Growing up in the rural west in the ’80s, everything I knew about sex workers came from movies and police procedurals on television. On TV, the cops called them hookers. Prostitutes, if they were being polite. The sex workers all looked the same, as though like the police officers, they had been assigned uniforms. Mini skirts, fishnet stockings, stiletto heels, and in the winter, rabbit fur coats. The actresses who portrayed them were often black women or bleach blonds, gum-chewing, wise-cracking, street smart professionals. Of course they were street smart, because they all worked in big cities. With those stereotypes planted in my mind at a young age, it’s no wonder it took me almost two decades to recognize what I was doing as sex work.
By that time, I knew that sex workers were a much more diverse group of people, that they were everywhere, not just in New York City, and they had no set uniform. They were middle-aged women in sequined shirts at country bars in small towns. They were women in sweatpants and flip-flops, wandering through the parking lots of truck stops. They were young men sipping tonic in expensive hotel bars. They were transgender women in cocktail dresses hanging out at my local post office late at night, asking the same question: “You looking for a date?” That question contains one of many reasons I didn’t identify myself as a sex worker.
So much sex work isn’t as clear cut as taking $20 for a blow job behind the Piggly Wiggly, or as simple as the question the Red Cross asks potential blood donors: Have you ever traded sex for money or drugs? Those ideas assume sex work is always part of the cash economy or rooted in drug addiction. In fact, a lot of sex work is part of the barter economy, like trading sex for groceries. That’s how I got started, and for a long time, I just thought of it as “dating with benefits.”
The men I dated weren’t strangers I picked up in a post office or a truck stop, but they weren’t men I wanted to have a relationship with. I needed to eat and I was willing to do certain things to accomplish that. I barely remember the first time, possibly because for years I didn’t recognize it for what it was. I know that it was a miserable Kansas winter night, toward the end of the fall semester. My rent was paid, but that month’s meager paycheck and my scholarship money were already spent. He was a guy I knew, an older man who often flirted with me. After months of turning down his suggestions that we should get drinks — despite the fact that I wasn’t old enough to drink — I agreed to go to dinner with him. I ordered the steak, planning on leftovers, but when he started hinting about going back to his place, I started hinting about not having any groceries at my house. Almost instinctively I knew not to ask for money, and not to specify exactly what he would get in return. After the groceries were bought, we negotiated his payment.
It wasn’t that difficult, and although I wasn’t attracted to him, I traded sex for groceries several times in the next few years. Eventually, at other points in my life, with other men, I ended up trading sex for money, even though it’s harder to kid yourself that you’re not a prostitute when you’re getting cash. With the stigma against sex work in American culture, plenty of people need to kid themselves about what they’re doing to earn that money. Although the phrase is now only used historically or ironically, we used to call sex workers fallen women, as though they had been displaced from a pedestal of respectability. The stigma remains so powerful, we make up cutesy nicknames for people who are engaged in the barter or gift economy side of sex work. “Sugar babies,” we say with a wink, but it’s sex work. Somebody pays and somebody earns, like any other work.
The first time my sex work involved strangers — and by no coincidence also the first time I recognized it as sex work — was the summer I got a job as a motel maid. The work was brutal and humiliating, in addition to being low-paying. We earned minimum wage for disgusting, backbreaking labor amid the constant risk of sexual harassment and assault from the guests. When I saw an ad for topless waitresses at double the minimum wage plus tips, it seemed like a sign from the universe. On a hazy summer day in a dark bar in Junction City, Kan., I proved that I could serve weak beer while wearing heels and no shirt, and was hired on the spot.
The job was a vast improvement over motel housekeeping. On the first night, I earned an entire month’s rent money and, more importantly, bouncers made sure no one touched the staff. I may have been half-undressed, but I felt elevated by that barrier of enforced respect. My stint serving beer with my breasts bare was brief, but years later, I looked back and realized, “Oh, that was sex work.” Once I’d recognized that, I also understood what I’d been doing when I was earning groceries.
I knew from my mother’s reaction to the waitressing job that I should be ashamed of performing sex work, but I wasn’t. I didn’t fear eternal damnation or gossip, which seemed to be what worried my family. More than shame, I felt anger. I’d stopped going to church as soon as I left home, but Christianity was still staking a claim on my body. The only difference between sex work and other work is that American culture continues to place a high moral value on amorphous concepts like virginity and sexual purity. I was supposed to be ashamed of my topless waitressing, because my hypothetical future husband wouldn’t like the idea of a hundred half-drunk soldiers staring at my breasts on a Saturday night. My body was supposed to belong to a man I wouldn’t meet for another 10 years.
The reality is that sex work is not some great fall from respectability. It’s often the net that catches people before they fall into destitution. Poverty is the most frequent commonality among people who choose sex work. It’s not merely the last resort, but the last salvation for people trapped in low-wage work or long-term unemployment. Sex work has the power to lift people out of poverty, because you don’t need a college degree, and it almost always pays more than minimum wage.
Sex work is simply work, and it can be as empowering or as demeaning as any other job. While I hope I’ll never again be in a situation where I need to trade sex for groceries, I would choose to sooner do that than return to cleaning up after strangers in a high-risk environment.
Ultimately, shouldn’t that be my choice?
Bryn Greenwood is a fourth-generation Kansan, one of seven sisters, and the daughter of a mostly reformed drug dealer. She earned an MA in Creative Writing from Kansas State University and is the New York Times bestselling author of the novels “All the Ugly and Wonderful Things,” “Last Will,” “Lie Lay Lain,” and most recently, “The Reckless Oath We Made.” She lives in Lawrence, Kan.