The Work in Sex Work

Just because it’s misunderstood doesn’t mean it’s not labor

Kit Bauer
Human Parts
11 min readFeb 6, 2019


Illustration: Malte Mueller/Getty Images

II often get asked, “How do you differentiate between sex for money and sex for free?” and it irks me. It seems rather pedestrian. To me, a sex worker, the answer seems obvious — one is work, and the other is not. The question also points to the way sex workers are constantly asked to prove the validity of their profession. Perhaps for that reason, I should not attempt to answer it; perhaps I should simply tell the asker to trust that my labor is valid. Nevertheless, the answer I have for it leads to interesting threads of shame, empathy, and the limits of understanding, so I will give it and address both the barriers to validating sex as work as well as a technical discussion of my experiences of sex at work.

Obstacles to objective discussions of sex work

Two factors hinder people’s ability to view sex work without bias. First, sex work is unlike many other professions in that most adults have some experience with sex and, as a result, bring their preconceived notions of what it is to discussions of sex work. Some are unable to conceptualize something they do for free as labor because they assume their experience of sex is universal. Perhaps they have never had sex for any reasons other than selfish ones, or their view is clouded by shame or trauma. To discuss sex work constructively, people must, at least momentarily, discard all they know about sex and listen to sex workers as if they are learning about something they have never heard of before. The systemic marginalization and stigmatization of sex workers has made this difficult; sex workers are rarely afforded the opportunity to speak for themselves and instead are typically portrayed as distant “others” deserving of pity or scorn. Altogether, this means few people trust that sex workers understand their reality better than the general public.

Second, the people who make up the sex industry tend to experience a significant amount of discrimination that creates even more challenges in having their voices heard and their work understood. The industry is dominated by women, and this means fighting against patriarchal notions of what kinds of labor deserve financial compensation and should be held in high esteem.

Considering sex workers’ rights means examining the intersection of various stigmas that shine a bright light on many nasty biases and injustices present in modern society.

The sex industry also provides a viable means of economic survival for a number of people of color, LGBTQ people, drug users, and migrant workers — marginalized people who have experience with discrimination, bullying, and trouble finding work. Without the traditional barriers to entry, the sex industry plays home to people who the average office manager would not hire. It is these people, the ones so often deemed unfit to be employed, who are fighting for sex workers’ rights, and so the fight for sex workers’ rights comes with fighting various, intersecting stigmas.

This is the biased landscape that discussions on why sex work is, in fact, work are set in. They are clouded by people’s own experiences of sex and how it should be had. It is dominated by women, whose labor is often overlooked and undervalued. And considering sex workers’ rights means examining the intersection of various stigmas that shine a bright light on many nasty biases and injustices present in modern society. Talking about sex work can be an uncomfortable enterprise.

The particular troubles of advertising

Advertising is one of the ways that sex workers are publicly visible, and so it’s one way their labor is judged. But keep in mind that advertising is often at odds with the politics and realities of sex workers’ jobs. It is difficult for a sex worker to talk about the ups and downs of sex work or about the significant problems within the industry while maintaining a “fuckable” image. Advertising is simply an indication of the kind of experience a sex worker can offer, and it is aimed at a largely male client base. For this reason, it is not reliable data for judging what a job entails or the humanity of the person behind it.

It is useful to unpack this a little more and look at the ways a sex worker’s advertising broadens the empathy gap between sex workers and the rest of the world. Sex acts are rarely presented so blatantly as they are in a sex worker’s advertising, which can be alien and off-putting to many people. A sex worker’s ad can be contrasted with the politicized way that some sex acts are depicted in television and movies or the censorship of books that are too racy. Portions of society do not like discussing sex, but sex workers’ advertisements rely on a matter-of-fact discussion of sex.

Ads for sex workers also often appeal to the male gaze, racialized stereotypes, sexual taboos, and any number of things that make viewers uncomfortable. This discomfort can lead people to make biased generalizations about what they perceive as a toxic culture within the sex industry. Instead of acknowledging them as sex workers’ advertisements for labor, they are dismissed as disagreeable and upsetting; people want them out of sight and out of mind to protect their own sensibilities. This kind of censorship can have disastrous consequences for sex workers. The passing of the FOSTA-SESTA (Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act and Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act) as well as Instagram, Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter tightening their community guidelines in 2018 has hindered sex workers’ ability to work safely by cutting them off from advertising platforms and means of sharing safety information.

In many ways, advertising provides perfect cannon fodder for abolitionists because it can be full of taboo content. I do not deny that misogynistic, racist, or otherwise problematic ideas permeate the sex industry, but I do not see how this provides any rational ground for dismissing the labor of sex workers who rely on the sex industry for survival and whose existence and humanity extend far beyond the portrayal of services in advertising.

Photo courtesy of Kit Bauer

Sex workers want what all workers want

Conversations around sex work rarely start from the perspective of regarding it as work. More often, sex workers’ labor is ignored, their jobs are criminalized, and they are punished. Sex workers are best positioned to lead discussions of the industry, and people outside it should think empathetically about the realities of sex workers’ jobs and identify the many similarities it has with other kinds of labor.

To answer the question, “how do you differentiate sex for money and sex for free?,” let’s parallel sex work with filmmaking — an industry that has fewer moral objections leveled against it. Making a short film with your ideas and your directing is entirely different from being hired for commissioned work. The commissioned work might have pieces of your originality in it but will never be entirely your own. This analogy speaks to the best sides of most jobs. If a worker is lucky, they will have enough autonomy and control over their work to feel somewhat connected to what they do. But no matter how good the working conditions are, work is something that is done for someone else; it’s providing something of value to another person and receiving financial compensation for it.

