Do prostitutes date and marry? How does that work?
June 27, 2014 7:22 PM   Subscribe

I had assumed that it would be nearly impossible for prostitutes to date and marry, due to the stigma of sex work, the increased risk of venereal disease, and the guarantee of infidelity. Apparently, this is not true, and now I'm really curious about the dynamics of those relationships, especially how they deal with the question of fidelity. Both scholarly works and ancedata would be welcome.

I know people who say they don't stigmatize sex work, and I know people who self-report an astonishing level of risk tolerance when it comes to sex, but even the poly people I know wouldn't be okay with their primaries sleeping with multiple strangers every day. How does that work? Does the prostitute conceal it? Does the spouse ignore it? Are there people who just don't associate sexual and emotional fidelity? If so, I assume they're in the minority, in which case, how do they find each other?
posted by d. z. wang to Society & Culture (21 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Not all prostitutes deal with total strangers...some have regular customers.

Also, lots of people have incredibly variant ideas about how a committed relationship work. I think you're asking in good faith, but it would probably be a good idea to approach this question with a more open mind about how people might think about sex, fidelity, and emotional attachment.
posted by xingcat at 7:31 PM on June 27, 2014 [20 favorites]

Before we start, it's best if we all note that prostitute is generally considered a stigmatising word. The preferred term in most societies is "sex work".

Lots of sex workers are in respectful relationships where their partners know their work is sex... sex work, and don't themselves stigmatise people who have sex for work.
posted by taff at 7:32 PM on June 27, 2014 [18 favorites]

You could ask the same thing about a man or woman who acts in porn movies.

I don't accept your premise that there is necessarily "infidelity" in such a marriage. Wikipedia defines "infidelity":
Infidelity (also referred to as cheating, adultery, or having an affair) is the subjective feeling that one's partner has violated a set of rules or relationship norms and this violation results in feelings of sexual jealousy and rivalry (Leeker & Carlozzi, 2012). Infidelity is a violation of a couple’s assumed or stated contract regarding emotional and/or sexual exclusivity (Weeks et al., 2003, p. ix). What constitutes an act of infidelity is dependent upon the exclusivity expectations within the relationship (Barta & Kiene, 2005).
As for the "stigma," all kinds of jobs have some stigma. Just think of how many people would love to date a porn star or stripper, offsetting the others who would refuse to do so because of the stigma.
posted by John Cohen at 7:34 PM on June 27, 2014 [3 favorites]

There are a ton of often very good ethnographies of sex work. It's not my field but I enjoyed Don Kulick's Travesti: Sex, Gender, and Culture among Brazilian Transgendered Prostitutes, for example, though the answer to your question is going to be so culturally specific that I'd be cautious about assuming what is true in one place has relevance in another.
posted by Dip Flash at 7:37 PM on June 27, 2014 [3 favorites]

I know people who say they don't stigmatize sex work, and I know people who self-report an astonishing level of risk tolerance when it comes to sex, but even the poly people I know wouldn't be okay with their primaries sleeping with multiple strangers every day.

Your assumptions / premises aren't necessarily accurate. Aside from the other issues people note, there are a lot of sex workers who don't "sleep with multiple strangers every day."
posted by Etrigan at 7:52 PM on June 27, 2014 [9 favorites]

Tracy Quan, who writes both fiction and nonfiction inspired by her career in sex work, addresses relationships extensively.
posted by carmicha at 8:04 PM on June 27, 2014 [3 favorites]

I know people who say they don't stigmatize culinary arts, and I know people who self-report an astonishing level of risk tolerance when it comes to food, but even the foodies I know wouldn't be okay with their primaries cooking for multiple strangers every day. How does that work? Does the chef conceal it? Does the spouse ignore it? Are there people who just don't associate gustatory and emotional fidelity? If so, I assume they're in the minority, in which case, how do they find each other?

It's a job. People are more than their jobs.

Also, what Etrigan said, basically. You have some preconceived notions about sex, sex work, and relationships that you seem to assume are basically universal, when they really aren't.
posted by kagredon at 8:13 PM on June 27, 2014 [10 favorites]

Aside from the other issues people note, there are a lot of sex workers who don't "sleep with multiple strangers every day."

As I understand it, one of the big advantages to the safer and more comfortable kind of sex work is that you work comparatively little - you can make a middle class income for far less than full time hours. Sex is expensive, unless you're dealing with desperate people in desperate circumstances.

I can't say how precisely sex workers negotiate relationships, but I know several people who do sex work, ranging from stripping to cam girl work to having-actual-sex, and they are all in relationships. Several are parents, and good, solid, mom-or-dad is really here for you kinds of parents.

Social circles are really, really different. You could easily have a poly social circle where no one was a sex worker or friends with a sex worker, and thus you aren't meeting people who are okay with dating sex workers. "Poly" and "sex worker" don't necessarily overlap. It's very easy to think "how do sex workers [make omelets/buy a car/do speed dating/etc] and think that it must be a really, really big deal purely because sex work is totally outside your social sphere. I think this often has to do with social class - folks who are working class are, IME, far more likely to know someone who has stripped or done at least para-sex-work (like working in a gross bar or a Hooters) and are far more likely to see that as just what you do because that's the work that's available. (You also may know sex workers and their partners who are just not out to you about it because of stigma.)

