Someone you love is a sex worker, because sex workers are everywhere. We snaffle the best biscuits in the break room with you at work, puff our way to 5km two treadmills over at the gym, and wave at you from the playground gates as we do the morning school run. Our lives are full of loving and non-transactional relationships with people from whom we stay closeted, but also, with people who know what we do.
I’d been a sex worker for about seven years before I moved back to London, and it marked a profound change in my own closeted status. It was the first time I lived with people who knew about my job. I’d told them when I first went to check out the listing: a cramped room with just enough space for a bed, a small table and an irredeemably ugly wardrobe with blocks of royal blue that jarred against light brown wood.
The flat was officially a two-bedroom, but Andre and Michele had decided to convert half of the living room into a third bedroom and sublet their old room to make ends meet. A queer couple originally from Italy’s Abruzzo region, they were prone to theatrical hand gestures, falling asleep with the lights on and occasional outbursts of half-baked Marxism gleaned from Andre’s remote-learning course.
“Doesn’t look like a sex worker,” was Michele’s assessment on our first meeting.
“She has seized the means of production,” Andre told him, and he nodded approvingly.
“What did you think I was going to look like?”
He shrugged. “More interesting.”
Simon, the respectable tenant whose name was on the lease, occupied the remaining bedroom. He had auburn hair and the perpetual look of a man unconvinced by Andre and Michele’s plans but not quite roused to challenge them. He was a keen chef, keeping the house well-fed with his rigidly Italian cooking: a rotation of heavy carbohydrates tempered with Mediterranean vegetables and fresh herbs. I tried to ingratiate myself, washing up whatever pans I found abandoned in the sink to soak, scouting around the house for discarded crockery.
Simon, the respectable tenant whose name was on the lease, occupied the remaining bedroom.
Andre and Michele were nocturnal animals. When a long outcall booking kept me from returning home until the early morning, they’d often stagger through the front door around the same time, exhausted but giddy on London’s nightlife.
“You catch some cock this evening?” Michele would tease as Andre made us all a cup of tea, nudging me with a sharp hip exposed by low-slung chinos.
“Not as much as you, I’m sure,” I’d retort, and we’d giggle like schoolchildren until Andre shushed us.
“No waking Simon,” he’d scold, bringing us steaming mugs and face wipes to take off the last of our make-up before we went to bed.
I saw Simon in the evenings I wasn’t working. We hung out on the sofa watching TV, eating lasagne, and complaining about the things in the flat that didn’t work but that our landlord stonewalled us on fixing. After I mentioned the dodgy drains in the bathroom I shared with Andre and Michele, Simon offered to let me use his ensuite while he was at work.
I’d been living there for a few months when he came home while I was finishing up in the shower. I came out in my towel to find him awkwardly standing in his room.
“Oh. Hi.” Water dripped from my hair onto the floor.
I started to cotton on to the sidelong glances that lingered when he thought I couldn’t see. The consideration he paid to cooking my favourite foods, and the coffee he made for me in the mornings I had to be up early.
Simon stared at me for a second. Then he grabbed another towel off the back of his door and walked closer to me. He dabbed the textured cloth at my exposed shoulders before wrapping it around them.
I started to cotton on to the sidelong glances that lingered when he thought I couldn’t see. The special consideration he paid to cooking my favourite foods, and the coffee he made for me in the mornings I had to be up early. The way he fluffed up the best cushion for me on the sofa. The extra blanket he offered to put on my bed when it was cold.
I wanted to love him. I willed myself to. The guilt ate me up inside.
Sometimes I wonder if I could have, eventually. I liked him. Fuck, I really liked him. He was kind. He was steady. We ate pasta and watched Mr Robot (his choice) and Orange is the New Black (mine) and walked to Borough market together on weekends. He was my friend.
That was before I learned exactly how his mind framed our relationship. When he confessed his feelings, and I tried to let him down gently, his next words made any affection that I might have felt for him – platonic or otherwise – sour. Painfully.
“I can’t believe this.”
My hand hovered above his shoulder, unsure whether it would be welcome.
“I shouldn’t even feel like this about someone like you.”
Someone like you.
It stung like an open-palm slap. My hand flinched away from him.
Rejection had peeled back desire and underneath it, the shame and entitlement lay raw and exposed. How had he fallen for someone of my lowly standing? Simon, the engineer with the perfect credit rating, whose Nonna instructed him on how to make parmigiana and where to watch the Pope give mass from overseas. Versus me: the whore. How could I be the one rejecting him?
“I shouldn’t even feel like this about someone like you.”
“Someone like me,” I said quietly. The words lingered in the air like cloying petrol fumes. He didn’t even try to take them back.
Our friendship never recovered.
Andre and Michele were never deliberately unkind. Mainly, they thought I was a fucking idiot for not having seen his interest a lot sooner.
“Man cooks for you all the time.”
“He cooks for all of us!”
“Sì, but he cooks the things you like best.”
“Well,” I sighed, “he’ll be back to cooking for just you three soon enough.”
I’d saved enough by this point to move out on my own. It would be better that way, I told myself, even as I grieved the loss of a home in which I’d felt more accepted than in any other. It would be simpler.
Someone you love might be a sex worker, but that doesn’t mean they are obligated to love you in return.
Would you date a sex worker? If you think the answer is no, that’s fine. (We don’t want to date you, either!) It doesn’t matter if you wouldn’t date a sex worker, or a conservative, or a petrolhead, or a short guy – or a guy, full stop. We all have preferences.
But if you think the answer is yes? OK. You still don’t get to feel entitled to someone returning your affection. Someone you love might be a sex worker, but that doesn’t mean they are obligated to love you in return. You are not owed anything. Society’s stigma does not make you better than us. Sex workers understand consent intimately, and we can say no to anyone that we choose: clients, civilians, friends and housemates. Even if you have a well-paid job, and remember to put things away in the bathroom cupboard, and cook the best gnocchi in the world.
About the Author
Marin Scarlett is a writer and activist. She currently works with the European Sex Workers’ Rights Alliance.