I Compartmentalized My Life — Now I’m Opening the Boxes

I first learned to come vaginally while I was being watched. With a camera pointed right between my legs, lights shining down on me, like being in a gynecologist’s office, I learned how to make myself clench and twitch and shake in 1080p with my fingers or a hairbrush or a dildo inside me. I’d hear this succession of oddly celestial-sounding chimes emanating from my computer: “BigSchlong420 tipped you 500 tokens.” “ThickLoadforThickSlutz tipped you 1000 tokens.” It was like being blessed. At some point, clenching those muscles to simulate an orgasm on camera becomes indistinguishable from actually having one. To this day, men love how easy it is for me to come when I’m being fucked — more accurately, they love how easy it is for them to make me come. I never tell them I’m basically doing it on my own, that I learned how to do it to the sweet sound of getting paid.

My boyfriend at the time really loved it. He was a big, white, burly, bearded man with a Santa Claus smile. He was solid and comfortable and he loved me. He told me how powerful it made him feel, and I would have died before I took that from him. I would have died before I told him what I did for money. He thought that after I left his place in the morning, after I kissed him goodbye, I was going to my non-profit job on the Upper East Side. Instead, I was heading back home to Mount Vernon to spread my legs open for strangers online.

I got into sex work in college on camera. I also did what people refer to as “full service.” I was and am uncomfortable referring to myself as a sex worker — though I thought myself desperate for money; though I couldn’t ask for support from my struggling single mother; though compared to all the stinking rich kids at my liberal arts college, I was practically Oliver Twist — I was not really compelled by my circumstances into dangerous situations, which is the reality for so many others in the industry. I had a safe place to sleep at night. Even if I could no longer pay tuition and got kicked out of school, I had a home to go to. Eventually, I would earn a degree from a prestigious school, I would enter the ranks of white-collar work, I would make a salary, and I would stop doing sex work.

For me, there was nothing empowering or feminist or girlbossy about it. Doing sex work was terribly lonely. Despite whatever pretensions to feminism and sex-positivity my wealthy peers had, they were disgusted by what I did. Some of the people I had thought were my friends openly distanced themselves from me because of it. This was before “sex work is work” became a phrase in the mainstream culture, before it was commonplace for women to have a side hustle on OnlyFans. It was before OnlyFans, actually.

Dating during this period was hard. I was never pretty, and virtually every girl on campus looked like an Urban Outfitters model — white and thin with unconventional good looks. I’d never had a boyfriend and I didn’t know I liked girls, too — at least not yet. The guys I slept with basically thought of me as a whore anyway, so I figured I might as well actually be one and get paid for it. In the Bollywood movies I grew up watching, there were always whores of some kind — from the languorous, melancholy, deeply poetic tawaifs with veils and twirling skirts to the mini-skirted, shimmying glamor girls with flat stomachs and ample kohl. They sang songs for crowds of leering, cheering men. Everyone wanted them, everyone admired them. I wanted to be like that so badly.

After college, I couldn’t find a job. I couldn’t afford the city, so I lived in Mount Vernon. I worked at my part-time, unpaid internship to give myself cover and kept getting naked to actually earn money. I didn’t earn very much. At night, my friends would go to clubs and hookah bars while I barricaded myself in my room with a forty and a dildo, making up some excuse. I didn’t know any other sex workers. I had no idea there were whole communities of women who could have helped me feel less alone.

Sometimes I tried to be a normal girl and date guys, but I never told them what I did. I can tell myself this was for my safety — and it’s true that if you tell the wrong guy you’re a sex worker, he can, at very least, make your life extremely unpleasant — but really, I didn’t tell them because I was ashamed. And to be honest, I also felt titillated at the thought of leading this secret double life. It felt more cinematic that way.

M was my first boyfriend — the first guy who even wanted to be my boyfriend, the first guy to celebrate Valentine’s Day with me, the first guy who told me I was his, who wanted to introduce me to his family. I’d never had a dad — mine walked out when I was very young — and to me, having a guy to take care of you meant nothing could hurt you or touch you. It meant I could actually just be a normal girl and all my doubts and uncertainties and traumas wouldn’t matter.

I never told M what I did for work, and I was living a double life in another way, too. I could feel the question nagging: What if there was already love in my life from other women with whom I felt closeness and kinship? There were only a few people who even knew about what I did for work — close female friends. I had never actually had male friends, or at least not straight ones. I never understood how other girls could reveal intimate parts of their lives, let their guard down, to A Man. Men were for sex and love, certainly — all those Bollywood movies told me so — but to me, they were remote, not quite human, dangerous, mythical. And while other girls could be cruel — and some girls inspired feelings of longing that took me a long time to understand — it was safe to be around them and only them. So I knew I could tell my close girlfriends anything, but never my boyfriend.

Hiding my work from M felt harder as our relationship went on. I’d have to pound a forty of Old English before I went on camera, and I would hope that my ever-fickle internet would cut out so I’d have an excuse not to work. I couldn’t fake the cheerful, carefree sex-kitten persona necessary for earning tips online. In As I Lay Dying, Dewey Dell says, “I feel my body, my bones and flesh beginning to part and open upon the alone, and the process of becoming unalone is terrible.” It was so easy to stuff every part of my life into its own little box when I was single — childhood trauma, my inability to make friends, my failing grades, self-harm, sex work. But love demands that you take out those boxes and sort through them while your beloved watches. They have to see the old, dirty things that you’ve hidden away, things that even you forgot about.

Eventually, I managed to find full-time work and stopped doing sex work. I though this would make everything go away — the guilt and shame I felt around that work, the guilt and shame of hiding it, the panic that one day M would find out, the panic that I would have to do this forever. But much to my horror, I felt myself chafing under the yoke of heterosexual monogamy. How could I be so ungrateful? M told me he wouldn’t mind if I slept with another woman — he loved watching lesbian porn and thought it would be so hot to have a bisexual girlfriend. So I did. I fucked my close friend, one of the women who knew about my double life as a sex worker, a woman I considered one of my closest friends — a woman who, though I didn’t realize it at the time, actually made me feel safe, because I never felt like I had to hide who I was to be worthy of love. And he hated it. He was furious. But he took me back, since I promised to never see her again and because “at least it wasn’t with a man.” She and I were never friends again. M and I also broke up a few years after that.

When I look back on how I compartmentalized parts of my life during those years, I’m not ashamed about doing sex work anymore. I’m ashamed that I rejected real love that I had in my life because I couldn’t lose the security of heterosexuality and the validation I thought it bestowed on me. I’m ashamed that I still don’t know how much the love I had for M had to do with this security and validation, that maybe I was just using him, that maybe any relationship I’ll ever have with a man will essentially be about those things, that maybe I will continue to push away women I could love because I’m still attached to this heterosexual myth.

Adrienne Rich urges queer women to, “[think] of the moments of closeness and complicity they have experienced with other women, and [reflect] on the felt necessity of setting these aside — as immature, less than sufficient — for men.” For me, that is an essential part of queerness: Knowing that one feels attraction to other women, that one is closest to other women, that one enjoys sex with other women — and having the courage to embrace this closeness and love and sexuality over chasing a mirage of “security” — which, if you constantly have to perform Worthy Womanhood, is not security at all.


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R.M.

R.M. is a writer in New York City.

R.M. has written 1 article for us.

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