Appetising Young Love for Sale

or, what I learnt about myself from doing sex work

In this thought-provoking article, a 25-year-old female sex worker writes about how her work has empowered her, helped her develop good boundaries and enabled her to work through other issues.

“Love that’s fresh and still unspoiled,
Love that’s only slightly soiled,
Love for sale.”

As I listen to the menacing voice of K. D. Lang conveying her rendition of Cole Porter’s Love for Sale, I pace back and forth on the pavement impatiently waiting for the bus to arrive. My headphones are solidly shoved into my ears. One hand is firmly planted in my pocket, the other resisting the November cold, clinging to a crumbling cigarette. My gaze is fixed on the splatter of the raindrops battering the asphalt.

I just had sex. I just had sex and I got paid for it. And now I’m in the middle of my scintillating ritual of getting carried away by the lyrical splendour of Cole Porter on my way home.

He had seemed like a sweet man, the client. In his mid-fifties, I think. Very lonely. He didn’t tell me that but his stories told me a lot more about him than he intended. So did his home. We talked for about an hour before any physical intimacy was initiated; as with most clients, I was the initiator, a role I tend not to take on unless money is involved. Not because the monetary aspect compels me to do so, but because of the framework: the boundaries that have been established beforehand, and the underlying mutual agreement that these are not negotiable. Because the money dictates so.

At the age of 25 I have allowed a psychiatric diagnosis to voice many of the interrelational problems and patterns I have battled against for as long as I can remember. Although, the phrase battled against is probably an ample exaggeration; most of these problems of mine have originated from great shame, so I spent the majority of my youth trying to hide them from the world as much as humanly possible. I didn’t manage to confront this all-consuming shame until I was 23. At the time it felt symbiotically braided into my very existence. As it turned out, I found the slow and laborious release from these struggles through my sexuality.

I remember having a maths teacher once who defined a problem as ‘a task that cannot be solved by applying previously-used algorithms.’ For some reason this definition stuck with me. As it turns out, the algorithm that has proven to be the solution to my interrelational problems is sexuality.

I was blessed with an upbringing virtually devoid of sexual shaming, which has enabled me to embrace sexuality and its diversity on a variety of levels. Most importantly for my line of work, on a physical one. I have, however, had the misfortune of growing up with an ever-present inferiority complex and a considerably poor sense of self-worth, prohibiting me from forming, or perhaps more accurately daring to form, basic social bonds. I learned to please, I learned to numb the pain with indifference, and I learned to submit to any form of authority I encountered. I never learned to assert my boundaries.

When I entered the sex-positive community a few years ago I grasped, for the first time in my life, the full extent of what this entails. I was taught the importance of knowing what I want and what I don’t want, and being able to express it. I learned how much damage can be done when I don’t, and how magical even the subtlest experiences can become when I do.

I have learned about connection and intimacy. I find this kinesthetic learning process both healing and treacherous. Most importantly, I find it immeasurably rewarding. Perhaps the most precious gift I have received on this journey so far, in addition to the importance and satisfaction of asserting my boundaries, is to differentiate between physical and sexual intimacy, and that form of intimacy that makes my heart skip a beat and the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. I find both in my work, but it took me a long time and some excruciating experiences to acknowledge that the connection between the two is not absolute. One is not necessarily dependent on the other. I have taken part in the most outrageously controversial BDSM set-ups without flinching, and I have seen tears roll down the cheeks of a stranger from a brief moment of hand-holding and a tender smile.

In fact, I have come to understand that I had a rather involuntary tendency to shy away from the gentlest and most delicate forms of intimacy, such as cuddling or holding hands or even maintaining eye contact. What I experienced when entering the realms of sex work was how to overcome this apprehension towards subtle connection and gentle intimacy, through my ability to take control, to be assertive and thereby to allow compassion to run through me more fully. When I allow myself and my clients to be contained by my boundaries, I flow more freely and listen to what’s being requested without the fear of not fulfilling their every need and desire.

As with most things in life, this is a journey of ceaseless character and continuous growth. I sense that intimacy and boundaries will remain something of a struggle for me, but I feel a great deal of gratitude for the gift this deeply unconventional form of therapy has been for me so far. It certainly isn’t for everyone. But there’s no doubt in my mind that it’s for me.

The bus finally arrives. As it pulls in, I stand ready to get on board as soon as the doors open. I smile to the bus driver, who in return sends an irritated grin in my general direction. As I walk down the bus and take a seat in the back, I smugly allow the words of Cole Porter to resonate in the deepest and innermost corners of my being:

“Let the poets pipe of love,
In their childish way,
I know every type of love,
Better far than they.”