“Ask Kai: Advice for the Apocalypse” is a column by Kai Cheng Thom to help you survive and thrive in a challenging world.
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I’m a cisgender bisexual woman and sex worker, and I’ve been dating a wonderful man for the past eight months. Everything is perfect: He’s smart, cares for me and we have an amazing time together. Everything feels right—except that he berates me for my job.
I began doing sex work two years ago to help pay for university. I’m estranged from my family, and I’ve never had any financial help—everything I want and need I provide for myself. I used to bust my ass working multiple jobs at once to pay for school and rent, but sex work has allowed me to increase my income while also exploring my sexuality. I also genuinely like a lot of my clients as people, and it feels really meaningful to help them experience pleasure.
My boyfriend has known that I do sex work since our first date, and he said he was okay with it then. But lately, he’s been making some really shitty comments. It started subtly: “Do you actually enjoy doing sex work?” and “Don’t you worry about how it’s going to affect your future?” to “I don’t get why you have to do this,” and “Your body shouldn’t be for other people, it should be for me.” Recently, he confessed it makes him “sick” to think about me with other people. When I tell him that these comments hurt me, he responds by saying that my work hurts him because it’s “basically cheating.”
I’m hurt and confused by all this. He’s making me feel ashamed when I actually love what I do. Is it true that being a sex worker is the same as cheating? I don’t want to quit sex work, but I don’t want to lose him either. Do I have to leave my boyfriend or my job? What should I do? — Shamed Sex Worker
It both saddens and angers me to hear that you’ve been feeling ashamed of what you do for work. I must admit up front that I am biased when it comes to sex work and sex worker rights: As a trans woman of colour, I am no stranger to the sex work community. Many of my sisters, friends and mentors have been sex workers. Almost everything of value that I know I have learned from sex workers. And I have lost many dear people to whorephobia and anti-sex worker hatred and violence.
So when I hear that this man in your life—wonderful though he may be in other ways—has been saying hurtful things about your work, my first instinct is to protect you. You deserve to be loved, SSW, fully loved, for all that you are—and that includes your occupation. Few people in this vicious, capitalist world are able to access work that they enjoy, work that helps people and that pays the bills. You have, against all odds, managed to find all three in one job, and that ought to be celebrated for the miracle that it is.
Even if you didn’t love or like your work, that still wouldn’t be a reason for your boyfriend (or anyone) to shame you for it. As you probably know, many sex workers feel ambivalent about what they do, or don’t like it. This is especially true when their working conditions are bad: Violence on the job, lack of financial stability and forced exposure to sexually transmitted infections and unwanted pregnancy are all common contributing factors to bad or traumatic experiences in the sex industry. These aren’t reasons to shame sex workers, but rather an indictment of a capitalist system that forces people into exploitative situations that put their bodies at risk.
I should also point out that there is a double standard at play when it comes the moral judgment of sex work. Almost all jobs in a capitalist system expose workers to risk, exploitation and bodily harm. For example, I’ve spent years working as a social worker. I’ve frequently been underpaid, experienced both physical and psychological violence from clients and employers and, on more than one occasion, I have been exposed to infectious diseases while at work. I definitely don’t always like what I do. Yet no one has ever tried to shame me for working in the public service sector; indeed, they most often tell me that my work is “noble” and “good for society.”
I believe this is because, unlike sex work, social service provisions have been largely absorbed by capitalism and the patriarchy—people can feel good knowing they exist without having to think about why we live in a world where social services are necessary in the first place.
Sex work, on the other hand, poses a direct challenge to the existing world order because it allows women, queer people and other marginalized individuals to take back the sexual power of our own bodies and set a fair price for it. The very existence of sex work exposes how much sexual labour we are expected do on a daily basis without getting paid for it.
Under patriarchy, women and femmes are “just supposed” to deal with being catcalled, groped, sexually harassed and assaulted. Wives are “supposed” to have sex with their husbands (and only their husbands) and have babies—even if they don’t enjoy it—because that’s what “good women” do. Trans women are “supposed” to be fetishized, experimented with and abandoned because that’s just “how it is” for people like us. God forbid we actually get compensated for any of this, or that we actually set our own rules for how others can access and enjoy our bodies.
