlfriend offers to clients (i.e. understand that it's probably not reasonable to request that she doesn't engage in oral sex with other people, etc), work together to isolate some things that you request remain "special" and unique to the intimacy you two have. When you feel your jealousy start to surge, calmly reflect on all of the ways that you get to love on your girlfriend that her clients don't.
Purchase The Jealousy Workbook and regularly carve out time for both the solo and the partnered exercises. It's not specific to sex work, but it's one of the most effective physical tools I've come across for acknowledging one's jealousy, forming a relationship with it, and processing through it in healthy ways.
Remember, your girlfriend is new at this, too! Every time you feel frustrated, exasperated, or disappointed - perhaps your girlfriend forgot to call you to tell you that her appointment was running long, or accidentally overshared the details of a session - remind yourself that this is literally her first rodeo. Instead of taking it out on her or internalizing it to mean that the relationship "isn't working", take a deep breath, practice some self care, and continue to cultivate patience, kindness, and compassion.