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How to lean in: three sex workers and their partners talk about relationships.

How to lean in: three sex workers and their partners talk about relationships.

. 6 min read

In everyday life, sex workers are often invisible.

We go to the grocery store. We drop our kids of at school. We have friends, acquaintances, volunteer for charities, work our day jobs. But most folks assume we don’t exist.

The same applies to our love lives. Our work is too foreign, too weighed down with stigma, for others to picture us having normal, healthy relationships. Media reinforces this – when we’re made fun of in the news, it becomes hard to imagine sex workers as people with average lives. Even clients sometimes assume we’re undateable, or that we don’t need sex outside work.

It’s similar for our dates, lovers, and spouses. Whorephobia and stigma are everywhere; because it’s a tough subject to bring up, partners of sex workers are often invisible too. We never have the chance to replace the stereotypes with more realistic stories.

Here are six people – three sex workers and their partners – who share their experiences of falling in love and building relationships. Although the stories are different, they have something in common: once you take whorephobia out of the picture, sex workers’ relationships are much like everyone else’s.

Ellie and Jessica – ‘For any relationship, there’s always going to be some sort of challenge.’

In Ellie and Jessica’s relationship, their conflict arises from their own life issues…and it’s something they’re working on together.

Ellie, 45, is a full-service sex worker who has been in semi-retirement since the start of the year. Her partner Jessica, 29, has a career in the public service. They met at a lesbian event in Melbourne; Jessica loves ‘superheroes, anything that's wholesome and makes you nostalgic’. When she spotted Ellie wearing a Wonder Woman t-shirt, it sparked her interest.

They’ve dated for just over two years. Their shared life experiences bring them together as well as an appreciation for each other’s generosity and compassion. ‘All of the romantic stuff is absolutely present, and it's wonderful,’ Ellie says, ‘And then there's also these other layers of loneliness, and, you know, like trauma histories and stuff like that.’

Although Ellie disclosed her work when they met, Jessica struggled with it from the start of the relationship. It was new, foreign, and ‘a little bit scary,’ she says.

Because they’d discussed the subject initially and Ellie felt they’d come to an understanding, it felt like a betrayal. ‘My strictest dealbreaker was that I wouldn't date someone that didn't understand and support my work…and Jessica was still just trying to understand it, because it's not in her reality.’

They found themselves in love, but also in conflict. Ellie is menopausal and suffers from chronic fatigue. Sex can be difficult - when she’s able to get sexy with her clients but struggles to do so at home, Jessica sometimes feels sidelined.

Ellie decided to adjust her boundary, and they stayed together. Over time, she realised that her partner’s discomfort had more to do with past experiences than whorephobia. Jessica agrees. ‘A lot of it comes down to my own personal insecurities and trauma,’ she says.

Ellie insisted on counselling so that they could work on these issues. She’s glad she made the compromise, although it still feels painful. Their ability to get along depends on how they’re doing day to day. ‘Some days I'm better at coping with certain things that might trigger me on other days. Same goes for Jessica. Some days, we're both triggering each other.’

When Jessica struggles, she has strategies to cope: ‘Sometimes if I'm in a better place I'll be able to pause and distract myself.’ She notes that everyone brings their own experiences to new relationships ‘and it’s okay to feel a little insecurity, as long as it’s acknowledged…and it’s something they’re willing to work on.’

Her advice for new partners of sex workers: ‘Just be prepared to have your expectations challenged a little bit. But then again…going into relationship, there's always going to be some sort of challenge.’

Alice and Greg – ‘I trust him to set his own boundaries’.

For Greg and Alice, a harmonious relationship means finding the balance between communication and boundaries. Through it all, they’ve never stopped supporting each other.

Alice, 26, has worked as a Melbourne escort for four or five years. She met her partner Greg, 32, online two years ago and they moved in together just before Victoria’s COVID lockdown. Between Greg’s cooking and the company of Alice’s cat, they’re grateful to be together this year.

The conversation about Alice’s work came up quickly once they started chatting. Greg says, ‘In her Tinder bio it said something along the lines of “small business owner”. And one of the first things I asked was, “So tell me about this business” and Alice was fully upfront.’

