Are you friends with a sex worker? Here’s what being a bestie - and an ally - really means.
Trigger warning: This article includes references to physical and emotional harm against sex workers, and whorephobic language.
Several years ago, I escaped my depressing corporate job and moved to Melbourne to work as an escort. The decision wasn’t difficult - I’d done my research, and I knew it would suit me. The most difficult aspect of my new career was telling my friends and family about it.
I’m lucky enough to be ‘out’ to almost everyone; not all workers are as fortunate. Despite this, the process of disclosure hasn’t been easy.
I recall an old friend from high school, for example. She happened to be in Melbourne on business, so we met up for a drink. Then she asked, “What have you been up to lately?” When I told her, she went quiet. Finally, she said, “Well, I support your choices as long as they make you happy.” It was an awkward moment, and not at all what I’d been hoping for.
A few months later, after more attempts at conversation, I realised we’d never be able to talk the way we used to. Whenever I raised the topic of my work, she froze up. Feeling discouraged, I cut her out of my life.
For people in the sex industry, coming out to friends is nerve-wracking. We want to be able to share our lives with our besties, but sex work stigma means that those close to us often react unpredictably. Sometimes friends withdraw from us. Worse, sometimes they ‘out’ us to our peers or families and we’re shamed or ostracised.
This is incredibly unfortunate, because having a sex worker as a friend is pretty darn awesome.
Sex workers are often knowledgable about sex and confident in ourselves. Because we meet people from all walks of life, we have a tendency to be open-minded and tolerant. If you love having friends that stick up for you, make interesting conversation, and support you when you’re down, you’re more than likely to find those attributes in the sex industry, thanks to the skills we practise with our clients. Everyone’s different, of course - but having a buddy who does sex work can be wonderful.
Unfortunately, these benefits don’t come for free. You need to make an effort to be a good friend too. Here are some ideas for how to support and care for your BFF, if they’ve just revealed they’re a sex worker.
Hold off on the drama until you’ve had time to get the facts.
Finding out that a close friend is a sex worker may feel like a huge deal. Unfortunately, most sex work tropes spread by the media and the public are sex-negative and judgemental. Your feelings about sex work will also be affected by your own attitudes around sex - whether you think sex outside of marriage is okay, whether casual sex is okay, all that kind of stuff.
You may have a lot of fears, worries and doubts in your mind. You might be tempted to give your mate a lecture, tell your mutual friends, or stage some sort of intervention. These knee-jerk reactions can cause serious harm - trauma, broken trust, or attacks from others.
Hold off on the drama. You need to process your feelings and give yourself time to get acquainted with the facts.
Here are some of those facts: sex work is just a job. Our clients are regular people from all walks of life. Sex work isn’t inherently destructive or dangerous...in fact, the worst thing about sex work is the negative judgement of others (known as ‘sex work stigma’ or ‘whorephobia’.) Despite what you might see in the movies, it’s really just another type of paid service.
Instead of freaking out, give your friend a chance to share their experience. It might be a different story to the one you’re telling yourself!
Tolerance isn’t the same as acceptance - and it takes work.
“Fine, as long as it makes you happy. Now, let us never speak of this again!” It’s not a line myself - or any other sex worker, I suspect - wants to hear.
Being tolerated - allowed to exist, but nothing more - isn’t a good basis for friendship.
Acceptance, on the other hand, means engaging with our lives and interests. And what’s a bigger part of our lives than the work we do.
Imagine how your friend might feel. They’ve revealed something vulnerable to you...now it’s your turn to show them you still care. Here are a few ways to show acceptance:
- Keep it casual: “Hey, how’s work going?” There’s no need to make a big deal...just treat our job like anyone else’s.
- Make it clear you’re open to having a conversation, and let your friend share as much as they're comfortable with: “I’d love to hear more about your work, if you feel like talking about it.”
- If you’re worried about saying the wrong thing, be honest: “Will you let me know if I say anything dumb? I don’t want to hurt your feelings.”
These conversations might feel forced at first, but they become easier with practice. When you reach out, take an interest, and don’t overreact, your bestie will understand that you’re still in their corner.
Avoid saying the wrong thing, by doing your research.
When I come out to friends, I’m always happy to answer questions. But there’s a lot to know about sex work, and giving ‘the talk’ can become tiring, especially when I’m asked the same stuff over and over. I’ve heard a lot of gross, negative comments, such as:
- “Do you do this because you’re on drugs?”
- “You must meet a lot of really creepy guys.”
- “When are you planning to quit?”
