Evie* introduced herself with a little wave to a woman in black cutoff shorts. “Hey, hon, are you working tonight? Do you need supplies?”
It was a misty evening in May and Evie was handing out kits, carefully packed and folded brown paper bags of condoms and syringes for women out doing sex work or using drugs. When a woman lingering on the street recognizes her or makes eye contact, it’s important to approach politely, but not too formally.
“Cops call you ‘ma’am’ and ‘miss,’ but ‘hon’ and ‘sweetheart’? We know what ‘sweetheart’ means,” she explained.
Evie started doing outreach to sex workers five years ago, when she was 22. Some friends were volunteering, and Evie was attracted to the pragmatism of harm reduction, which argues that people shouldn’t go to jail for crimes that don’t harm others, that they shouldn’t die just because they do self-destructive things. At the time she thought trading sex for money was something only the “absolutely desperate” did. As a white college grad, she never imagined it could be a job.
But many of the women she met on the streets and through harm reduction organizations were smart, self-aware, and independent. Evie took on more responsibility and became an active participant in the sex worker rights movement, presenting about sex work and drugs at conferences, summits, workshops, and trainings across the country. She advocates for visibility and acceptance of sex work and the repeal of laws against drugs and prostitution. She argues that sex work is just that—work.
When she talks to groups of college students or presents at a conference, she explains that even though society frames sex work as either a last resort or the result of a celebratory, sex-positive choice, people who have sex for money do so in a variety of ways and for many different reasons. Some don’t consider themselves sex workers or identify with a larger movement for sex workers’ rights. Others might be personally comfortable with the decisions they’ve made, but the threat of arrest or a widespread attitude of pity and disdain keep them closeted.
The thing is, Evie’s not just advocating for other people. Even as she rails against the stigma of sex work, she also lives with it.
Someone you know is a sex worker,” announced a 2011 media campaign by the St. James Infirmary in San Francisco, the first health clinic established for and by sex workers. Though it’s a powerful suggestion, the term “sex worker” is still fraught. Evie and the other women interviewed for this article share some fundamental beliefs about the practice of trading sex for money: It should be legal, it should be safe, it should not be shameful or stigmatized. But because trading sex for money is stigmatized, illegal, and sometimes unsafe, the circumstances of someone’s life determine how and if she publicly acknowledges having done sex work or calls herself a sex worker and whether she tells her friends and family what she does for money.
Evie started working in restaurants when she was 16. By her early twenties she felt “terribly exploited.” The hours were long, the pay was bad, and “I could just be fired for any reason,” she says. In 2012, after a customer left a negative Yelp review, that’s what happened. A friend she knew from doing outreach worked at a strip club and suggested Evie try dancing there. Five hours at the club paid more than an entire week of waiting tables, so she gave it a try.
A few months in, Evie began offering some customers “extras”—oral sex in the champagne room. Thanks to an ad in the erotic services section of backpage.com, she started making up to $400 for a date. Backpage and the club have become her only sources of income; she does all her sex work advocacy for free. Evie doesn’t particularly enjoy sex work, but while she’s in college, it beats waitressing.
Most people in Evie’s life don’t know any of this. The majority of the sex workers Evie knows who are “out” haven’t gone public by choice—they’ve been exposed online or by law enforcement. Those who disclose, get arrested, or are outed, can lose housing, savings, financial aid, government assistance, and custody of their children. If they have a legit job, they can lose that as well and might fail a background check in the future. This kind of profiling and arrest happens much more frequently to women of color and trans women—something casually referred to as being arrested for “walking while trans.”
Some sex worker rights activists say that white women like Evie should come out as an act of solidarity. If everyone who’s had sex for money were open about it, would the public accept that sex work defies stereotypes and is more prevalent than most imagine? The answer is a Catch-22. Stigma and severe criminal penalties keep people from openly fighting laws and cultural attitudes.
Even for someone like Evie, disclosing that she does sex work requires a careful assessment of all that could go wrong. When she was worried that an inflamed open sore in her mouth might be herpes, her visit to the doctor meant choosing between her health and her privacy. She was nervous enough to admit she worked as an “escort,” and when she did, he told her, “well, this is what you should expect.” Had Evie tried to call the police when a coked-up client threw her onto the floor and kicked her, she doesn’t think they would have arrested her, but they likely “would have laughed at me and asked why I was in the room,” she says. Other than a few people who know about her job, Evie didn’t feel comfortable telling most friends about the assault.
What Evie’s friends do know is that she’s a committed advocate. She likes that they come to her with questions about drugs or safer sex. Still, if friends or acquaintances find out she works in a club, she says, they treat her like “this curious object where people can ask you all of these personal questions”—about body hair, outfits, customers. And most of them still assume she’s only stripping. “They'll ask me if extras go on—not realizing they’re talking about me,” she says.
