Feminism, advocacy, and facing stigma
Yes, there are plenty of people who think sex work is anti-feminist and that it degrades women.
But 28 year old Aimee (that’s the name she uses online), doesn’t agree. She’s been a full time sex worker for over a year and this is her second stint in the profession.
She believes there’s nothing wrong with the “consensual” sharing of bodies.
“I think a big part of it is that people are so brainwashed. […] People still think sex is dirty, they think sex work is dirty. It’s not, it’s completely natural. I don’t see how women charging for something and feeling empowered […] is anti-feminist. It comes down to choice.”
“People love it when a celebrity’s nudes get leaked, but if a celebrity voluntarily does a naked photoshoot they get called a whore. […] They loved it when she wasn’t consenting to it, but when she says ‘Yes, I want to do this for me’ they become threatened by it.”
“This is rape culture. It’s a way to push women down again and make them feel ashamed for having a sexuality. I just think people should question where those beliefs are coming from.”
As argued by Stardust et al., these “stigmatised narratives of disgust […] and risk” do not protect sex workers, and instead push them further towards the “margins”.
Aimee says this “creates more harm” for people who are sex workers by choice and for people who are coerced. “If everyone has this negative view, and sex work becomes illegal [in Australia], then people will do it illegally and there will be even less safety.”
(Editor’s note: Sex work is governed in Australia by state and territory laws. Therefore, the legality and restrictions on sex work varies hugely from one jurisdiction to another.)
These assumptions about sex work have added a layer of complexity to how Aimee navigates relationships with others.
However, she has faced the most stigma from people “inside the industry.”
“When I moved from stripping to erotic massage, I told a few of the girls I used to strip with. And they were repulsed.” Aimee notes that there is a “hierarchy” which looks down on “full service sex work [and] erotic massage.”
Research by Toubiana and Ruebottom aligns with Aimee’s experiences: they explain that sex work is already “characterized by physical, social, and moral stigma.” Importantly, though, they go onto say that sex workers with a perceived closer proximity to the “dirty work” of engaging in sexual acts with others experience an added layer of stigma.
From the Australian public service to sex work
Aimee didn’t know what she wanted to do for a career after university. “I was so lost… I was constantly […] asking the universe, ‘What do I do for a career?’”
She’d worked in retail, hospitality, and even tried sex work during her late teens and early twenties. In Aimee’s case, sex work had the most financial benefits of these casual roles, but she wasn’t ready to commit to any job where she didn’t feel settled and secure.
Aimee: “Nothing felt right… I really romanticised having a ‘normal’ job back then.”
Aimee’s concerns that sex work couldn’t be a ‘legitimate’ job reflect research by Professor of Law at Tel-Aviv University, Hila Shamir, who explains that popular stigma narratives come into conflict with the feminist idea of “sex work as a form of labor.”
So, Aimee applied for a position in the public service as a policy officer. “I was in the role for 9 months […] and they wanted to promote me.” Faced with the choice of accepting or rejecting this promotion she remembers thinking: “Why did I want this so bad?”
She looks back on one period of time towards the end of her tenure with the public service: “I was developing a particular scheme I had zero interest in… it had so much to do with tax, and it was really hard to feel motivated each day.”
But, Aimee grew up hearing: “The APS is the prize! Once you get in, don’t leave.” She worried that she would regret leaving the financial security she’d worked so hard to find.
She knew she couldn’t give her all to the job, and it wasn’t fair to herself to stay. “I decided to leave because […] I just wasn’t passionate.”
Aimee was passionate about re-entering the sex work industry. “I had the mental strength to handle it this time.”
She explains her choice: “I love connecting with people on such an intimate level. In this line of work, you meet people from all walks of life, and you get to see a side of them that very few get to see. You get to become a safe space for them to express their deepest desires and needs, which they’re often made to feel ashamed about. I love that I get to be that safe space for them.”
Aimee: “And, I’m not gonna lie, people paying significant amounts of money just to see me naked is incredibly flattering and a great confidence booster. The freedom and flexibility is also a bonus.”
“It doesn’t even feel like work”
Aimee is a full time sex worker, and at the moment exclusively uses online platforms. Her day-to-day involves lots of “promoting” her content on sites like Reddit, sexting or video-chatting with clients, and filming content by herself or with other creators. Though, she doesn’t have one-on-one sex with clients.
“The best [part] is that it doesn’t even feel like work. This is actually the dream.”
For Aimee, the opportunity to collaborate with other creators is about sharing space and building relationships. She feels an especially close “kinship” with the women she collaborates with.
She also spoke about being a queer woman working with other queer creators. The people Aimee collaborates with are “so comfortable with their sexuality, they’re so much more comfortable exploring things, trying things. It makes it easier to connect with other queer people.”
Aimee “couldn’t believe” how much she loved online sex work. “It all fell into place. I have passion and motivation, and I’m addicted to working… which I never was before!”
Aimee: “Some women feel liberated working in the public service, some feel liberated being a stay-at-home mum, and for others, like me, it’s liberating to step into sex work.”
Although she loved the different kinds of sex work she tried–stripping, erotic massage–she ultimately wanted to create online content. “But the whole idea of something being on the internet forever–my vagina being on the internet forever–I was very freaked out about it.”
This degree of vulnerability is something that any online sex worker has to consider, and Aimee emphasises that everyone makes their own decision based on their unique circumstances.
Simpson and Smith provide an example of these considerations: “…sex workers commonly divide their social worlds by creating a ‘manufactured identity’ to protect their ‘authentic’ sense of self”. In Aimee’s case, this looks like choosing to be known professionally by the name ‘Aimee’.
She’s glad she took this step: “I love it so much more than any other work I’ve done. I quit erotic massage, quit stripping. And that’s what I do now!”
What I wish I knew
I ask Aimee what she thinks is the most important thing for people to know prior to entering the sex work industry, and she tells me: “Know your rights.”
Aimee explains that when she first started sex work, she was worried. Aimee expected that when when she went in for an interview, the manager would ask her to perform sex acts on him. It didn’t happen.
“Girls might think that’s protocol, but to work in the industry you never have to perform any [sexual act] with your boss. With stripping, you might need to do an audition and get on stage. But you never have to sleep with them, and a lot of men [in the industry] might manipulate you into thinking you have to do that,” she says.
Aimee asks women to remember, “The establishment needs you more than you need them. […] Realise that you have power in your position, over anyone trying to take advantage of you.” You can walk away.
She also cautions against entering the industry too young, if it is the career you want to pursue. “I honestly think that the legal age should be 21 before getting into sex work.”
“I started doing sex work back when I was 18. That was my first job outside of school, but at that age I was not mentally ready for it.”
“You’re still a kid at that point. I didn’t know what I wanted back then, I was just curious. And especially with online stuff, […] it’s there forever. When you’re 18 you don’t know what you’re gonna do in the future.”
She stresses the importance of taking your time: “There’s no rush.”
- Editor’s note: Not all sex workers love the industry. For a different perspective, read this piece.
Jesse Blakers is a Global Studies graduate who studied at the University of Canberra. She's also a budding academic, with a current focus on queer representation in media. Jesse recently interned at BroadAgenda.