It's been called "the world's oldest profession," but despite its storied history, sex work often remains shrouded in shame and mystery, particularly in the U.S.
Because the vast majority of states criminalize most direct points of entry into the sex trade, the people who make a living doing this work are often forced to operate in the shadows. It's an experience that some say is exhilarating and fulfilling, while others say their decision to enter the industry was born out of necessity, when other opportunities were denied.
Irrespective of the ongoing discussion about the cultural value of sex work (or lack thereof), the people who best understand the intricacies involved in this line of work are, of course, the professionals who work in the field.
In an effort to elevate the voices of people so often silenced, The Advocate asked current and former sex workers to share their own definition of the work they do and elaborate on the way they frame their work. We also asked each participant to share a photo of themselves, if they were willing, or of something in their life that brings them joy, to help readers connect with the many aspects of these people's identities.
Those who were willing and safely able to respond come from as far away as Uganda and overwhelmingly identify as women -- particularly when at work. The LGBT sex workers featured below have a wide range of experiences, and even so, represent only a small sample of the diversity within the profession. Each person who engages in sex work has a distinct, personal reason for pursuing this line of work, and may or may not agree with the conclusions presented here.
But what appears on the following pages is the truth about sex work, according to four individuals who have, in some cases, been doing this work for decades.
Selena Nagaoka-Finnell, 43-year-old stylist and cosmetologist
After struggling with drug addiction and homelessness for 10 years, Selena Nagaoka-Finnell relocated from her native Hawaii to Las Vegas to get clean. She was able to do that, she tells The Advocate, but her lack of formal work history made it tough for her to support herself. So at age 26, she became an escort.
"I used that money to pay for my student loans and pay for all my surgeries," says the trans woman, who is now happily married and living in Las Vegas. "I treated it like a business -- I was heavy and serious in it."
She traveled the world for eight years escorting and stayed sober the entire time. But after a while, she noticed herself starting to feel the same way about sex work that she did when she was high.
"I started feeling myself change and become jaded," she explains. "I felt empty and dark and heartless."
"Being transgender, we work so hard to have self-identity. And when you're a sex worker, you're nothing but someone else's fantasy," she continues. "I'm more than that."
"I had to survive," she adds. "The money was so good that greed kicked in. But there were so many lonely nights, and that's when you start thinking, Is this what you wanted for yourself? Is this all that you are?"
"My answer was no," she concludes. "I deserve the world."
When asked to share photos of things that bring her joy, Nagaoka-Finnell offered the above photo of her dog, Buddha, who she says was "there from day 1." She also presented a photo of her father, who she says "never judged me."
Grace Marie loves going to the opera, so she shared a photo of her ticket to a recent performance of La Boheme at the L.A. Opera.
When Grace Marie first started "moonlighting" as a professional dominatrix in 2009, she was also "working with children, many of whom were severely disabled, at a local school district," she tells The Advocate. "What began as a side job and a giant secret gradually became a huge part of my life and my identity."
As someone who has always operated independently, rather than working for a particular house or organization, Grace Marie says her years in the industry have taught her ("through trial and error") all the skills she needs to run a business.
"I've also learned the value of building community around common goals," she says. About a year ago, she was living in a house with two other pro dommes, and spending time with them and others in the community accounted for most of her social activity. "For a while that environment was very comforting," she says, describing her friends as "a bright circle of sex-positive, freethinking individuals."
But these days, Grace Marie prefers having her own private living space, where she has room to "reflect on this work and what's next for me," she says. "It's very reassuring to know that I started this business and I could always start another one if I should one day lose interest in professional domination. Sex work has given me that confidence."
"I view sex work as the last frontier of activism," she continues. All we're asking is for our work to be seen as just that -- work. As a marginalized group, I think the real challenge that we face is visibility. For centuries, we've been this invisible hand in the economy, and most people are keen on keeping it that way. The shame around selling sex -- arguably, one of the most basic human needs -- is so huge and so ugly. Convincing people that selling sex is no big deal and just like any other job is going to take some work."
As she is self-described hard worker, though, that challenge is one Grace Marie is well-equipped to tackle. The pansexual pro domme knows she's up against unrelenting stigma when it comes to her line of work.
"No matter how proud I am of what I do, I'm still up against the two dominant narratives," she explains. "One serves to eviscerate while the other condescends. In the media, we currently have these two extreme caricatures of what it means to be a sex worker; you're either this lazy, empty person who makes tons of money whilst doing absolutely nothing for the betterment of society or you're a human trafficking victim. At best you're a lazy home-wrecking whore and should get a 'real job,' and at worst you're a pathetic and pitiful victim. These sensational portrayals of sex workers don't do anything to help us in any real way."
"These tired tropes don't make it any easier for me to answer the inevitable question over polite table conversation, 'So, what do you do?'" she adds. "I'm also an artist, so I usually just talk about that part of my work. Unfortunately, what that means is I'm leaving off this fascinating part of myself that most people don't really understand and in turn fear."
"The mundane reality is that it's like any other job," she concludes. "Sometimes it's extremely rewarding, sometimes it's boring, sometimes it feels empowering, and other times it feels exploitative. I feel like you could say those things about any profession, and it would be so refreshing if everyone knew just how dreadfully normal this work actually is."
Bad Black, "20-something" HIV-positive trans woman living and working in Uganda
A passionate and outspoken advocate for sex workers' and LGBT rights in the East African nation, Bad Black has been doing this work for more than a decade, she tells The Advocate.
"Sex work means having sex in exchange for something valuable -- but not pleasure," Bad Black explains. "For example, we sell sex in exchange for money, phones, clothes, etc."
She says sex work has played a major role in her life. "I am so glad to be a sex worker because it's my only source of income," she says. "Through sex work I have been able to pay my rent and bail myself out of prison, because here the police arrest us a lot -- we the trans women sex workers. Also through sex work, I'm able to pay for my [antiretroviral medications] as a person living with HIV."
"We believe sex work is work, and people should respect sex workers, because we are not prostitutes, as they label us," she continues. "We are human beings who sell our bodies to survive, and we are so glad and happy with being sex workers. And because of sex work we have reduced the unemployment rate in our country. With sex work, you don't need any qualifications."
Shiloh*, 33-year-old tantrika and masseuse
Shiloh is a "Tantrika" and masseuse at a women-run organization, who also maintains a few private tantra clients in the city where they live. In their day-to-day life, Shiloh identifies as nonbinary and genderqueer, and uses the gender-neutral pronouns they and them. But when working, Shiloh says they often "present as 'classic girl-next-door femme.'"
"I professionally facilitate transformative orgasmic experiences," says Shiloh when asked to frame the work they do. "When answering that more deeply, I am a spiritual healer, inviting my clients into sexuality from a place of wholeness. [I operate from] the idea that the spiritual and sensual are or at least can be one and the same. And I'm really passionate about that."
Shiloh started working in the industry in 2013 and is adamant that sex work is meaningful work. "It's work that I honestly love," Shiloh says. "Even if I didn't need the money, I would want to do it at least sometimes, because it's so fascinating, and often transformative for me. Though I do think of it as work."
Shiloh adds that they also work in music, noting that sex work has allowed them to fill in the financial gaps that often befall artists. "Having the basis of sex work allows me to be much freer in the art that I make and the gigs that I take," Shiloh says. "And to do only things that have full political integrity."
When asked to share a photo of something that makes them smile, Shiloh shared the above snapshot of a southwestern sunset, saying the multicolored desert sky "brings me a lot of joy."