My first job was washing dishes at a place called Marvin’s Diner. My best friend Jenny and I worked the Sunday morning shift, starting at five thirty in the morning in the basement. Our first task was to turn potatoes into hash browns. The potatoes were boiled in enormous cast iron pots on oversized commercial gas stoves—no easy task for two ninety pound girls. Once boiled, they went straight into the freezer to cool while we peeled and grated potatoes from the day before, cold as clumps of ice. We worked all morning, unsupervised, in the drafty bowels of the diner. When the potatoes were done, it was time to start the dishes, which had been piling up all morning. Marvin, the owner, sat all day at the counter, drinking black coffee, chain smoking and ordering us about. He was decrepit old man with crooked yellow teeth and foul breath. At the end of our first shift, he told us to wear skirts next time—the shorter the better. We held out our hands—red and raw from the dish sanitizing solution—in anticipation of our cash.
We did it because we were paid in cash under the table and because no one else would hire us: We were twelve.
As a teenager, there was nothing I wouldn’t have done for cash. I worked in fast food. I worked in retail. I was a check out girl at the grocery store. I stuffed envelopes after school. One summer, I even sold singing telegrams. I worked long hours for unreasonable bosses, all for very little pay. At Marvin’s, Jenny and I found ways to make the day go by faster. We’d crank up the radio and steal cigarette breaks, often ashing those cigarettes straight into the hash. We fantasized aloud about what we’d tell Marvin if only we could while enjoying endless cups of coffee, the job’s only perk. Sure, it was fun to be with Jenny but I would not say the work was “fun.” As far as I knew, it wasn’t supposed to be.
Had you asked me as a teenager my ideas of “work,” I would’ve said that work sucked and I would’ve been half-right: the jobs available to me, at that time, did. The environments I worked in were highly restrictive. The tasks were repetitive. Work required more strength than skill, although most jobs, I thought, required neither. You couldn’t go fast enough and there was always more to do. The money was barely enough to make it seem worth it, but you did it anyway. Why? In the community where I grew up, everyone worked, most people were poor—it was just the way things were. I worked because I wasn’t given an allowance, and I needed cash. What was the alternative?
The term sex worker was introduced by writer, activist and self-identified sex worker Carol Leigh in 1979, the year I was born. It is an umbrella term used to describe any type of sexual services exchanged for financial gain. Anything from working as a phone sex operator or being a stripper to working in porn or working as a prostitute could be classified as “sex work.” Activists like Leigh argue that the term locates sex work in the realm of work, similar in some ways and dissimilar in others to any other form of labor. Sex work, these activists argue, is work and—like any other job—people do it for the money.
I started stripping when I was nineteen years old. It was the second semester of my second year of college, and I was living in Mexico as a student abroad. Out of cash, my credit card having hit its limit, it was strip or go home. Going home, in my eyes, was not an option. I needed to be there to earn college credit, but it was more than that. To have gone home would’ve felt like a failure. I was the first in my family to go to college, let alone study abroad. I would not disappoint them or myself. I would not back to the claustrophobic working-class white trashdom I’d worked so hard to escape. Instead, I started working at a club called “La Trampa”—translated, the tramp or “the trap.” I stripped, on and off, for the next four years. In many ways, sex work was an ideal occupation. Working part-time as a stripper, I was able to pay the family contribution portion of my tuition as well as cover my living expenses. It made it so I could travel and work the unpaid internships taken for granted as part of the “undergraduate experience.”
I did it for the money but it was also true that I enjoyed it. Like no job I’d had before, stripping took skills. Yes, it was physically strenuous, but it was not only physical. Interacting with customers required intelligence and personality. I was free to be myself—or, at least, a part of myself. Indeed, of all the jobs available to me at the time, there was no question: stripping was, by far and in many ways, the best. It had the best uniform. I could make my own hours. I liked to dance. I felt genuinely good at it. And then there was the money.
Five plus years since I last time I sold sex, I am still overcoming the feeling of shame. I am still making sense of myself and my experience by defending what, for me, is an inarguable truth, a reality I know from firsthand experience: not all sex work is “sexual enslavement” and some women and men choose to sell sex because of circumstances other than force. I am still defending my choice by explaining those circumstances, again and again, justifying why I did something that so-called “decent” women wouldn’t even consider doing, constantly assuring those who’ve never done it that it’s “not that bad.” Thirty one years later, before we are even allowed to consider how to make our jobs and our lives better, current and former sex workers are still struggling to feel dignity in our choices by defining them as such, insisting that society recognize what we do or have done as “work.”
Today, thanks to multiple degrees and many years of experience in the labor market, I realize that not everybody hates their job. In college, I interned at two domestic violence shelters as an advocate and as a rape crisis counselor. After graduation I worked in nonprofit development as a grant writer, in charitable event coordination and cause-related marketing (a job requiring skills very similar to stripping). When I found myself working a dead-end job as a research assistant at a public hospital, I returned to sex work—this time as a call girl on Craigslist. Whereas I’d hated my desk job, I hated prostitution even more. After four short months, I quit. I went back to school and became a teacher, a job that I loved.
Whereas some people tolerate their work—as Jenny and I tolerated working at Marvin’s—some jobs are easier than others to tolerate, and some people have the privilege of working jobs they actually enjoy. Sex workers fall into every category, and so long as there is poverty there will always be a class of individuals who would rather sell sex than be poor.