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Illustration by @beeillustrates

Understanding consent through sex work as a rape survivor

TW: R*pe

I was a sex worker in New York City from the ages of 19 to 25, and a damn good one too. I stumbled into the industry through a long time friend who informed me of a website called Seeking Arrangement, which is a sugar daddy/sugar baby website. Think of it like a desktop-based Tinder with equally shitty men who are normally willing to pay young women anywhere between $200 and $1200 dollars for a single sexual encounter and/or date. My friend looked me in my eyes during a dinner where I could only afford an appetiser and said: “I know you’re working two unpaid internships in marketing, and just trying to get your foot in the door, but it’s heartbreaking to watch you wolf down these vegetable gyoza and not have the means to order more. Take a look at this site and let me know what you think.” I was desperate, I had about $60 in my bank account and five swipes left on my MetroCard; I was willing to do anything, so I made a profile two hours later. My life has not been the same since.

Illustration by @beeillustrates

Seeking Arrangement, now known as Seeking, markets itself as “where sugar babies enjoy a life of luxury by being pampered with fine dinners, exotic trips and allowances. In turn, sugar daddies or mommas find beautiful members to accompany them at all times”. Additionally, their website goes on to explain that “an arrangement is where people are direct with one another and stop wasting time. It allows people to immediately define what they need and want in a relationship. Our profiles allow members to effortlessly state their expectations. This is what we like to call Relationships on Your Terms.”

In my personal experience these men, usually aged 30 to 75, are not simply looking for a companion to Bilbao or a date to a gala. They want sex, which is more than okay, but isn’t part of the experience which the website advertises, and definitely doesn’t align with my own. In December 2019 I was recruited by an escort agency in New York.  This was the first time in my four years of working that this had happened to me, and I was intrigued. The idea of not having to find my own clients was appealing and the freedom to forgo pretending to be romantically interested in them enticed me. I spoke to the recruiter on the phone and later met up with her in person at a coffee shop in the East Village. She looked like a weathered Drew Barrymore and had the demeanour of a Real Housewife: charismatic but there was absolutely something up her sleeve.

You may be wondering why someone like me would want to work in the sex industry in the first place. I come from a normal immigrant-parent background, attended a top liberal arts college, and worked at a world-renowned full-service advertising agency as a Senior Analyst. Why would I need to do sex work and where would I even find the time? Well, I chose this second job because as a rape survivor I wanted to control every sexual encounter I had and I wanted to benefit from it in some tangible way. I am hurting but I am also healing from my assault. My work has helped me heal, sex work is work just like every other type of work, and should be respected as such. I am no less of a person because of the path that I pursued after rape and refuse to let anyone convince me that this is true.

Many people are shocked to hear that sex workers do all sorts of normal people activities: we wash the dishes, we work other jobs, we study for entrance exams, we go to Whole Foods for groceries.

We are not anomalies; we exist beyond the blue light of your Pornhub browser tab

There is a clear sense of pain and anxiety in the rationale I had in choosing to work as an escort and sugar baby for five years in total; however, there’s also an interesting impression of security in my needs as a young person. I knew what I wanted and needed at the time, which was ultimate control over something that had been brutally taken away from me. Doing sex work gave me the opportunity to understand, challenge, and mould my sexual needs in a way that I had never seen before. I am very lucky to have had this experience, although challenging in its own way; I have been made better by this decision. 

The most important lesson that I learned as a sex worker was how to understand consent deeply and intimately in a way that non-sex workers typically do not. Consent is a living, breathing exercise that takes practice, self-reflection, communication, and deep self awareness that we are all capable of possessing. I was lucky enough to be able to exercise consent on a fairly regular basis because negotiating, comprehending, and valuing boundaries is central to any type of sexual relationship, especially one where there is money and power woven in.

To reiterate the point above: sex workers are often experts in consent. It is their is choice to perform the blowjob or the anal, the lip bite or the rimming; money in exchange for sex acts as a form of consent because all parties have agreed to a certain set of rules and regulations to follow. And when you’re servicing between one and six clients per day you become extremely skilled at accepting and learning said do’s and don’ts. As a sex worker, I am not a victim without agency; I am a master of permission. 

Escorts, sugar babies, cam girls, strippers, and everyone in between can also offer a lot of information about consent because often times sex workers ban together to spread information about bad clients or dangerous men. Additionally, it is also important to understand consent as not just as an enthusiastic “yes”, but also a confident “no”: when given the power to choose my own clients and decline those I did not want to engage with, this also helped me learn about my own personal sexual desires outside of work. I didn’t have to go home from China Chalet with Jules the artist with a serious God-complex, or Damien the XXXTentacion stan if I truly didn’t feel like it. I did not need the non-violent touch that rape survivors often crave; I would be okay just going back to my own apartment. I have learned how to value my time and emotional well-being as a sex worker, which is a feeling I had lost after assault.

I practice consent in my everyday life after sex work as well, and I am extremely lucky that I have been able to use my this experience to reframe my understanding of consent and thus heal my relationship with myself and sex as a whole. I text to ask if it’s okay to call someone just in case they are busy; I verify that hugging when being introduced to a new person is okay with them; I ask my co-workers if it is alright with them if I take on certain tasks they have been designated to work on in the event that they are extremely busy. And in terms of my own practice of self-consent, I regularly check in with myself and ask if I am comfortable, safe, and appropriately challenged. I no longer do sex work because the security of controlling my sexual encounters stopped serving me, and that is more than okay. Furthermore, I think it is acceptable to want to take time and space from a mentally and physically taxing profession that I engaged in for half a decade. 

So, I am hurting but I am also healing from my rape, but at the same time I am reframing my ideas and understanding of sex and consent thanks to my involvement in sex work. When properly executed, sex work is an exceptionally straightforward act, and I wish that those in my personal life were too. Money and sex are both forms of power, and when exchanged an a correct way this creates a balance between both parties. I realise the sexual experiences outside of sex work usually do not involve money and that kind of power, so the lines of consent are somewhat different but largely identical. It’s about mutual respect and communication, and active listening. Following this experience with sex work I practice respecting boundaries, expressing curiosity, sitting with appropriate levels of challenge, and loving my body unconditionally; and I urge all to do the same, regardless of sexual experience.

Illustration by @beeillustrates
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