Sex Workers Explain Their Jobs to Their Families

April 3rd 2016

Explaining what you do to your family can be a struggle when you work in a specialized field, but for sex workers, it’s more than simply finding the right vocabulary. When it comes down to describing their professional lives to family, sex workers — the ones who do publicly disclose their occupation — oftentimes brace themselves for some potentially awkward conversations. And even despite growing awareness of sex worker rights, sex workers still face the reality of social stigma, lack of privacy, and fear of legal ramifications. Oftentimes, they aren’t even the ones doing the outing.

Sex Worker
Flickr/Jesus del Toro Garcia - Flickr.com

In a recent essay entitled “I’m a Sex Worker and This is What I’ll Tell My Child,” writer Elle Stanger describes her occupation as a stripper to her daughter through euphemisms that are both child-like and candid. She tells her that “mommy works at night, ‘dancing for people,'" and implores her to “forget about the stigma.” Stanger is one of several women, including former workers like Margaret Cho and Amber Rose, to have recently used the Internet as a platform to "come out" and tell her story as a call for de-stigmatization.

“From my experience, sex workers talk about their jobs to their families and children in non-sexual terms: ‘I dance. I entertain,’” Katherine Koster, Communications Director at Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP) USA, told ATTN:. “They’re talking about their work in a way that’s honest, age-appropriate, and sensitive.”

But not every sex worker is in a position to be so frank with her family.

“For a sex worker with children to speak out about what they do — that puts them at the risk of child apprehension,” Brenna Bezanson, Communications Coordinator at PACE Society, a peer-driven sex work non-profit based in Vancouver, explained to ATTN:. “Because of the stigma, it’s really enough for Child Protective Services to say, ‘You’re a sex worker. Your child might be exposed to harmful situations.’ And often, children are unfairly taken away from them.”

Bezanson calls for a greater awareness of the wide breadth of experiences within the industry, warning against the tendency to speak on behalf of sex workers through one particular narrative, be it empowerment or victimization. “Sex workers are as varied as any industry,” Bezanson said. “We need to start looking at them as just people.”

For more insight, ATTN: spoke with five current sex workers about their experiences ‘coming out’ to their families.

1. Domina Colette, Professional Dominatrix, Educator

ATTN: Tell me about yourself.

MC: I have a Ph.D. in child psychology, but I’m very much happy being a pro-domme, which I’ve been doing for about 11 years now. I own my own dungeon that I co-own with another mistress, but in the past few years, I’ve been pursuing more of an educatrix role, where I teach girls how to find their own inner pro-domme.

ATTN: You mentioned you were outed to your family?

MC: I was outed to my mom and my stepdad two years ago by my sister. It was so unsettling the way she described it. She made it sound like this awful situation that I had gotten myself into, and it was only a matter of time where I would be assaulted or arrested. She really made it sound like I was in a bad place, so when I went home, my mom sat me down and told me that she knew I had this job, where I did these things to men.

ATTN: How do you describe what you do for work to your family?

MC: I try to describe my work to my mom as a very effective form of therapy. We had a conversation a couple weeks ago where she said, “I know you’re a good person, but I don’t think these things you’re doing are good.” But I think I’m doing good. Men come to me with a secret that they can’t tell anybody else, but they can tell me. They have someone who will listen to them and understand them. She’s more accepting now, although it took a long while.

ATTN: Would you say many sex workers are out to their families?

MC: It varies from one person to next, based on their relationship with their families. Being a sex worker, either your family doesn’t know, you’ve outed yourself, or you were outed. Everyone has a story of their work being a secret, and at some point, that secret was exposed. My experiences motivated me to create Pervette.com, a blog where sex workers and clients write about their experiences, their secrets, and their tales of being outed.

2. Quinn Helix, Professional Dominatrix

ATTN: Tell me about yourself.

QH: I’m an art student studying mortuary science, and I’ve been doing domination for about four years now. I started out at a house dungeon, but now I’m an independent contractor formerly based in Los Angeles, now in Northern California.

ATTN: Are you out to your family?

QH: I’m not out to my entire family, but I did willingly tell my mother. We haven’t always had the best relationship, but she was very supportive and up front with me about it, which was a very different reaction than what I thought it’d be. She’s always been very open about her sexuality to me, while my grandmother and my aunt are much more reserved and repressed.

Being outed is a very scary thing, because I come from a small town of 1,500 people, so if one of them sees me, word gets around like wildfire. If everyone in my town knew, how would they treat my family? That terrifies me. I have every single person that I could ever find from high school and my hometown all blocked on Twitter, Facebook, everything! One thing I hate about social media — it’s an easy way to accidentally expose yourself. That’s a very valid fear of mine.

ATTN: Do you plan on coming out to the rest of your family?

QH: I’m waiting until I turn 25 to officially tell my family. I’ve been preparing my speech for years. I have every intention of telling them, because I feel like I can do this for a very long time. Everything I do is perfectly legal, but it’s more of a grey area, and that’s the part that makes it hard to tell my family, because I could be indicted for prostitution charges. There are a lot of ways to incriminate yourself and be incriminated against, so that’s why I have a very rigorous screening process and safety precautions.

I want to tell my family that I’m safe, that I’ve traveled all across the country, that I’m a FemDom, so my clients are here for me and my needs. The last time I was assaulted was at my vanilla job on Sunset Boulevard! People think I’m putting myself in constant danger, but I have a very rigorous screening process. Safety is where they would be most concerned. If I tell them, I’ll say, “I’ve been doing so well with this.”