Although Alice wanted to be open about her work, she’d heard some disaster stories ‘where people weren’t cool with it.’ It was a nerve-wracking conversation. ‘I thought, I'm gonna throw this out into the universe and if it works it works. If it doesn't, it doesn't.’

Greg hadn’t met a sex worker before – ‘or at least, that I know of’ – but he took it in his stride. ‘I remember Googling that day 'dating sex worker, question mark' or something like that,’ he says, ‘Just getting an idea of what I was in for….and the key thing I took away from that was, it's just a job. At the end of the day, someone's making money and that's basically the end of it. It's not anything about who they are.’

As partners, they’re devoted to one another. Alice loves how ‘mindful and passionate’ Greg is. Greg appreciates that Alice is ‘considerate and compassionate’. Greg prefers not to know the details of sessions or the identity of clients but is happy to hear about her day at work. ‘You wouldn't expect a chef for example...would you get mad if you know they went out and cooked for someone else? No! That's their job.’

This balance of honesty and respect makes their relationship work. ‘One of the things I really like…is that we communicate openly.’ Alice says. ‘Greg will very happily state whether he's feeling comfortable or not. I trust him to set his own boundaries.’

I ask, what advice would he give is a friend started dating a sex worker? Greg cautions against fetishisation. ‘First, make sure you're not dating someone because of their occupation. You wouldn't go out and say, 'I'm going to go date an accountant.' Like, you know, 'I love dating accountants.' Or lawyers, or cops.’

He also notes that it helps to have a progressive view on sex. ‘If the friend is very religious or has some hang-ups about sex and that kind of thing, then I’d be like 'Hey this might be a bit of a problem for you.’

Alice agrees. Sometimes society’s ideas about what a relationship should look like can get in the way of acceptance. ‘It's this idea that says we are born and then we grow up and then we meet this one person and that's the person that we have sex with forever. This idea of stepping outside of those bounds is still quite foreign to a lot of people.’

By being open with each other, Alice and Greg have built a life together that many people would envy. Alice says, ‘I don't want to ever reach the point where we stop talking.’

Simon and Michael – ‘Lean into it and use it as a learning opportunity.’

Thanks to their experiences with polyamory, Simon and Michael see sex work as a non-issue.

Both are in their early thirties. When they met a few years ago, they clicked immediately. They share keen interests in tech, non-monogamy, and progressive politics. Simon, in addition to working as an erotic masseuse on his travels around Australia, also has experience creating online adult content. But he hasn’t worked in the industry for about a year, due to other opportunities and the restrictions of Melbourne’s lockdown.

Simon began his erotic massage practice around the same time as they started dating. For Michael, it was no big deal. ‘I’ve been friends with sex workers in the past, so it wasn't particularly unusual for me,’ he says. ‘We just talked about it and it was kind of a non-event, really.’

On the other hand, Simon appreciated being able to share his adventures. ‘It was nice, being able to both be discovering this new line of work while also beginning this new relationship, and just being able to see them both evolve at the same time.’

As non-monogamists, they’re sex positive and comfortable talking about boundaries. Michael says that polyamory has ‘increased my communication skills tenfold, at least.’ They also respect each other’s personal space, and don’t necessarily need to know the details of each other’s daily lives. ‘A lot of work was done while I was traveling in other places,’ says Simon. ‘For example, I would go up to Sydney for several weeks at a time. While I talked [to Michael] about some of the [work], I also was away for quite a bit of it.’

When it comes to having a great relationship, Simon advises others to ‘communicate clearly, particularly any feelings of insecurity or jealousy’. He also recommends talking about safer sex in the same way he would with any other non-monogamous date. ‘Sex work is work,’ he says. ‘It’s not about you. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re less important.’

Michael thinks it’s helpful to be introspective about new relationships. 'Hey, is this going to work for me? Am I the kind of person who has insecurities that it's going to make it too difficult? And if not, then to just lean into it, and use it as a learning opportunity and an experience.’

Note: Names have been changed to protect the identity of interviewees.