In my experiences in the industry, I can clearly match my enjoyment at work with how much control I have. After moving from brothel-based work to independent escorting, I have a greater degree of control over the brand that I develop, the kind of clients that I see and the amount of work I do. This makes the time I spend with clients and on other work-related activities far more satisfying. However, I do find myself working harder as an escort; my bookings are not easy, and the satisfaction I find at work is closely linked to the effort I put into it. Attaining that feeling of purpose is true for most any job or career.

Defining labor: the skills and mindset of a sex worker

A booking is a finely tuned experience to make a client feel good. The skills needed for this do not come naturally and are learned over time — I am certainly still learning — but the goal for a good booking is to shape a scenario where the client feels comfortable, curious, desired, and excited. I’ve found that there are three things make up a lot of the work in most bookings: managing the overall experience, building a delicate social connection, and delivering the sexual experience a client desires.

First, the booking should feel like a complete experience. Success in this comes down to timing things well and reading and balancing energy levels. I have spent from 10 minutes to 15 hours with a client, and an average meeting is two hours. A booking often involves time for nerves to dissipate, excitement to build, arousal to take over, sex to happen, and then reintegration from an intense experience with a relative stranger to daily existence. But there are also times a client will either be intent on a purely social interaction or will want to fuck from start to finish; in those cases, my primary goal is managing my own energy levels and arousal while guiding the client’s expectations. I see it as my job to read what the client wants, match the pace they are comfortable with, and guide them through an enjoyable experience. Each client must be viewed as an individual with a unique set of needs, and I must do my best to meet those needs while staying firmly in control of my own boundaries. Managing my and others’ energy levels in sex work is different from other jobs I have had; there is often not a single minute where I can switch off, let my mind wander, or think about anything other than what is going on.

Second, social connection is of high importance to most of my clients. This is one of the highlights of my work; I meet people I otherwise would not have the chance to meet, and I learn all about their worlds and their sexualities. Like every interaction, it is important to listen to everything the client says, ask questions to deepen my understanding instead of making assumptions, and not simply wait for my turn to speak. I am careful to ensure a connection builds, which means I watch them more attentively than I would other conversation partners — noticing body language, signs of nerves, where their eyes linger. I test whether they need to keep the discussion focused on themselves because they want to feel heard, or if they like hearing about me. And I am wary throughout all of this that the client may become attached to me as a result of these conversations, and while boundaries are ever-shifting, they must be maintained. It is a strange kind of social interaction that I am still getting my head around; often my compassion for and interest in clients is coming from an honest place, but these feelings are still built around the creation of a social interaction that’s ideal for someone else.

It was impossible for me to comprehend sex as work before I did it. … It would be wise for non-sex workers to realize the significant limits of their understanding.

Third, the sex itself constitutes a huge portion of the work in most bookings. Even when the sex is good — in fact, especially when the sex is good — it is energetically draining. Being in close physical contact with a stranger is both exhilarating and tiring for me. Clients can be broadly sorted into two categories, which each create their own physical demands: those who want me to feel real pleasure and share that with them, and those focused on the fantasy of doing things a certain way regardless of my enjoyment. Many people might recoil at the idea of a sex worker being used as a prop in a client’s fantasy regardless of the worker’s pleasure, and this is an excellent example of how people’s individual understanding of sex can misdirect empathy and muddy the discussions of sex work. Neither one of these categories is inherently better or worse than the other, they are simply a different kind of work.

If a client wants me to feel real pleasure, then I have to create a situation where I am genuinely aroused despite the environmental demands, my energy levels, and how compatible I am with the client. This requires creativity, open-mindedness, and an ability to focus my mind on specific things to the exclusion of others. This can certainly lead to a good time at work and helps me foster a positive relationship between myself and my job, but it is demanding and entails a lot of personal vulnerability. By contrast, being a prop in someone else’s fantasy can be less complicated and comes with the immense satisfaction of playing a role in making someone’s desires come to life. But these types of bookings can grate on my ego and be less personally satisfying. There are positives and negatives to different kinds of bookings, and all are likely to seem alien to non-sex workers.

One more aspect of viewing sex work as labor is the mindset of the sex worker. Much like other people in every kind of job, the way I carry myself at work is not the same as how I carry myself in my private life. I take care not to be overtly sexually powerful with most clients and stay aware that I have sex frequently while many of my clients don’t. So I use my body gently but confidently and aim to meet people where they’re at. I’ve noticed that clients tend to mirror the way I use my body, so I guide them to behave as I do by role modeling confidence and sensuality. I generally encourage them to make requests so the booking is focused around their fantasies while remaining within their comfort zone and my professional boundaries. Sex for work utilizes a lot of skill and attention to create something that a relative stranger will value and enjoy and involves a combination of concentration, tenderness, and selflessness that is simply not present in the sex I have for free.

What it’s like

It was impossible for me to comprehend sex as work before I did it, and my comprehension is still developing. It would be wise for non-sex workers to realize the significant limits of their understanding of the realities of what it is like to have sex for money.

Sex workers do things they are comfortable with, make them smile, and make them come. Sex workers also do things that make them angry, conflict with their personal politics, and fill them with shame. Sex workers are pressured by clients, management, and economic necessity to do things that many people would find repugnant. Sex workers also do things that many people would think are a wonderful way to make money and are a truly beautiful expression of human pleasure. The one thing all of this has in common is that it is work. It is predicated by a commercial transaction, and that foundation shapes sex for money into something quite different from sex for free.