Evie’s parents think she’s a bartender in a strip club. She says it’s a pretty common pretext: “If you talk to the families of every girl who works in a strip club,” Evie says, “98 percent of them think their daughter is a bartender.” Evie would like to tell them, but her mom got so angry even thinking about Evie tending bar there. “How are they gonna treat you?” Evie says her mother asked her.
Though cops occasionally try to bust people in the club, Evie knows that because she’s white and reads as a middle-class woman who doesn’t use drugs, and works at a club rather than on the street, it’s unlikely she’ll ever be arrested for prostitution. In Brooklyn, for example, most prostitution arrests occur outdoors and in 2014, 94% of the people charged with loitering for the purpose of prostitution were black.
Earlier this year, an Arizona woman named Monica Jones spoke at the United Nations about being profiled by police because she is a sex worker and a trans woman of color. Jones was arrested in 2013 while she was walking down the street in Phoenix. She says she wasn’t working that night and refused to attend a diversion program called Project ROSE, which offers a sentence of education or rehabilitation instead of jail time. “I’m proud to be a sex worker,” she says she told authorities. Jones was then charged with “manifesting prostitution,” a broadly-defined law that makes it a crime to stop and talk with people on the street or wave at a motor vehicle. She pleaded “not guilty.”
To fight a charge on principle “comes at a cost, and not everyone can bear that cost,” says Penelope Saunders, coordinator of the Best Practices Policy Project, an organization that advocates for policy change around sex work and the sex trade. Monica Jones is pursuing a degree in social work from the University of Arizona and says her “schooling suffered tremendously” during the case. “I don’t know if I’m going to make it to next semester,” she says. She was found guilty of manifesting prostitution in 2014. The prosecution had relied heavily on her past arrests and her activism as an out sex worker to secure the verdict, and for that reason, an appeals court overturned Jones’ conviction the following year. Her case may be retried. Monica Jones says she knows many people who want to be outspoken, “but they’re afraid of being outed and profiled by police.”
“Once you have a prostitution charge, [coming out] is kind of irrelevant,” says Sarah Patterson, the Deputy Director of Red Umbrella Project, an advocacy organization for sex workers. Because black, Latina, and transgender women are much more likely to be profiled and arrested, Patterson says that white women who have stable lives, education, and access to resources “have little to lose by being out.”
“As a white woman, I think that white sex worker advocates have a lot more work to do with being in solidarity with those who can’t choose whether or not they are outed,” she says.
But whether or not they’re outed because of an arrest, plenty of people who have sex for money will never even consider themselves sex workers. And those are precisely the ones who could help the movement.
Sophie* says that when she was 17, she started thinking about becoming “a prostitute.”
“I don’t really know why, but I thought it sounded like a really good idea,” Sophie, who is 24, white and grew up working class, told me. When she moved to New York City at 21, she had $150 and was crashing on a friend’s couch. Craigslist seemed like an easy way to make money. Today she enjoys her steady jobs as a waitress and a barista, and sees a couple of regular clients for sex.
Her friends know that she sometimes dates and her mother even knows that she’s worked as a dominatrix in the past. But Sophie does not identify as a sex worker. “I do it really casually and I don’t like doing it when I need money,” Sophie says, acknowledging that her attitude towards trading sex is different than many self-professed sex workers. “I know plenty of people that identify as sex workers and that’s not how I do my work.”
In other words, for Sophie, having sex with her clients for money doesn’t feel like work. “I don’t like doing anything out of desperation,” she says. “I have done it out of desperation, I guess, but usually I like to do it ‘cause it’s fun for me.”
People who have been hurt or arrested while doing sex work or who disliked doing it often tell her this attitude is “a little too casual” when, for them, sex work is a “serious thing,” she says. Why have sex for money and call it a hobby? they wonder. Why not just have sex for pleasure?
But because you’re not desperate for money doesn’t mean you don’t want it. “Money is absolutely part of why I enjoy it,” says Sophie. But even with monetary gain, “it’s a hobby.”
Rather than narrowing the definition of sex work to exclude women like Sophie who aren’t having sex to support themselves, Monica Jones, who was arrested in Arizona, wants to broaden it. She knows that not everyone can disclose, but she thinks that lots of people who’d never consider themselves sex workers have done some sort of sex work. “It is more common than people would admit,” says Jones. Women who have sex with their husbands for allowances, women with sugar daddies, people who trade sex for rides or places to stay—“some people don't identify as sex workers because to them what they're doing is [considered] normal,” says Jones. “People view sex work as me on the corner with a stranger in a car…but if you look at what the law says, prostitution is exchanging sex for any goods.”