I am kind of a prude in terms of "I don't ask my friends for the details of their daily work", partly because I know that some people do ask them in a gross and creepy way, partly because I'm uptight, so I haven't discussed much about the more intimate parts of their work and how that might impact a relationship. But in my general social circle, people would think it was kind of weird to categorically rule out dating someone who did sex work just because of their job.

I think that the types of people who are able to do sex work successfully tend to attract the types of people who are okay with sex work. Like, my friends who do sex work are pretty tough, very direct, non-prudish, interested in sexual stuff*, at home with the realities of bodies and sexuality, better-than-average-looking and from backgrounds where they've had to make their own way.

You might find Michelle Tea's work interesting - she's written about both her sex work and her relationships, with other women who do or do not do sex work.

*which isn't to say that, like, their actual jobs are full of non-stop eroticism for them - it's more that I get the impression that you have to have a certain amount of interest/skill/comfort with sexual things just to succeed in the professions.
posted by Frowner at 8:21 PM on June 27, 2014 [15 favorites]

I've known a couple of sex workers who were married, and their partners had full knowledge. The partners were generally poly-friendly types who were really into communicating, so they were able to talk out the occasional jealous moment. Sex workers who make a career out of it are usually great at compartmentalizing their job from their non-job life. I think most people in emotionally intense jobs (I'd also put ER doctors and cops in this category) have those skills.

And also: a responsible sex worker usually is responsible about condoms and STI testing. The risk is a little higher because they have more partners, but they aren't sowing cooties willy-nilly across the land like an 1860s camp follower.
posted by Nibbly Fang at 8:24 PM on June 27, 2014 [3 favorites]

I've dated several sex workers, all of whom I knew socially before they told me what they did for work. The dynamics of those relationships aren't any different for me than they would have been if they were artists or office managers or plumbers. Sex work is work.

I wish I had a more interesting answer but honestly for me it was a non-issue. Everyone was happy with what they did for a living and handled their work related risks more professionally than a lot of people I know in significantly more dangerous careers.
posted by Jairus at 8:24 PM on June 27, 2014 [5 favorites]

Most of the sex workers I have met in Cambodia are married with children. It's handled in different ways. Sometimes their partner is also a sex worker. Sometimes there is an understanding that what happens at work is never spoken of outside of work. There is definitely a difference between sex with a customer and an affair. Children conceived within a relationship are contentious - I remember a sex worker who used condoms with customers but not with her partner because the children's paternity was crucial, but I have met partners raising children with mixed paternity as step-parents. Also the concept of a pretend-widow, where a woman with a history as a sex worker moves to another area and presents herself socially as a widow or divorcee, which is accepted although it is understood that she was a sex worker.

Two of the most romantic marriages I know of with comparative happy ever after stories (AFAIK but both partners seemed happy and their children were lovely and loved) are a local customer who bought out a sex worker's arrangement when they both fell in love and got married.

You might like Same Same But Different as a sort of answer to this question from one particular story.
posted by viggorlijah at 8:30 PM on June 27, 2014 [6 favorites]

I too assume that you asked your question in good faith and I can actually give a really simple answer - sex workers are people and people date and get married, therefore sex workers date and get married. Don't know if that helps but that's one way to look at it.
posted by kat518 at 10:05 PM on June 27, 2014 [2 favorites]

Are there people who just don't associate sexual and emotional fidelity? If so, I assume they're in the minority, in which case, how do they find each other?

The "one night stand" is a widely done thing precisely because so many people don't care to always conflate sex with emotions with fidelity.
posted by anonymisc at 10:12 PM on June 27, 2014 [2 favorites]

Are there people who just don't associate sexual and emotional fidelity? If so, I assume they're in the minority, in which case, how do they find each other? - this applies as much to a lot of the sex workers' customers, many of whom are in relationships and often concealing their sex with a sex worker from their partners. Probably more, given that they are not doing this for a living.
posted by viggorlijah at 11:18 PM on June 27, 2014 [5 favorites]

My long-term partner of 15 years was a sex worker for the first ten years of our relationship. I did not regard it as infidelity, and it was never an issue in our relationship. Ours is an open relationship, with both of us being sexually active with others throughout.
posted by layceepee at 6:49 AM on June 28, 2014 [2 favorites]

There's a few memoirs out there by former sex workers who got married, so it happens. I think the couple comes to their own agreements and accommodations as to how to handle it. Not to mention that most sex workers aren't going to be doing that job forever and ever.
posted by jenfullmoon at 7:19 AM on June 28, 2014

Sex worker here. I don't do full-service sex work (I am a pso and do some camming), but I know some girls who do, since I participate in several internet communities for sex workers.

All I can say is this: most escorts and sex workers have WAY bigger priorities than a relationship. Because of the risks involved, you don't take a job like that unless you have to, usually. You can lose a lot more than a romantic partner in this industry and line of work, since being convicted of it is something that will follow you forever, and you can't go to the police if you're raped/abused/stalked, because the response is simply, "well, what did you expect?"

