Sex Workers Share Stories Of Clients Using The "L" Word

Updated March 15, 2016 10:43am PDT
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Like any good queer worth their rainbow stripes, I entered the mainstream workforce as a barista. I slung specialty coffee behind formica counters for almost seven years; I can make macchiatos in my sleep.

Although I largely enjoyed my time as a barista, one of the most frustrating aspects of working in service industries is how your male customers interpret (and misinterpret) said services. It’s no secret that service workers are literally paid to be nice to people, yet depending on a combination of ego, disillusionment, environmental factors, and an inability to acknowledge even the most basic of boundaries, they’re the recipients of an overwhelming amount of unwanted romantic advances. 

It doesn’t help that cafe employees tend to skew young and female. I can’t even recall the number of times that myself or one of my coworkers were non-consensually detained by invasive questioning from some hopeful suitor while an impatient line formed behind him and his aggressive smile. No, we don’t care that you have an extra ticket to that punk show on Saturday. Yes, we do all have boyfriends. Sure, we’ve been waiting to hear about whether you think we “looked better” with longer or shorter hair all week! 

We’ve pretended not to notice phone numbers slipped into tip jars, and felt eyes bore into our asses when we turn away to fill your order.

It’s not cute. It’s not okay.

If a service worker isn’t making you feel acknowledged, respected and cared for, then they’re not doing their job. But just like a short skirt isn’t an invitation to grope, affection received as a part of a business transaction isn’t an invitation to initiate increased unrewarded intimacy.

Our country is so screwed that to be a service worker earning minimum wage, absorbing the small shocks of unwanted attention on a daily basis with minimal validation or protection, is to be considered a contributing, empowered member of society. 

Meanwhile, sex workers who proactively acknowledge the abuse of emotional labor inherent in service positions, leave the mainstream workforce by choice, offer only the services they’re comfortable with, and set rates that actually reflect the value of the attention and energy output implicit in those services are commonly regarded as “exploited”. 

Funny how those “exploited” sex workers tend to skew young and female as well.

(This is not to discount the experiences of survival sex workers or victims of trafficking—just as I would rebuke attempts to willingly overlook their struggles and their causes by conflating them with my experience, I acknowledge my experience does not encompass theirs.)

The most I ever earned as a barista was around $12 per hour, and out of concern for my job I rarely felt as though I had the agency to speak or act out to deflect many persistent advances. No one ever asked me if I felt oppressed, under-appreciated, or taken advantage of when I was a barista. 

Yet when I speak on sex worker panels, I can almost guarantee that someone will make it their personal mission to do just that.

This male disillusionment and denial, this gross misinterpretation of service workers’ job descriptions, this “be given an inch and and be entitled to a mile” mentality around female attention, all of it is just as prevalent in the sex industry as it is in the service industry.

[The following testimonials are from currently active sex workers, submitted on condition of anonymity.]

I have a cam client that's in love with me. I had to distance because love meant "I don't really want to give you my money; I just want you to love me for me".

Clients who have hinted at IRL relationships I nip in the bud ASAP. I ask them to remember that I am for recreation and right now and that the energy I am giving them, although "genuine", is not sustainable long term. I let them know that my lovers IRL do not get that level of energy I am giving in session. 

A gentle "this a fantasy luxury service, not a realistic standard to hold women to" usually suffices.

Sometimes I promptly lose their business, sometimes they stay and are better regulars.

When your job is to sell sex (or the fantasy of sex), it may be difficult to figure out where acceptable provider-client boundaries are, especially if you’re new to the industry. While boundaries are a little more clearly defined in mainstream society—for example, most people can agree that grabbing a waitress’s ass as she walks by your table is grossly inappropriate—identifying your own personal comfort levels and boundaries as a sex worker is integral to keeping the work enjoyable, safe, and sustainable for you.

Cisgender, heterosexual men can tend to gravitate towards the unattainable; when you’re a service worker, and they see you as a sexual object that they are not allowed to touch, they push physical boundaries. 

When you’re a sex worker who they do have physical access to, the danger can come in pushing emotional boundaries. As such, many sex workers I know have much stricter emotional boundaries than physical ones. 

It happens with camming regulars to me all the time. They fall in love with the bubbly, always-horny cam girl 'cause you just act perfect all the time. 

They have no idea we are real people just acting to make money.

