I was recently invited to participate in a book launch event for WE TOO: Essays on Sex Work and Survival, a new sex work anthology put out by Feminist Press. I was asked to read parts of my chapter on motherhood and sex work.
The morning of the event I reached out to my (now) adult son who lives across the country and asked him if he wanted to come to the Zoom event and watch me and my sex work friends and colleagues share our stories (a couple of whom he has met). When the time came, seeing his name pop up in the Zoom audience was emotional for me. It reminded me that, years earlier, when I wrote my chapter, I was newly out to my kids and still very afraid of talking publicly about being a sex working mother.
Part of this fear came from the very real threat of state violence against sex working mothers. I have seen friends lose custody battles because of their work history—or at least be threatened by the loss of their children. Another part of the fear came from a persistent question I encounter with older family members who found out how I pay my bills: But what about the children?
This question is obviously steeped in a whorephobia that imagines sex workers to be incapable of being good mothers or maintaining appropriate boundaries, despite the fact that maintaining good sexual boundaries is essentially a sex work job requirement.
While it is assumed that most parents can maintain a private sex life and a job without involving their kids inappropriately in either, the same benefit of the doubt isn’t given to moms who trade sex. But that’s a consequence of stigma: your every action is interpreted through the lens of your “spoiled identity.”
After being outed as a sex worker to my extended family, I remember trying to answer this question as best I could: I have talked to the kids in age-appropriate terms about my work. They understand that sex work is a job. They don’t seem to be scarred for life.
And all of this was true. When I realized that my public career as a sex worker (and particularly a sex working writer) was becoming too large to keep from them any longer, my husband PJ and I took them out to dinner—to the same restaurant where we once told them I was pregnant with their little brother—and explained that my writing was becoming more and more widely circulated, and that what I wrote about was my experiences as a sex worker. I didn’t want them to stumble upon my work or to be confronted by a friend or family member and not know how to process the information.
They certainly didn’t know I was a sex worker or even what sex work was, but they weren’t surprised. By that, I mean that up until this moment, we had raised them in such a way as to not hold whorephobic views, and to see sex workers as people who are just trying to make it like everyone else. That night, they were more interested in what we were going to order for dinner than how I got the money to pay for it.
But they didn’t have to judge me for me to feel judged. Mothers are intensely scrutinized and judged, and so are sex workers, and sitting at the intersection of these two identities makes it impossible not to internalize the intense stigma that is projected on to us. While I believed in what I was doing, there were moments when I was overcome with a nagging doubt: What if they are right and my choices are harming our kids? What if the kids are afraid to tell me what they really think? What if their friends stumble across my porn and my kids have to pay a social price?
Mothers always second guess their parenting—or, at least good mothers do. Parenting is a difficult job; the stakes are so high. Being a mother that does a stigmatized and (in some cases) criminalized job only intensifies this.
At the end of my most recent WE TOO event, I realized that my son sat through every talk (and not just mine). He sent a text from him telling me how much he appreciated being there and seeing the context of our struggle. The struggle is not new to him; while growing up he often went to organizing events with us; helped our sex worker friends move; and sat at many dinners where we talked about dealing with difficult clients, which platforms were kicking sex workers off, and the taxes we owed. But this was the first event that he went to as an adult.
And, as an adult, he is now old enough to speak for himself about what it was like to grow up with a sex working mom. So, I confronted my own fears and asked him to share.
This is what he had to say, in his words. He has given permission to publish his responses. I have not edited them since I think his voice and perspective is important and I didn’t want to decide for him what was most salient.
To put my oldest son’s answers in context, I will briefly mention that a few years before I came out to him as a sex worker, he came out to me as trans. Over the time that I was building my career, he was transitioning to being a boy. This is also part of our story.
When I told you that I was doing sex work, you and your brother thought that the thing I was going to tell you was that I was pregnant. Why did you think that? Were you surprised about what I told you instead? What were your first thoughts?
For several years in our family one of the main topics of discussion was whether or not to bring more children into our life and your pregnancies. Most mothers do feel their motherhood status is a big part of their identities but for you it was (from my perspective) the most involved part of your life. I think when you wanted to tell my brother and I about your work you made it sound like it was a big deal so I thought maybe another baby would be brought into our family because that is a big deal. In my opinion, sex work is not a big deal, and it wasn't when you first told me. I think I just thought that if that's how you needed to make money there was nothing wrong with that. After all, mothers need to take care of their babies.
You were a teenager when I told you. Were you worried about what your friends would think? Safety? Perception? Or in other words, did you have fears or concerns? What were they?
I honestly thought it was pretty cool that my mom was a sex worker. I told some of my friends and they also thought it was cool. However, I don’t think I could fully articulate to my friends that sex work wasn’t the glamour they saw on television. Sex work is not inherently empowering, it’s just work (though sex work can be empowering, if one wants it to be).
My friends also thought sex work was easy, fun money, when that is usually not the case. I think the hardest part was explaining to therapists and mental health providers what your job was. I was scared they would be suspicious of you. Most of the time I just said you were a writer, and the few times I actually did explain more of what you did, I felt judgement.
My work caused a lot of tension in our extended family. I know you felt some of that. What was that like for you?
The tension around your work in our extended family was painful. From my perspective, you were just working; working to afford food, shelter, and other necessities. I didn’t understand how that could be shameful. Some of our extended family members were SWERFs and claimed your work was undignified as a woman (which is not an opinion I share at all). I couldn’t understand why they cared so much about the details of your work. So many people hate their jobs and dare to judge people who found something that works for them.
We were really involved in sex worker community with lots of sex worker friends. Do you feel like that changed your perception of who sex workers were? Was it different than a lot of the ideas your friends had about sex workers?
Initially I didn’t know a lot about sex work. Honestly, I assumed everyone was conventionally attractive women with catty personalities like what is portrayed on television. But at the events you took us to where we met your sex worker friends, I came to realize that sex workers are a community of people of all genders, sizes, colors, and niches that support each other because people who are supposed to support them don’t. I saw a lot of love and care in that community and I’m glad it’s something you surround yourself with.
Do you feel like being raised by sex workers changed the way we interacted with you about sexuality and other social issues? Was that positive or negative?
I definitely think my brother and I have a unique experience regarding how our parents talk to us about sexuality. I never felt ashamed to ask questions about sexuality. Even before you came out to me as a sex worker you taught me a lot about sex and sexuality, and I appreciate that because most kids have to learn by themselves and when they do start having sexual experiences, they make mistakes and potentially cause harm. You and PJ [step-dad] always explained the importance of many social issues to my brother and I from young ages. You took us to talks and other events so we could learn more about what was going on in the world. I’m glad I had someone to teach me.
I feel like one of the reasons that I was brave enough to come out about my work is because you showed me what it meant to be brave and be who you are when you came out as trans so young. I am grateful to you for that. I wonder if you ever thought about our paths as being similar or if you reject that idea.
I’m so glad I inspired you to be true to yourself and your family, I never knew that. I think that coming out as a trans person and as a sex worker are different emotionally but similar socially. Once I was aware of your work, I became aware of SWERFs online and that was really emotionally draining. It reminded me of the nonsense TERFs say. To be a trans son to sex working parents gives me a very unique perspective on the world, and it’s one I’m very grateful for.