“Ask Kai: Advice for the Apocalypse” is a column by Kai Cheng Thom to help you survive and thrive in a challenging world.
Have a question for Kai? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
I’m single and in my 50s. I just got out of a 23-year-long relationship, which is the only one I’ve ever had in my life. It was terrible for about 15 of the 23 years: My partner made me feel ugly and undesirable, and we didn’t really have sex for over a decade.
I’m totally out of my depth in the dating world now because I haven’t been part of it for so long. The truth is, I keep seeing all these incredible sex workers online with beautiful photos and descriptions of what they do. Some of them even offer to teach their clients how to date and have better sex, which is exactly what I need! But I’ve never paid for sex before and I’m so conflicted about it—plus I don’t think I’m very conventionally attractive. Is it wrong to hire a sex worker? And if I do, how do I know that they really like their job and aren’t being forced into it by a pimp? Should I just forget the whole thing?
Let me take a moment to acknowledge the incredible courage it takes to give voice to your own erotic needs in such a beautifully vulnerable way. In the sex-negative society we live in, the erotic self is at once stigmatized, erased and deeply shamed. Mainstream media, advertising and porn bombard us with images of young, thin, athletic, mostly white people representing a very specific, rigid form of (hetero)sexuality. Meanwhile, the culture of slut-shaming and dearth of good sexual education resources for people of all ages prevent the majority of us from learning about and expressing our sexualities in a healthy, positive way.
Those of us who happen to be queer, trans, racialized and disabled are even further marginalized in the realm of sex and sexuality. Harmful sexual myths and stereotypes are a classic way in which the patriarchal, European colonial civilization established dominance and power over its subjects. This is why Black men are stereotyped as being hypersexual and aggressive, gay men and trans women as predatory, Asian women as submissive, Asian men as non-sexual and so on.
In the midst of all this, US, you found the resilience to acknowledge and search for what you really want. I truly believe that it is beyond brave: It is revolutionary. The legendary Black lesbian feminist Audre Lorde wrote in her seminal essay The Uses of the Erotic that “Recognizing the power of the erotic within our lives can give us the energy to pursue genuine change within our world.” I feel this to be an essential and urgent truth.
A courageous and revolutionary question deserves an equally courageous and revolutionary response, US, and so what I am going to write next is controversial: There is nothing inherently wrong with paying a consenting adult for sex.
Furthermore, there is nothing inherently wrong with paying a consenting adult for romance, for sensual touch and loving presence or for hands-on sexual education. All of these fall well within the professional boundaries of many sex workers, as well as some sex educators and other sex professionals.
As a trans woman of colour and queer woman, I have had the honour and pleasure of knowing many sex workers in my life and in my community. Almost everything of value that I know I have learned from sex workers: How to survive in a world that doesn’t want me to exist; how to assert and negotiate my boundaries, sexual and otherwise; how to find the beauty in everybody and every body that I meet; the profound importance of pleasure for healing and connecting to life.
Sex work is work, US, and I want to affirm your internal sense that it is good and valuable. Sex workers attend to some of the deepest needs and most grievous wounds in our society in a way that even the most skilled medical professionals and psychotherapists are not prepared to do. (And, indeed, the medical and psychological establishments are historically responsible for a great deal of the cultural stigma and trauma that are still attached to sex for many people.)
That said, US, I can also appreciate your concern about the well-being of the sex workers you are considering engaging with. The sex industry is vast and, like any industry, contains an infinite number of worker experience that range from horrifically abusive and underpaid to deeply fulfilling and highly lucrative. This is in fact true of any and all industries under capitalism in which the need to either make money or starve coerces all but the independently wealthy into lives of forced labour or dependence on tiny welfare payments.
