Charging For Emotional Labor Is An Inherently Feminist Act

Updated March 05, 2016 3:42pm PST

“These girls have to deal with men in their lives every day…they don’t listen to them, they don’t even ask them what they want. All we have to do is ask them what they want. And when they tell you, it’s a beautiful thing, man. We’re like healers or something.”

- Donald Glover in Magic Mike XXL

There’s an old trope in the sex worker community about the client that talks a big game — whips, chains, acrobatic positioning–only to arrive to their appointment and spend the entire session crying on the provider’s shoulder about a major life dilemma. While individuals outside the industry may dismiss this profile as an endearing tall tale, the workers themselves know better: that they’re frequently sought out as emotional support under the guise (or wrapped in the sparkly packaging) of sexual desire.

Real talk? Clients just want someone to listen to them.

For men, purchasing the time of a sex worker has become more societally-acceptable than purchasing the time of a mental health worker. That unrequited burden of emotional support then ends up resting on the shoulders of the sex worker with whom the man is already sharing connective, intimate time. It’s not that men aren’t ever just seeking aid in some kind of sexual release, but despite living in a country where public opinion seems to be embracing the erotic services market, we’re still shaming men for perceived vulnerability.

Somehow we’ve evolved (?) to a place where guys buying each other lapdances makes them studs, but paying for a therapist’s couch time makes them sissies. Mental health services have always been viewed as a “feminine” issue; men admitting they may need emotional assistance is seen as an assault to their masculinity. But what could possibly be more masculine than paying for sex?

Sexual desire can put people in a place of extreme emotional vulnerability, especially if they harbor alternative desires that they’ve been rejected for in the past. When clients make that first contact, they are often blindly putting all of their sensitivities and shame in the hands of the sex worker. They’re craving acknowledgement, encouragement, reassurance, comfort and acceptance — even if they’re not introspective enough to realize it. When their proclivities are met with a subsequent lack of judgment, the sex worker establishes themselves as a “safe” person, and often unwittingly becomes the focal point for the client’s overall emotional unrest. This turns the interaction from one of sexual labor — a consensual, mutual agreement between client and provider where the provider is getting compensated for their advertised services — to one reliant on unpaid emotional labor.

That’s giving clients the benefit of the doubt, by the way. Sometimes a tangible relationship with the worker isn’t desired at all, and the mere return of correspondence acts as fantasy fulfillment, perpetuating a culture of exploitation that the clients often aren’t even consciously aware of. For example, I received an email the other day from a potential client. He identified the advertising platform he’d found me on before inquiring about my rates. Here’s how the rest of the conversation unfolded:

At this point it became obvious to me (as someone who’s been working in the sex industry for almost ten years) that “Matt” had no intention of ever setting up an appointment. Instead, his goal was to elicit elaborate responses from me, responses that he hoped would pad the lining of his mental spank bank with fantasy material that he could return to time and time again. Responses that I would be in no way compensated for.

Our culture supports and encourages unpaid feminine emotional labor at every turn. Women are groomed to spend our daily energy being “intuitive and empathetic”, aka “good friends” to other people, without expecting our efforts to be acknowledged or rewarded. We’re told to be completely receptive to the hardships of others, particularly men, and to be readily available to lend an ear and a wealth of advice, even at the risk of personal loss.

This isn’t, by any means, an issue isolated to women who work in the sex industry. Every woman who has come across the aggressively extroverted man at the bus stop griping to her about liberal agendas, the guy driving her Lyft soliciting her for relationship advice, or the stranger bro in line at the cafe unloading on her about the “totally sick” party he threw over the weekend has experienced unpaid emotional labor.

As Jess Zimmerman points out in her piece on female emotional labor for The Toast:

“…How convenient that this cultural construct gives men an excuse to be emotionally lazy. How convenient that it casts feelings-based work as ‘an internal need, an aspiration, supposedly coming from the depths of our female character’.”

We’re told that being perpetually emotionally available to others make us more “girl-like” or “woman-like”, and bolsters an increased feeling of feminine acceptance in the world. This is despite the rather obvious fact that it’s doing other people a solid favor. Which means we should get something in return.

Make no mistake: charging for emotional labor is an inherently feminist act. And as sex workers, we should be charging just as much for our emotional output as we ask for our erotic output.

