When you think about a sex worker, images of knee-high fishnet stockings, red stilettos and dark street corners might come to mind. But as the ever-expanding sex industry begins to change and evolve, so, too, does the idea of what the average sex worker looks like.
On the website Men4RentNow.com, you can find models from across the world promising various forms of fantasy fulfillment. One of the first profiles to appear when searching for an escort in Miami is “Mike,” a nude masseur advertising services from household work to personal training to stripping.
“Most of my clients are surprised to find out I have two master’s degrees,” Mike said via text message when first contacted.
Though Mike’s photos were posted online, his size was still surprising in person. He was an #InstaFit hashtag personified, with big arms and thighs the size of watermelons. He had just come from the gym, holding a water jug in one hand with a duffel bag hoisted over his shoulder.
Mike said he had a regular, 9-to-5 corporate job at a flower company — he holds degrees in landscape architecture and agroecology — before he was laid off in February 2014. But the layoff turned out to be a good thing, he said.
“I can’t stress how unhappy I was at that job,” Mike said. “I realized I had to work for myself to be happy — when I was looking over my past history working for different companies across the country, I realized the single biggest linking thread was my unhappiness working for other people.”
It was then, Mike said, that he decided he wanted to pursue other endeavors, but had no reliable income source after his job let him go.
“I was ready to work for myself as both an architectural designer and a personal trainer, but I didn’t really plan to start working for myself so abruptly,” Mike said. “It’s something I thought I would phase into over time.
“To make ends meet, I needed a third job — and I needed something relatively easy to do with little to no overhead that would make a lot of money in a short amount of time.”
One of Mike’s friends suggested he try escorting, but he was hesitant at first. He said he was disappointed because it wasn’t how he envisioned his life working out. After deciding to pursue sex work, though, Mike said he realized it wasn’t much different than any other job.
“I treat this business very professionally,” he said. “I always try to show up on time, I always text or call my clients if I know I’m running late or can’t make it — I treat it exactly as my other businesses. Professionalism is number one.
“I don’t treat the job as a joke or treat the client like an ATM machine and try to get as much money as possible out of them and let the quality be damned — I have the exact opposite approach.”
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Most people tend to equate the words “sex worker” with prostitution, said Mary Emily O’Hara, an LGBTQ reporter for The Daily Dot, a digital publication.
O’Hara, a former sex worker, recently moderated a panel on “LGBTQ Sex Work in the News: Facts and Fairness, Not Sensationalism” at The Association of LGBTQ Journalists’ annual national convention. She said the phrase “sex work” is an umbrella term.
“This can include adult film actors, webcam performers, strippers, escorts, BDSM professionals, phone sex operators — there’s a full gamut of work that provides some sort of sexualized service,” O’Hara said.
Gay sex workers were catapulted into the national spotlight in 2015 when the Department of Homeland Security and the New York Police Department raided the Manhattan headquarters of Rentboy.com. The company’s CEO was arrested for promoting prostitution and the website was shut down. According to O’Hara, the conversation surrounding sex workers since then has led to many questions about covering sex work in the news.
“When you’re looking at this community and this beat, you have to realize it’s multiple communities and they’re experiencing things very, very differently,” she said.
“A street-based sex worker — especially one who might be a person of color, who might be experiencing more poverty, homelessness or drug use — is going to have a radically different way of talking about the context of doing sex work than a woman who is an adjunct professor escorting on occasion or a writer picking up a little money on the side.”
Sex work coverage calls for more background research than the average news article, O’Hara said, but this can be especially difficult when there are few reliable resources available for members of the media to cite or reference.
“When you’re looking at this industry, you have to go in with an especially skeptical journalistic [mindset], understanding that everything that you’re going to see written about it — all the studies, statistics, research — is very likely inaccurate,” O’Hara said. “You have to really question where it comes from.”
Jorge Amaro, who is the media and public relations director for the National LGBTQ Task Force and was another panelist for the journalism convention’s sex work breakout session, agreed.
“An accurate number of the amount of sex workers or their demographics is nonexistent, primarily because of the federal and state laws enacted that prevent people from coming out of the shadows,” Amaro said.
The many legal concerns surrounding sex work contribute to the challenges members of the media face when covering the industry. Journalistic standards recommend using a source’s full name for reasons of accuracy and transparency. However, sex work reporting often requires anonymity.
“With sex workers, you have to take into account that they can face legal repercussions, severe stigma, job loss or have their children taken away because they do this work,” O’Hara said.
“Printing someone’s full name is not really ever ethical unless they are completely out; pseudonyms are very typical and are almost always the way to go.”