This brings us back to your boyfriend, SSW. Of course, I don’t know him personally so I can’t make any judgment calls about what he’s actually like or whether or not you should leave him. What I do know is that the things he’s saying betray an insecurity that runs deep within our patriarchal culture as a whole: The fear of not being able to own or control the sexuality of the ones we love.
I believe that all of us hold this fear, to some extent, regardless of gender identity. In a frightening world where love is made out to be a scarce resource, we are taught that sexual conservatism and codependent monogamy (which is quite different from healthy monogamy) are the only ways to have emotional safety in a romantic partnership. Masculine-identified heterosexual people in particular are socially conditioned to believe that they are supposed to have ownership over their partners’ bodies in order to prove their worth. Meanwhile, feminine-identified people are conditioned to believe that being well-behaved and controllable makes us more loveable. This comes from centuries of tradition in many cultures where women were seen as a chattel.
So when your boyfriend says that he is “hurt” or “made sick” by what you do, or that your body “should only be for him,” my guess is that he is showing you his own woundedness, SSW. That is to say, it may be hard for him to understand that his masculinity, his inherent worth, and his own lovability are not threatened by your occupation—and that he doesn’t need to feel ashamed of dating you.
It’s important to remember, SSW, that your boyfriend’s insecurities are not your responsibility to change (and, I would argue, it is generally impossible for us to ever change other people’s insecurities in the first place). However, if you think that he would be open to it, you might try starting this conversation in a gentle way. When he lashes out at you by saying your work “hurts” him, you might simply ask him what he means: Does he think that he is less of a man, or less loved, because of what you do? Why does he feel the need to define you and your work as the problem, rather than his own self-esteem?
If he is indeed open to this conversation, then that’s an encouraging start. You might try reminding him that there is a difference between a romantic relationship between partners and a work relationship between sex worker and client. After all, you are choosing to spend your time with him when you charge other people to do the same—that’s a pretty strong sign of commitment, isn’t it? (And it’s very flattering to your partner, in a certain light!)
There are also some resources that your boyfriend could make use of to help sort out his feelings. MEL Magazine actually published an article about how to date and support a sex worker. And the SWARM (Sex Work Advocacy and Resistance Movement) collective has even published a whole zine called Ho Lover: About Dating and Friending Sex Workers.
A note on sex work and cheating: This is a bit of a tricky topic, but in the end I think it comes back to your relationship contract. I’ve written about relationship contracts in depth in a previous column, but, in short, a relationship contract is the stated terms, expectations and boundaries that you and your boyfriend share. Cheating occurs when someone in a romantic partnership breaks the terms of the relationship contract (usually by engaging in sexual relations with a third party) without first negotiating with their partner, or by hiding the truth from their partner.
In your case, SSW, you and your partner set the terms of your relationship contract on your first date when you told him you were a sex worker and he said he was okay with it. If he wasn’t being wholly truthful about that, or if he’s changed his mind, then that isn’t on you. If he wants to revisit the terms of your relationship contract, then that’s a conversation that needs to be had explicitly.
This isn’t to say that sex workers whose partners know what they do for work can never cheat. Sex workers and their partners need to have clear, detailed and compassionate conversations with one another in order to clearly define their relationship contract. Some sex workers agree that specific sex acts will be reserved for their non-client partners. Others agree never to spend time with or talk to clients outside of paid hours. Ideally, the relationship contract is one that everyone can live with, without feeling like they are sacrificing a crucial need in their relationship.
What about your relationship terms, SSW? What are your needs, expectations, desires and boundaries for your romantic partners? What’s non-negotiable for you? You may want to think about this as your dynamic with your boyfriend continues to develop and unfold. It seems clear that something needs to change here, and you may need to seek greater clarity on what you’re willing to compromise and what you’re not. I would suggest taking some time to actually write out your relationship terms, just to see how it feels to put them into words without pressure of a real-time conversation or argument.
Whatever happens, whatever you decide, I want you to know that there is nothing wrong with your job and there is nothing shameful about either having sex or doing sex work. Your body belongs to you and no one else, and no one has the right to try and change that. It isn’t being well-behaved or conventional or controllable that makes us loveable. It’s our freedom.