In early 2014, a friend and fellow Duke student exposed 18-year-old Belle Knox as “the Duke Porn Star.” Knox, whose real name is Miriam Weeks, had starred in more than 30 porn scenes and films in order to pay her $4,300 a month tuition bill from Duke. On the TV show The View, she described her experience in the porn industry as “supportive, exciting, thrilling and empowering.” It was other students, who threatened her life and threw garbage on her, who made her feel unsafe.
Later that year, Rolling Stone magazine reported that Knox’s family had stopped speaking to her after she was outed. Belle Knox hadn’t even broken the law, but her story confirmed Evie’s fears about what could happen if her work became public. A woman who dares to admit without shame that she’s done something illegal and disreputable is tiptoeing across a minefield of legal and personal risk—even a white, cisgender, middle-class woman. In Evie’s progressive community it’s socially acceptable, even cool, to support sex worker rights or hand out needles and condoms in dangerous neighborhoods, but to actually do sex work openly would mean rejection, gossip, and awkward questions.
Unlike Sophie, Evie says she accepts her identity as a sex worker in order to “emphasize that I’m part of an unregulated exploited labor force.” Even though she’s a white, cisgender woman who works indoors, Evie does miss out on rights and privileges that come with a recognized, legit job. Most people take the freedom to vent after a bad day at work for granted. Sex workers who are closeted can’t do this. “I deserve to complain about work to my friends, too,” says Evie.
Regardless of how a person feels about the act of trading sex for money, secrecy brings “anxiety, stress, and pressure to constantly be aware of what you’re saying, your surroundings, people’s perceptions of you,” says Rena McDaniel, a psychologist who treats sexual minorities and has several patients who work in the sex trade. According to McDaniel, shame and anxiety can leave people with a sense of invisibility, “feeling like they can’t be their authentic selves.”
Being honest inevitably affects romantic relationships, too. Evie and Jonathan (not his real name) met through a mutual friend. They would go hiking, see bands, or search out hole-in-the-wall restaurants. He knew she worked as a dancer in a club and he says he thought it was hot. “So, do you sleep with these guys? Do you have sex for money?” he asked Evie after they’d been dating for a few months. It was the first relationship she’d had since she’d started working. She was caught off-guard and told him, “no.”
They broke up after less than six months, but stayed friends. Evie wanted to sleep with him again, and so she decided that he should know the truth about her work. One night over a bottle of wine she brought up their earlier conversation. “Remember when you asked me if I have sex for money and I said, ‘no’?” She took a deep breath. “Well the answer’s actually ‘yes.’”
Jonathan says his meltdown “happened really fast. Like when you get too mad in a fight.” He doesn’t remember what he said. According to Evie, he told her “I would never go out with a prostitute,” and says he’d have broken up with her if he’d known.
As soon as Jonathan sobered up he started texting apologies. He hadn’t meant to lash out, but his discomfort was real. “I don’t want to think people you could fall in love with can be bought—it just triggers this primal insecurity in me,” he said. She forgave him and they remained friends. Still, his reaction has left her reluctant to tell other people she dates. How many straight guys would be OK with dating someone who has sex for money?
Not coming out has an extra incentive for activists like Evie: It makes it easier for them to meet with officials and policymakers. Jessica*, a longtime advocate with a salaried position at an NGO, says that while “it doesn’t feel great” to keep her experience doing sex work private, “I’m not willing to sacrifice the work that I could do for a personal decision.”
Jessica is often in the room for policy conversations around anti-prostitution laws and sex trafficking. As she works to convince people with power or money not to further criminalize sex work, she is constantly wrestling with the question of whether to come out. She has a good job and a masters’ degree. She knows that she has a choice, while some other people do not. Am I making it harder for someone with less privilege to come out? she asks herself.
Prominent white activists like Sarah Patterson have come out as an act of solidarity, but Jessica thinks the people she works with wouldn’t respect or collaborate with her if they knew the truth. Often during meetings, she says “people malign sex workers without realizing that they’re talking to one.”
“I think they assume that [a sex worker] would have dressed up for that conversation like Erin Brockovich. They don’t realize I can go buy a gray suit too,” she says.
Of course, there’s one instance where being out actually helps a sex work activist: outreach on the street. Once, while doing outreach with a friend, Evie gave some kits to a woman who she’d seen several times before. “It was summer [and] the street was hopping,” Evie recalls. “Why are you guys out here doing this? What do you do outside of this?” she says the woman asked them. Evie told her she danced at a club and the woman immediately seemed more comfortable. “We were already getting along,” he says. “[T]here definitely was a change in her expression. She said she thought that was so great.”
It’s cathartic for Evie, too. Outreach is one of the few times she can talk openly about her job. It’s the one moment where “you’re actually able to have a conversation with someone and stand on the street for five minutes and just be a person.”
*name has been changed
Nicole Pasulka's writing has been published at Mother Jones, NPR, The Believer, Vice, and the Best American Sports Writing Anthology. You can read more of her work at www.nicolepasulka.com.