Knowing a little about the politics of sex work will ensure you don’t look like an ass. Luckily, there are tons of excellent resources, from sex-worker-authored books to online articles and videos. Here are a few suggestions:
- The ABC’s ‘sex worker’ episode of ‘You Can’t Ask That’
- The video ‘Sh*t they say to sex workers’
- BBC Three’s ‘Things not to say to a sex worker’
- My series of myth-busting interviews on the Tryst blog with Lucie Bee and Lola Davina
Look out! There are plenty of bad sources too. These are usually written and promoted by abolitionists and sex-work-exclusionary radical feminists (SWERFs) and they’re full of prejudice and misinformation. If the stuff you’re reading doesn’t prioritise the voices of workers or advocate for decriminalisation, it’s probably not legit.
Don’t use us for street cred.
I used to have a mate whose friend was a stripper. How do I know this? Because whenever he mentioned her, he always referred to her job rather than her name. “Oh, I was just out with my friend the stripper on the weekend,” he’d say. Everyone thought he was so cool...but when I recall those conversations, they make me cringe.
If you’re progressive, having a friend in the sex industry might feel like it gives you a lot of authority. But it’s not okay to use the relationship to boost your image. Making a big deal out of our work - positively or negatively - can leave us feeling stigmatised. And, as we’ll discuss in a moment, talking about your friend when they’re not around could expose them to danger from others.
Similarly, knowing a worker doesn’t make you an expert in sex worker rights; you don’t get a free pass if you say or do something whorephobic. Rather, it’s up to you to do your research (as we discussed earlier) and resolve to do better if you screw it up.
Don’t ‘out’ us without our permission.
Just because your friend has come out as a sex worker to you, doesn’t mean they’re out to others. You’ll need to show some discretion to ensure their privacy is respected.
Being outed can have terrible consequences. Apart from creating awkwardness, it can also mean being abused or ostracised by friends and family. We might risk losing our day jobs. In the wrong situation, being outed can lead to physical attacks and assault.
Every sex worker needs to be able to make the decision to be ‘out’ for themselves, depending on the situation. For me, this means that before any social outing, I need to find out who will be present and work out whether they’re safe to be around as a sex worker. I might also need to check the nature of their relationships with work colleagues, ex-partners, and family members, to ensure my privacy.
For this reason, it’s always safest to avoid bringing up the topic of sex work in public unless your worker friend chooses to do so.
My friends are very good at checking which name I’d like to be called in public spaces, depending on who’s around. They might make eye contact with me before bringing up sex work at all, to ensure I’m in the mood for a conversation. And they never - EVER - disclose my profession to others, without asking me first.
Let us rant, without telling us to quit.
One of the best things about a good friendship is being able to whinge about a bad day. We all get out on the wrong side of the bed sometimes, right? But often, when sex workers talk about difficult experiences, the standard response from friends is, “You should quit.”
It’s a huge double standard. It’s totally legitimate to complain about your boss at the office. Likewise, it should be fine for your worker friend to talk about an annoying client or unexpected mishap. It doesn’t mean our work is inherently bad...and if you jump to that conclusion, your friend might feel judged and shamed, which will damage your relationship.
Instead, let them have a good rant. Listening to someone without judgement is often the most effective way to support them.
Be prepared to stand up for us.
Now that you’ve had the important conversations and done your research, you probably have a realistic understanding of sex work. But not everyone is as knowledgeable, or as accepting. Inevitably, you’re going to hear someone gossiping about your friend behind their back, or attacking them in person:
“Please stop talking about your job in front of us, it’s too gross.”
“Did you hear about so-and-so becoming a hooker? They’ve really hit rock bottom.”
“Sorry, I’m a feminist, and I don’t think prostitution is okay.”
Friendship is about loyalty - and loyalty means standing up for someone, even when it feels uncomfortable. This means putting yourself in the line of fire too, and you may lose other friendships. But there’s no middle ground on this one. If you’re a real buddy, you need to speak up.
When addressing the politics around sex worker rights, that research you did earlier will definitely come in handy. But it’s not always about getting into a full-blown ethical argument. Sometimes it’s enough to simply say, “Hey guys, that’s not cool. Cut it out.”
Sex workers can be fantastic friends...
...we’re brave, experienced, street smart, and not afraid to go our own way. We often have great stories to tell, and a lot of life wisdom to impart.
But this stuff doesn’t come for free. We need your loyalty. That means expressing your support, getting your head around the issues, and being empathetic even if you don’t always understand.
If you make the effort, your BFF will appreciate it...and, hopefully, you’ll have a fun, supportive, and nourishing relationship.
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