Everett: Hi, anonymous sex worker!
Nell: Hi!! Let’s introduce ourselves. Who are you?
Everett: For the purposes of this article we’ll just call me Everett. And you?
Nell: I am a sex worker who specializes in full service escorting and girlfriend experiences. I am also a writer and an activist. And that’s how we met, isn’t it?
Everett: Yes. I should say that, before anything else, I was a victim of sexual abuse as a kid, by an extended family member. That happened at an age at which sex and sexuality hadn't really been articulated in my mind yet, in my pre-puberty years. That’s sort of the beginning that pointed us toward this present moment. I had dated to a limited degree through my adulthood—it was something that I always had trouble with.
At some point I just resolved that I had issues that were interfering with that part of my life and that I should stop. By then I’d made pretty good friends who had connections into sex work, and when I expressed my despair to one of them, she pointed me towards you.
Nell: I was sorry to hear that happened to you. A lot of people assume that sex workers were sexually assaulted as children, or otherwise abused in some way. I am happy to report that I was not. I had a pretty happy childhood, though I dealt with some pretty severe anxiety issues.
Everett: I wouldn't wish the experience on anyone. The experience of abuse was pretty profound for me, as a formative thing. It felt like the earth had been salted, so to speak. But when I hit puberty I was just like anyone else, and I still developed interests, sexually. I just had this different, damaged perspective on it; I was attracted to women but felt sort of barren. I tried to “fake it til you make it,” but it didn’t feel fair to the women I tried to date. I was too scared.
Nell: I think there's a lot of shame in our culture surrounding the idea of a person who has survived sexual assault also having sexual desires, which is unfortunate. It's almost as though we have all collectively agreed that it should shut someone down sexually—and sometimes it does, and that's OK. But it doesn't have to.
Everett: I think even when I was growing up there was this concerted effort to define rape and violence as being all about power as opposed to sex. I’m not sure to what extent that’s true, but it didn't feel true to me. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d been damaged, sexually. There's this congenital condition that children are sometimes born with—heterotaxy—in which the internal organs of the child are mixed up, in strange places. What I felt was a sort of spiritual heterotaxy, like being molested had changed me fundamentally. So when I met you I was in that state.
Nell: I was so happy you reached out to me! I think of myself primarily as a healer, and want to take clients who are seeking healing first and foremost. What sort of process did you go through when you were deciding to contact me?
Everett: Over the years it had been sort of tentatively suggested by therapists and friends, but I was never ready. And I didn’t know anyone who was in that world, so, not knowing anyone in that position to counteract it, anti-trafficking rhetoric was really dominant (for most people I imagine it still is). By that depiction, sex workers really had no agency. Exploring the idea of sex work as a client seemed predatory and wrong. So it was off-limits.
But then one of my friends not only suggested it but provided a reference. All of a sudden this became a real possible thing. I went to your site, and read what you wrote about yourself, and it was the opposite of this conception of sex work that I had been taught. So I considered it more. It took a lot for me to email you. I was scared, of going in and facing these demons, but also of being a bad person and a bad client, doing wrong.
But also, the notion of being with someone in a very controlled environment, laying out all these potential problems beforehand, working through them like a therapy session, that seemed like something that could be healing. One of the things I noticed was that you had really emphasized that aspect of what you do, the safety and healing potential of it. What drew you to that aspect of sex work?
Nell: I had been fascinated by various forms of sex work my whole life, and dabbled in phone sex, web camming and exotic dancing when I was younger. But I had always held myself back on doing full-service sex work because I had been told again and again that it was something only desperate people did. People with drug problems or who were really down on their luck. I didn’t think of it as a healing profession, because I had always been exposed to the same propaganda about it that we all are.
Something finally clicked for me when one of my partners (I'm poly) told me that he felt so relaxed and restored after spending time with me. He joked that I should figure out how to charge for it. That joke made me start to wonder. I knew instinctively that it was one of my strongest skills, healing through touch and pillow talk. I started to question just why I wasn't doing that for a living, if it's what I'm best at.
Not long after that I went to a polyamory conference in San Francisco that featured a panel of sex workers talking about how their work affected their personal relationships, and they all had mostly positive things to say. That was about 2 years ago. I came home after that and immediately started doing research on how to do sex work independently. Once I felt confident that I knew what I was doing, I launched the business and quit my day job.
Everett: Did you initially set out to focus on a more therapeutic aspect? Or was it something that you came to realize could be a crux of your work? I’d been told that sex work is largely emotional work, I imagine it must have factored in pretty early.
Nell: My first goal when I started doing this was to just try and support myself financially, and so I took pretty much every client who contacted me. I was always thinking of it as being a healing thing, but unfortunately, my early clients were not always on the same page as me about that. I discovered that this was product of the way I was portraying myself in my advertising, basically as a cliche of a horny sexpot porn star. I was just sort of riffing off how others were advertising.
When I was in a better financial position I started writing my advertising to target the type of clients I wanted, and started emphasizing healing heavily. This not only brought me more clients, but also brought me better ones. My experience is that it feels best when a client is seeking an emotional connection with me. I don't like to feel emotionally disconnected from my clients. But it's different for everyone.
As a client, did it feel safer to you to seek someone who was focused on healing?
Everett: Yes. At the time, sex wasn’t a joyous or fun prospect to me. It was something that was causing me a lot of torment, and one of the daunting prospects of going out into the world and trying to find someone who wouldn’t be alienated by that. So when I read what you’d wrote I thought that you might understand, and that I could be safe with you.
Nell: Right. I think when someone is in a situation like you were in, where you're uncertain of how a sexual experience might go for them, it makes sense to hire someone with a lot of experience. Someone who is guaranteed to be gentle and non-judgmental.
Everett: Yeah. Sex is supposed to be fun, right? But it felt like we needed to prepare ourselves for not-fun things. I did think of it in therapeutic terms. We could take the pace that we needed and weather whatever bad memories welled up without ruining someone's night, which is what I felt I would do, in any other circumstance.
Nell: In an ideal world, I feel like when you date someone, you should be able to talk about past trauma and work through that with them. But realistically, when you're casually dating people, it is a lot to put on someone's plate very early in a relationship. Which is possibly a reason that many sexual assault survivors avoid dating and sexuality. It might not be that they don't want to be sexual; it might have a lot more to do with them not wanting to burden others with their baggage.
Everett: You've been in similar situations before, I take it, with people who feel damaged in that way?
Nell: Yes, I have, though you are actually the first SA survivor I have worked with, at least to my knowledge. I have worked with disabled folks, physically and mentally, as well as queer and trans people who have felt like they didn't get a lot of recognition for their sexuality or their gender.
Everett: Do you feel like you rendered aid in those cases?
Nell: I received positive feedback in every single case. Not to toot my horn too loudly! But I wouldn't necessarily attribute it to myself so much as I would attribute to the healing power of sharing intimacy and sexuality in a partnered capacity.
Everett: I think that power is hard to overstate, frankly. I didn't know what to expect going in. And it was hard, initially. When you came over I cognitively recognized that it was safe but my body felt trapped. I felt like I could be shedding what felt like such a big part of my life, this feeling of being deformed.
I knew that it would be good for me, but I hated that child I’d been for what had happened to him. I realized that when we sat together and you took my hand. I realized that what we were about to do was split me off from this old version of myself that had this trauma in the center of his life. We would finally be different people. I would be free in a real sense. That was the promise.
So we sat there on my couch for awhile and I just had to work through that in silence for a bit and cry. And at a certain point I thought, I’ve had enough of this. From that point forward I tried to be as present as possible and to be in your hands.
Nell: Crying is a good thing! I have had a couple of clients who needed to have an emotional release, in the form of crying or sometimes just having to talk a lot about things they’re experiencing. I think of it as being exactly like a therapy session, and I am happy to be there to help someone work through their feelings. The advantage that I have that a traditional therapist doesn’t normally have is that I can use my body and physical affection to help soothe.
It’s interesting; when I show up for a session, a sort of switch flips in my head and I become fully available for the person I am with. I don’t often feel many of my own feelings during a session. Those come after. I need to do a lot of emotional aftercare to keep myself sane. I think this is probably similar to what traditional therapists go through with their work.
Everett: That’s really interesting. Crying it out was good in my case, I think. God, I was so nervous.
Nell: You weren’t any more nervous than many of my clients are when I first show up. Seriously. I think you dealt with the whole session very admirably. You seemed to really open up after crying, like you had worked through it and were ready to move forward. I wish everyone who was feeling nervous or otherwise upset felt like they could express their emotions like that with me.
Everett: You know, having been assaulted when so young my first cognizance of sexuality was sex being something that was done to someone, being about taking rather than sharing. Even growing up and knowing people in loving partnerships couldn't shake that instinctual understanding.
Nell: It can cross over the line from sharing to taking so fast.
Everett: Indeed it can. But I was surprised by the collaborative nature of actual intimacy. I had worried that being in a sexual situation would isolate me in my bad memories, that I would feel even more trapped. But your physical presence like having an advocate present against my own past.
Nell: I personally feel that one of the best ways to try and heal from sexual assault is to create new memories, good new memories of collaborative, fun, safe sex. It may not be right for everyone, but I have known many people who it has worked for. It sounds like it's true for you, too.
Everett: It is. I remember telling you that I wanted to establish a new and better frame of reference for being vulnerable with other people. And we did, but I didn't know beforehand how much would change. I didn’t even know what we could accomplish when you held me that first time and I realized what was possible. I'm not fully healed (who is?) but I no longer have that feeling of agony.
Nell: That's so great!
Everett: Yeah. I don't know when I'll be ready to pursue sex and intimacy in earnest, but I don't feel inhuman anymore, and that's liberating.
Nell: You never were inhuman, you just needed to experience human connection to be reminded. Everyone needs that.
Everett: Do you feel like our experience is atypical? We frame this in terms of sex work, but it would be easy to look at our particular circumstances and think it exceptional. And for how good our experience was we still need to be using aliases and protecting ourselves. I'm not ashamed at all.