What makes sex work unique, of course, is the intense stigma and criminalization leveled toward its workers. This in turn renders them vulnerable to extreme violence and abuse from the police (who are among the most likely to abuse sex workers), as well as medical neglect and exploitation by clients and employers. Meanwhile, overzealous social service agencies and charities that claim to help sex workers are more interested in abolishing the sex industry entirely, despite the fact that the majority of sex workers themselves (as well as most respected human rights organizations) advocate for decriminalization.
That sex work is singled out as inherently bad because some workers are exploited or abused is a double standard. Abuse and exploitation exist in all industries, and will continue to do so until capitalism itself is abolished, or at least radically reformed. Many restaurant workers, for example, work long hours while being exposed to health risks for less than minimum wage and are treated badly by their bosses. A much smaller number make six figure salaries. Yet no one advocates for the abolition of the restaurant industry as a whole (though we can, and should, advocate for restaurant workers—and sex workers’—labour rights!).
If you do decide to engage a sex worker’s services, US, one of the best ways you can make sure that they are not being abused or exploited is to pay them (remember to tip!) and respect their boundaries. Brushing up on consent is a good idea for anyone seeking a new sexual partner, paid or unpaid—I personally love the work of Dr. Betty Martin, who has created many accessible and extremely useful resources about consent. Choosing a sex worker who is clearly of legal age is also, of course, extremely important.
Remember, too, that sex workers are human beings like everyone else. Getting to know your service providers through simple friendly conversation is another good way to gauge how they are feeling about work. If your service provider is employed by a manager, massage parlour or agency, you can also do research into their business practices—sometimes simply by asking, or by looking them up online.
If you are looking for a service that combines sensual touch with trauma healing and/or sex education, US, I might recommend booking an appointment with a somatic sex educator, sexological bodyworker or surrogate partner. These related (but distinct) sexual healing professions all combine some level of body-based and psychological education with hands-on erotic touch. Somatic sex educators in particular are trained in trauma-informed practice, anti-oppression and connecting sex with spirituality. However, all three professions are on the cutting edge of sexual health and healing and have slightly different scopes of practice and ethical guidelines, so it’s important to do your research in order to find the right professional for you.
If you are looking for a service that fulfils a specific fantasy—for example, a romantic date out on the town, or the experience of being sensually dominated—traditional escorts and kink providers such as dom(mes) and rope tops might be more your speed. Such providers tend to have unique services, fee structures and boundaries, so again, research is key. Remember too that “traditional” in-person sex work exists in a legal grey zone in Canada (it’s legal to sell one’s own sexual services and illegal to buy sexual services, but paying someone for time that is potentially sensual or sexual in some way is legally unclear). This is an injustice to both sex workers and their clients that causes more harm than good—but it’s the way things are at the moment, and it’s important to be aware of the law.
Let’s circle back here to you and your needs, US. To pursue erotic healing and fulfillment is to embody determination, resilience, self-compassion, openness, risk and adventure. The law and dominant society are not on our side here, but the law and dominant society have never been known to treat people with the dignity and respect that we deserve.
You mention, US, that you don’t feel that you are conventionally attractive—this is something you share with many seekers of erotic pleasure who feel that they are unworthy of loving attention and touch. Dominant society teaches us that only the normatively beautiful should have access to sex. Yet one of the most important things that the sex workers in my life have taught me is that every body is exquisite in its moment of pleasure. At its best, sex work creates a magical space where anybody can reclaim their erotic self, regardless of how they look—this is something that a sex worker who is good at and likes their job will be happy to talk about with you.
This is revolutionary precisely because the erotic self is so denigrated. To ask for—to demand—erotic fulfillment is treated as excessive, self-indulgent, even depraved and disgusting. If we can reclaim our erotic selves with dignity and integrity—if we can learn to pursue our sexual needs without violence or boundary-pushing—then we will have learned exactly the skills we need to dismantle dominant society and give birth to a new way of being.
You deserve pleasure, US. You deserve to be healed, and to be whole, as we all do. Whatever you decide, wherever you go, whomever you meet on the great adventure that is life and erotic exploration, remember that.