“Not too shabby for less than an hour of your time,” Heather laughed, as the little “cha-ching” of the Venmo notification announced that my client’s $200 had landed in my account. He had texted me, desperate for a phone session, while we were on the way home from the beach. I gently teased the idea of waiting an hour, but he was ready now. And as any sex worker knows, this life is feast or famine. If you can make it work to see the client, then make it work. Heather reminded me that we had some errands to run anyway, so we pulled into the Home Depot parking lot where I talked dirty to this man for 45 minutes, while my wife shopped for epoxy and hot glue. It’s not always this easy, but after nearly a decade in the industry – providing erotic bodywork, working in strip clubs, “camming”, selling panties or indulging fetishes for cash, and lately, phone sex – I have learned to navigate the economy of my own energy and time, and I have been fortunate enough to form symbiotic relationships with a few clients who respect both.
“It’s not always this easy, but after nearly a decade in the industry … I have learned to navigate the economy of my own energy and time, and I have been fortunate enough to form symbiotic relationships with a few clients who respect both.”
Sex Work is a very polarizing issue, and within the global sex industry, people have a multitude of experiences – from being fully exploited for their labor to funding lives of extreme privilege – just like any industry under capitalism. In this article, when I say “sex workers,” I’m specifically referring to adults who are consensually offering sexual services, transactionally. People who are “trafficked,” or forced into any type of labor against their will are enslaved, and that is a different conversation entirely.
I speak from a place of privilege, in that I’m middle class and college-educated. I have never had sex work as the only option for my survival, and my experiences reflect that. I’m also a neurodivergent person with fibromyalgia; I’m a writer and artist, which means that my most important work is work I don’t always get paid for. The traditional 40 hour work week was never going to give me the space or time to lead a fulfilling life, and sex work offered me a way to significantly increase the amount of money I made, while working less, on a more flexible schedule. Sex work taught me how valuable my time was to me.
“The traditional 40 hour work week was never going to give me the space or time to lead a fulfilling life, and sex work offered me a way to significantly increase the amount of money I made, while working less, on a more flexible schedule. Sex work taught me how valuable my time was to me.”
When I first moved to New York City in 2010, I worked in a deli and made $8.50 an hour, before taxes. Over 100 hours of my life per month belonged to someone else before the rent was paid, so very little of my time was my own. When I became a sex worker, I could make rent in two shifts! Sometimes one, if I was lucky. Because of sex work, I was able to afford medical care, high-quality food and great skincare. I was able to afford to take cabs late at night, which meant I was safer and that I got more sleep. Because of sex work I was able to afford higher education, and I actually had the time to pursue it! I could afford to take an unpaid internship, which my education required. I was able to sponsor my own art projects and creative endeavors, which enriched my life immeasurably. All of these things would have been impossible without the financial freedom and flexibility of time that sex work afforded me.
The people who choose sex work represent a grand cross-section of humanity. Sex workers include people of all races, of all different economic backgrounds, single (and married) mothers, students, neurodivergent and chronically ill people, queer and trans people, immigrants, undocumented workers, houseless people, people who suffer from addiction, etc. What we all have in common is conditions of life that make the prospect of working a conventional job unappealing, difficult or impossible. And also that we chose sex work, despite the inherent stigma and risks, as the best or only option to support ourselves.
As Sylvia Federici notes in her seminal work, Caliban and the Witch, sex work is almost nonexistent in subsistence-based economies, where the labor of the common people produces food and the other things that sustain them, rather than money to buy those things. The shift from a subsistence economy to a capitalist wage-labor economy necessarily (and historically) expropriates the working class from the resources that sustain their lives, so they are forced to work for wages. Capitalism also requires the social devaluation of the labor of some people, so that their labor can be exploited by those who own “the means of production.” Sex work is ubiquitous under capitalism, to the point where it is jokingly (and incorrectly) referred to as “the oldest profession.” And in capitalist societies, sex workers are almost universally people whose labor is devalued, systemically.
“In our current society, the concept of sex is used to sell us absolutely everything, yet, it is illegal and highly-stigmatized for a consenting adult to “sell sex.” I personally believe that this is because those in power do not like it when us plebeians become the beneficiaries of our own labor. Our bodies are theirs to exploit, how dare we?”
When people are alienated from their means of survival and asked to conform to an economic structure that refuses to pay them a living wage, the last vestige of autonomy one retains is power over their very own body. In our current society, the concept of sex is used to sell us absolutely everything, yet, it is illegal and highly-stigmatized for a consenting adult to “sell sex.” I personally believe that this is because those in power do not like it when us plebeians become the beneficiaries of our own labor. Our bodies are theirs to exploit, how dare we? The truth is that sex work really can be a means of transcending one’s economic station. At nearly every level of privilege, sex work is one of the higher paying jobs, and in some cases, it is one of the only jobs that pays. Survival sex workers are still surviving when the conventions of society would rather let them die, be deported or be imprisoned.
Anti-sex work advocates try to use the argument that sex workers wouldn’t engage with their clients if they weren’t being paid, and therefore sex work is exploitative. This is a stupid argument, since all work is exploitative, and nobody would do their job if they weren’t being paid. Except for creatives, and let’s be real – they’re often not being paid. Sex work is a job, just like any other, so it doesn’t need to be empowering to be valid. I did not dream of becoming a sex worker when I grew up, but I don’t think anyone dreams of labor. However, via sex work, I have become a person who capitalizes off of my own sexual exploitation, which I call “Seizing the Means of Seduction.” Sex work empowered me financially, therefore allowing me to pursue my creative dreams, in a way that would not have been possible with many other part time jobs.
To me, Seizing the Means of Seduction is about recognizing how valuable your own time on this earth is, and then trying to move in a way that reflects your worth. I can only speak for myself when I say, HELL NO, I would absolutely never do my job for free. But I’m very grateful that I get to do it for $200.
Salomé Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer is an artist, a gentleman and a scholar. You can read more of her work here.