What does a union mean to you? This is the question that we are posing to friends, workmates and fellow Wobblies in our new series. Traditionally, trade unions have an association with heavy industries, transport, the public sector and professions – mostly stable work with a degree of social recognition. The IWW has always run against this thinking, maintaining that not just these but all workers in every workplace should be united under “One Big Union”. This has been shown throughout its history by organising sectors of the working class who have been marginalised, ignored or excluded from other unions – migrant and itinerant labour, women, children, people of colour, queer and trans workers amongst others.
It is in this spirit that this new irregular series focuses on the experience of work that is located outside of traditional spaces, is organised informally or atypically, is poorly known or misunderstood. In staging these inquiries we hope to understand what the One Big Union idea means within contemporary capitalism, what social, political and economic functions unions must fulfil and how organisers can further support and amplify existing acts of solidarity within these sectors.
In this first article we talk to xxxxxxx about their experiences of working in the sex industry.
1. How would you describe your work?
For lack of a better word I describe myself as a prostitute. I understand that independent full-service sex worker is a term used (and often preferred) for this role too. I’m self-employed. My job is essentially having sex with people for money, but most of the hours I put in aren’t actually spent doing that, and it took me a while to realise that these hours were also “work” and not just “trying to find work”. I create profiles and ads on the internet. I respond to inquiries via email, phone calls, or various messaging services or features on websites. I lurk around on adult websites and in chat rooms, waiting for people to approach me. I take bookings, and prepare for those bookings, which sometimes involves travelling some distance. This pays off every now and then and I meet up with people and they pay me money. Then I need to stick around for as long as they’ve paid me for, and do whatever takes their fancy (minus the activities that I’ve already clarified to them I won’t do because they’re too dangerous).
2. What do you like about your job?
The absurdity of it all mostly. It’s not polite to say so, but I find myself genuinely entertained by the types of calls and messages I get, even a lot of the horribly offensive ones. I’m constantly gaining new insights into capitalism and patriarchy, and the fucked up way they play out in our interactions with each other. I don’t generally get bored when I’m actively doing the work that’s involved, only when I’m waiting around for it.
I like the flexibility that comes with self-employment, even though it’s a bit of a double-edged sword with the other edge being a very unpredictable income and the constant nagging feeling that I should be doing more to find clients. But it’s good knowing that I could take a day off if I needed to, without sacrificing the whole job, but just a potential amount of money.
I also enjoy giving a bit of back-chat when I’ve established that a client is so horrendous, or a guy contacting me is so unlikely to ever pay up, that I need to write him off. I get a lot of shit, and sometimes it feels good to put people in their place who think the power dynamic between us is safely permanent.
3. What do you dislike about your job?
I’m not sure where to start. I suppose I dislike having sex with people who I don’t think deserve to have sex, to be honest. I’m not a prude, but in my private life my minimum expectation of someone I’m going to have sex with is that they would not want to proceed if I wasn’t interested. My clients, having already bribed me with the money I need, aren’t in a position to be able to establish this and have no good reason to assume I actually want to have sex with them, so the fact that they’ve hired me automatically puts them in the category of people I wouldn’t otherwise have sex with. I’ve long been able to stomach the actual contact though, so emotionally it just feels like work. Which is, when it comes down to it, exactly the only problem I have with my job. I dislike it because it’s work. Were my clients not compelling me to work I think a great deal of what I’m doing would be stuff I’d like to do anyway.
I dislike the way that my job effects the way that I feel outside of work. My clients level of entitlement seems to know no bounds. Of course they expect me to be on call 24/7 and I will regularly wake up to numerous missed calls and from someone wanting to see me at 4am, for example. But additionally they demonstrate to me that where I live, how I live, what I do with my body etc, are decisions that should be made with their individual wishes in mind, which they invariably believe are representative of all potential clients’ wishes. Body-positivity, for example, is a very theoretical concept for me. I want my body to look however my clients want it to look, because I want to be able to pay my bills. I judge myself harshly for not meeting conventional beauty standards, and what I would otherwise like, want for, or accept about my own body are things that have become so immaterial that they’re barely relevant or even identifiable to me.
