But I pity their wives even more.
I began manipulating men for money when I was seventeen.
Manipulating is a very strong word, actually, since I was so used to being treated poorly by men that asking them to pay a small amount for my participation felt tantamount to extortion. When I was seventeen, struggling with chronic illness and unable to ask my parents for money for the school trips that were a compulsory part of my education, I decided that I would harness the power of my femininity and make men pay for everything. From a purely financial perspective, it kind of worked: an accountant named David gave me a grand total of £550 (about $750) over a few weeks, and all I had to do was send some flirty emails and go on a single date to see Les Miserables in the West End with a kiss goodnight.
David, who had the time of his life behind the velvet rope of the Sondheim theatre sipping champagne with a teenage girl who he was pretty sure was over eighteen, was probably enacting some kind of moderately-expensive midlife crisis. I, enjoying the idea that I could monetise the gross sexual attention I was receiving from old men anyway, paid for my school trips and even went to Brighton for my birthday.
When I talk about how much I hate my clients, I don’t quite mean David, even though I do think he is gross and creepy. While I had transactional sex before that, he was the first person who had given me actual money. He was the first man I would ever consider to be a client, and the most harmless man I met in the short time I spent as a Sugar Baby. The other men I saw were not so easily controlled.
I am asked a lot about my clients. People think about sex work as something done to people, some trauma inflicted on us as a result of poverty rather than something we do to survive. Women, in particular, agonize over the men I see, asking if I am disgusted by them, desperate to conceptualize them as a monstrous ‘other’ instead of their own husbands.
This disappointing answer to most of the questions about my clients is that I simply do not care. The reason I campaign for the decriminalisation of the sex industry — both selling and buying — is not because I think men have an unequivocal right to purchase what I’m offering, but because it would have catastrophic effects on sex workers if our clients were criminalised. That decriminalisation might benefit my clients is purely accidental, because their interests do not even cross my mind.
But I would be lying if I said that I had not had strong feelings regarding clients in the past. Like many of my friends, I was attracted to the sex work abolitionist movement because it seemed like a place where my trauma would be taken seriously. I wanted to punish my clients, because, now far from the relative glamour of being a Sugar Baby, I was angry at being eighteen and in the sex industry while my friends still had allowances from their parents. I hated the men and the way they kissed me and the way they were comfortable having sex with someone who clearly hated every minute of the experience.
Some nights, I wanted to set fire to the brothel and watch the wipe-clean vinyl that seemed to cover every possible surface melt and bubble in the flames.
Now, I find a strange strength in the collective glances of the women I work with. In lockdown, I found myself craving the fluorescent lights of the lounge that we had to line up in for selection. I liked the paradoxical way we were paraded like cattle, ordered around by the receptionists, and yet — secretly — utterly in control. We refused humiliation. A twitch of the mouth, an eye roll, a grave nod, all in the presence of men with sweaty palms and wads of banknotes. They never saw us making fun of them. We were professionals.
I have stopped caring about clients and what they do, or do not, get out of seeing me. I came to decriminalisation not because I had ‘forgiven’ them, but because I had finally learned to love myself enough to pursue my own happiness over retribution. Hurting my clients would not make me any less traumatised.
Apathy was not a step away from the issue, but a step forward in dealing with it. And at some point in my journey of letting go of the notion of punishment, I found out that I had stopped hating my clients quite as much as I had before. While writing this article, I came to the strange conclusion that I pitied them.
Simply put, I pitied them for their stupidity.
While I have spent four months writing and rewriting this article and four years trying to untangle the ethics of paying for sex, my clients have not even spent an hour on the topic.
I exist. I can fix their erections. I will do so for a price. The backdrops of capitalism and my rights and power imbalances are just white noise to them, inaudible to anyone unless they are listening closely.
The enemy all along had not been Michael the accountant or Daniel the insurance broker or any of the men who called into the brothel while I was on shift. The enemy was the capitalist hellscape that had made my clients rich and entitled and oblivious and then made it nearly impossible for me to survive without them.
I hate my clients for their power, but I have moved beyond thinking that they are all monsters.
I know that they are just men.