Care

Out of Office: Sex Workers Share Their Stories

Interviews by Shelby Sells / Photography by Marc Harris Miller

Though sex work may be known as the world's oldest profession, in the U.S. at least, centuries old stigma around the commodification of sex by individual proprietors has remained shrouded in shame and oppression. As sex workers have utilized technology and the online space to their advantage, however, we've seen increased visibility of the truly wide-range of people doing vastly different types of work that all fall under the umbrella of the sex industry. Still, the profession is still rife with misinformation and obstacles to safety. SESTA-FOSTA—a set of laws put into place in April aimed at targeting sex traffickers also limited online avenues for sex workers to find clients, further pushing those who choosing to do sex work of their own volition into the shadows. Sexologist Shelby Sells spoke with seven sex workers — whose specialities include domming, cake-sitting, sugar babying, an online girlfriend experience and more — about how they find their clients, why they got started in the industry, and what would make sex worker better and safer for everyone involved:

Pauli Cakes

Jacket & Skirt: Jeremy Scott, Bra: Agent Provocateur, Necklaces: Pauli Cakes

"I really do feel strongly that we are all born into the society of sex workers. Somebody is going to sexualize you whether you like it or not."

Shelby Sells: Why did you choose sex work as a career? What type of sex work do you practice?

Pauli Cakes: When I was around 15 I was having a rough time at home and needed to make money and get away. I grew up in the Bronx and hung out with older friends who would do this job where a driver would come pick up us and take us to bars in New Jersey. The bars would give us a flat rate, and while we were there we would get paid whenever a guy bought us a drink. I thought it was really fun. I always liked going out and partying. I never analyzed it as sex work even though I would hook up with people or put on a "male fantasy" persona to capitalize off my body.

I never had an open dialogue about sex work, but that was kind of my foot in the door for selling my sexuality and getting paid by clients. After that, I was a go-go dancer and then had sugar daddies in high school. Now when I think about the work that I've done and the work that I do within monetizing my body, my physicality, I really do feel strongly that we are all born into the society of sex workers. Somebody is going to sexualize you whether you like it or not, but whether you want to choose to make money off that is your decision. I've cammed for money, I experimented working in a dungeon for a little bit, and I've been an escort. I feel like I was born a sex worker.

What would the world look like if sex work was legal?

My opinion at this point is that I think sex work should be decriminalized, but I don't think it should be legalized. I don't feel comfortable with the government capitalizing off of my body more than it already does. Sex work is something that allows us to have autonomy — if you are consensually doing it with your own free will. I feel that the government wants to take our autonomy away from us, and by legalizing it they are taking away our decisions to make our prices and live freely. I wish it was decriminalized, because I don't want to see my sisters in jail for living their life and selling their body. I don't want the government to have more control over me then they already do.

What does the sex work community look like?

Visibility is really important. Not all sex workers are cis. Not all sex workers are women. Not all sex workers are conventionally attractive or skinny. Make sure to give visibility to anybody who is doing sex work and not focus on one demographic because that's a common misunderstanding and it puts a lot of peoples lives at danger.

Follow Pauli Cakes on Instagram.

Karmenife

Dress: Eckhaus Latta

"The benefits are, I'm my own boss. I get to make my own career. I get to make my own time. I get to promote myself the way I wish to promote myself."

Shelby Sells: Why did you choose sex work as a career? What type of sex work do you practice?

Karmenife: I am a professional dominatrix. I actually found sex work through an art project that I did. When I was on campus, I was raped my freshman year and I thought it pretty much ruined me. One way that I reclaimed my space for myself is I did an art project where I dress up like a dominatrix and I dommed frat guys in front of the frat house where I was raped. I had never felt so powerful and beautiful, and to feel that in a space where I had been ripped apart was beyond empowering.

I was always interested in dominatrixes. I always thought they were walking goddesses. I just started trying it out for fun until other dommes I met were like, "No, bitch! They need to be paying you! You need to get money!" I've been doing it professionally for about a year now. It's changed me in ways I am so grateful for. I carry that domme energy with me wherever I go. It's going to be with me forever. I'm probably never going to stop.

What have you learned about yourself through being a sex worker?

I have learned that I'm an excellent multitasker. I always knew that I was smart, but now I realize how smart I really am. I learn things pretty quickly. Most importantly, I've learned that absolutely no one or nothing is entitled to my body. I feel like as a black woman in this society I have been fetishized and objectified since I've left the womb. Being able to reclaim my sexuality and my body for myself has been really important through my work, and it's taught me you're not entitled to me or my time and if you want it, you pay for it.

What are some benefits and drawbacks of the sex industry?