4. Is there anything you do on the job that makes it easier/safer/more enjoyable?
Sure, as a lot of workers, I’m constantly finding ways to save myself time and effort, like copying and pasting stock responses to my most commonly asked questions, or trying to operate in a way that weeds out some time-wasters..
I do as much as I can afford to to keep myself safe. For example, I make my friends aware of when I’m working, where I am and with whom. I get into some sketchy situations sometimes, so I keep myself fighting fit.
I entertain myself in a few ways, like for example phrasing my lies to my clients in such a way that they’re not technically lies but that my clients will understand them in the way that they want to understand them. I’m paid to make my clients feel unconditionally good about themselves, which is entirely incompatible with honesty, but I make a game out of expressing things ambiguously in combination with an unambiguously positive demeanour.
I find that how easy, safe, and enjoyable I can make my work, is directly related to whether I can survive on what I’m currently making. For example, if I wanted to save myself a lot of time I could demand a deposit off every client before planning a session with him, but even genuine clients are put off by the prospect of losing a deposit if something goes wrong, so I would lose more of my income than I can afford to. Or if I wanted to make myself safer I could only take clients who are willing to provide a certain level of identifiable information, but again I wouldn’t be able to survive on just them so I don’t. I might be safer (and would find my work more enjoyable) if I refused any clients who make their disrespect for me clear immediately, but I know exactly where I can afford to set the bar on what I need to tolerate. If I haven’t been paid in weeks, I need to accept clients who sound more dangerous than I’d usually be willing to risk.
As something always has to give, I try to make it my time more than my safety. The common fantasy of escorts who only take bookings from people they’re “compatible” with is so far removed from the reality of my work that the idea of making my work more enjoyable by picking clients who are actually pleasant to spend time with is a joke to me. I enjoy my time with them by spending it planning my next meal.
5. What does solidarity in your work mean for you?
Solidarity in my work means workers sharing information on abusive clients and time-wasters. It means backing each other up when a client is sending abusive messages, and making it clear that we’re not as isolated as they think we are. It means helping each other out with tips, being there for each others safety, and making our resources available to each other. It means taking direct action together against attacks and theft. It means realising that we’re stronger together than in competition with each other. It means not trying to distance ourselves from stigma by throwing each other under the bus with “I’m not your stereotypical prostitute, I don’t take drugs”, or “I shouldn’t be pitied or stigmatised, because I enjoy my job”. It means focussing on our common goals while not imagining that we’re representative. It means always reaching out to each other, and finding ways to deal with our problems together.
Some of this happens more, some of it less. I’d like us to build on the ways we support each other individually and have more confidence to take action collectively.
6. What does a union mean to you?
So so much. While I’m generally marginalised and stigmatised in society for my work, seen mostly as a less valuable human being for it, or occasionally as something fascinating and exotic, in my union I feel like I meet people on equal terms. We’re all there for the same thing, whatever our circumstances. It’s refreshing for my job to be seen as a job, and not who I am as a person.
While some organisations might preoccupy themselves with why’s and what if’s, debating the idealogical implications of our work, when and how our industry could be abolished, and what, if anything, is socially useful about our work, I can depend on my union to be beautifully practical instead. My fellow workers in other industries ask me about my actual current conditions, what I want to do to improve them, and how they can support me, without expecting me to justify myself first.
Being in an organisation that’s about workers supporting each other gives me confidence in standing up for myself at work. Sex workers can be fairly isolated and clients try to use this to their advantage. I don’t want to back down when it comes to my health and my safety, and I love that I’m in contact with other workers who will have my back if I experience repercussions for standing my ground. The effect this has, both practically in my ability to assert myself at work, and emotionally, in the way that I view myself, is invaluable to me.