Exciting, enjoyable, and lucrative. These are just some words that come to mind when I think back on my first sexual experience with a woman. I was nineteen years old and living in Oaxaca, Mexico as a student abroad when my credit card hit its limit as I went to pay for a conveyer belt full of groceries. Rather than go home to the claustrophobic suburbs I’d struggled so hard to escape, I started working as a stripper at a fully nude club called La Trampa. That’s where I met Selma, another dancer who took me under her wing and, eventually, between her legs.
Sex work softened me to the idea of sex with a woman, paving the way for my first non-transactional same-sex sexual relationships. It became the first space where I could comfortably explore my sexuality, as it is for very many sex workers — as well as our clients.
I spoke with other queer sex workers whose jobs allowed them to explore their physical and emotional desires, as well as a queer client who offered insights into what compelled her to buy sex. While the women I spoke to described the experience as mutually beneficial, they also spoke candidly of how stigma negatively impacted their experiences.
To be sure, there are economically disadvantaged people — including queer and trans people — who engage in survival sex work out of desperation, and whose experiences in the industry are defined by shame and sex-negativity. There are sex workers who would do anything to be “normal” instead of what Amber Hollibaugh, feminist writer, filmmaker, and activist, describes as “an outlaw in an already outlawed world.”
Certainly, for me, sex work hadn’t begun as a political statement. I started stripping because I needed the money, and the fact that I enjoyed the work and had been curious before trying it and wanted to keep doing it still after I “needed” to initially confused me.
And yet, working in the sex industry introduced me to communities where sexual values were more expansive, non-monogamous, and radical. Historically, says Hollibaugh, this is the role these spaces have occupied. Strip clubs, peep shows and brothels, Hollibaugh says, are “sexual outlaw sites” — places where various sexual minorities and other targets of the state convene, and where policies, laws, regulations, and norms around how people should use their bodies didn’t apply. The notion that the sex industry can encourage women to expand notions of their own sexuality is corroborated by academic Bernadette Barton, whose research found these environments “offer women easy access to other women, invite them to break taboos, and teach them disdain for men.”
In Mexico, gay men, lesbians, the trans and drag community, sex workers, and other people who didn’t fit in could be publicly out. Between performances on stage, customers would often dance together, queerness on full display. After returning to the States, I moved from table dancing joints to “gown clubs,” more restrictive patriarchal and heterosexual environments that often required female customers to have a male chaperone. Even there, a visibly queer population existed. In the dressing room, dancers talked nonchalantly about their girlfriends. We performed sex acts on one another and our female customers in the champagne room, oblivious to the men. Sure, some were women who were just performing for money, but others were obviously into it. Working alongside unapologetically queer women liberated parts of myself I may have never understood had I not worked in the industry. It was hot, and having an audience was part of the appeal, as was the fact that I was getting paid.
Alaina, a 26-year-old full-service sex worker, tells me she was nineteen years old when she got her start as a dancer.
“I wasn’t yet in a mental health spot which permitted me to do mainstream work,” Alaina said. “I needed a flexible schedule, and a greater financial return for my time, since I couldn’t reliably get out of bed.”
Of the first club where she worked — a dive bar in Colorado which Alaina said has since closed — made her feel “entirely at home.”
“There was a dynamic amongst the majority of the dancers, a blur between friendship and sexual attraction,” Alaina said. “As we know, straight and even homophobic women can sort of behave that way anyhow, because we’ve normalized sexy interaction between women as long as it’s not, well, someone actually being gay.”
In the club where she got her start, Alaina said, “it was different. It really, really was just pretty gay.”
Prior to working in the strip clubs, Alaina noted she didn’t understand that a sexual attraction towards other women could be anything other than a sexual perversion.
“I didn’t consider it my sexuality, but rather a super-inappropriate fixation,” Alaina says.
After becoming a sex worker, Alaina happily embraced her identity as a bisexual woman.
As both a dancer and full-service sex worker, Alaina said she’s met a wide range of female-identifying clients.
“There are middle-aged women who are only just discovering their attraction to women —women who didn’t realize that acknowledging this part of their sexuality was even an option, until recently,” she said.
Hiring a sex worker with or without a male partner present, Alaina explained, can help bisexual women embrace their physical desires for women and may parlay into non-transactional relationships. Alaina’s also serviced queer couples, as well as women in queer relationships further exploring their sexuality with or without their partners’ knowledge or consent.
“I do think a lot of us [queer women] deal with a deeply-rooted fear of rejection with women, even long after we’ve accepted our sexuality,” Alaina said. “Counter-intuitive as it may seem, I’ve observed before how using that environment of paid acceptance can help one learn to be more comfortable forming non-transactional relationships with women.”
While rushed monogamy isn’t at all unique to LGBT women, Alaina noted that “there’s a unique kind of comfort in emotional intimacy with other women. We’re hungry for it. We spent so much of our lives not having it, and now when we have it, a lot of us desperately want to hang onto it.”
“I can see how having access to a transactional relationship that helps meet both your physical and emotional needs might ease the need to rush into it with other,” she continued.
“A lot of types of sexual activity are stigmatized, but queer people find they are safe in exploring them with a professional,” Beth, 37-year-old dominatrix based in Chicago, told me.
Nineteen years earlier, Beth says her best friend from high school found an ad in the newspaper to be dominatrixes.
“I had no idea what it was, but it sounded cool and I desperately needed money,” Beth recounted: “Sex work opened up my eyes to a lot of things I wouldn’t have access or knowledge to sexually. I’m not sure I would fully understand what queer meant to me if I wasn’t a sex worker.”
Beth says she’s seen everything: lesbian couples, other sex workers, married straight-identifying women who come in with their husbands, and more. Like Alaina, Beth often services women in relationships who’ve come to a sex worker with or without their partners’ consent.
“A lot of times one partner isn’t comfortable topping or providing certain BDSM activities,” said Beth, “so they will seek out the services of me to provide them in a safe way, and where the boundaries are clear and where the potential for emotional intimacy is low.”
“If [a queer woman] comes in by herself, they usually bottom to me,” Beth continued, “meaning they’re either into me directing them or them assuming a submissive role to me, or they are there for me to inflict pain upon them.”
In these cases, the couple must have a discussion with Beth at the start.
“We discuss mutual interests, and I will instruct or demonstrate along with the partner who wants to top/dominate on the one who wishes to bottom/submissive,” she explained.
“A lot of [queer couples] want to spice up their sex life or want to explore new things to see if it sparks any interest in either of them,” says Chicago, who describes the experience as fun and fulfilling.
Fun and fulfilling is exactly how the client I spoke to described her first experience.
“It was Christmas and I had extra money,” said Nicky, a 28-year-old writer from New York City. “I needed to clean my apartment and so I figured I’d help someone out, and make it fun. I found an ad for full-service cleaning in the personals section [on Craigslist].”
The ad, she recalled, had pictures of a woman in a french maid outfit with her face blurred out.
“It said, ‘get the deep cleaning you need’ or something like that,” she remembered.
Nicky lived with her partner at the time and says the two had briefly discussed the idea a few months earlier, and so she hired the woman as a surprise.
“Not a lot of cleaning went on,” she laughed. “Instead, we just started playing and then it was two hours later.”
Overall, Nicky described the experience as “pretty normal” and similar to a hook-up. Her partner, she said, also thought it was fun. Some months later, Nicky hired a sex worker again with a different partner. This time, she hired an acquaintance with experience in the sex trades.
“She was four or five months pregnant at the time and my partner really wanted to have sex with a pregnant woman,” Nicky explained. “That was weirder. I was worried I was exploiting this person. It can be confusing.”
The second experience was with a male and made her wonder even more.
“’Am I taking advantage of them by paying them? Is this unethical?’ That time, it was with a male-identifying partner and so that felt even more confusing,” Nicky noted. “You wonder, am I part of the patriarchy?”
In the past decade, the migration to heavily online use has helped streamline and normalize the profession, leading to an increase in the number of women who sell sex. At the same time, there’s been an increase in legislation meant to limit how bad people use technology to facilitate exploitation. One of the hardest-hitting bills in the U.S. Senate and House is known as FOSTA-SESTA and became law in April 2018. Since the passage of the bill, sex workers have compiled an incomplete list of over 150 companies or distinct products have either shut down, limited their interactions, or outrightly banned sex workers from using their platforms. The list included Craigslist and Backpage, two classified advertising websites that had become the largest marketplaces for buying and selling sex.
According to the sex workers I spoke to, the legislation has only increased stigmatization and scared away more law-abiding clients, including queer women like Nicky.
“I’m not even sure I know how [to buy sex] anymore,” Nicky said. “Not having access to Craigslist makes it so much harder. It feels more dangerous.”
Even before FOSTA/SESTA, Alaina noted, you didn’t really see any good attitudes about women hiring other sex workers.
“For the most part, I feel like the possibility doesn’t even occur to people,” she told me. “It just isn’t something that they think women do.”
Nicky agreed with the sentiment of women being pushed away from the ability to buy sex.
“I don’t even think its discussed at all. I can’t think of any friends that have [hired a sex worker], and I go to play parties, I’m poly/kink,” Nicky noted.
And yet, hiring a sex worker can be an education, according to Nicky.
“Lesbians can be picky. It’s hard to find someone to explore with,” she said. “If you don’t have a lot of experience with women — or you don’t want to make things weird in your social circles — [hiring a sex worker] is a good option.”
“If women had access to sex workers, you might figure out your sexuality earlier, and feel more empowered to explore sexuality,” she continued. “We might have an easier time orgasming, because I have a lot of friends who can’t orgasm. If you’re in a monogamous relationship, seeing a sex worker on your own or with your partner may be a safe way of stepping out the box.”
For couples considering opening up their relationships, Alaina believes that “Frankly, … sex workers are the better option.”
“’Unicorn hunters’ have very little regard for the emotional needs of their unicorn, Alaina said. “They tend to make a big mess.” With sex workers, she continued, “everyone’s feelings are spared.”
“I think you can’t really comfortably identify as queer if you aren’t pro-sex work,” Beth admitted. “Sex work is work. I’m a hustler — a badass — and have worked so hard to [get to] where I am in my career.”