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Recognising Our Flaws

we can all do better at supporting survival sex workers

· Behind the Curtain

Straight up, I want to say right here that I don't mean this as an attack on anyone, it's just that this subject has come into the public eye recently because of one article, but it's been a problem for much longer than that, and the article was merely the catalyst. Here's that article.


It's an ugly word. For those playing at home who aren't familiar with the terminology, it means this:

"An artificial hierarchical system whereby some sex workers put themselves above other sex workers due to the nature of their work."

It's similar to classism in work forces, like blue vs white collar work. "Sex work", to be clear, covers everyone in the sex industry being paid for sexuality and sexual services - strippers, cam girls, phone sex, full service workers, erotic masseuses, porn stars, even sugar babies. Full service workers who think they're better than sugar babies because they're not getting manipulated. Cam girls who think they're better than full service workers because they're not putting dicks in them. Strippers who think they're better... etc etc etc. Yeah, it's exhausting, but like any industry, it's part of the gig - some people just like to one up other people. I'm sure you have petty middle managers who do the same, so don't blow this off as "just some catty thing that hoes do", because you'd be very wrong, and very very rude. As usual, I'm focusing here on full service sex work, since that's my area.

When Backpage/Cracker went down, many of you know that a significant chunk of the industry lost their only income stream overnight. "Sienna, there are other escort sites, come on!" - yes, but it was free to post ads on Backpage, and most other sites cost a fair amount of cash, especially if you want to be actually seen (top SEO and pole position are not free). They also won't work for you if you're not in the niche they aim for - good luck being a man advertising on "Angel Babes". Many of the workers affected were what we call "survival sex workers", or SSW for short; this means that they are living hand to mouth, probably with dependants, and are likely relying on their sex work in order to make rent since they have no savings to dip into, and few formal qualifications. They are more likely to be people of colour, transgender people, mentally ill or disabled people, single mothers, or people who did not finish their education; those who are already marginalised. SSW don't have the money to advertise on expensive websites, especially those which require professional images in order to be allowed to put up a profile - that's fine, those sites cater to a niche, but remember that suddenly the site they could use, with the cheap/free ads and the top SEO, was gone. What the heck do they do? It's make money now or become homeless, and it's not like anyone is hiring on the spot anymore, or giving pay advances. SSW are the ones most affected by whorearchy, as they often perform services and operate in ways that many others don't "approve" of.

On top of that, the day after Backpage was seized by the FBI, Trump signed FOSTA, the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act, into law in the United States. For a good read on how this affected sex workers, especially comparing US sex workers and Aussie sex workers, read this article by the wonderfully talented Gala Vanting (her Twitter). The Too Long, Didn't Read of that: it pretends to be helping those who are trafficked, but really forces sex workers out of safe online spaces, and strips them of their screening resources by making websites responsible for the content their users create. It means they can't advertise online to find clients, so a lot of the poorer ones are going back to abusive pimps and street work. The effect here? A lot of websites we use are hosted in the USA, and are preemptively shutting down online spaces. So basically, it's a bit of a shitshow for us in the sex industry right now - for those of us with a lot of privilege (me), it's a hit to our savings and an annoyance, maybe a bit of fear; but to those at the opposite end of that privilege scale? Homelessness, desperation, risky behaviour, mental breakdowns, being unable to feed families or afford medical care, relapses, and increased risk of suicide.

Enter: whorearchy. We all know the risks of unprotected sexual acts - transmission of disease, unwanted pregnancy, general vaginal infection - but perhaps consider that sex itself, whether protected or not, is a risk in itself. The only way to not have that risk, is to not have sex. People are going to want sex (this is why abstinence only sex education does not ever work), they're going to want unprotected sex, and there will always be horrible monsters that wave money in faces to get what they want. Some people are in situations where they cannot refuse, and it is not our job to shame them, it's our job to protect them - but shame them we do. In an ideal world, we would all be using condoms for sex and oral, gloves or finger condoms for finger penetration, and dental dams for oral on a vagina. Some workers take all those precautions! I know I don't - I don't use dental dams (if you're reading this QLD police, for you, I use them, promise) or finger condoms, but I do use condoms for both oral and penetration. Some workers choose to give bareback oral and allow their clients to finish down their throat. Consider risk on a spectrum: no one is completely without it, but we all choose our degree of risk based on our personal situations.

