Dating With a Past in Sex Work
Last summer when I got married I wore a white lace dress, donned a flower crown, and held a bouquet. I was the picture of a traditional bride — but for my half-sleeve tattoo, and my provocative history. Before my husband and I met, I worked on and off as a stripper through college, and then as a call girl on Craigslist for a brief stint when I was in grad school. In 2007, I quit sex work for good to become an elementary school teacher. Then, in 2010, I lost my teaching career after the New York Post put me on blast for writing and sharing stories about my sex work past.
In other words, like many potential partners you’ll meet — whether online, in a bookstore, or at a bar — I’ve got some baggage.
Aside from losing my career in dramatic fashion, dating was one of the toughest parts of being someone with sex work experience. Whether you’re a dancer or an escort, a porn star or a cam girl, the same questions arise: how and when to tell the person you’re dating, and then, how to manage their reaction (they always have one). “Do prostitutes really date and marry?” is an actual question some men ask. And some men think the answer ought to be no. Whether our experiences in the industry are positive, negative, or — as they very frequently are — neutral, many people paint all sex workers with the same broad brush. They’re morally corrupt, or else so emotionally and even physically damaged by their experiences as to be undatable.
Regardless of occupation, not everybody wants a committed, monogamous relationship. But I always did. Even before high school, when I met and started dating a man I nearly married, I knew I wanted the kind of “normal” family I’d never had growing up. My father, never very emotionally present to begin with, left our family just as soon as I turned 18 (I haven’t seen him since). When it came to a relationship, I was looking for the opposite of what my parents had: commitment, stability, and love.
In some ways, I found that with my first boyfriend: The first time Dave* and I went out, he brought me carnations from the supermarket where he worked as a bag boy, and we actually went out— not just to the woods to make out but to Burger King, where he paid for my meal. After our first date, he kissed me politely on my doorstep and I had the strange sensation of being filmed, as if I were an actress and we were both following the script of a very pleasant movie. Dave was, I thought, what I’d always been looking for: a guy who could look my mother in the eye.
Then, a year later, I started working as a stripper to pay for college. With this somewhat impulsive decision, my dream of normalcy felt forever compromised. To protect myself from stigma, I kept my job a secret from nearly everyone, including Dave. I eventually told him, years later, and after begging for his mercy, he forgave me for lying. More years went by and we got engaged; still, the situation lay silently between us. I knew that, deep down, he was still angry, we were both confused, and I was ashamed. Eventually, I called the engagement off.
For the next five or so years, I avoided intimacy. I met men professionally, and that was more or less it. As a call girl on Craigslist, I sold GFE, or “the girlfriend experience.” For the right price, I played the part of a partner, minus the commitment and responsibility. Similarly, besides getting paid, I got many of the benefits of a boyfriend— compliments, sex, someone to talk to — minus the emotional risk.
Relationships can be risky for anyone, but this is especially true for current and former sex workers. According to a report by the Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce, the criminalized and stigmatized nature of the industry makes sex workers particularly vulnerable to intimate partner violence. Even worse, the report found some sex workers internalized the stigma of their profession and viewed themselves as deserving of punishment and abuse from their partners.
Relationships can be risky for anyone, but this is especially true for current and former sex workers.
I was one of these women. Almost ten years ago, when I first stopped drinking and was just getting out of the sex industry, I fell into a relationship with a man who made me feel ashamed of my then-recent past. Mike* had plenty of baggage of his own, beginning but not ending with an unshakeable drug habit. “Don’t ask, don’t tell” was our policy, but as a result of tip-toeing around his drug use and my experience with sex work, our intimacy suffered. My past became a weapon he used against me; when we argued, he insinuated no one else would want to date me because of it. Like many women in abusive situations, I believed him.
It took six years, but I eventually found the courage to leave. That relationship taught me that “I don’t have a problem with what you used to do for money, just don’t ever talk about it” wasn’t good enough for me. When I started dating online, I knew I wanted to discuss my sex work past — and everything else — with anyone I got serious with. By then I’d appeared the cover of the NY Post, lost my teaching career, and established a new one as a writer.
I knew the scandal, compounded by the fact that I wrote openly about my personal life, would be too much for some men. In most cases, I saved the big reveal for the fourth date. More than once, after I explained, a look of worry washed over my date’s face. The “good” guys who conflate sex work and sex trafficking, who assume all sex work to be tantamount to abuse, felt sorry for me. Almost invariably, they concluded I must have deep-seated psychological issues that meant our relationship would never become serious. Maybe they were sorry for themselves, realizing they probably weren’t going to get laid if they didn’t want to take the relationship further.
