Friday, March 8, 2013

More Than Meets The Eye

I spent most of my twenties wondering what the big deal about feminism was – the people I associated with all agreed with it's basic principles so firmly that even discussing it felt like a waste of time. I felt like I had plenty of power – but looking back there were so many things that I took for granted as just part of being a woman. If I was out in the city by myself late at night, I would wear spiked collars and big boots, just in case. When a taxi driver refused to let me out of his cab until I gave him my phone number, I laughed it off as just a weird thing that happened. When my partners pushed the boundaries of my consent, I assumed it was my fault for leading them on, and just something that happened to women. But it was working reception in the sex industry that showed me what it's like to have tangible, real power, and now I've left the industry, I don't know how to deal without it.

Because of the social circles I was hanging out in at the time, when I was once again out of a job and someone suggested I try reception at a massage parlor, it didn't seem like a big deal – just another job. I could answer a phone, and take money. Why not? There was no stigma attached to the industry in my little bubble. A bunch of people I knew were either current or former sex workers in various capacities, and others had done the reception thing. I was intrigued by the idea of getting a glimpse into such a “secret” side of my city. I'm the kind of person that can't help peering into open windows when I'm out walking at night, so the idea of being PAID to peer into people's private lives was too good to pass up. While I thought I knew what I was getting in to, I would be lying if I said there weren't challenging moments. I remember the first time I sent a girl upstairs with a client, and the horrible confusion that gripped me about whether I was doing the right thing or not. I remember having to tell a client to put his flaccid cock away THREE times while I was trying to talk to him, because apparently he couldn't listen without one hand on it. I remember going into the introduction room to fill up the tissues, and discovering someone had vomited into a glass bowl of mints and then put the lid back on. I remember the first time I put my hand in a puddle of a strangers cold semen while doing the laundry, and how hard I scrubbed down my entire arm afterwards. But most of all, I remember the feeling of power.

Now, I just want to make it clear that I'm not interested in, or qualified to comment on sex worker's experience of power within the industry. I was only ever administration staff, and so that's the only role I can speak about with any authority. Even then, there is an enormous variety of experiences out there, depending on where you work, and for whom, so my observations should not be taken as a blanket reflection of the industry as a whole. But in my experience, as reception, and eventually a manager, my strongest memory of my time within the industry is one of power.
I had the power to stop clients who were rude, or aggressive, or just generally behaved unacceptably. In the minds of the mostly male clientele, I was the sole barrier between the them and what they wanted. In reality I actually always consulted the girls I was working with before I decided to throw anyone out or deny them service, so the power was ultimately in their hands when they were working with me. But the clients didn't know that. Once I realised I had this perceived power in the eyes of the clients, it gave me bravery I would never have thought was in me. I dealt with situations much more challenging than anything I would have faced in most other industries. A particularly colorful example is when a client came in coked up out of his mind one night, and inevitably threw a tantrum over an imagined slight, and started waving a broken bottle around. When I think back on it now, I feel like I should have been terrified, but I wasn't. I was annoyed, ENORMOUSLY annoyed that this jackass was messing up MY house, making a mess that I would have to clean up. I crossed my arms, raised an eyebrow, and calmly told him in my best Mum voice, “Don't be that guy.” He slunk out with nothing more than a couple of muttered curses under his breath. The power that I had, that he KNEW I had, made me brave, and strong, and calm, in a way that I never thought I would be with someone waving a broken bottle at me. If he had wanted to, there was nothing stopping him from beating the hell out of me. I'm quite short, not particularly strong, and not very well versed in self-defense. But all I had to do was raise an eyebrow to remind him of the power I had. This is an extreme example, but I have dozens more. If the clients were rude in any way, if their behavior pissed me off, I had the power and authority to make it stop, and prevent it happening again. I could stand up for myself and the girls I worked with in a way that feminism had told me I had the right to, but that I had never experienced first hand before. Before my experience in this industry, I thought that this kind of power was one of the more theoretical aspects of feminist theory, like the idea of a genderless egalitarian utopia. A lovely idea, but not something I would ever experience. But in the sex industry, I could put my foot down, I could say no, and it was incredible.

