The only guaranteed thing about autonomy is that the term is currently being used a student with dyed hair during a college seminar.
However, when individuals attempt to exercise the right to govern their bodies and decisions outside of hypothetical discourse, they’re usually met with at best conditional acceptance and at worst — criminalization.
Sex work, often called the world’s oldest profession, remained mostly legal in the United States until 1910, when religious groups cried “immorality” and campaigned to close the brothels. They failed to stop prostitution but succeeded in illegalizing and demonizing the profession, engendering a stigma that persists to this day.
Legislation continues to threaten the livelihoods of sex workers. With the passing of bills SESTA (Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act) and FOSTA (Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act) this year, the US government has effectively limited the online platforms (digital brothels) which sex workers previously used to solicit clients.
On the surface this may not seem like a bad thing. But the bill package fails to distinguish the difference between sex trafficking and consensual sex work, conflating forced sexual labor with the autonomous soliciting of sexual activities.
Introducing new policies aimed to restrict the former, SESTA/FOSTA subsequently jeopardizes the livelihoods of the latter. By shutting down websites like Backpage, Craigslist Personals, and other sites used to solicit, sex workers are denied the right to handpick and vet their clients from afar, forcing them to gauge their safety IRL. Research has indicated that street-based sex workers face higher risk of STI transmission and violence than those who utilize online advertising. In fact, a 2017 study estimated that the opening of the Craigslist Erotic section coincided with a 17 percent drop in female-homicide rates.
These statistics have faces, one of which belongs to “Melanie” a 27-year-old genderfluid artist and sex worker, who has entered this profession willingly. We spoke to them about their work and their future in the wake of SESTA/FOSTA.
Below is an edited transcript of our discussion.
First, in your own words, how would you describe what you do?
Melanie: I describe myself as a full service sex worker. I also sometimes use the term ‘provider.’ It’s important to me to delineate that [I am] providing a service to my clients.
What does “full service” mean?
It can mean full penetrative sex, it can mean other types of physical intimacy. Some people make the distinction between being full service or being an escort or being a sugarbaby. I feel like I could fall under any of those categories, because I offer different services to different people. But for me, it’s just easier to be like, ‘I’m full service.’
Before you meet a client, do you talk about what you’re offering?
This is kind of something that’s shifting and evolving, particularly post FOSTA/SESTA. Since that legislation was passed, I haven’t been able to find any new clients, so everyone that I see now are regulars. Prior to that, the main platform that I used for advertising was Craigslist — which is actually not allowed. Now Craigslist Personals is entirely shut down. What would happen before all of this happened [was] people would respond to my Craigslist ad or they would send me a message on Seeking Arrangement. I was very careful of the language I would use, as a way to screen people, because there’s always the risk that you are dealing with law enforcement or dealing with someone that is potentially dangerous. I would use elusive language, pose it as though it were a date.
Often times, I would go directly to this person’s home. I would set up some type of backup safety measure, having a friend know where I am, turning on my location — something like that. It was like a read-between-the-lines type of thing, so there were very few occasions where I would be explicit in what services I provide.
Out of fear of repercussions from the government or…?
Fears of implicating mess ups, legally, and also as a safeguard. I’m not going to say I’m a professional — some people say that in a shaming way. Clients will be like, ‘Oh, if you’re a pro I don’t want to see you. I just want you to be a girl who needs financial help,’ you know what I mean? Like, ‘Oh, you’re just a girl who’s down on her luck.’
Where do you think that stigma comes from?
I think it’s just part of the greater stigma of sex work in general. A lot of people hold such negative moralistic views of sex in general and being promiscuous. Also if you are taking ownership of your sexuality and you’re commodifying your sexuality — [they think] you are dangerous. I have had clients say, ‘You’re not a pro, right?’ If you know too much about your rights and you know too much about what rate you can command — they’re threatened by that.
Because they want an illusion that they’re not engaging in this sort of trade?
Exactly. I can understand why people might feel ashamed for soliciting sex workers. In theory, because you might feel undesirable, feel you’re too old, or they might have all these internalized feelings [about] their manhood. And it’s like, no, you can solicit a service from someone — like getting a massage — and it can be just something that you need. Maybe you are too busy to date, maybe your schedule doesn’t allow for that, maybe you’re in a marriage where you’re not getting, physically, what you need.
There’s so many different reasons and I just feel like I’m in the trade of intimacy and love, and if I can offer that to people in a way that we are both consenting and both feel safe doing that, then why not? And if I can make a living doing it — and I mean, I’m barely scraping by now — but theoretically then, sure, why not?
What was your first experience with any kind of sex work?
I guess the first time was probably when I was 21 years old, and I had moved to [location omitted for privacy] after getting out of a long term relationship. I was in the city by myself, I didn’t really have any friends. I was working a dead-end retail job and was struggling financially to pay my rent and just thought, why not try this?
