Intimacy After the “Call Girl” Years: How Sex Work Changed the Way I Have Sex

I met Arran the way a lot of people meet their partners these days — the same way I used to meet clients: we met online. His OkCupid profile boasted a impressive job in political media. Like me, he had a dog. It all started with a friendly message next to an unobscured picture of a man with blue-black hair going grey, dark facial hair and brown-black eyes. I messaged back. Someone who could explain to me the conflict in Syria that I also found physically attractive? I was cooly optimistic.

Dating is difficult. On top of chemistry and compatibility, there’s the complicated matter of telling him about my past. I know that everyone’s got baggage. Still, not every guy can handle dating a former “whore.”

Truth is, I oftentimes enjoyed my work. And when I didn’t — well, at least I got paid. This was my attitude when I worked in the sex industry. I worked on and off as a stripper in college before a brief stint as a call girl on Craigslist, where I advertised myself as a “non pro” and sold what amounted to “the girlfriend experience.” This meant that after a man had answered my ad, we’d arrange to meet and have a drink or two, just as if it were a real date. Then — just like a “real” couple — we’d go back to his place or mine where we’d kiss, fondle and, ultimately, have sex.

Writer and psychologist Kerry Cohen theorizes that for women, sex is performance, intimacy or trauma. Unlike the many women who’ve experienced sexual trauma at some point in their lifetime, I’ve never been the victim of rape or sexual assault. To believe all sex workers have been victimized invalidates the experiences of those who have been. But to believe the sex industry doesn’t have an effect on the private lives and identities of its workers is equally naive. 

For me, sex work blurred the lines between authenticity and performance. As both a stripper and a call girl, I played the part of a passive sexual object. And yet, being more experienced with the routine than my partner gave me the feeling of advantage. Because he was compliant, I felt in charge and in control. At the time, it had felt empowering

When I got out of prostitution, I began to recognize the ways working in the industry had affected me. For starters, I began to see how I’d been conditioned to enjoy the role I played when I sold sex. At 19 years old, I felt like I’d found the job I’d been training for my whole life. Sex was a source of power even before it was a source of capital. In both paid and unpaid encounters, I used my sexuality to feel desirable, as a means of security and validation, and as a way to feel love.

At 27, I quit sex work for good. I was done with selling the Girlfriend Experience. I wanted to be a girlfriend for real. But that was easier said than done.

After our second date, Arran asked me back to his place under the auspices of meeting his dog. I had a rule to hold out as long as possible, but our chemistry was strong. Arran had a sexual appetite that resembled my own, one I’ve rarely felt matched by my partners. We spent the rest of that weekend mostly in bed, only coming up for air when it was time for a meal or to walk the dogs. He was fun, and fun is, well, fun, but I wasn’t only interested in a one-night stand.

I would not say the sex we had that first night was intimate. Instead, it had felt intimate walking home from dinner, with a candid conversation about my sexual history. Vulnerable was how I felt before we had sex — being let into his space, seeing his room and his belongings, spying the titles of his books.

Before Arran, sex had never been an intimate act. Instead, I’d used sex as a way of dominating, hedging off fear, and keeping someone at arm’s length. They say that intimacy is the product of being vulnerable, but I don’t feel vulnerable when I have sex. Instead, I feel vulnerable in the awkward minutes afterwards — awkwardness I learned to resolve by, well, having more sex.

Intimacy came in the days and weeks later, as Arran stopped being a stranger and became someone I liked and someone I wanted to like me, someone whose opinion I valued. I accompanied him to a work picnic some weeks later. The following weekend, he came with me to a barbecue. A month after we started dating, I helped him move.

Though I’ve been in committed monogamous relationships before, for various reasons I wouldn’t have described any of those relationships as intimate — and never with a partner have I had what I considered a healthy sex life. In these ways, Arran is a first, and it’s been a challenge for the both of us to figure out how the sex I used to have for pay as a call girl is similar to or different from the sex I have with my boyfriend for free.

One of the first major differences between sex in my current relationship and sex with a client is that Arran checks in. If he senses I’m not enjoying myself or sees that I don’t want to continue, he stops. We communicate, constantly, verbally or otherwise — before, after and sometimes during the act. The fact that this behavior surprised me goes to show how accustomed I was to less — and not just from commercial sex. Most partners I’ve had in my lifetime didn’t care if I was present in my body, let alone enjoying the experience.

Of course, for lots of different reasons and in varying circumstances, consent is not always enthusiastic. Initially, what felt like Arran’s insistence that I enjoy myself reminded me of being with a client, and the pressure to put on a good show. I found the experience of being questioned annoying. I didn’t want to be scrutinized. Even now, his attention makes me self-conscious. The fact that he’s not just looking at me for his own sexual gratification feels different. Oftentimes, it’s uncomfortable. I’m learning to deal with that discomfort. If I want intimacy, I have to tolerate being seen.

Sometimes, I don’t want to be intimate. I want to listen to “The Moth” podcasts or watch whatever’s on HBO even if I’ve already seen that episode three times. I want to catch up on work. I want to shop online for curtains or eat ice cream from the carton. I don’t want to have sex. I want to be alone, as I had grown accustomed to being. Sure, it’s normal to want space. But I like a lot of it. For someone with a history like mine, I’m coming to realize, even reasonable bids for my attention can feel overly demanding.

About four months into our relationship, like many couples, our sex life began to change. Sure, we’d still have the occasional quick fuck on the kitchen table right after we’d ordered dinner but before the delivery person arrived. More often, there were a lot of long baths together, couples massages and staring meaningfully into each other’s eyes. “Getting in the mood” was never something I’d required when I had sex for money or on a whim. At first, I was ambivalent about having sex for free when I didn’t necessarily desire it. But a healthy sex life, I’m learning, requires effort. Though I’d never considered myself a selfish lover, I had to confront my “what’s in it for me” attitude that came from having previously been compensated for my company.

Sex workers learn strategies of distancing, disengagement, dissociation and disembodiment to allow for the separation of their work from their self. This is according to researchers like Wendy Chapkis and Teela Sanders and interpreted by the sex worker’s rights movement as a defense that sex work is non-affecting. Problem is, you can’t turn embodiment on and off like a switch. You can only shut down. When you habitually disengage and disassociate, you narrow your range of emotional experiences. Working in the sex industry, I shut down. I went numb. I lost my ability to empathize. Returning and remaining present in my body, nearly a decade later, remains a daily practice.

When I stopped having sex for money I suffered from the fallacy that sex for free should never feel like work. What I learned: It sometimes does. It can also feel different. It can feel like love.


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