The power I wielded as administration staff in the sex industry also gave me a freedom to dress however I wanted in a way I find virtually impossible to explain to anyone who hasn't been in that situation. I could wear whatever I wanted, so long as I was wearing more than the sex workers were, and the clients knew they couldn't touch me. It was a (mostly) unspoken understanding that I was off the table, no matter how I dressed or what I said. Despite the clients who felt the need to whip their cocks out, and say sleazy things, or ask how much it would be to get me instead of one of the sex workers, I felt safer in that job than I have anywhere else, public or private. In the places I worked, it was an accepted rule that the reception staff were off the table, no matter what. The clients still asked, and the asking gets enormously tedious after a while. But the asking was never frightening, or concerning, because both I and the clients knew they couldn't touch me, and if they tried that I had the power to address the situation myself by personally throwing them out. I didn't have to complain to a bouncer or security, or raise an issue with a manager or HR. I could just kick them the hell out, and the mutual understanding between me and the clients of my power made me feel safer and more in control than any other job I've ever had. If a client DID push my boundaries, there was never any question of who was in the wrong, no matter what I was wearing or what I had said. There was never any question of leading them on, or being too slutty. The clients touched me, I could throw them out, no questions. In practicality, I didn’t always throw them out because money from assholes is still money. But the fact that I COULD was so empowering. Now I'm out of the industry, I've tried to explain the feeling of absolute certainty, the feeling of complete safety and freedom to wear whatever I wanted with total righteousness, but out here in the “normal” world such an idea sounds ludicrous, like an impossible fantasy. It seems that the entitlement of some men to put their hands wherever they want makes it virtually impossible for women who haven't been in my position to even understand what that kind of safety feels like, and that just kills me.

I'm back in normal administration now, and the lack of power is slowly suffocating me. I can't kick anyone out. I can't even authorise buying a new computer. I have to be polite to everyone, all the damn time, no matter how rude they are to me. I have no power to make them behave in a way I find acceptable, because there is nothing I can do if they don’t. I can’t say no to requests, unless they’re actually impossible. If they’re just difficult, or stressful, or very difficult AND extremely stressful, I have to fulfill these requests with a smile on my face. You’d like me to get the paperwork so you can get a visa on arrival in Indonesia when you’re getting on the plane in an hour? Why yes, sir, I can do that! I have to be aware of what I'm wearing every day, to make sure it's acceptable. It can't be too butch, or too girly, otherwise people won't take me seriously. I have to measure up all my shirts to make sure they're not showing too much cleavage, which really sucks when you're as busty as me. If anyone makes me uncomfortable, or pushes my boundaries, I have to go through a long complicated chain of complaints where I have to justify my discomfort at every stage. Most of the time, if a co-worker is overly touchy or smarmy or patronising, I'll just let it go because it's too hard to complain, and it doesn't seem worth the fuss. I miss having the authority to tell people not to talk me in that tone so much I can taste it some days. The most depressing thing is that my workplace isn't actually that bad in the scheme of things – I work with perfectly pleasant men, who don't call me sweetie or dearie or pat me on the behind, or any of the awful things that you read about on @Everyday Sexism. But it's not enough. My idea of the depth and breadth of power available to me has been blown wide open, and it's so hard to come back from that to a place of “normality” without wanting to scream at people.

This experience of having power and then losing it has finally made me understand what is so crucial about feminism – for years I thought I knew what power I could expect to have as a woman. Feminism seemed irrelevant because I thought I already had all the power it was possible as a woman to have. Now I know I was wrong, and want more than anything for all women to realise that what they perceive as “normal” is not enough – we need to set our expectations higher. Being able to say no to clients taught me that women shouldn’t feel like they have to respond to every request with passive acquiescence, lest they be labeled “bitches.” Sometimes you need to be able to tell people their behavior is unacceptable, and I miss being able to do that so, so much. Women should ALWAYS feel safe to wear whatever we want without retribution, wherever we are. It’s not okay that we just expect to be touched because our skirt is too short, or too long, or we are alone on a train. It’s “normal”, but it’s not acceptable. Working in a position where I could dress in any way I wanted to, in ways that would be seen elsewhere as unacceptably provocative, and still no-one was allowed to touch me taught me that that just because women being public property is “normal” doesn’t mean it can’t be any other way. Equality and safety for women isn’t a philosophical pipe dream – it is a possibility.
The sex industry is not for everyone – parts of it are very challenging, and it can be very dangerous. But I think there is something in the things I have learned from my experience in the industry for all women.


  1. This was a really really interesting read.

    Oddly I work nowhere near the sex industry and I feel like I have a lot of the power that your workplace doesn't allow you.
    I work for engineers, in a mostly male office, with plenty of young women, and notably some badass 50+ career administrators.
    I generally say yes to most tasks, but if I'm too busy, I tell them I can't because I'm too busy.
    If I'm given a nearly impossible timeframe for a task I say I will do it, but it will be hard and it should never be done in this manner again. And then I give them some general timeframes they should give me tasks and they LEARN.
    If I'm given poor quality or frustrating work I tell the person who gave it why it was poor or frustrating and what I would prefer in the future.
    If I feel like I'm being treated unfairly for some reason I talk to my boss, who is very understanding. He spoke to another senior manager so he would stop giving me handwritten typing to do because I found it demeaning. He also knows about my mental health issues etc, and is willing to accommodate if necessary. Which means I need a lot less accommodation.
    I wear what I want by pushing the line slowly until it moves. There are no strict dress codes at work, and I often wear stuff that almost dares commenting. Once I establish that seems to go ok, it becomes normal.

