When you’re dating a sex worker, don’t ask about their day.
Here’s a hypothetical scenario: You meet a really hot person of your preferred gender. A few drinks turn into a few dates, and you get it on a few times. Then, when things look like they might be going somewhere, your potential new squeeze tells you that, in addition to their gig indexing books at the local library, they also do a bit of sex work on the side. How do you respond to that? Run from the room? Say “cool” and make a cup of tea? Show them those internet videos you made back in your student days?
That’s not the kind of situation most of us spend much time thinking about but it was up for debate last weekend at the city’s second annual Playground Sexuality Conference. There, Sabrina Morgan, a sex worker and advocate from San Diego, led a workshop on navigating relationships in which one partner is doing it with other people for cash.
There was a lot to talk about. Despite being a $100-billion global industry, with a history going back millennia, sex work is plagued by a nasty mix of misinformation, prejudice, and, in Canada and elsewhere, anti-prostitution laws that many sex-worker advocates argue increase the risk of violence and transmission of STIs by keeping sex work in the shadows. All of which makes dating a sex worker a lot more challenging than it needs to be.
“There is a lot of discretion and secrecy involved in the job,” says Morgan, who is both a sex worker herself and currently in relationships with two other sex workers. “There’s the idea that somebody who is very sexual is somebody who it’s not a good idea to have as a permanent partner. And sometimes those attitudes can be very deeply buried.”
The internet provides a deep well of less-enlightened attitudes. On her Feminisnt.com blog, one sex worker recounts how a guy she was seeing always managed to dodge being in photos with her. Elsewhere, another writes of a man who worried he could never “measure up” to all the others she’d had sex with. My personal favourite: an anonymous, very dumb, and presumably very male author offers tips on dating sex workers. Highlights include “Dating a professional sex worker is not doing a business deal with her, so stay away from forcing yourself onto her.”
Morgan says she’s upfront about her work with dates, to get the conversation out of the way. Then, she says, you can get on with enjoying a relationship with someone who is actually a sex pro. But don’t expect to have all your naughtiest fantasies fulfilled at the drop of a hat. There’s a big difference between sex on the clock and sex on your own time. “It’s very comparable to the idea of creating art for a client on commission and the idea of creating art with your friends or for yourself,” says Morgan. “One is done to another person’s specifications for income. The other is something you do for your own creative pleasure and for the joy of sharing that intimate experience with friends.”
Of course, as relationships get more serious, sometimes sex workers are asked to quit by their partners, which can be another source of friction—a common bugbear among sex workers is the perception from outsiders that they are desperate to leave the profession.
One male Toronto sex worker I spoke with had a novel approach to dealing with this. “They would have to buy me out,” he said. “I think there’s another set of issues in terms of making that drastic a change in my lifestyle for a partner…but on a purely practical level, I would have to be getting thousands of dollars a month from that person.”
A better tack is acceptance—and dealing with others’ negative perceptions as a couple. Societal mores are changing, but the pace is slow and the image of the prostitute hanging around at a shady intersection is a difficult one to shift. The Supreme Court of Canada announced last month that it will hear a challenge to certain anti-prostitution laws by three Toronto sex workers, but the case is unlikely to be decided before the end of next year.
It’s hard to envision a time, ever, when bringing a sex-working significant other home to mom won’t be, let’s say, delicate. On the other hand, thousands of Canadians have engaged in sex work (though precise estimates are hard to come by). And according to research cited in a 2006 government subcommittee report, between 10 and 15 per cent of North American men have purchased sexual services. Maybe mom or dad have a few secrets of their own.