I’ve been ‘coming out’ my entire adult life.
When I was nineteen, I told my parents I was bisexual. They were so suprised that they weren’t able to offer any comments in reply apart from a strangled “Ah, okay then.” At twenty-two a newspaper published an interview with my fetish ‘mistress’, and suddenly my entire social circle knew about my predisposition for whipping and BDSM power exchange. At twenty-eight I began to consistently raise the topic of non-monogamy with potential boyfriends so that they wouldn’t be too shocked when my eyes started to wander. So you see, I’m good at intimate revelations. But being open about my escorting has challenged all of my hitherto rock-solid ‘coming out’ skills.
People use the term ‘coming out’ as though it’s something you do only once. You come out of the closet and it’s done: whatever you are, everyone knows (and hopefully accepts) you. Gay, trans, bisexual, kinky, polyamorous, intersex, whatever it is that you’ve been keeping under your hat. You’re free. The reality is, it’s not so much a matter of ‘coming out of the closet’ as coming out and going back in over and over. Or coming out only to discover you’re in a larger closet. Or coming out and having people all around you, everywhere, insist that you get back in there, fast.
Finding the right place in the conversation to raise the topic of sex work is a real challenge. I hesitate to do it immediately at a first meeting – “Hi, I’m a sex worker’ – for fear that the person will, forevermore, only remember that one detail about me. Even when the ubiquitous ‘what do you do for a living?’ question is asked, bringing up my work can be a real conversation-stopper. Most people – be it strangers, friends or family – end up completely bewildered. Waiting until later on in the relationship to mention it makes it feel like a confession, a dirty secret: ‘so, um, I have something to tell you….’
Reactions tend to fall across a spectrum ranging from lukewarm approval (‘that’s ok’) to creepy over-enthusiasm (‘wow, tell me everything!’) When I come out to someone and they don’t approve of sex work it’s fine, because we can usually have an intelligent conversation about it. The worst reaction is blankness – a sudden stop to the conversation, or a complete lack of reaction that signals intense discomfort in the listener. This is the most common reaction I’ve encountered. It makes me feel invisible, as if my identity is too shameful to even discuss. I can’t engage with them in any positive way, because their discomfort with sex or sex work prevents them from even voicing their opinion.
It affects me. So I’m careful about who I come out to. There’s a continuous thought process going on in my head – should I reveal myself to this person? When should I do it? How should I do it? It’s exhausting. Having the discussion invites ridicule but not having it can make me feel like I’m not able to be myself. Keeping something a secret makes it feel shameful. Having secrets gets in the way of friendships and relationships.
I consider myself lucky; there are many people in Australia and overseas who simply can’t afford the luxury of being open about their sex work. There are people who would be killed, jailed, rejected by their families, abandoned by their partners. Workers who could lose their ‘day’ jobs or their children, if they chose to share that part of themselves with the wrong person. I’m lucky in that I come from privileged, educated and affluent background. I have a supportive family and (mostly) supportive friends. I’m able-bodied and I don’t have any of those pesky intersectional issues that would make explaining my work to ‘straight’ people an absolute nightmare.
So, my experiences have mostly been positive. The fact that the stigma associated with coming out is still my single biggest problem with sex work should tell you something about what the less fortunate of us have to endure.
It’s a long road but I’m walking it with some very good friends and some great role models. Every time someone else in the industry comes out (or goes on TV, or writes a book, or gets involved in politics) the world gets just a little bit easier for those of us who can’t reveal our superhero identities. I’d like to say that’s why I do it; but honestly I’m just grateful that my privilege lets me be myself enough to have an honest answer when my friends say ‘how was your weekend?’