Monday, August 23, 2010

What Do You Do?

A pal of mine asked me a question yesterday, and I’m just going to pop off an answer here. This will not be the most polished and perfected set of remarks I have on the subject, because I’m having a madly-busy week. But it’ll give a sense of my position on the subject.

The pal in question is a girl who became a sex worker (as I recall) about a year ago. She’s struggling with the question of: when to disclose to new acquaintances and potential dates that she’s a sex worker.

She’s the forthright type, which is a nice trait in a person. So when people ask her what she does for a living, she’s been telling them the unedited truth. On one hand, I can see why she’s doing that. We should not have to lie. I love what I do, and I think our profession should be considered as honorable as any other. People who work for the IRS don’t have to lie about what they do. Nor do sales reps for drug companies, or parking-meter enforcement. And sex workers generally make people much happier than those professions.

But in the real world – it’s an issue. If someone has just met you, and in the first hour of your acquaintance, you tell them you’re a sex worker, they are going to make snap judgments about you based on that. It’s just a fact. Occasionally – very occasionally - people say something like, “Oh wow, what a cool, interesting job that must be!” Usually not, though. Neutrality is the best one can hope for in that circumstance, and a lot of the time, they are going to have a negative association with the industry. And you can’t un-ring a bell. Once the information leaves your mouth, it’s out there, and you cease to have control over how people react to it and who it will be repeated to.

So sometimes being perfectly honest right from the get-go is a luxury it’s wiser not to avail yourself of. I recommended to her that she take a little time, get to know people better, and let them know her, before gifting them with this information about herself.

I don’t see this as failing to support sex work activism. There is a difference between doing political activism and conducting one’s personal life. Being a sex work activist is not the entirety of any person. We all have other facets to our lives. Supporting sex worker rights does not mean you have to sacrifice the chance to let people get to know the whole you. You can create connections and trust with people before you start raising their consciousness. That’s an okay choice to make.

She said “I don’t want to lie to people.” Well, no one likes to lie. My response is that it’s not anyone and everyone’s business to know what I do with my time. Just because someone asked me the question does not mean they are entitled to an honest answer.

Still, it’s not usually required to speak a lie, if your conscience is finicky about that. One can just be evasive and vague. In the past, with people who were clearly just casual social acquaintances, that’s what I did. “I’m between jobs right now.” Not technically a lie, since I was never actually on a professional date when I said it.

I have friends who enjoyed spinning amusing stories. “I’m studying astrology through an online school.” Or “I’m a professional babysitter.” The arts are always a refuge: “I’m an actor, a dancer, a musician, a poet.” Frankly, most people are not on fire with curiosity about what new social acquaintances do for a living anyway. They’re simply making polite conversation. It’s usually easy to make a vague reply and brush past the question.

With sex it’s a trifle trickier, because I think if you’re going to have sex with someone, that does entitle them to a higher level of disclosure. Since this girl is polyamorous, she has a little wiggle room here, because I don't think it's an absolute requirement that you always tell people the exact circumstances in which you have sex.

But it is only ethical to tell someone, before you sleep with them, “I have sex with other people. And the people I have sex with, also have sex with other people.” That’s the rock-bottom requirement, in my eyes, for even a casual one-night stand with someone you picked up at a party. Once your potential sexual partner has that information, he/she can make a choice about whether to proceed or not.

(You’d think anyone who was open to a party-pickup would assume their partner of the night was no virgin and make safer-sex choices accordingly. But trust me, I wound up on the wrong end of that assumption more than once before I learned: Say. It. And make them tell you, “Yes, I hear you, I understand.”)

With dating someone you hope might be an ongoing partner, my formula is this: have the first date. Do not tell them about being a sex worker - and don’t have sex. Just have a nice getting-to-know-you date. On the second date, towards the end of the time, tell them. And no matter what, do not have sex with them that night either. Make them go away and think about it. If they come back for a third date, okay, proceed towards sex in whatever fashion the two of you choose.

And you have to accept that you’re going to lose a lot of potential partners after that second date. I wish that wasn’t true, but it is. This is one of those times when I say, “If being a sex worker was easy, everyone would do it.” Pursuing a career in sex work is not a consequence-free choice. Naturally, nothing in life is really consequence-free. But one sees the effects of this choice rather sharply. However, it does make you deeply appreciative of the people who do truly accept you.