The first place that I went was Craigslist Personals. I’m trying to remember the very first time that I met [someone], but I’m not sure I remember who it was. But I do remember that I went over to someone’s home, and I didn’t have anybody to [tell], “This is where I’m going.” I wasn’t out to my family, so it was just one of those things where I was very at risk — considering my white privilege, I’m still much lower risk than trans femmes and queer people of color — however, there’s always that element of danger.
Do you remember how you felt after the experience?
During that time of my life, I was pretty depressed. I held a lot of internalized shame. I had a lot of internalized whore-phobia. So, it was not a good experience for me then. It was very negative, there was a shame spiral that happened, and actually, it was my birthday [when I was outed].
I turned 21, one of my clients had gotten me a bottle of expensive whisky and I was sitting in my closet-of-a-room in [location omitted for privacy]. I was online on Google Chat, talking to my ex and I was drunk and sad. I said to him, “I’ve been selling myself for money.” Which is an inherently flawed statement, because you’re not selling your body by selling sex, you’re selling sex. You’re selling a service, you’re selling an action, you’re not giving away any part of yourself by doing that.
And he had the worst possible reaction, he immediately said that I was so mentally ill that I needed to be institutionalized. He reached out to my family without my consent and outed me under the guise of being concerned for my well-being, and then promptly excommunicated me and blocked me on everything. But yeah, at the beginning there was so much shame attached to sex work for me.
Do you still feel any shame attached to sex work today?
Not at all.
And what was the process like to get here?
So, I’m 27 years old, right? There’s been a big gap. The last time I had done sex work up until that point was at 21, and then the next time was last summer . So this is actually my one year anniversary of getting back into sex work. What really spurred it was last summer there was a sex worker meet-up. I showed up, and it was just a circle. After that meet up, I was so overwhelmed with feelings of love, compassion, and understanding. I was like, all of these people are doing it and obviously we’ve all had difficult experiences through it, but you can still find empowerment through it. So I reposted my ad after that meet up, and got back on Seeking Arrangement. Then it just started happening again, and it has been kind of a life-line for me. My life has completely changed, and a lot of it is due to sex work.
What are some of the ways [your life has changed]?
I’ve always been a promiscuous person and a sexually adventurous person. I’ve never — no, that’s not true; I have felt shame about that, just because being raised Christian and being taught that sexual desire is inherently sinful. Meanwhile, I pegged my first boyfriend in the ass at 15 years old, so my mother knew that I was a lost cause when she found my strap-on in the closet.
She says lost cause, we say progressive.
Exactly. I’ve been able to come to new terms with my own sexuality through [sex work]. To have people value my time to the point where they are willing to pay for it, because let’s be honest — most of the cis-het [cisgendered-heterosexual] boys that I was fucking prior to getting paid for it — were not appreciative of my time, were not attentive to my sexual needs, and a lot of times I ended up feeling used after these disappointing sexual experiences. But when you’re a sex worker, you can walk away with cash in hand. And then the real fucking irony is that these men are often better in bed than their counterparts, who are “too good to pay for sex,” you know what I mean?
So do you have any rules for yourself or lines you won’t cross?
I really just don’t like butt stuff. It’s just a personal preference, and luckily I have never had anyone break that boundary with me. That’s pretty much the only hard line that I have. Also a hard limit for me is intense physical bodily harm. With the regulars that I see, they all know me now. I’ve been seeing some of my regulars now for a year.
Do you have any emotional boundaries you set for yourself? Do you see clients in a nonprofessional manner outside of work?
There’s some people that, no matter how many times I’ll have sex with them, it’s still just a professional relationship. There’s been a few people who I have fallen for and have confused those lines.
Would you mind discussing rates? What’s more expensive, what’s less expensive — your breakdown of prices?
It actually varies client to client. I don’t charge more for one thing or another thing. I don’t say, “Penetrative sex is this, oral is this.” I don’t have a menu. What I do is pay per meet. [With] some people, that’s one amount. Some people it’s $100 more, some people it’s $200 more — based on their financial situation, based on what I agreed to. There’s some people, who the rates change every time I see them, because they might only have so much money available and I’m desperate.
Because FOSTA/SESTA, I don’t have any new clients. [So] I’ll go over and I’ll see them for literally a fifth of my normal rate. I literally had a client yesterday who asked, “Will you come over for a Father’s Day present?” And I was like, no.
Do you always expect payment upfront?
I always expect some type of compensation for my time.
Is it pre-established?
Often times it’s murky. Sometimes I’ll be handed a white envelope with money inside and I won’t know, until I open it later, how much I have been given. And I’ve been given very little before.