On at least one date, though, the opposite happened: The guy was obviously titillated, drooling for details like he’d stumbled upon a living, breathing character out of a Penthouse Forum Letter of the Month. I’m not ashamed of my past, but I’m not necessarily proud of it either — and I’m definitely not looking for someone else to use it to objectify me. What had been a pleasant evening of getting to know one another turned into an invasive, uncomfortable Q&A. Instead of inviting him up at the end of the date, as I could tell he was expecting, I sent him on his way.
I’m not ashamed of my past, but I’m not necessarily proud of it either — and I’m definitely not looking for someone else to use it to objectify me.
One word of advice to men who find themselves in the situation of dating a sex worker: don’t expect to get cirque de so-laid. Sorry to disappoint: Sex work doesn’t make you sex-crazy, and it also doesn’t mean you’re necessarily adventurous in bed. I’m fairly conservative in my sexual preferences, and some men have been surprised to discover that. I have boundaries — just like anyone else.
Another recommendation to those who are romantically interested in someone working in the sex industry, or in the process of leaving it: Do not pressure them to quit. Not everybody wants to quit, and even if they do, transitioning out of sex work can be difficult. (If you are dating a sex worker, ask whether and how you should talk about their occupation with others. Sex workers continue to face discrimination in all areas of life, and sharing information about your partner’s occupation without their explicit consent can harm them. Ask what their preferences are — then respect them.)
After so many bad dates, I grew somewhat intolerant of men with opinions about my former occupation. By the time I met Arran, my attitude was that a prospective partner shouldn’t have any feelings at all about my former occupation — or the fact that I frequently wrote about it. And if he did? Too bad. Suck it up, I thought, and keep it to yourself.
Even though I didn’t give him my last name on our first date, Arran figured out who I was: I found out later in our relationship that he Googled me by our second date. Still, he stayed quiet on the subject of sex work until I brought it up. By then, I’d made it clear what I was looking for in a relationship — respect, commitment, and honesty — and he’d made it clear he wanted the same. We had great conversations and similar interests. We worked in similar fields. Our sexual chemistry was intense. When I finally worked up the courage to broach the topic of my former occupation, he put me at ease. He told me something equally personal about him, to even the playing field, and the conversation moved on.
My past, he understood, was just part of the package of dating me. On the issue of sex work, he was more or less neutral. Before we met, he leaned toward the progressive position that whatever a person wanted to do with their body was their choice; he also understood that, when it came to sex work, that “choice” could be complicated. Most importantly, he came to the conversation with an abundant awareness of all he didn’t know. He let me be the expert; at the same time, he didn’t demand that I educate him.
From my relationship with Arran, I also learned that expecting a guy to not have any feelings about my past was unrealistic. A guy could have feelings — of course he could — and we could even work through some of them together. But ultimately, it was his responsibility to deal with those feelings and not take them out on me.
With Arran, I’ve felt safe to explore my feelings and share my story, without fear of of being shamed or pressured to disclose more. And unlike past partners, he doesn’t make his hang-ups my problem. I’ve realized, too, that the men who date and marry sex workers also face shaming from others. They’re considered foolish for dating someone others wrongly assume to be incapable of monogamy; they’re called “Captain Save A Hoe”, “beta,” or “cuck,” to name a few insults for guys who are perceived to be incapable of sticking up for themselves.
But Arran and I have worked through our fears and insecurities together. In the beginning, we talked ad nauseum about how our past sexual experiences affected our present-day preferences and where some of my triggers came from, as well as issues related to disclosure. One of our more memorable fights, for example, was after I inadvertently saw a text Arran had sent to a friend I was supposed to meet for the first time the following day, “warning” this guy about my former life.
The fact that I write about it all adds whole new layer of complication. Arran believes me to be the expert in my own experience; still, when I write about him or us, he doesn’t always agree with my portrayal. But ultimately, we are both open to talking through these differences — no matter how difficult those conversations might be.
Three years later, my former occupation sometimes comes up: Something will remind me of the night I earned $1,000 for less than an hour’s work, or of a time I felt strange or unsafe on the job, and I’ll find myself talking about it. We’ll be walking through the West Village and I’ll casually point to a townhouse and mention the man I met there who couldn’t get hard; a television scene featuring sex work will come on and I’ll launch into a diatribe about how inaccurate it was.
Arran’s reactions, these days, are rarely negative. Still, sometimes I sense his anger when I bring up someone who hurt me, and on other occasions, he’ll admit to feeling insecure or jealous about my positive sex work experiences.
But these feelings don’t lead him to lash out at me or respect me any less. They’re just part of our relationship as two people with our own separate pasts, who chose to come together to share our lives with each other. The fact that my husband had an open mind doesn’t make him a cuck. It makes him a decent human being with an awesome wife — who just happens to have worked in the sex industry.
** Names have been changed*