Written by Joey Johnson
Published in Sexual and Relationship Therapy
Volume 34, 2019 - Issue 3: Sex Workers’ Personal and Professional Lives, Guest Editor : Eric Sprankle & Katie Bloomquist
Dating While Sex Working: Civilian Dates Carry More Risk for Sex Workers
I have been a sex worker for several years. Like most of us who sell sex, I have engaged in lots of different types of work in the sex industry throughout my career. I have spent the most amount of time working as a Professional Dominatrix.
The dating landscape is difficult to navigate as a sex worker because of stigma, however, I generally choose to disclose the nature of my work to the people I go on dates with. I have had two romantic partners during my time as a Pro Domme, neither of which I consider to be healthy relationships, nor were they with particularly healthy / emotionally stable humans, for that matter.
Because of the beauty of hindsight, it is cathartic to write about my experience and the ways in which my status as a sex worker was weaponized by my former dating partners in the hopes that it may resonate with others who are current sex workers navigating romantic relationships, and to provide insight for therapists/others working with sex workers to better understand the stigma of dating while sex working. Some experiences of mine which are detailed below may bring up unpleasant or painful memories for you if you are/have been a sex worker or have experienced domestic violence; I urge you to seek support if you need it.
When I was a “baby sex worker” (i.e., just starting out in the sex industry), I was newly dating someone, who I will call A for purposes of this article. When I told A about my new job as a sensual massage therapist (which quickly evolved into full-time dominatrix) he was horrified, and asked if I had been traumatized as a child. I spent the next few months downplaying the sexual nature of my work to make him more comfortable (to avoid conflict) and arguing with him when he outed me as a sex worker to his friends without my consent. I ended the relationship with A shortly thereafter because [through sex work] I learned what I thought "authentic" intimacy looked like and conversely, what feigned intimacy looked like. With A, I was feigning intimacy as I considered him to be a conditionally-supportive, misogynist who was trying to force me into a mold of someone I simply could not be (i.e., someone who does not sell sex, is prudish, a stay-at-home mother of their future child).
Unfortunately, A continued to contact me without my consent for three years after we broke up. He compulsively texted me desperately wanting to see me as a sex work client and said "we had the best sex ever," "I was going to bring you over some fancy orange chocolate to your new house, but it melted in my car," and "you still look amazing" when he claimed he saw me biking in my neighborhood. He took screenshots of my [nude] work photos on a Backpage ad and texted them to me; which felt like an aggressive blackmail threat with the unspoken subtext of “I know.”
I blocked A on all social media platforms, email, and phone, but never reported his creepy behavior to law enforcement/ file an order of protection/restraining order because my job is illegal - I was (and still am) afraid of arrest and the police. Thankfully, A's behavior never escalated beyond phone/text harassment, but it very well could have.
After that unpleasant dating experience, I focused on my work and on building my business. I decided that being single and being a sex worker was going to be the best option for me; who wants to handle the stigma of sex work and the misinformation / judgement that comes with it anyways? I took time to build up my client base, I worked on my house, and moved into a new shared office suite with a close friend where I could see my clients.
Then I met M. We were at a bar with a mutual friend and compared our OkCupid profiles in person, which somehow seemed funny at the time. When I deleted my OkCupid profile the next day, he immediately added me on Facebook; I thought it was cute and showed he was interested. Little did I know, it was a bright red flag (the first of many) and an indicator that he was a stalker and a boundary-pusher.
M and I started dating, and immediately we connected (it felt like love-bombing). He made as much money as I did, so we were able to travel the world together and leave the country wherever and whenever we wanted, which was not something I was able to do with other people my age given that I my income was significantly higher than theirs. He told me I was "perfect on paper" because I was educated and well-traveled and owned a house and was "nothing like his ex-wife," which I think meant that I enjoyed sex and was sexually experienced (thanks, sex work). We had both experienced tumultuous relationships in the past, so we bonded over having "crazy" ex partners.
I did not initially tell M I was a sex worker - I was afraid of judgement and rejection after my experience with A. Withholding this information was challenging and I felt guilty, but sex work stigma and perception management permeate every aspect of sex workers' lives, including mine, and it is exhausting and takes a huge toll on relationships.
M discovered that I was a sex worker by looking through my phone without me knowing (red flag #2) and finding my FetLife profile where I was advertising BDSM and fetish services under my work pseudonym. He confronted me about it and I apologized immediately, asking for forgiveness and saying I understood if he didn't want to date me anymore because I had broken his trust (with the subtext being, I was a whore). He wanted to continue our relationship, but only if I agreed to be honest in the future and explain to him everything about my job and the reasons behind keeping it a secret, which sounded reasonable. At the time, I didn't strongly question why he was looking through my phone or how he found out about my work; I was too concerned with managing his feelings and response to prevent being rejected. I felt terribly guilt, shame, and embarrassment that I kept my work a secret and was "found out".
I desperately wanted to be in a "normal" relationship while being a sex worker, which in hindsight was not possible with a partner who did not consider my work to be legitimate work. On a visceral level, I knew that M was my last chance at having a "normal" life. A "normal" relationship with someone who had a traditional 9-5 job. Who wanted a family. Who came from a "nice" family. Who, from the outside, appeared respectable (whatever the fuck that means), but who did not respect me.
M and I dated for about a year after that. It was a tumultuously abusive rollercoaster of a relationship with the toxic ups and downs one would expect from an emotionally manipulative upper-class man-child who is used to getting his way. I struggled to set healthy boundaries for myself and had a difficult time being assertive, despite being a sadistic, bossy and fun/sexy/creative/cruel dominatrix in my work life.
Then, on the Fourth of July, the train wreck of a relationship came to a screeching, crashing, and burning end when we were at M's family barbecue in the middle of nowhere out in the country. M was drunk (per usual) and called me the typical pejorative names (e.g., cunt, whore, etc.), and hit and bit me (??weird and violent). When we were pulled over on the side of the road, arguing, he threatened to walk out into the middle of highway traffic. He stepped out of the car and took a few steps out into the middle of the freeway. Unfortunately for me and for the rest of the world, as a car approached at speeds exceeding 80 miles per hour, M quickly walked back towards the car. He threw my cell phone into the backseat, eliminating my ability to call for help and completely isolating me from the rest of the world. He threatened to throw my luggage out of the car, which for some reason, seemed like an awful thing to do at the time.
M took a screenshot of my FetLife profile and saved it on his phone with the intention of blackmailing me with it and/or threatening to out me as a sex worker to my family (who does not know about my work). He left deep muscular bruising on my body that lasted for well over a month, and traumatic emotional wounds that lasted much, much longer.
I did not call the police and never filed a police report. I never filed a restraining order despite his harassing texts and phone calls, which lasted for weeks demanding "closure," because of the fear of arrest and fear of police due to the criminalization and stigma of sex work.
My story, like thousands of others, does not have a happy ending (pun intended). Continuing to criminalize consensual sexual behavior between adults because there is the exchange of money does direct harm to those of us who sell sexual services even when we are not working. As far as I know, M and A are still living in my city, repeating the same abusive patterns, and not being held accountable for the harm they do to women. I have since retired from sex work and am living my best life with a new partner who values me regardless of the type of work I do and our 3 cats (who obviously unconditionally support me and are pro decriminalization).