3. Rae Monroe, Escort

ATTN: How do you describe what you do for work to your family?

RM: The answer to your question is simple: I don't. If you believe for one moment that the majority of sex workers tell their family or children about being a sex worker, you do not understand sex workers at all. The majority of us live double lives, and prefer to keep it that way. My family, friends, and most especially, my children will never have sex work explained to them by me as it pertains to me as an individual. I have a full-fledged career outside of this, which is what I focus the majority of my time and attention on. That is what my children and family are privy to and all they will ever be privy to.

There is a reason why anonymity is important. While I am not ashamed by who I am, I know others would judge me, my family, and children negatively. I don't tell anyone anything. My business is my business and I keep it close to my chest and I don't spread my business out to anyone. Period.

4. Brittany Andrews, Porn Star

ATTN: How did you get started?

BA: Y’know, when I got into the adult film industry, I was really young. I started at 18; I’m 42 now. I started dancing at a local strip club, then I started doing what you call feature dancing, where you travel around the world in various strip clubs as the star of the week. My mother was very well aware of the fact that I was doing feature dancing — I even brought her on the road a couple times. She really liked opening up my booby balls. (laughs) Men throwing money at you, it’s quite fabulous, I have to say! The feature dancers who made the most money were the porn stars, so that’s how I got into that.

ATTN: Are you out to you family?

BA: My whole family’s dead! Now, when they were alive…

I’m sure at the end of the day, everybody in my family probably would have preferred not to have a porn star in the family, but I always ran my career and my business very professionally, and as a business, so as long as I was happy, my mom was very supportive. I owned a 5,000 square foot studio, with 15-20 employees. I was producing, directing, owned 30 websites, was doing distribution, and running multiple businesses. Nobody could really say much of everything, to be honest. Overall, I myself am really lucky. I’ve never had anybody ever say shit to me — at least to my face.

ATTN: Are there lots of women in the industry with children? How do they describe their work to them?

BA: I know tons of women that have children. A lot of women are in the business because they need to support their children. I know women that have grandchildren now, even. I’m not exactly sure how they go about telling them, but the ones that I’ve seen seem pretty well-adjusted. Honesty is the best policy overall. That’s one thing you cannot do: if you are a porn star, especially for any kind of length of time, you will have to carry that everywhere you go. It’s impossible not to get noted on a damn near regular basis.

ATTN: What are your thoughts on the many narratives that revolve around sex worker rights?

BA: People like to play on other people’s fears. The Trump thing. “Oh, sex workers are getting victimized!” That plays really well in public. And God bless, I’m the last person on the planet who would ever condone violence against women or sex trafficking, but I really feel that this really loud voice is drowning out the other 75 percent of individuals who are smart, intelligent, and hardworking grown women. I get frustrated because that voice, which should still be 100 percent heard, shouldn’t be heard over the rest of the entire population of sex workers who are not victims.

5. Rachel M. (name changed), Professional Dominatrix

ATTN: Tell me about yourself.

RM: I'm a 28 year-old first-generation Asian cis-gendered female. I moved to the Bay Area for college, and I've been here ever since. I am a pro-domme. When I started, over three-and-a-half years ago, I was working 40+ hours at a non-profit, but I wanted something else that touched other edges of my personality. Other than sex work, right now, I'm also juggling a career as an artist and work in the food industry. In general, sex workers are real good jugglers.

ATTN: Are you out to your family?

RM: I am out to my brothers, and they're so unimpressed and unfazed by it. I told the oldest at a dive bar on a karaoke night. I remember I said, "I'm a dominatrix," and I turned to look at my best friend, who was with us. When I looked back to him, he was gone. He was on-stage singing John Lennon. When he was done with his song, he was, like, "That's cool, but don't tell mom." I told my other brother in an even more lackluster manner. He asked me what I'd been up to, and I told him. I think he might've just laughed and said, "Alright then." I love my brothers for how simple that was.

ATTN: Do you plan on coming out to the rest of your family?

RM: I have not and probably will not tell my mother. My mom is really accepting of me and of my brothers and all the "weird" and "modern" American-esque behaviors that we've picked up over the years, but being a sex worker just isn't something I think my mom would understand as being an active and empowering choice. Granted, it's totally not that way for everyone, but it absolutely is for me. And I don't think I can ask my mother to understand that. At least, not yet.

ATTN: What can be done to make it easier for sex workers to live without stigma?

RM: Well, a lot of sex work isn't legal. So we could start there. And let me tell you, the types of men who oppose it on paper, come into my dungeon. It’s hard to say what can be done to ease the stigma. It's part of the program, you know? We live in a society where men enjoy the very things they outlaw without any of the legal ramifications.

Decriminalization of sex work.

Sex worker rights remain a hot-button issue among a divisive public. Amnesty International officially released a statement in 2015 supporting decriminalization policies that protect the human rights of sex workers, while a recent poll in the U.S. stated that only about 44 percent of the public supports the legalization of sex work, according to YouGov. Advocacy groups remain wary of legalization, believing that a more regulated industry will only benefit the higher-ups and create barriers for the already marginalized, opting instead for harm reduction and decriminalization.

“Without decriminalization, I don’t see sex workers being given a safe voice,” said Bezanson. “The laws have contributed very strongly to the stigma sex workers face, including judgment when they are trying to explain the work that they do in their lives.”

Correction April 6, 2016: Quinn Helix was previously identified as an escort; Helix is not an escort. This piece has been corrected to reflect that; ATTN: regrets the error.

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