The H-Word presents first person stories from current and former sex workers across the U.S. Jessie Nicole describes herself as a queer, stubborn, and committed anarcha-feminist. A former prostitute and dedicated activist, she lives in West Hollywood with her longterm partner. I asked Jessie to talk about why she no longer sells sex.
“Retired” feels like such an odd term to use when I’m about to turn 25 but, yeah, I can talk about retirement. If 1 is “I’d go back tomorrow” and 10 is “I’d rather starve first,” I’m somewhere around an 8.
I started doing sex work when I was 19 in college. I mostly worked off sugar daddy sites and answering ads on craigslist. I really didn’t like the sugar daddy work, and realized very quickly that for many of the men it was a way to have the escort experience without paying escort prices, and skirting the stigma of “paying for it” in a lot of ways. I worked sporadically, taking breaks when I needed to concentrate on school or activist projects. I took about a year off when I was in a monogamous relationship and starting graduate school in Chicago, but I missed the work, and missed the money. So I started working for an escort agency in Chicago, and I loved it.
A couple years later I was scared that if I didn’t quit I never would and wouldn’t get the chance to pursue other dreams. I realized that escorting full time was MUCH different than seeing a client whenever I felt like it, and I was getting seriously burned out. I took a break to concentrate on my relationship and other things I wanted to do, and haven’t stopped that break since—that was about two years ago. I miss the financial freedom. I miss being able to set my own schedule, especially with the demands of graduate school, working 15-20 hours a week in an office was really taking a toll on my studies. I also miss feeling powerful and independent. I always felt like I was in control during my sessions, and I liked that.
But then, there is a lot I don’t miss. I don’t really want to see clients in person anymore. I don’t want to deal with that kind of emotional exchange. I also think it would have a negative effect on my relationship with my partner. He’s never told me not to do something or said sex work was a deal breaker, but I don’t think it would be good for our relationship at this point either. He’s not anti-sex work, but he’d be hurt and scared more than anything if I got back into it. Another reason I stopped is that I thought I could never be taken seriously by other activists / non-profit people / political people so long as I was escorting.
One of the things I’ve found in my personal life and through sex work activism is that people can be totally on board intellectually with sex work and sex workers’ rights, but still have internal hang ups about the industry (which is even true of sex workers). We live in a society that constantly puts down the sex industry in various ways. It’s hard not to internalize some of that. I feel like, while I was escorting, I had this whole secret identity, and one that was really cool, that I had to shut down. I lied to my friends, family, and partners for years. I still carry around a lot of guilt about that.
Today I work as a receptionist. I’m underpaid and worried about money pretty much constantly. I don’t get treated with nearly as much respect. Clients at least treated me like a person the majority of the time, and interacted with me on a meaningful level. A LOT of people treat receptionists as robots who don’t know anything. And it’s a very predictable job. I know for the most part how each day is going to go, whereas part of the fun of escorting was the adventure. Working 8-5 is pretty brutal. It’s hard to make myself do anything after work. I do my job well, better than they pay me for most days, but I feel like just about anyone can do what I do at my day job. No one escorts like me.
I have two co-workers who I trust and respect who know of my past, but I’m keeping it quiet otherwise. I won’t lie if I’m asked about it, but I’m not advertising it either. I’m more worried about when my parents inevitably find out. I’m really close with my family and I’ve always been worried about disappointing them or losing their respect. When I come out or am outed to my family the narrative will be easier for them to digest in terms of “I did this when I was young, and now I’ve turned it into an awesome social justice thing!” I want to do nonprofit work. I want a career in helping people. I have to keep believing this day job will help me get a day job I actually care about. I think being a receptionist at a respected nonprofit will help me reach that more than sex work will.
In addition to her day job, Jessie volunteers as the Executive Director of Sex Worker’s Outreach Project in Los Angeles (SWOP-LA). Read more from Jessie at her blog.