Under the dark mist of criminalisation, a legal situation which leads to dangerous levels of marginalisation, the day-to-day realities of prostitution remain relatively under-explored. The discretion required to escape police authorities’ attention has contributed to the near invisibility of sex workers in society.
Public interest in individuals working in this field — rather than extending towards how they make a living or even their basic well-being — is limited to a morose fascination with what acts they are performing and with whom. The relative obscurity which moral censure and legal precarity have plunged prostitutes into means that the majority of people — including clients — are broadly ignorant about the basic logistics of how escorts make a living.
There is a parallel to be explored here with webcam models, dominatrixes, porn actors, strippers, and also with certain types of “sugar” relationships. Whilst these job roles are, by and large, legal (although certain grey areas persist), the people who occupy them are subject to routine stigmatisation and high levels of discrimination. The moral panic which is provoked whenever someone takes ownership of their sexuality and finds a way to sustain themselves financially off of it contributes to a lacuna of knowledge about how exactly these individuals make a living.
Misconceptions abound; notably that any form of sex work is “easy money” which requires little or no talent, preparation, or hard work. Needless to say, this is a rather dangerous notion which, in a capitalist economy where social worth is defined by one’s occupation, sends the message that sex workers themselves are worthless and disposable. However, at the most basic level, it’s worth noting that sex work demands a high level of self-awareness, interpersonal skills and business sense. Sex work should not be confused with victims of trafficking — a very dangerous conflation that often puts consensual sex workers in peril through police crackdowns, but fails to tackle organised crime. Sex workers are generally employed as independent contractors or on a freelance basis. In a labour economy, where more and more people, out of desire or necessity, are foregoing job stability and embracing the freelance lifestyle, it becomes even more important to demystify the logistical workings of sex work.
Rather than being the exception to the rule, these marginalised professionals fit into the broader picture of work today — so listen up. Excluding certain more niche forms of sex work (financial dominatrixes spring to mind here), we round up three of the main forms of work in the sex industry to show what you can learn from these freelancers.
Sugar dating is a mutually beneficial relationship often sustained by the exchange of money or gifts. Describing sugaring as sex work is potentially problematic, as not all sugar babies view it as a career choice but to some, it is. Whilst it’s nothing new for a younger individual to receive financial maintenance from an older romantic or sexual partner, the number of individuals who subscribe to this lifestyle has seemingly boomed in recent years. This is, no doubt, due to the rise of SeekingArrangement — a dating website that connects would-be sugar parents with local singles and has removed much of the hassle from finding a sugar relationship.
Some sugar babies report earning between £1000 and £2000 a month, but it requires a lot of patience. With sugar dating, it’s often necessary to play the long game, and you can’t guarantee a stable income at first. There is a clear parallel to be explored here with first-time freelancers, who need to operate caution and restraint when first adapting to this style of work. It’s often difficult to support oneself entirely off the back of freelancing, at least in the beginning, so it’s vital to provide yourself with a bit of stability through part-time work while you’re getting started.
Prostitutes and Escorts
Firstly, it is important to note that there exists a distinction between “prostitute” and “escort” — the latter primarily offers entertainment and companionship with sexual services not being required by every client. Secondly, there is no single model of prostitution, and those who choose this as a career can find themselves working as escort agency employees, brothel employees, window workers (a form which is common in cities like Amsterdam), bar workers, so-called “street walkers”, or independent escorts.
Prostitutes who work in public venues or in streets may receive some protection from a procurer, commonly referred to as a pimp, who will generally take a cut of their earnings. The procurer-prostitute relation can be a fraught one, as the sex worker is open to exploitation and being over-worked, particularly as the law rarely intervenes in their favour. Individuals who work for a brothel may also be open to exploitation, but generally, brothels provide escorts with the opportunity to build support networks with one another and, importantly, with a more regular source of income.
Independent escorts generally work without the interference from an agency in private venues, and their earnings tend towards the higher end of the scale. They most closely resemble the straight-forward definition of a freelancer. This demographic advertise their services online and increasingly finding work through dating apps like Tinder. This group is able to set their own fees and, in theory, set their own terms.
In the eyes of the law, however, some of this entrepreneurial activity is defined as soliciting. Alongside brothel keeping, soliciting is one of the prostitution-adjacent acts which are illegal in the UK, even when the act of exchanging money for sex is actually itself legal. This legal restraint puts independent escorts at risk of attracting police attention, making transactions generally clandestine. This, in conjunction with the lack of regulation and protections in place to support sex workers, means that independent escorts are open to abuse by clients. In most instances this is not the case but, when it does occur, escorts are often reticent to report this to the authorities due to a lack of respect and the risk that they may themselves be charged with soliciting.
Whilst escorts and prostitutes are often blocked from creating legal workers’ unions, a variety of advocacy groups and sex workers collectives have sprung up to help bridge this gap and demand that sex workers’ labour rights be acknowledged. In the UK, the most influential of these groups is the English Collective of Prostitutes.
When I spoke to the group in 2017, they explained their activities as the following: “We have fought hundreds of legal cases and won against charges of Anti-Social Behaviour Orders and brothel closure orders as well as against charges of soliciting and brothel-keeping and controlling – the last two most often used against women who are working together for safety.” Continuing on to discuss their broader mission, they stated: “In campaigning for and winning better legal and working conditions, sex workers are refusing the work of illegality, stigmatisation and other violence and discrimination – and redefining what and how much work we will agree or refuse to do. We are demanding that this struggle is acknowledged as part of the working class movement for more money and less work.”
If there is anything to be learned from the example of individuals freelancing as escorts or prostitutes, it’s the importance of creating a network of other freelancers in your industry. Facebook groups and meetups allow freelancers to compare rates, share opportunities and flag late payments. Without the security of regular hours and income, it’s vitally important that people working in this way find a means of coming together to support one another.
Webcam models (often referred to as “cam girls” when female) are a growing force within the sex work industry. These sex workers generally work via online platforms like Chaturbate, interacting with multiple site visitors at one time over a live stream and instant messaging, or engaging in one-on-one sessions over private chat. This form of work often involves performing sexual acts — on oneself or sometimes with a partner — that site visitors request.
Payment often comes in the form of tokens or credits, which accumulate and can be converted into cash at a later date. Working as an independent contractor for a larger site, often alongside hundreds of other webcam models, makes competition tough. This type of work requires models to grow their fan base through self-promotion by building a unique brand on the site, or over social media. In this way, cam models are much like any other freelancers looking to build connections to create more professional opportunities. Cam girls report that they can earn between 60 or 70 pounds for a few hours work — but a significant amount of effort goes into laying the groundwork for this beforehand.
If you’re looking to freelance, regardless of your chosen field, you can learn from the example set by cam models. If you want to grow your profile as a freelancer, be sure to build a strong online presence; as a bare minimum, make sure you have a clean online portfolio, but also don’t be afraid to advertise examples of your freelance work over social media. Do your research and reach out to potential employers, whether its over email or via LinkedIn.
If you are currently freelancing or working as an independent contractor in the sex industry, or just want to learn more, the following resources may be of use: