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It’s Complicated: Dating as a Sex Worker

This is a story of the one time in 7 years that being a sex worker caused a break up

Illustration by Esther Lalanne @estherlalanne

The following is a conversation via text message:

“I’m a writer and a sex worker actually, I write about sex and sex work. And I do want to say that if me being a sex worker makes you uncomfortable I totally understand, I’ve been turned down by guys before because of what I do so I would understand. But I hope it’s not something that bothers you!”

“I don’t think it bothers me but I think I also don’t understand fully. So you’ve chosen to ‘be a sex worker’ for research purposes?”

“No, I chose to do it because I want to! I enjoy the work that I do and love connecting with people and making them happy.”

“Okay I am processing this. So do you date people? Outside of the work?”

“I do date people, my work life and my personal life are two completely separate things”

“And we have connected for personal reasons? Like you’re not on Hinge to find people for work? Sorry if any of these questions are not coming across right.”

“Yes that’s correct, I’m not on Hinge to find clients. I work for an agency so if I wanted to find clients I easily could elsewhere. I don’t use dating apps for that, dating apps for me are for personal life. I’m honestly looking for something casual yet dependable, so not quite a boyfriend but not really just sex”

“Okay, I want to meet you. And see if we vibe and go from there. No sense in shutting down someone or something before you barely know them. That’s my outlook.”

We met on a warm, breezy summer Tuesday in 2020. This was the summer that I convinced myself that I was able to drink and use substances moderately; I was very wrong but we’ll get to that.

At 7:25pm I strolled into the wine bar in my neighbourhood and waited for him. I later found out that he Ubered all the way from Fort Greene, Brooklyn to East Harlem (where I lived at the time) to meet me.

Bruce* arrived in a classic straight white finance bro outfit: a patterned shirt, pastel shorts, and crisp white Nikes, which I later learned was his uniform of sorts. He introduced himself, we hugged hello, and then he sat down next to me for what I thought was going to be an uneventful interaction.

On this first date I told him everything about me, not because I was three rosés deep but because I felt like we really connected. And that honestly surprised me.

I told him about my parent’s divorce, the time I got racially profiled at Middlebury College, my relationship with my brother, how I became a runner, my tumultuous relationship with a New York Times executive, and my experience as a writer/sex worker. 

He told me about his career in finance, his relationship with his lesbian sister, how he became a runner, the deafness in his left ear, his love languages, and his wine allergy. (Yes, he went on a date to a wine bar with his wine allergy)

An hour and a half into our date I asked to kiss him (which was egged on by two gorgeous dark skinned Black women sitting behind us) and he said yes. It was lightly passionate, it was sweet, it was not what I expected from a date that I went on with low expectations. 

However, my best friend always jokes that I should never trust white men with lips, and maybe he was right.

In the following weeks Bruce introduced me to his friends, took me out to nice dinners, and we maintained consistent communication. I liked him and he liked me, that much was clear. 

Until one day when he texted:

“Can I call you in a few minutes? Are you busy?”

💌

I thought: “Fuck, this is it: the breakup call.” When I answered the phone not 10 minutes later he expressed that my sex work really bothered him; he was not okay with it like he originally thought he was. 

The idea of me being with other men during the day and seeing him at night infuriated Bruce, and honestly I don’t completely blame him. It’s hard to not feel jealous and helpless in this kind of situation. Luckily for him, the idea of not doing sex work anymore had already crossed my mind several weeks prior. I was tired and I wanted another break from the industry; after all the end of summer is a notoriously slow time for full service sex work.

I originally got into this line of work five years prior during college because I thought it was “easy money”, but I soon found out that sex work was anything but easy. 

The emotional attentiveness that I developed in order to be good at my job was a huge learning curve; most men are emotionally unintelligent and demanding. I had to practise communicating clearly and pivoting my tone depending on who I was speaking to. I learned how to market myself, diffuse situations quickly, and impeccably organise my schedule.

They say that “sex work is work”, but honestly I think “sex workers are workers” is a more appropriate slogan for legitimising the industry: the labour does not validate sex work as a job, the humanity of the sex worker does.

But at the time I was done with sex work. 

Taking breaks from the industry wasn’t new to me, and the COVID slowdown mixed with the toll that my work was taking encouraged me to not put too much effort into labour that had a low ROI (return on investment). 

However, I hadn’t told Bruce about my decision to leave the industry because I didn’t want him to worry about where I was getting money from or what I would be doing with my time. I didn’t want him to view my unemployment as a weakness. In my mind, I was many other things aside from a sex worker, but in his it was an overwhelmingly large part of my story. This is not uncommon for anyone who is a sex worker, or has ever been considered a slut, or simply has “too much sex”. Once you’re labelled a whore you’re never not one after that. 

During this conversation with him, I admitted that I was done with sex work and he said that he needed to process everything that we discussed. I assumed that time would work in my favour and give him the space he needed to accept that the woman he so deeply cared about was no longer doing the thing he didn’t like. I thought our relationship was strong enough to handle said obstacle.

A week later I went over to Bruce’s place in Fort Greene to talk through everything. He expressed that he may have overreacted but that he was elated by my decision to stop doing sex work. Bruce laid his head on my chest, apologised, and admitted that he missed me all week. I missed him too, and we spent the rest of the night together having sex and catching up. 

We were back.

Months later, I began strategising how to be more public with my presence as a content creator and sex worker. My moniker “The Internet’s Most Relatable Wh*re” had not yet been born, but I knew that I wanted to humanise sex workers through my writing and media presence. 

Creating the content that I wish I could have seen as a younger woman was my dream; I wanted others to have the option to not live in fear or shame like I often did. I excitedly declared this to Bruce: Addis finally figured out what she was meant to do! Then I did what he and I both knew I’m gifted at: I started writing about the sex industry.

Days after telling him about a (now never-published) essay that I wrote for The Cut about boundaries between client and sex worker, I received this text:

“Hi Addis. I’ve done some more thinking and I don’t think it’s fair to you for us to continue to see each other given how I am feeling. I really do think you’re a special person but I don’t think we are a match long term.”

My heart sunk. My mouth grew dry. My hands shook with frustration. 

“Given what I’m feeling”? I thought. What is he feeling? Bruce called me two hours later to inform me that he had given my past as a sex worker some more thought and decided that he couldn’t stomach the idea that I ever had sex for money. Remember: once you’re a whore you’re never not a whore ever again. I think Kim Kardashian, Cardi B and Monica Lewinsky would echo this sentiment.

He did not want to date someone who had a past like mine. After an hour on the phone talking through options we agreed to take two weeks apart from each other and regroup once those two weeks were up. 

Although we tried every way to make things work, to him I am a whore in the past, present, and future. No amount of mental gymnastics can overcome whorephobia like that.

Let me be clear: anyone should be allowed to leave a relationship if they feel that they are not receiving what they want or giving into what they envisioned. Bruce had every right to end our relationship if he felt that I wasn’t providing what I said I would. 

However, you may recall at the beginning of this piece my sex work was one of the very first things that I told him about myself. Before becoming The Internet’s Most Relatable Wh*re I was always transparent with my partners about all sides of my work; I respect their time just as much as my heart. 

The emotional risk of attaching myself to people who cannot appreciate all parts of me is serious. And according to our initial conversation Bruce really seemed to understand that sex work was a part of me. He made me believe that I had finally found someone who accepted all aspects of me; I thought I had finally discovered a healthy relationship. 

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 the GMAT, we go to Trader Joes for groceries. 

We are not anomalies; we exist after the red light is turned off. Additionally, it is believable that the physical experiences that we have at work are not enough for us; we deserve intimate human connection just like everyone else.

It is okay to date a sex worker: it might not be a job that you understand but that’s where honesty, self-reflection and trust should be present. It’s just an entertainment job.

Work-life balance is tough enough to achieve, and I’ve learned through my relationship with Bruce and several since then that it’s increasingly tough when that work is sex work. 

So when’s the right time to tell your partner that you have or have had sex for money? Whether you’re a dancer or an escort, a porn star or a cam girl I think the answer is immediately (if it is safe to do so): do not feel ashamed of your past and do not shame yourself for working in an unfortunately taboo industry. 

The timing of your disclosure will not prevent them from deciding to stay with you, it only influences the severity of the heartbreak that may follow. 

Sex workers are workers; just like Bruce’s finance job, there are beneficial aspects and sleazy aspects. There are parts to be enjoyed and parts to be criticised. Sex workers are workers because there is nothing wrong with people who have sex for reasons outside of romance and procreation. I stand by this fact wholeheartedly.

Yes, I realise now that things with Bruce could have gone worse: he could have assumed that my sex work made me a rampant sex machine. He could have gotten jealous, come to my place of work, and demanded that I leave with him. He could have assaulted me for being a sex worker (sex workers are especially vulnerable to partner violence)

In this sense I am extremely lucky that he was a physically safe person to me. However, I was deeply hurt by the fact that he hates facets of what make me who I am, facets that I cannot change no matter how hard I try. And facets that really only amplified parts of myself that he got to enjoy.

Just like any other sex worker, this work is part of the package of dating me. What I have ever decided to do with my body is my choice and my choice alone. My relationship with Bruce taught me that expecting any man I date to not have feelings about my experiences is unrealistic, but laborious to untangle when they inevitably do.

People make a lot of blatantly incorrect assumptions about what it’s like to date sex workers or former sex workers. They assume that I’ll be riddled with shame and emotional hardship and STIs. They assume that dating someone like me comes with drugs and lack of self worth. 

But most of all they assume that it’ll be hard to date me because I’ve had sex for reasons other than love. In my experience, dating a sex worker is only tough if you make it tough. I have baggage just like everyone else, and I deserve love just like everyone else. It’s just a job.

I know that I’m a good person: I recognise that I’m an incredibly special woman. I am loyal, engaging, ambitious, confident, and opened-minded. I am constantly trying to better myself for myself. I care deeply for others. I am brave. 

It’s now the beginning of 2023 and I have not dated much since this experience three years prior. 

I have both my current models of sobriety and fear of being hurt like this again to thank for that. It’s not that I am lost without romance, but it’s also not abnormal that I notice this part of my life still missing. 

Until the person that I’m looking for (and is looking for me) comes my way, I will continue to work on myself, love myself, and protect myself from shame and discrimination. I will reject anyone who sees my life as degrading or self-indulgent. I will reject the misogynists, the slut shamers, and anyone who deems me worthless or just a sex symbol. And most importantly I will reject anyone who doesn’t love themselves enough to build that love with me. 

What can you do?

Illustration by Esther Lalanne @estherlalanne who says “This piece is focused on Addis, a sex worker, capturing and celebrating normal, mundane snippets from her everyday life. The tone of the illustration is calm, peaceful, and introspective, highlighting the dichotomy between the negative assumptions people may have about the life of a sex worker, and Addis’ reality. The quote from Addis’ piece further illustrates how negative stereotypes continue to eclipse perceptions of sex work. “
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