I recently had an instance [where] I met up with someone from What’s Your Price [an online dating service]. Not factoring the amount of time that it takes me to get there, time it takes me to get home, including the time I spend with him — I was getting paid very little hourly. Then the second time I met him, he was like, “Oh, I didn’t think that this was part of it anymore.” And I’m like, “Why wouldn’t you?” He’s like, “Well, it’s kind of depressing for me to think that I’m paying for your time,” and I’m like, “we literally met under those pretenses, why would that not carry over?” And he reluctantly paid me for the second date, and I honestly don’t think I’m going to see him after that.
That’s a common thing for clients to try to convert you into dating. But not actually dating, literally just you fulfilling their physical needs and desires, without them offering you anything in return. I’ve had many people try and do that. Like, “Would you just come over, without payment?” No. This isn’t fun for me. I mean, it can be but…
You’ve enjoyed sex with clients?
Does that confuse you or them sometimes?
I don’t know. I’ve never personally felt confused. I’m having good sex so who cares? It could just come down to our chemistry or whatever. I have had some of my best sex ever with clients in the past year.
Do you tell them so?
Yeah, there’s a few people in particular where we’ll text a lot. That honestly can be emotional labor and can be very time consuming, but it’s something that I’m participating in consensually, so I’m fine with that. It’s like time off the clock. We’ll be like sexting, but that’s something that I’m doing for fun, to fulfill my own desires. So it doesn’t confuse me and I don’t think it necessarily confuses them either. There have obviously been times where they’ll make some off-hand joke where they’ll be like, “You should be paying me,” because the sex is so good and I’m like… no.
Do you use your real name?
I’m so messy.
Well you’re just speaking to your experience, you’re not the spokesperson for all sex workers. I should have prefaced that the questions I’m asking, I’m asking you.
Right. I just feel like I need to stipulate that I’m not leading by example here. I always start out with a fake name. The fake name that I use is Melanie. I don’t have a last name, just Melanie. And I don’t feel like it necessarily is a name that suits me, so usually I end up telling them my real name once I get to know [them]. I’d say probably 80 percent of my current regulars know my real name. It just comes to that point where I feel uncomfortable with them referring to me as my false name. It’s not a persona that I’ve fully grown into.
Are your clients mostly male or female? Or have you ever worked with other queer/non-binary folks?
As far as I know, I only have cis male clients.
Rough age range?
Most of them are between 40 and 50. With a few outliers.
Who was the youngest person?
I think 44 or 45.
How has sex work affected your personal relationships?
I haven’t seen anyone romantically, basically, in the past year outside of sex work. So, I feel like commodifying intimacy, commodifying my sexuality has made me view [the] normal dating process a little bit differently. I’m more skeptical about it, and I’m a little more stingy with my time. If I know that I can be paid for it in another context… I guess I don’t really seek it out other places. I got banned from Tinder, banned from OKCupid — for stating that I was a sex worker. They hate sex workers, so whatever.
Friendships? I’m very fortunate and constantly grateful for the incredible community of people that surround me. So many of my friends are sex workers — it’s ridiculous, how many of us have either done it in the past or are currently doing it. There hasn’t been anyone who’s been judgmental of what I’m doing.
How long does it normally take when meeting someone for you to reveal that this is your line of work?
I’m probably too candid with people. And I’m probably too open and honest.
For safety reasons or personal?
For safety reasons, really. I feel like I out myself to people so easily. I really do, and [to] complete strangers. Maybe take too much for granted, [because of] the community I’m in, I just expect everyone to be cool with it. Part of me also feels like it’s important, in pursuit of de-stigmatizing sex work to be like, ‘I am a human being and I am a sex worker. Hello, nice to meet you. We exist. We’re here, and we’re not hiding in the shadows.’
Of course, there’s a lot of risk that comes with that, and to be honest with you, I’m very paranoid. Particularly following FOSTA/SESTA, it’s a concern that’s been consistently on my mind.
I see you post about [FOSTA/SESTA and concerns for your safety].
I think I’ve gotten a little bit quieter on Instagram and on social media. I used to kind of shout about being a sex worker. It’s scary… there is a digital paper trail for my line of work. I don’t use encrypted text. Those are adjustments that I could easily make now, but everything that’s happened in the past year, that’s still there [exists online].
Also it makes you — there’s that cultural thing of, why should you have to go through all these sort of hoops to provide a service? Also it could discourage clients in a way, if you’re like, “Let’s use encrypted email,” cause it adds that shroud over it. This idea [that sex workers are] selling bodies for something. It’s like… people are construction workers, so many [jobs] you put your body on the line for money, so it doesn’t make sense.
