You may think there is a man lurking behind this article but you have to take my word for it: I’m a woman and I have paid for sex. My decision, my choice.
I’m not a middle-aged power executive paying for a male escort, nor a girlfriend pressured into acting out her boyfriend’s fantasy. Actually, I’m a 20-something professional who suggested to my then boyfriend that he might like to try a ‘threesome’. You could say I’m bisexual (though it’s not so simple – no boxes, labels or easy definitions define my sexuality). And this wasn’t my first time – though it was my first time paying for it.
Against the usual stereotype my boyfriend was the insecure one, afraid I might leave him for the female party. So we finally agreed on hiring a sex worker. It was not an easy decision but I think it should have been.
Irrational panic, moralising, believing all sex workers are ‘victims’ and conflating trafficking and abuse with prostitution per se does nothing to address or help people forced into sex work. Exploitation and trafficking are about exploitation and trafficking not the act of paying for sex.
These strands need to be untangled before we can honestly debate and challenge our preconceptions and understand what is really behind our unease about paying for sex – or even just sex in general – as well as working with sex workers as equals to protect their rights and honour their choices.
We need to legalise prostitution, recognise sex workers’ rights and acknowledge that exploitation and abuse are part of this particular occupation’s hazards. And as with every occupation there is even more exploitation unless there is legal protection. We don’t criminalise the entire building industry to stop the rogue builder who exploits and endangers illegal workers. What’s the difference?
So, armed with a list of requirements and preferences just like any careful consumer looking to hire someone for a particular service, I began looking for the ‘right for me’ (and yes, I know, rather selfishly less so for him) sex worker. I wasn’t buying her soul, her mind, body or her life – just her participation. I wanted a sexy, assertive woman who was working for herself and who had made a positive, informed decision to be a sex worker.
My concerns were also the same as when you buy any service to ensure it lives up to expectations. It’s a lot of money for a one-time, one-night purchase and you don’t want to feel short-changed. I wanted to avoid even the remotest possibility of exploitation, so I was looking at the upper end of the market.
There are a lot worse ways to earn £500 (plus expenses) for three hours work, which is what I ended up paying. And if you follow the (il)logic of why all sex work is demeaning, then so too is any work – we all prostitute ourselves for a living. What about a soldier’s body? Or a miner’s? And what, for that matter, is the difference between a surrogate sex therapist and a prostitute? No, there isn’t a punch line.
A person’s worth is much more than the sum of what they do for a living. So why stereotype all sex workers as abused and exploited? Is it not the case that for many women sex work offers a rational ‘career choice’, that they do it because they can earn good money from it, because they are good at it, because it’s a better option than the alternatives that are open to them – even, goddamit, that some of them enjoy it?
It was important for me for all of us to have fun – and to like the person as well as find her attractive. Sex is infinitely better when mutually pleasurable and has at least respect and affection involved, and it was much harder to reconcile this fact with what I was doing than the simple act of paying for it. What the client may want is not what they will get if it means intimacy or reciprocity of feeling because, rightly so, this is controlled by the sex worker. I remember once reading an interview with a sex worker who said something along the lines of the punter might briefly ‘have my cunt but he doesn’t have me’.
Nonetheless, sex with or without love should be fun and guilt free. Why should simply putting money on the table turn a good thing into a bad thing? We don’t believe that only food provided freely and with love is enjoyable: why make such distinctions over sex? I’ve had great sex without love and lousy sex with love. It doesn’t devalue the other person in acknowledging this – sex is only one part of any relationship, not its be all and end all. Similarly, why should paying for sex devalue the person you are paying?
Sex can be just sex, with or without payment. We can attach any meaning we want but it’s hypocritical to deny that these ‘values’ are relative and subjective. There are plenty of reasons for paying for sex – in my case to ameliorate a boyfriend’s anxieties that I preferred women (unfounded as I actually left him not long afterwards for another man).
An interesting twist in this experience for me was that a couple of the sex workers I contacted were concerned that perhaps I was the exploited one. Was I ‘as up for it as my partner’? Yes, I could assure them: this was an equal decision, indeed more to do with me and my desires than him.
Would I pay for sex again? Probably not. But not because I think it’s wrong – it was a unique set of circumstances – and of course the best things in life are free.
Feminist futures: Red Pepper’s feminist special issue: ● Our bodies, our choice ● Is the future xenofeminist? ● Women and the new unions ● Feminists on the anti-fascist frontline ● Plus: Left politics and the generational divide ● Decolonising museums ● Book reviews ● and much more
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