I can start with the drawbacks. One thing that really bothers me is how other women will try to shame me for what I do. They try to explain what I do and it's like, you don't like when men explain feminism to you, so why are you explaining what you clearly don't know to me? Why are you trying to control my narrative? By doing that, you're fucking up my livelihood. Also, how can you say that I don't value myself through what I do? I hate when people say that I'm doing this because I'm stupid and that I'm a slut. It always makes me laugh because at the end of the day, we're all sluts because we're all getting fucked by capitalism. I'm just smart enough to collect a check; you're doing it for free, so that's on you.

Another thing is the racism in the industry. I face racism everywhere, but it's definitely alive and well in the industry. The things that I have to deal with don't even come close to the things that dark-skinned dommes do. It's something that we need to talk about and that needs to get fixed. The benefits are, I'm my own boss. I get to make my own career. I get to make my own time. I get to promote myself the way I wish to promote myself. I get to guide other black people through fetish who have never done it before, which is really exciting. The part that I love most is that I'm getting my reparations, one white dad at a time.

Follow Karmenife on Instagram.

Gillian Skye

Blazer & Top: Danielle Guizio

"A lot of people have a problem with using what they were given to support themselves or make a living, and it's really no one's business."

Shelby Sells: Why did you choose sex work as a career? What type of sex work do you practice?

Gillian Skye: I am a dominatrix. I think I chose that because I'm just a naturally dominant person. It's something that is kind of inherent to me, so why not make money off of that? People use their looks all the time, really, so... I mean it's really all a matter of choice. I feel like a lot of people have a problem with using what they were given to support themselves or make a living, and it's really no one's business.

How did you get started?

I got started being a domme when I was 18. I was on Craigslist looking for a job in general — I think at the time I was working for American Apparel or something. I was like, "This is not what I'm trying to do. I'm not trying to do retail, it's not for me. I'm not trying to be in fashion like that." I wanted to do something where I make money and I'm happy.

How did you harness your dominance? Elaborate.

Truly I feel like it's something that's always been deeply rooted in my personality as an independent person. I always want to do things on my own. It's super, super hard for me to ask for help in terms of anything. I could be putting together a bed, something as simple as that, and I probably won't ask for help. I feel like that bled into a lot of niches in my life. And work is a very important niche.

Follow Gillian Skye on Instagram.

AJ

Suit: Linder, Shoes: Thom Browne

"You can really set your own limits to what you're comfortable with, what your own fetishes are, and help people relate to you from there."

Shelby Sells: Why did you choose sex work as a career? What type of sex work do you practice?

AJ Saunders: I started doing sex work when I was in college. I went to an Ivy League school and between rent, tuition, and supplies (I studied fashion design and was immersed in artistic queer communities) it was expensive, so I started out selling my underwear online. I needed extra income and I figured it could be something kind of anonymous I could do. I identify as non-binary, so I've never really identified with my body, and I realized I could start online sex work. It was a huge deal for me to do because I could interact with people and give my body in a way where I wasn't risking anything physically while I was also helping them satisfy their needs.

What are some benefits and drawbacks of the sex industry?

Some benefits are that sex workers can make their own limits and rules for themselves. I know people who do sex work in person. I know people who do sex work on the phone, on cam, via texting, or selling underwear. There's so many different components of sex work that people don't acknowledge. You can really set your own limits to what you're comfortable with, what your own fetishes are, and help people relate to you from there. It's not always about sex.

Who is your clientele? How do you source and foster relationships with them?

I find clientele all different places — Instagram, FetLife, Seeking Arrangements, Kik, Twitter, Tumblr. It's a range of guys who are in college to 70-year-old guys. Predominantly I sell underwear and an online girlfriend sexting companionship experience. It's everything from guys who are just lonely, to guys who just got divorced or broken up with, to guys who are crossdressers and drag queens and trans women. So I really sell to all different types of people and cater to their niche. It's kind of nice because it's still offering the same service but to different people it means different things. The Internet offers so many clientele opportunities because of all the outlets there are for sex work online.

Follow AJ Saunders on Instagram.

Michelle Hope

Suit: Linder

"Criminalization in spaces of sex is just reproductive oppression."

Shelby Sells: Why did you choose sex work as a career? What type of sex work do you practice?

Michelle Hope: I think it stemmed from assault — experiencing sexual assault as a teenager and not having the resources to get help or understand that it wasn't my fault. I always had an interest in people like Dr. Ruth and Dr. Drew, but unfortunately they don't look like me. It didn't make me feel like they could understand. There was no one who looked like me who was doing what they were doing. I joined the entertainment industry with information that could empower people that don't have a voice or don't understand sex. That's how I came to be a sexologist and sex educator. I might not provide services to clients or give people a physical experience of me, as I'm not a surrogate. I'm an academic sex worker. I study human sexual behavior for a living and then I write about it and teach. I help people reach the safest, most gratifying sexual experiences they can in the healthiest way possible.