    There must be different workplace rules/cultures about this but I feel like I get away with it because I just won't have it any other way. I feel like if I do a good job and am always as helpful as possible I deserve respect and don't need to take any shit from people.
    Maybe people think I dress stupid, or that I'm too casual, or don't show enough reverence or something, but as long as they keep that shit to themselves it seems to all go ok.
    I've experienced some harrassment at staff functions that was mostly non-gender-specific, but never at the workplace.

    My theory is "become irreplaceable - get away with anything". I'm currently displeased with working where I am because I'm bored, and occasionally too stressed out and other times don't have enought to do. Also frankly engineering is a bit boring. However, reading this is making me think I should stick it out, because it's worse out there than I realised!

    I'd be very interested to hear other people's experiences about this.

    1. I wonder sometimes how much of my experience in normal administration is linked to the kind of people I've worked for. most of my career has been in startups, or small businesses, and it seems to take a certain sort of person to have the chutzpah to get a business off the ground. These are the sort of people who work ridiculous hours, and do everything with no idea of "job description", and also seem to be very keen on doing things "their way". I imagine this is why most of them start businesses in the first place. Unfortunately, this means that if their way of doing things is wildly inefficient, you as the lowly admin just have to deal with it. I'm extremely jealous of how much the people you work with listen to your opinion on how things should be done - I've been fighting tooth and nail to get the guys I work for to give me reasonable timeframes, but when I complain I'm told it's just "how they are."

      I like your idea of being indisepnsible, and it's certainly part of a normal admin person's power. Unfortunately, a lot of employers view admin as infinitely replaceable - if the one you have doesn't work the way you want it to, hire a new one. This is why I haven't actually clued in my work about my mental health condition. I'm too afraid that they will just replace me with an admin person who works "properly."

  2. I can certainly understand not wanting to alert your employer to mental health issues. I would be wary of it overall, but felt comfortable with my boss.

    My recent experience is in a big global corporation so they have a lot of corporate responsibility in behaving ethically towards their employees. While I'm not a fan of corporate culture overall, I do appreciate that when they say they are committed to "no workplace harassment" they actually have to commit to it, since someone's job somewhere in the US is to make sure we comply. HR works almost separately to the rest of the business as a mediator in any disputes. I mean for dishonest behaviour we even have an anonymous company-specific Ethics Hotline. So I think you can't get away with inappropriate behaviour provided the target is willing to report it to someone.
    (There are some hilarious American-made harassment videos we have to watch every year about sexist behaviour but also harassing your admins with too much pressure etc. Mostly it made me and my guys, who are now all gone due to other corporate issues, doing "elevator eyes" at each other)

    My issues with corporate have to do with the money-focussed culture and pressure of sold-time etc. But I do appreciate the immediacy with which complaints are taken up.

    1. Man, that all sounds pretty nice actually. Another aspect of small business Vs corporations is job descriptions - I imagine part of why you have so much say over what you will and won't do is because you have a clear job description. My position is very much, "whatever is required", and because there is so little definition it's extremely difficult to determine that something is Not My Job.

  3. I could see working in the position you were in as I've always had this sort of "fuck you" attitude that would go well with it. I used to work as an artist's model, and there was something of a fuck you attitude in my reasoning for doing that. I was not young, thin, or pretty. I never could imagine working as a sex worker, though. I know different people are affected differently by the same thing, but as someone who has been sexually assaulted, being in truly sexual situations has always made me feel powerless. I have a lot of hang-ups about sex, really I don't like it very much.
    The art modeling was not sexual. To me it wasn't any different than going to a nude swimming area, which isn't sexual to me either. The students were under no circumstances allowed to make sexual comments or hit on the models. I guess there might have been something empowering about being in a situation that had the potential to be sexualized but was actually very respectful towards the models.

    1. Art modelling is a similar situation, but not quite the same. As a model, as you say, it's a totally unsexual situation. However, you can't kick someone out of the class because you don't like the way they're leering at you. You could possibly ask someone to make sure they don't come back next time, but it's not nearly as cut and dried as the power you wield as a brothel receptionist.

  4. I temped as a receptionist at a large firm recently and it was hell. The amount of ass kissing required from all the employees (whether from SVP to associate) was maddening. Thank goodness it was only a temp position. I will never forget what it was like. Thank you for writing this post. You've summed up precisely how powerless it feels to work as an admin.


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