A different focus
Cristine Sardina, director of a sex worker outreach and advocacy organization called the Desiree Alliance, said sex workers not only face jail time or discrimination when disclosing their names, they also are at risk of being harmed — or worse.
“Most sex worker rights organizations are out in the open about what we do, but it’s the fact that you can be arrested or targeted or killed that they don’t use their real names,” Sardina said.
She suggested the media do more digging when covering sex work issues to help reshape negative stereotypes and narratives.
“What I don’t like is that the media depicts all sex workers as street workers and as poor people that need to be saved and rescued,” she said. “I think misinformation is a huge part of it — some media outlets just don’t get their facts straight.
“It’s a form of consensual labor. Sex trafficking exists, but if it’s consensual and there’s no harm done for anyone, [sex work] is a valid form of labor and it should recognized as such.”
An advocate for the Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP) in Tampa Bay, Fla., shared a similar viewpoint. Amber, who asked that her last name not be disclosed for privacy purposes, said there’s a dominant social narrative that all sex workers are victims — but that that’s not always true.
“A lot of sex workers actually enjoy their work,” she said. “Sex work is very poorly reported in the media.
“Getting better starts by going beyond the cultural stereotype to understand our place in society as sex workers.”
According to Amber, more media focus needs to be on the health, education and public policy aspects regarding the industry as opposed to scandals involving sex workers.
“The basic message is that regardless of one’s opinion, [sex work] is a path people are on,” she said. “Sex workers are human beings. They should not be shamed and they deserve respect.”
‘That’s why it’s called sex work’
While some sex workers rely on the trade for survival, others, like Dale Cooper, have different motivations. Cooper, an adult film actor in Baltimore, entered the field to help pay off his student loans.
“I’m a very specific type of sex worker,” said Cooper, who uses a stage name. “People like me, with social media accounts and public personas, are a very privileged set [of sex workers].
“I’ve definitely had to rely on my sex work income to fulfill basic needs like buying food and shelter, but I wouldn’t consider that as me relying on sex work to survive.”
So-called “survival sex,” Cooper said, mostly applies to those with little to no sort of social safety net.
“That label is more for migrant laborers, people who exchange sex for a drug habit or use sex work to support others, like a child,” he said. “I’ve sometimes had to do some sex work I wouldn’t have wanted to do in order to pay my bills, but that doesn’t mean it was coercive. I just had a limited set of options.
“That’s why it’s called ‘sex work.’ Not everyone enjoys doing work, but you’ve got to do it.”
Cooper said the media needs to do a better job of including sex worker representation.
“My biggest pet peeve is [reading] a story about sex work that doesn’t include a single sex worker interviewed,” he said. “If you’re writing a story that impacts sex workers, it’s pretty important to include their voice and to do it in a way that allows them to speak from their experiences.”
Cooper said it’s also important for members of the media to ask how sex workers want to be identified. While “sex worker” encompasses many different concepts and identities, some people prefer other names or labels.
“I think [the phrase] ‘sex work’ is great from a political and organizing standpoint,” Cooper said. “And it’s great that it’s been adopted by a lot of global human rights organizations, but not everyone identifies as a sex worker or is familiar with the term.
“It’s a label that certain people can have more access to. I think it’s the best label that we have — but if someone wants to be called a prostitute, that’s what’s most important.”
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Mike, who has used the last two years doing sex work to help bolster his income as he builds his personal training and landscaping companies, is slowly getting out of the business.
As a nude masseur, Mike doesn’t have intercourse with his clients, but he could still face legal ramifications if he got caught. Mike said the media can’t do much to help alter public perception of sex work until there’s a greater cultural shift. He insisted the negativity and stigma is too pervasive.
“The religious right and the Republicans and the conservatives love to cling to these scary stereotypes,” Mike said. “I personally would like to believe that those archetypes are really outdated and going by the wayside.
“The most negative things I see in the media are from political conservatives who love to demonize sex workers.”
Overall, though, Mike said his stint in sex work has been one of the most beneficial experiences of his life. Typically a sexually reserved person, he said sex work has boosted his self-confidence.
“I’ve realized that I don’t need to actually have intercourse with my clients to sexually fulfill them,” Mike said. “I’ve had men say that I’ve been the best sexual experience of their lives, yet no fluids were exchanged.”
While Mike’s time as a sex worker has been short-lived, it’s provided him the opportunity to pursue his true callings in design and fitness — and the newfound sexual courage certainly helps, he said.
“This experience has really changed me for the better in that regard. In simple terms, I just feel more confident when I’m being intimate with people.”
About the Author
Siali Siaosi is studying journalism at the University of Central Oklahoma. Learn more about him here.