What can we as a society do to support sex workers and eliminate the negative stigmas surrounding sex?

I think the best thing for our society to do to support individuals who choose to do sex work is to recognize that sex work is vastly larger than what it seems. Sex work is a spectrum. Sex education is super important. Everybody's fucking. Everybody loves sex. Beyond that, we're all kind of sex workers because we sell everything with sex. If that's not sex work, then I don't know what is. The definition of sex work is someone who works in the sex industry, and every time you turn on the television you see another commercial that uses sex to sell a product. Maybe we should start looking into self and identifying where we view sex in our work — to get ahead, to get a leg up, to get an opportunity — and when I say sex I don't necessarily mean physical. I mean flirting. I mean how we present ourselves. And the maybe we step back and find ways to educate people around healthier sex practices so they can feel free and open to communicate their wants, needs, and desires and creating pathways to connect them to that.

What would the world look like if sex work was legal?

I think to make anything legal, it comes through regulation. It comes through legislation that protects people in those spaces. It comes with knowing the risks. Just like how alcohol was once illegal, it's now legal and we see the effects both positive and negative. Regulation, not criminalizing people. Criminalization in spaces of sex is just reproductive oppression. The United States has a long history of reproductive oppression and most times it impacts the marginalized communities more than anyone else. Trans women are oftentimes prosecuted more heavily than any individual in the sex work space and are more at risk.

Follow Michelle Hope on Instagram.

Lindsay

Blazer & Belt (Worn as a Choker): Alexander Wang, Corset: Savage x Fenty, Glasses: Retrosuperfuture

"Having sex in real-life, it's only brought me more confidence and knowing how I use my body with other people by knowing exactly what I have."

Shelby Sells: Why did you choose sex work as a career? What type of sex work do you practice?

Lindsay Dye: Sex work as a career... I feel like I chose it when I was very young. At 12/13 I started going to strip clubs. I have always idolized strippers and I was looking for a job where I could be a stripper, but with distance from other humans, and that's what webcam modeling offered me. It was like stripping on the internet. That's how I became a webcam model, and through that, became interested in practicing fetishes and fetish work. That's where I am now. People call me a "cake-sitter."

Can you explain what cake-sitting is?

Cake-sitting is part of a fetish that is based on "crushing." In my chat room I've been asked to "sit on" or "crush" many types of objects. I was looking for a balance between something really artistic, pure, and beautiful looking and something that can still be sexy and that you can masturbate to.

What have you learned about yourself by being a sex worker? Do you separate your work self from your personal self?

I know what I look like. I know every angle of my body. I know my face. I know how I'm presenting myself at all times because I spend almost every second of my day on a webcam. Having sex in real-life, it's only brought me more confidence and knowing how I use my body with other people by knowing exactly what I have. I'm always the same person. I don't add or take-away, but there will be things in a relationship... well, honestly I haven't really had any relationships since I've became a full-time sex worker. I think it's something really hard to deal with. It's something that I wait to put on someone, and I say that because I feel like it's a weight for a partner to deal with.

Follow Lindsay Dye on Instagram.

Radical Pomm

Dress: Eleanor Balfour, Necklace: Linder

"You get what you want and you get it really fast."

Shelby Sells: Who is your clientele? How do you source and foster relationships with them?

Radical Pomm: I source them at the clubs. I look for the table with Dom Perignon and I check-in with the bottle service girls to see what table is spending what amount and then I go after the highest spending table.

What does the sex work community look like?

It depends. For me it's very glamorous — designer bags, first class, never take public transportation. You get what you want and you get it really fast. You're looked at as a fantasy, so you don't really take anything personal. Everything is just about your money. I am a fantasy — the hair, the prettiness, my ethnicity — that is very demanded right now in the sugar baby/escort sex world. The more ethnic you are, the more body, the prettier you are, the more you're desired. We're taking over.

Follow Radical Pomm on Instagram.

Photography: Marc Harris Miller
Styling: Ella Cepeda
Hair: Sergio Estrada
Makeup: Caitlin Wooters
Photo Assistants: Marion Aguas & Karly Cronin
Stylist Assistants: Michelle Tennant & Adam van Osdol
Hair Assistant: Rachel Polycarpe
Makeup Assistants: Jeana Pisani, Ashley Victoria, Ivelisse Rosado & Michaela Bosch

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