Updated: Nov 4, 2021
Blog Post Written By: Jessie Sage
I sit on the hotel bed with my back against the headboard. She sits between my legs and rests against my chest while I run my long nails over her bald head, massaging her scalp. Both fully clothed, we talk softly about our experiences with cancer (hers direct, mine as the partner of a cancer patient). She tells me that her two-year lack of non-clinical touch caused by the circumstances of COVID and cancer have left her unsure of how to experience pleasure in her body (a body that has been transformed by invasive treatment), so we take things slow. First: intimate talk, then gentle touch; perhaps soon: skin to skin contact, kisses, more.
He asks me over Twitter DMs if I ever make custom videos. When I tell him I do, he describes exactly what he wants: a JOI (“jerk off instructions” for those who don’t follow porn) with a twist. He doesn’t want me to give him instructions on how to jerk off his cock, he wants me to walk him through how I pleasure myself to orgasm: what it feels like to run my fingers over my clit, to slide them inside my vagina, to feel myself swell and get wet. When I finish the video and give it to him, he comments, “Now you know more about me than anyone else.” A short time later, I see him change the pronouns in his bio from he/him to he/they; one step closer to letting those beyond me see them for who they are.
A new prospective client sends me an email telling me about himself. In it, he shares that he is autistic, and would like to ask me a few questions before he books. While I am often reticent to share too many specifics in writing, I ask him what kind of questions he has. He starts with, “When I knock on the door and you answer, what do I do? Do we shake hands, hug?” I realize that he wants to know the social norms—the rules—so I lay out a detailed first meeting protocol. After our booking, he sends me a text asking, “Have you worked with a lot of autistic people? You seemed to know exactly what to do to make me comfortable.” I hesitate for a moment before telling him that 2 of my 3 kids are autistic, and that I’ve spent much of my life advocating for them.
Years ago, I was talking to an acquaintance who was running for local office on a feminist platform, and I brought up the importance of decriminalizing sex work. She said, I assume believing that it was the progressive stance, “Oh that, leave the workers alone and lock up the Johns.”
Those of you familiar with decriminalization models will recognize this as the Nordic model: partial decriminalization that ceases to prosecute sellers of sexual services—but not buyers—with the goal of “ending demand.”
Sex workers intuitively know, and now have data to back this up, that criminalizing their clients just makes their job less safe. Clients, for example, are disincentivized from providing real names and information during the screening process when they think it puts them (and only them) in legal jeopardy. For this, and many other reasons, we ought to be advocating for the full decriminalization of sex work.
I bring up this anecdote, however, not to talk about decriminalization models, but instead to talk about the broader picture of how clients of sex workers are conceptualized. What does the kneejerk belief that all clients should be “locked up” tell us about our societal attitude toward people who buy sex? Who, in other words, do we imagine these clients to be?
For people like my acquaintance, for whom sex workers and their clients are entirely abstract concepts (and this includes many feminists who have been indoctrinated into the believe that sex work is entirely exploitative), it is easy to believe that clients are all shady and/or violent men who want to extract as much as possible from sex workers, who are presumed to all be women, without showing any regard for their labor or humanity. There is little in our cultural narrative around sex work to counter this image.
But we also see these attitudes from within the community, from one anonymous Twitter account to the next run by sex workers who create community around a mutual hatred of clients. I am not saying that sex workers shouldn’t have a space to vent frustration with clients. Clients can be needy, demanding, unhygienic, abusive, and violent. I, too, have had issues with clients that I need space to process, often with other sex workers who understand.
I do wonder, though, if we don’t do a disservice to ourselves—as intimate, erotic, creative, and skilled laborers—when we have unnuanced conversations about who our clients are, and what they come to us for. In other words, when we flatten clients into a monolith (and a negative one, at that), what does that say about us, our work, and the services that we provide?
While the bad behavior of clients always reflects poorly on them and not the worker they are interacting with, imagining clients to be wholly bad actors that want nothing more than to abuse us, misrepresents much of the work we do and the relationships we have with clients.
Sexual desire is such a base part of ourselves and trying to navigate our sexual and intimate needs in a mono-normative, sex-negative culture is often lonely and painful. In much of my work with clients, I simply create the conditions that allows them to safely explore their needs and wants, in an environment that is contained to the encounter and free of outside pressures: expectations from partners or spouses, societal norms, or gendered or sexual scripts that they have become accustomed to having to live up to. In other words, I meet my clients where they are and participate in the experiences they want to have.
Given that there is little space for these experiences outside of sex work, the clients who come to me look less like boogeymen, and more like everyday people of all genders (many of whom I have a deep affection for) who are dealing with myriad issues: loneliness, alienated or sexless marriages, illness, gender dysphoria, sexual dysfunction, disabilities, neurodivergencies that make social interactions hard, etc. And many don’t necessarily have issues, but rather just have desires that their primary partner doesn’t want to fulfill, or simply a human need to experience pleasure and intimacy.
These needs are so raw, so real. After years in this industry, having intimate and beautiful experiences with more people than I can count, it is impossible for me to hold an attitude that is wholly negative about clients. Some clients are a pain in the ass, but that is true of all sectors of society. People are people, after all, and sex work is a job.
But understanding who our clients are, and why they come to us, also gives us better insight into ourselves and the value of our labor. Sex workers occupy a special place in the world, one where we get to create these unique experiences with the people who trust us enough to let us into their erotic imaginary. I am grateful for those people and the experiences we co-create.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the blog post above are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of SexWorkCEO or MelRose Michaels. Any content provided by our bloggers or authors are of their opinion and are not intended to malign any religion, ethnic group, club, organization, company, individual or anyone or anything.