Nell: Neither am I. And I don't think our experience is atypical. Not just for me, as I have had many other experiences similar to ours; but I've also talked to a lot of other sex workers who consider themselves healers, or even ones who don't but have sort of accidentally discovered that they are. This isn't to say that there aren't sex workers who are in really bad situations, or who don't like the work, or who are mostly doing sex work just for the money and not because they want to be in a healing profession. But it's sort of like any other job, I think. Sometimes you work at McDonald's and it's terrible, and sometimes you don't mind working at McDonald’s. Some people even like working at McDonald’s, or find a way to own their own fast food restaurant and follow their own entrepreneurial path. Sort of like me.
Everett: Right. Like we wouldn't advocate for a destigmatization of sex work just because of this specific sort of experience. We don't want to present ourselves as the legitimate exception.
Nell: That's not at all what I want to do. But I do think an experience like ours can be very challenging to people's traditional notions of what this type of work looks like. And I like to challenge those notions.
Everett: So how do we advocate for sex workers but maintain their safety? I mean we're using aliases because if we didn't we (mostly you, I would think) would be vulnerable to persecution. In Melissa Gira Grant’s book, it’s that first chapter that articulates the harm that the law and the police who enforce it can inflict on sex workers, right?
Nell: Yes. If you ask a room full of sex workers what their number one safety concern is, they will always tell you it's law enforcement. It is dangerous even to talk openly about it, as you can be arrested and convicted of "promoting prostitution.”
Everett: Which is a startling thing to realize, given the sort of danger that clients can put you in. A lot of people have placed a sort of absolute definition of sex work around this power differential in the sex worker/client relationship.
Nell: That idea is not entirely based in reality, in my opinion. It’s a product of the way sex workers are written about in popular culture; people always assume the worst, like it’s some episode of Law and Order: SVU.
And it’s not as though things don’t go wrong sometimes, or that the financial aspect of the transaction doesn’t cause some already entitled men to act even more entitled. Ultimately, though, I feel like I have a ton of power in the transaction. I feel like it’s actually quite equitable in most scenarios. I’m the professional, I’m the one who is asking for an exorbitant amount of money for my time and emotional care. I set the boundaries and the expectations, and the vast majority of the time my clients are extremely respectful toward me. If a client starts to try and cross a boundary, I can shut it down pretty fast by reminding them what it means to cross that boundary and threatening to end the session.
The problem with police or state violence is that it’s lasting. It’s not as though police are rescuing anyone when they arrest them, they’re arresting them. I should probably stick a caveat in here that I have never been personally arrested, but I know some folks who have. And law enforcement agencies are known to steal your money and your possessions. If you have business bank account they will sometimes close it and steal your assets from that as well. You’re saddled with a record, making it harder to find a “legitimate” job again if you need to. If you’re helping other people in the industry, you can be charged with pimping or pandering, which are felonies. If you’re married, like I am, sometimes your spouse can end up being charged with pimping or pandering if they’ve been helping you out in some way, or if you share finances.
And, if we want to talk about actual physical violence, police are known for raping and brutalizing sex workers in far greater numbers than clients are. It is because of all this that I, and many sex workers, believe that full decriminalization is the most important first step toward increasing safety for sex workers.
Everett: I hadn't even known about so much of this until I met people in sex work.
Nell: Sex workers are the only ones talking about it. But I mean, we're also the only people who know about it too. I’m so happy to see so many sex workers coming forward and challenging people now. The Internet and social media platforms have not only changed how sex workers advertise and brand themselves, but they’ve also given us a voice that we never had before. Especially Twitter: the dialogue going on there between various factions is incredible. I’m not sure if anyone is changing any minds or making any headway on either side, but it’s wonderful to see the conversation.
Everett: I consider myself very fortunate, to have seen you and to have been able to talk like this. That it should take place when you're so perpetually at risk feels so wrong.
Nell: Same here. I'd be lying if I didn't say it was part of the thrill though, too!
Everett: What are some resources that readers could possibly access to elucidate sex work as it exists?
Nell: Most of the resources I know of currently are by and for sex workers, which doesn't mean other people can't participate, just that it’s all from that point of view. There is an online blog for sex workers at titsandsass.com, and a podcast by the very awesome Siouxsie Q out in San Francisco. Plus Playing the Whore by Melissa Gira Grant, which we mentioned. Audacia Ray is another activist doing some important stuff—she provides resources for sex workers on how to engage with the media, and has been doing a live performance series in NYC called the Red Umbrella Diaries that I know she is also turning into a documentary film.
Everett: And I guess when it comes to being a client we would be remiss to neglect the importance of etiquette. Independent providers often have websites where they lay out their personal rules, but the Chicago chapter of SWOP published a short guide towards being an ally that covers basics as well, and Tits & Sass is bold as ever with these things. Whatever advice you take ought to be coming straight from sex workers. Anyway, thank you for everything, Nell. Hopefully one day we can talk more openly about things like this but until then, good luck.
Nell: And good luck in your romantic endeavors ;)