Writing for the first time about being a sex worker, the author says the industry has taught her feminism and empowerment. By Kate Iselin.

Sex work and empowerment

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To quote Brooke Magnanti, another woman who wrote frequently about sex: “The first thing you should know is that I’m a whore.” 

I was 22 when I first had sex for money. It was on a satin-covered bed in a red-painted room in a brothel in the Melbourne suburb of Collingwood. Two weeks into a full-time bachelor’s degree, I was already struggling to acclimatise to student life and had trouble affording a coffee, let alone the $13,000 tuition fee my private university charged each semester. Feeling stunted and hopeless without a source of income for the first time in my life, I confided in a close friend who immediately offered to take me out for a cocktail.

“I don’t know what to do,” I told him. “I’ve never used a coffee machine. I don’t know how to mix drinks. I wouldn’t trust myself to work in a kitchen: I’d probably set the place on fire. Even if I did find a job waiting tables somewhere, I’m at uni every day and then I spend hours every night working on assignments. When would I sleep?”

“Maybe you should just find yourself a rich boyfriend,” he joked.

“Like you did?” I said.

He laughed. “It’s a bit more casual than that, to be honest.”

A silence settled over our table as I took stock of some of the small but telling trappings of his life, things I had noticed during the course of our friendship: the Mercedes-Benz in his garage, the spacious apartment with skyline views, the hundred-dollar notes that poured from his wallet whenever he rejected my offer to split the bill at lunch.

“Are you selling it?” I tried for a joke, but my lips caught around the words.

He was quiet for a moment, then: “Have you ever thought about it?”

Had I ever thought about it? 

I thought of the men in the office I used to work at slinking away to lunch on Friday, only to return with glitter on their ties and a flush in their cheeks. I thought about the receipts from the strip clubs they marked as “client lunches”, and felt angry not that they were cheating the system but that I was never invited along. 

I remembered myself as a teenager, sitting in the back seat of my parents’ car as we drove home from the local pizza parlour and passed a house that they murmured was a brothel. In the front window, a gauzy red light shone every time we passed, and I imagined a wizened madam inside, readying her girls for the evening. The snap of a garter, the bounce of a ringlet curl, the soft mist of perfume. How different those women’s lives must be from mine, I thought; how full of thrill and excitement and mischief. And then I pictured myself only two years earlier: the gawky and uncomfortable 20-year-old virgin who took the same train to work every morning and got the same train home every night, sweating in a black polyester skirt suit, brown hair lank around her ears, a well-thumbed copy of The Intimate Adventures of a London Call Girl hidden in her satchel bag.

Had I ever thought about it? “Yeah,” I said to my friend. “I’ve thought about it.”

The motivations of people performing sex work are as diverse as sex workers themselves. In the years I’ve spent in the industry, I have met and worked alongside individuals of all ethnicities, ages, genders and body types, who have done sex work to get out of debt, afford holidays, pay their bills, cover medical treatment, buy designer clothes, support drug habits, fund an education, invest in property, and pad their retirement funds. Some enter the industry to find themselves, some enter it to lose themselves, and some to reclaim themselves. I have met people whose primary attraction to the job was the opportunity for sexual freedom that they couldn’t find elsewhere, and I’ve met others whose hard-nosed hustle indicated their motivation was purely financial. The one thing that we have in common is that, for all of us, it is a job: our brothels, street corners and hotel rooms are places of business. Our leather, lace and lingerie are uniforms. Our touch – whether it’s the forceful crack of a whip or the gentle caress of a kiss – is the touch of a 9-to-5 professional, even if our 9-to-5 sometimes sits on the opposite side of the clock to most.

After I left the brothel in Collingwood that day, I treated myself to a martini and formulated a plan. I decided to spend the next 36 months as a student by day and a sex worker by night, then hang up my stilettos for good, keeping my family and friends safe from emotional harm by never revealing the secret I had kept. 

But plans never quite work out the way we expect, and five years later I’ve quit my degree, funded three overseas trips, become a writer, discovered feminism and – crucially – happily remained in the sex industry. Which is, as they say, where things get complicated.

We don’t like to imagine our feminists as possessing Lucite heels and fishnet bodystockings. Women in the sex industry are frequently dismissed as tools of the patriarchy and given responsibility for everything wrong with gender equality. Decades of feminist debate and study have been dedicated to how the sex industry affects women in general, and I would be a fool to try to summarise it here. But I can tell you how sex work affected one woman: me. 

I am certain that if I had never become a sex worker, I would never have become a feminist. Sex work not only performed its required function – paying my bills and chipping away at my debt – it broadened my horizons and introduced me to the kind of life I would wish any woman to have in her early 20s, one of curiosity and experimentation, of frequent financial ease, of occasional challenges, of discovery and intimacy and adventure and fun. 

Sixty years from now, when I’m old and grey, I can look back on this time of my life and hold the memories as truly transformative: the long nights and early mornings; the wads of cash tucked into my bra and clipped to the strap of my shoe; the whispered conversations with other workers in the dressing-room as we styled our hair and fixed each other’s make-up, close as sisters; the fleeting moments of intimacy we shared with the men who paid for our time. 

I’ll remember running up and down the corridors of a luxury hotel in nothing but a lace robe, giggling during an impromptu game of chasey with a client. I’ll remember standing soldier-straight in nothing but a pair of heels and evicting a misbehaving executive from a brothel bedroom. And I’ll remember sliding my legs out of a giant spa, dreamlike, only to find them covered in hundred-dollar notes that stuck to my wet skin like seaweed.

If I’ve experienced any freedom in my working life – and I have – it’s due to the efforts of other sex workers who fought for my right to work comfortably and safely, within the protection of the law and with the help of managers, receptionists, drivers, security and other sex workers. By adding my voice to the already powerful group of workers who are publicly out, I hope to do two things: first, help express the urgent need for decriminalisation of sex work in all its forms; and, second, tell my story in such a way that might reach another nervous 22-year-old whose shoulders already carry the weight of a society that says people who have sex for money are broken, used and victimised. I wouldn’t encourage her to sex work – and I also wouldn’t discourage her – but I would want to tell her that no matter her choice she should never feel ashamed. 

Truthfully, I don’t know where my life would have ended up if I hadn’t made the decision to walk into the brothel in Collingwood that day. It’s quite likely I would still be sitting on that same train, staring out that same window, thinking back to the gauzy red light that captured my imagination so many years earlier.

Like any other sex worker, I have had negative incidents at my job, but my overall experience has been a positive one. Without sex work I would never have seen the strength, determination and compassion of which women – and workers of all genders – are capable. And without sharing my story, one so heavily influenced by theirs, I would not be the person I am today: empowered, honest and proud.

This piece was modified on February 22, 2016, to clarify the attribution of a quote from Brooke Magnanti.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 20, 2016 as "Lust for power".

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Kate Iselin is a Sydney-based writer. Her memoir, Naked Ambition, is forthcoming.

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