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.