It’s not uncommon for men to express intense feelings of emotional attachment disproportionate to the physical services purchased from a sex worker. From the unhappily married sugar daddy who keeps pestering you to “run away” with him, to the young strip club hipster who “never met a girl like you before” and thinks he’s “in love for the first time”. 

Despite the potential for increased cash flow in provider-client relationships that have heavier emotional labor, workers may choose to dismiss the disclosed feelings, laugh them off, or terminate the relationships for a variety of reasons:

1. Financial reasons (the heavier emotions tend to come hand-in-hand with less income from that client, not more).

2. Ethical reasons (concern for the client).

3. Personal reasons (concerned about personal safety in relation to the client expressing heavier emotions, like maybe this could turn into a bad/dangerous boundaries situation). 

I have had clients fall in love with me, and one in particular is the bane of my existence. 

I would describe it as prolonged emotional labor of the suffering sort— but the money is great/consistent so I can't run away. He tells me he loves me all the time and I have responded so many ways rejecting him that it doesn't seem to make a difference at this point. 

At first I just laughed. Then I would gently say, "That's very sweet of you." Finally I had a pretty long and serious talk with him about how I really have no feelings at all for him in that way, and that it made me really uncomfortable when he told me that, even after I've made it clear it's not mutual. He incessantly begs to kiss me, hold my hand, take me to movies and on "dates" (uncompensated of course, and when I bring up that I can't spend time with him without compensating for it, he argues that he's "never had to pay a girl to go on a date before").

The whole thing is such a nightmare and no matter what I do, he tells me he loves me. Texts it to me, emails me, writes me poems. For our sessions he literally puts flower petals on the bed. It's horrible and I feel he uses his proclaimed "love" to cross my boundaries/ignore my need for emotional separation from my clients.

But, also, I have fallen in love with a client who is now my long term partner. I have also fallen in love with a client who loved me too, but wasn't willing to rip apart his life to pursue it. I don't know—love isn't any less complex or hellish with clients; it's just as evil and rewarding.

I have one client who thinks he is in love with me and, as others have said, it really really sucks. I can't even acknowledge that this is a paid arrangement without him crying (no, I'm not exaggerating) and any mention of my boyfriend (even though he is the one to always ask me questions where my bf will come up) also results in brooding and crying. His wife found out about me and he told her that he refused to stop seeing me - I'm 99% sure he would have told her that I am his gf, not a worker.

Personally, I find that he gets under my skin WAY more than anyone else because I feel so responsible for his emotions. When I think about how to 'break up' with him, I feel far more guilt ridden than I ever would usually with a client. He's obnoxious, arrogant and thinks that the only reason I can't tell him I love him is in case it affects his marriage. I think the more he assumes things about the way I feel, the more I hate him.

With regard to personal safety, this is also a major concern. He knows a lot about me and has turned up outside my house (crying) unannounced on more than one occasion. I fully expect that when we do go our separate ways, I will have to move and maybe even change my name. Total fucking nightmare. He has also repeatedly asked for my mom's telephone number in case he can't reach me and gets worried.

Intimacy is the currency of our industry—there is a direct correlation between displays of intimacy and the amount of income received.

The system, in theory, benefits us (with cash proportionate to our labor) rather than silencing us (by making us vulnerable and prioritizing male desire over female safety).

But, under partiarchy, wherever there's an exchange, there is the opportunity for someone with societal privilege to insist on additional, non-negotiated labor or access, whether it's a barista's phone number or to hold hands and be called romantic partners. 

Service workers who are the recipients of unwanted customer attention often feel trapped. If you tell a customer just what you think of their comments about your breasts, you could be reprimanded or lose your job, should the customer decide to make a scene—and a lot of women and service workers read as women can attest that they will want to make a scene.

While some sex workers don't have a supervisor, there is a looming apparatus above us that objectifies and punishes sex workers who come out about the realities of the industry, whether it's by shaming us in the media, silencing us on social media, or intervention by the prison industrial complex.

Just as creeping customers linger at your place of employment for hours, or hold you captive in a one-sided conversation that you can’t escape from, knowing you are at a disadvantage to advocate for yourself, so too do clients rely on the precariousness of sex work to try and trap us into exchanges of non-negotiated intimacy. 

Rather than focusing on the ways that sex work is different from other typically young and female (or female read) labor sectors, I think you'd learn a lot more by examining the core similarities in the ways both industries interact with (and are sometimes afflicted by) our common consumer. 

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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.