From what I've seen, it seems like a lot of people don't really date, but many do! A relationship is a set of agreements. They can be any agreements, really. So, I imagine that if you asked 20 escorts with partners about that, you would get wildly varied answers. Some might take a don't-ask-don't-tell approach, others don't really consider it an issue, some people keep their job a secret...

TL;DR: I don't think anyone can give you a convenient answer about it, really, because sex work is so varied, and so are relationships.
posted by TheHappiestSadist at 8:54 AM on June 28, 2014 [5 favorites]

two of my best friends are sex workers at legal brothels (which does often mean "sleeping with multiple strangers every day"). one has been married for ~8 years, since long before the sex work; she and her spouse are also in an open relationship. meanwhile, the other friend just broke up with her boyfriend because of HIS infidelity. to me, it's a lot like any left-of-norm sexual contract in a relationship: open, poly, whatever. the terms vary from couple to couple (or on preview, what TheHappiestSadist said). except in the case of sex workers, there's a very clear line: sex work sex isn't sexy sex. it's a job.
posted by changeling at 9:15 AM on June 28, 2014 [3 favorites]

I read a few autobriographies of sex workers in my twenties. In one, she dated a lawyer (IIRC) and their first date kind of went dinner, sex, and ....I think she woke up alone or something. She called him and said something like "Yeah, if we are going to have a relationship, I need to get more from you than what I typically get from my clients for pay."

I saw an interview on TV with a sex worker whose spouse was a police officer. I don't recall if it was her or someone else on the same show, but someone there started as a masseuse and she felt that her job was to relax people but a lot of men left her very aroused and not at all relaxed and she ended up ultimately deciding this was ridiculously and began sleeping with her clients. I mean I think she decided the arbitrary difference between touching them all over for massage but not having sex with them and not having it accomplish the intended goal -- she felt that was all ridiculous and decided to get over all these societal things that said "masseuse = respectable profession but prostitute = BAD!"

My ex was career army. His mother did not approve of him going in the Army. He had trouble with the fact that I was supportive of his desire to go into the Army. There are plenty of professions having nothing to do with sex where big feels and social judgment get involved and lots of those people date and marry. This is no different, I think.
posted by Michele in California at 3:30 PM on June 28, 2014 [3 favorites]

I do outreach work, focused on marginalized people who use drugs, and a fair number of my female clients are sex workers. I am also a member of the sex worker advocacy group in my area.

The vast majority of my female, sex worker clients are in a relationship - many in long-term or married partnerships - and it's recognized that sex work is one of the fastest ways to make a decent amount of money that can then be used to buy drugs).

Quite often, when a couple gets deeper into their addiction, street-level sex work is the first option considered - no job interview, no getting up at 8am to report to the local fast food place, no (or very low) overhead, no supplies to be purchased (free condoms and lube abound in my community), it's initially perceived as 'easy' and no-skill work (as opposed to learning a trade like welding).

The relationships are interesting to observe because they're all over the place. In some cases, it's a-okay and everyone is fine with it - the same way you'd be fine if your partner was a teacher or a journalist or whatnot. In some cases, the male partner is acting in the way one would expect a 'pimp' to act and is very much making the deals and maintaining the control over the finances. There's often a significant risk of violence in those relationships. In other cases, the relationship goes south quickly because of jealousy or because one of the partners becomes uncomfortable with sex work being in the picture (and, again, a high risk of violence).

(My male sex worker clients are usually single.)
posted by VioletU at 3:33 PM on June 28, 2014 [3 favorites]

I am a stripper and consider myself to be a sex worker. Am I technically a prostitute? No. Do I spend time naked with men in exchange for money, performing a role very similar to a prostitute? Yes.

I have a long-term boyfriend. I was with him before I got into sex work. One day I told him that I wanted to apply for a job as a stripper in a city nearby. He said, "If we can do this safely, and you really want to do it, I'm okay with it." He has also indicated that should I want to become an actual prostitute, he would be okay with that too.

Before I go to work, he gives me a hug and kiss and says, "I hope you have a fun day." When I come home, he gives me a hug and kiss and asks how my day was. I tell him about my day in the same matter-of-fact way that I have told him about my day at school and at other jobs.

Because, just like other people in this thread say: It's a job.

You're not wrong that percentage-wise, most people in society probably aren't okay with committing to this situation. But relationships aren't about percentages in society overall. They about finding a particular person (or people, if you are in an open/poly relationship) from amongst the masses.

There are plenty of people who wouldn't be okay with their spouses being gone for six months at a time (military!) or with their spouses making out with other people on camera for an audience (actors!), etc.

And there are plenty of people who are okay with all of the above. Just like there are plenty of people who don't mind if their spouses have sex during the course of their job, just so long as the spouses come home at the end of the day and mean it when they say "I love you."

If it's relevant ...? My boyfriend visited strip clubs occasionally before we got together. He didn't visit them during the years when we were together before I became a stripper. And he doesn't visit them now that I am a stripper.
posted by Peppermint Snowflake at 8:52 PM on June 28, 2014 [9 favorites]

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