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For a hot second, you're going to ignore that I made this in Paint while I was wearing no pants and drinking wine on tour, because it's a good example of the spectrum I'm talking about, and it applies to all sexual relationships, whether you see sex workers or not. The willingness of workers to take more risk increases as they get desperate for money, and skeevy clients know it - this totally happened when Backpage closed and FOSTA was signed. Workers with no savings and who were newly without advertising saw that there was going to be consequences for them and they did what they could to survive. For anyone who at this point is saying, "Sienna, they should have anticipated this and gotten another job," this shows an unbelievable lack of insight - if your company went under tomorrow, a la Enron, and someone said that to you, you'd give them an earful! Some people see it coming, many others don't. If surviving for you means $30 blowjobs without a condom, who the hell am I to judge you, with my cushy desk job and high rates? Yeah, you might be contributing to the spread of diseases, but your survival right now is more important to you than some greater good, because it's much more pressing, and I cannot fault you for that. Who is honestly thinking of the long term greater good at all times? I'm sure you all stay at home every time you have a cold in case you spread it, or consider the long term impact of the chip packets you throw away on the regular, or the water you waste from long showers. A certain level of empathy is required when dealing with this sensitive subject. We'd love it if everyone practised safer sex! But there is demand for unsafe sex, and there are people who have a need for money; welcome to capitalism. There's also a point to make here about our pornography being filled with demonstrations of unprotected sex, which can create unrealistic expectations particularly among those who are lacking in sex ed, but that's a can of worms I am not going to open.

The other weird view I'm seeing pop up a lot is that Backpage only catered for a certain "quality" of escort. No no no. Everyone from $10 BJ Barry to $900 an hour Helen advertised on there, it was a catch all for all kinds of sex workers who offered every service under the sun: gay male escorts, BDSM and fetish specialists, transgender escorts, those who specialise in the wacky worlds of furry fetishes, toilet training, age play, and medical fetish. You are not special if you chose not to advertise on Backpage - you are privileged that you could manage without it. The clients who trawl there are the same clients who trawl all the other escort sites, they're not really any better or worse. My most generous client found me on Backpage, and my abuser found me on Scarlet Blue, but so did my most reliable regular - go figure. If you think they go directly to a site when they have their dicks in hand, you're mistaken; most of them Google "escorts/dominatrix/brothel [city]" and go from there. It just so happened that Backpage was at the top because they had amazing SEO and they'd been active for fourteen years; their popularity was unrivalled.

SSWs are often our front lines, for better or worse. They find a lot of the abusive clients before anyone else does, and they pass on what they know to others, or get them prosecuted if they can. They are the ones who receive the brunt of the horrible stigma that sex workers face, and they're often the ones people make gross jokes about (see: every crack whore joke ever, every hooker stereotype in the media). It is extremely important that those of us with a voice do what we can to look after those workers, and not throw them under the bus. We know that there are unsafe things that they may do, but creating further stigma only harms them and makes you look like kind of a dick. Remember that "rights not rescue" slogan we all use? They need those rights more than the rest of us privileged hookers, and they don't need us telling them what to do; they're not stupid, they're just poor.

So here's a quote from a woman who was trafficked, and then a SSW, and now an escort who makes decent money. She's done it all, and she has some words for us to learn from.