Sex worker Hunter Leight actively practices as a counselor, not unlike many of her peers who provide erotic services while concurrently working as professionals in the social sciences. There’s an unmistakable correlation between the two occupations: due to the heavy emotional artillery involved in sex work, those who excel at responding and relating to other human beings often make ideal sex workers. Leight is no exception.

“Not all sex workers are women, but all women are socialized to be emotionally available at all times, particularly to hold space for the woes of men,” Leight asserts, “We’re constantly being confided in and accosted for advice without our consent. Our time is labor and has value. People assume free access to time and effort from women because of a still-prevalent patriarchy.”

In part due to her training as a therapist, Leight has a complex understanding of the huge need for emotional support and loving contact inherent in sex work.

“When communicating remotely as a sex worker, emotional labor looks like a consistent, genuine, and involved effort to support the client. When face-to-face with a client as a sex worker, emotional labor can look a lot like therapy, but what we provide is far more intimate than therapy; we acknowledge the full humanity of our clients,” Leight continues.

Critics may argue that sex workers often are paid an hourly rate that’s disproportionate to many “mainstream” jobs, therefore they shouldn’t complain. What they’d be failing to take into account is that we charge to compensate ourselves not only for the exhaustive nature of the work, but for our complete lack of protections and benefits, as well for the lack of guaranteed income. Sex workers have no health insurance, no workers compensation or vacation pay, and generating money is a constant hustle not unlike that experienced in other sales or freelance positions. We have no steady paychecks, no hourly reimbursement for the time we spend developing our brands, generating promotional copy, responding to inquiries, and maintaining relationships.

One company is trying to set a precedent for charging for sex workers’ emotional labor, but not everyone is buying. Adult performer and fetish wrestler Syd Blakovich first launched Barbary Coast Grapplers, a company that matches clients with accomplished, athletic women to roll with, earlier this year.

“With Barbary, I wanted to offer a unique service: quality competitive wrestling with trained technique-savvy professionals who also don’t deny the sexual appeal of the service,” says Blakovich, “I was doing [celebrated XXX website] Ultimate Surrender for ten years, but the 24/7 correspondence implication behind taking private sessions with clients always deterred me from doing so. It was too much customer service with no guaranteed financial reward.”

A business-oriented individual, Blakovich clearly sees communication as an investment on the part of client, and as such she set a one-time $25 fee for Barbary clients’ correspondence that’s applied toward a future booking.

The negative responses she was met with were both immediate and unrelenting. Many clients jumped on the offensive, expressing outrage and resentment over being charged “simply to talk with someone”. Blakovich was surprised but undeterred. She believes that the fee sets a necessary paid emotional labor precedent for the rest of the sex worker community, and she’s sticking by it.

“We do our community as much of a disservice as we do ourselves when we don’t know what we’re worth and fail to enforce it,” she remarks, “If a client asks me why I’m charging them in a way that’s genuinely inquisitive rather than accusatory, I don’t hesitate to provide them an honest explanation of my business practices. But if they’re being dicks, I’ll politely disengage. They can, and will, go elsewhere.

“Lawyers, therapists, and many freelancers charge for communication time that goes beyond the basics required to arrange their services. I see no reason why sessions shouldn’t, either.”

Not only can the sheer volume of effort associated with sex work correspondence prove overwhelming, but managing communication around sex work seems to involve a disproportionate amount of poor communication tactics as well as a great number of people taking advantage of it. Responding to emails riddled with run-on sentences, fragmented thoughts, pushy agendas, offensive assumptions, and embarrassingly poor spelling and grammar is infinitely more tedious than doing customer service in a conventional workplace where individuals see each other as professional peers and address each other as such.

It’s actually amazing to me that the vast majority of men who contact me for erotic services communicate in a manner that would infuriate my middle school English teachers, then later identify themselves as programmers, doctors, and lawyers. The implied lack of respect there is maddening.

If there’s one thing I want you to walk away with, it’s the understanding that your value should not only be recognized while you’re “on the clock”. We’re always on the clock. Sex workers, women, slaves to the wage.

The sooner we empower ourselves with the knowledge of our time as labor, recognizing exactly what that labor is worth to us and refusing to negotiate it down, the sooner we’ll all be free.

Like this? Want more? Support the snark through Patreon

Andre Shakti is a Bay Area educator, producer, activist, and professional slut devoted to normalizing alternative desires, de-stigmatizing sex workers and their clients, and not taking herself too seriously. She can frequently be found marathoning Law & Order: SVU under a chaotic pile of partners and pitbulls.