I’m fully for the decriminalization of sex work, and I participated in the rally where we were standing in solidarity with sex workers and marching for the decriminalization of sex work. Which is different than legalization, because legalization still involves the state and involves regulations. Where as [with] decriminalizing [sex work], [the goal is] people can’t be thrown in jail for it. I mean it’s obviously much more nuanced and complex than that.
What are the biggest misconceptions you’d like to clear up for people about sex work?
Oh, there’s so many. First of all, that sex itself is a moral issue, because sex is natural. You can be asexual, hypersexual, and everywhere on the spectrum is okay as long as it doesn’t interfere with your well-being. But I think there’s no moral values that can be placed on sex itself. There’s the victim narrative which is projected onto sex workers from outside sources.
That you’re forced into this occupation?
Yes. Now that’s not to say that there aren’t many people who are, but you cannot conflate sex trafficking and consensual sex workers — that’s two completely separate issues. That’s inherently what’s wrong with FOSTA/SESTA, because they say that it’s about sex trafficking, but what you’re really doing [with] this legislation is making people go into the shadows. [By shutting down online soliciting platforms sex workers] are literally forced onto the streets, and that’s exponentially more dangerous. And the people that are at highest risk of being harmed, of experiencing violence [are] trans women of color — it’s literally a death sentence for them.
You cannot conflate sex trafficking and consensual sex work. As a sex worker, you might love your job or you might hate your job, it’s like any other job. Allowing sex workers to tell their own stories is really important. So thank you for doing this. Another misconception is that sex workers are diseased. Of course it’s part of our trade so we are at higher risk for having sexually transmitted infections, but actually, statistically, we are the most tested population.
How does your queerness relate to your work? Being non-binary, do you feel that clients recognize your true identity?
I feel like, everyday is drag for me — but especially when going to meet a client. Being objectified for body parts that I felt intense dysphoria about, like my breasts, it’s a very particular position to be in. But then, at the same time, [my clients] appreciate my body. So it’s extremely complicated. But I feel like because of the age group that most of my clients are in, above 40, they don’t really understand.
I see cis men exclusively — not by choice, just because opportunity. So these cis hetero men are very small-minded. I’ve tried to have conversations with them before about the fact that I’m non-binary [but I] don’t really know how to have this conversation with [them] because we’re speaking different languages. I feel like our generation is on a completely different plane of existence.
And it’s hard to get people to catch up.
And we’re also spending such limited amount of time together. How am I going to give you queer history 101 in an hour?
And that’s not your responsibility. So are you out [about being a sex worker] to your family now?
It’s a little weird. My sister used to follow me on Instagram. I think she might still follow me on Instagram… but I think she stopped watching my stories because there’s a lot of things on my stories: thirst traps and me explicitly being like, “I’m going to see this client” or whatever. Before this legislation passed, I was more explicit and more candid [online]. So she pretty much knows, [but] I’ve never sat down with her and been like, “I’m a sex worker.” My mother sort of knows, but I don’t think she understands or she she’s willingly ignorant of the fact that there are sexual services that I provide. So she is aware, but she doesn’t know the full extent of it.
I almost feel an obligation to not tell them, because I don’t want to implicate them in the horrible instance that I’m ever criminalized. So the less they know, I feel, the better.
Are there any times you have felt frightened for your well-being, outside of FOSTA/SESTA, with clients?
I’ve been extremely fortunate and I’m very privileged in my whiteness that I have never really felt physically threatened. Obviously, those thoughts cross your mind because you are entering someone’s domestic space, and you know really anything could happen. I’ve been tied up by people before, but there’s usually a certain level of trust which is established before I will go into being physically restrained.
I’ve been definitely made to feel uncomfortable before, but that’s more being coerced into doing things that aren’t ideal. Having unprotected sex is really the main one. But physically I haven’t had any traumatic experiences. I’ve been very, very fortunate.
Do you have any funny or sweet stories?
On my birthday, my client showed up with a bouquet of flowers for me and it was really sweet. And we did Molly together at [location omitted for privacy], and that was a really intimate and tender experience that we shared.
Do you foresee a time where you would want to stop doing sex work?
I feel like I would always do it. I would always be open to doing it because I really have no baggage attached to it at all. There’s really nothing about it, right now, that makes me feel uncomfortable. The only thing that makes me feel uncomfortable is when people don’t want to pay me or pay me less than my rates.
The only reason that I would foresee myself [stopping] is if something really awful happens. If there’s violence enacted upon me or if I have an interaction with law enforcement. I’ve already kind of ceased all my incoming channels. My Craigslist was taken down for investigation, which makes me really, really uncomfortable. For all intents and purposes, besides by regulars, I’m not actively soliciting right now.
Click here to get involved with campaigns protecting and advocating for sex workers.
If you are a sex worker in need of legal or social services, you can visit sexworkerproject.org.