"I hope everybody enjoyed benefiting from every good client referral, every ugly mug I told you of, every hotel recommendation, every piece of advice, and all the support I have ever shown to escorts from every walk of life; a very large portion of that was all from my own $50 CIM blowjob service . I’m not really upset about the above, because I care so much about you all and I know that you are all safer and happier for it. I’m more sad for all my clients over the years who are being painted as the worst kind of people, and that the so called “high class directory” clients are so much better than them just because they want a specific experience. If you really must know, one set is much more demanding and high maintenance than the other, and I'll let you have a guess which. I make decisions about what I offer by considering my personal comfort versus the need to survive and keep a roof over mine and my family’s heads, and food on the table. As for demographics... coming from somebody who has done $50 - $800 and has had many different names over the years; my demographics at $50 wasn’t far off the "high end directory", $800/hr clientele - I shared a lot of the same clients with you all. Oh, and for the record: no, I’m not diseased, so don’t go racing for the STI check."

And here's a quote from a current SSW, who is feeling the effects of FOSTA and Backpage's closure quite keenly.

"I've been thinking about it constantly, about what will happen. I'm going to have to expand my services to things like panty selling, cam work, and selling images; but I'm also increasingly thinking I might have to do things I wouldn't normally do, like car bookings and maybe even natural services. I don't know how bad it might get, and that has me worried, since at the moment my lowest rate is $50 for a half hour, and I feel like I might have to drop that further. Personal comfort takes a backseat to surviving; I wish I could have both, but as time goes on, that seems more and more like a fantasy. I also agree that for me, I understand, even accept, that some clients will be the dregs of the barrel and that I will just need to cop it, simply because "beggars can't be choosers" - so I will probably end up seeing a higher percentage of abusive and deceptive clients in my price range as some see me as "cheap and nasty", and therefore treat me as such. However, at least then I can pass on that info to others so they can be safer - I guess if I need to be the guinea pig or crash test dummy in this game, then so be it."

So how can we do better for our fellow workers? I asked a SSW, and she gave me this answer.

"I mean the creation of Crockor [by more privileged workers] has been great, as it at least gives an avenue (which doesn't cost huge money) to advertise, but obviously it's going to take a while for all our old Backpage clients to find it. I think those businesses who were offering free and cheap advertising/photo shoots etc are extremely helpful; though if it could become some kind of permanent offer that would be even better. I think those of you who have a voice are angels, especially when using it to stand up for those of us who don't have one or who feel we can't say anything (ie. encouraging clients to not pressure SSW for natural services or for us to stay longer for free, or to work outside of our normal hours) because it's getting more and more difficult to say no when you need to eat or keep a roof over your head. Maybe if somehow either other sex workers or sex work outreach organisations could somehow get SSW access to things like gift cards for phone credit, or Coles supermarkets, or petrol, etc, that would help too. Or even if clients tipped SSW with those type of gift cards perhaps. I don't know. It's kind of hard to think of solutions when it's your problem."

Guys, ultimately it's okay to make mistakes. When I first got into sex work and realised how fucking horrible an opinion I used to have of the work, I was in a constant state of cringe at myself while learning what it's really like.

Think back on yourself five years ago.

Think of some ignorant shit you said or thought.

Cringe with me.

Now realise how far you've come since then.

It's called growth. Sometimes it takes a little while for the truth to get through your skull, and maybe you hurt some people in the process, but we weren't all born woke as hell, and we are all humans susceptible to the influence of the media and society. It's how we make decisions based upon new information that defines who we are. Maybe you think SSW are repulsive for offering bareback services, or maybe you think people who use dental dams are weird as shit - well, maybe today you learned that while their choices are not for you, you might not have the whole story, and perhaps where you're standing has a really rubbish view into what their lives are really like... and you're feeling like you might have been a touch whorearchical. Judge not, lest ye be judged in turn.

Note: I'm not condoning bareback services - obviously they're risky, and we should limit the spread of diseases and limit clients from thinking it's the norm. I'm condoning empathy and understanding.

24 June 2018 Edit:

This blog has been edited to remove the name of the person whose words triggered its writing, under threat of legal action.