By Jessie Sage
Pittsburgh Current Columnist
I’ve never been a single sex worker. I became a sex worker with my now-husband—first, camming as a couple and, later, venturing out into solo work.
My regulars are aware that I’m married—something I am quite open about—and they are often friendly with my partner. New clients, however, will notice my ring and ask if I’m married. When I answer “yes,” they almost inevitably follow up with a hushed, “Does he know?”
At this point in my life, I’m a career sex worker, something that would be almost impossible to hide from my partner that I live with. Additionally, while I am the face of the “Jessie Sage” brand, so much of our work is produced together; I couldn’t possibly manage the workload on my own. And, quite honestly, I don’t have the technical skills for much of the audio/video production that the porn side of my work requires.
Working in the sex industry is so integrated into our lives that I don’t know what our relationship would look like outside of it. I have grown accustomed to scrolling my Twitter feed and seeing images of him having sex with other performers, and he has become used to me leaving mid-conversation to do spur-of-the-moment Skype shows with clients or sexting with them through our movie nights while I rub his feet. Being in a romantic relationship as sex workers is relatively easy for us because our relationship grew in conjunction with our sex work careers; they have always been intertwined.
Given my own personal history, I’ve never had to “come out” as a sex worker to someone I was dating. But, I recognize my experience isn’t the norm, and this became even more clear in a conversation with one of my colleagues, Sonora Grace, who has recently started a new relationship, years into her sex work career.
New Orleans based sex worker and somatic sex educator, Sonora had been doing sex work for ten years (full-time for the last five) when she met her current partner on a Zoom call in the middle of the pandemic (so apropos).
While she has dated other people over her 10 years in the industry, she quickly discovered that there was something different about their dynamic. “This relationship is already putting my other relationships to shame,” she told me over the phone. “It feels serious or like it is building to something big.”
The fact that the relationship felt big made Sonora want to talk about her work before she became too invested in the relationship. “After I realized I was interested in this person and we were going to go somewhere I wanted to bring it up right away,” she commented. “If [my sex work] is a deal-breaker, I wanted to know.”
When Sonora told previous partners about her work, they would often respond in one of two (extreme) ways: with excessive excitement or complete disinterest. She said, “There were some people I’ve dated, and it was like they were overly excited about my work in a way that fetishized it.” She went on, “My ex admitted that he had ‘street cred’ dating me.” She emphasized the fact that he is an ex.
On the opposite extreme, she says that the people who acted like it didn’t matter, who responded with a “whatever,” also seemed like a problem. She says, “Are they ‘whatever’ about it because they are hiding the fact that they are scared? Or they don’t understand? Or that they are emotionally not okay?” While sex work is work, it is work that requires us to be intimate with other people, and in our mono-normative culture, this is something that partners are likely to have some feelings about.
Sonora’s new partner didn’t react in either of these ways. Instead, he approached it with emotional honesty and said, “I have questions because this is new to me.” Most of his questions boiled down to what the work was like for her, and what she got out of it (and not primarily about the clients or the specifics of what she did with them–sexual or otherwise). These questions made her reflect and think hard about her own relationship with the work. The conversation that these questions fostered, according to Sonora, “allowed me to hone in on the aspects of my work that I really do love.” And for him, understanding what she got out of her work and why she did it “gave him a sense of where I was coming from and deflated some of his fears.”
As their relationship has progressed, they are learning to communicate about her work in a way that they are both comfortable with. This also means, though, that they have to take time to adjust to their feelings as things come up. She says, “I notice what comes up is little moments where he is still learning what my life is like.” For example, once she casually mentioned having dinner with a client, and it hadn’t occurred to her partner that she did that.
They have had discussions about the boundaries they are comfortable with, the way they navigate their personal sex life alongside her work, and more. She recognizes that being in a serious relationship with someone requires some compromise, especially when it comes to intimacy, and this may impact her work in some ways.
And yet, sex work by itself requires navigating boundaries and sexual health so she feels well equipped to do this. She comments, “Navigating my work and my relationships, it always comes back to being a question of learning my own boundaries. When I’m single I also have to navigate this.” She continues, “Having an additional person to think about, it becomes a really good opportunity to navigate my boundaries, my communication skills, and to be clear about what I want.”
And right now, what she wants is to be a sex worker in a stable, healthy relationship.
Being a sex worker in a relationship, especially with someone who isn’t a sex worker and doesn’t have an intuitive understanding of what it is like to do sex work, requires empathy on both sides, and empathy requires understanding.
In order to understand how other couples work through the issues that arise for couples in the sex industry, Sonora and I decided that it would be interesting to turn our look away from our own perspectives and toward those of the partners of sex workers.
Together we interviewed 6 partners of sex workers about how they navigate their boundaries, communication, and relationship with their sex working partners. Next week in the Peepshow Column, we will share what we learned in these conversations.