In 2016, Rachel*, 23, was a broke English major applying to law schools. Now, she is a first-year law student paying for school with sex work. She was working as a hair salon receptionist when she heard of a way to make fast cash. “One of my co-workers was telling me that she knew somebody that…had gotten a $1,000 from this website called Seeking Arrangements.” This service describes itself not as prostitution, but as a way for a woman, known as a sugar baby, to “date financially secure men who can provide her with the lifestyle she desires.”
Rachel immediately made a Seeking Arrangements profile. Although she was a little weirded out by “messages from seedy guys,” she was determined to meet them and no longer be broke.
Rachel is a white “5”8 unnatural blonde with an ample chest,” as she described herself to me. Her first sugar daddy was a 44-year-old “chill” man who sent an Uber from the next town to pick her up after she finished a late-night tutoring job. “I was all high on adrenaline because I hadn’t exchanged demands on what kind of money I wanted or anything. He was buying me all this fancy food, which seemed so glamorous.” Then he asked if he could kiss her. “He leaned across the table and we kissed right there in the restaurant and it felt like daring and cool, because obviously I’m a lot younger than this guy and we just don’t give a fuck.”
Later that night, he asked her to have sex with him in his hotel room. “We had some unsafe sex, which was a terrible decision but I feel like that’s the reality of sugar daddies and sex work,” she said. “Sometimes you make terrible decisions and people want to take advantage of your body and don’t care.” He gave her $400 when they were done.
Rachel didn’t name a price that first time, and she doesn’t recommend doing so for a number of reasons. “The first is you don’t wanna get caught for prostitution,” she said. Rachel lives in a state where sex work is classified as a felony. Second: “You kinda want them to think that you like them and you’re not in it for the money.” Instead of bringing up a price when clients proposition her, she would agree, but with a caveat—“if I get a gift.” When clients ask “how much?” she evades answering.
Although there is often a glamorous narrative that accompanies stories about sugar babies, Rachel does not recommend sugar babying. “I think a lot of people think you can hang out with older men and get money and stuff, but really it’s a lot of crazy sex and weirdness. But there are exceptions.” Rachel’s exception is her “natural sugar daddy” who she’s known for two years and once tutored in English. They meet once a month but don’t have sex. In fact, they don’t touch each other than the occasional hug. He gives her expensive presents including airline tickets to Japan and $1,000 in cash.
When I asked Rachel if she felt weird having the lines between friend and client blurred, she said, “I feel like women get so much shit just for being a woman. If a guy wants to throw some cash at me and it’s unclear what he wants, I’ll just take it.”
Sex work can be dangerous. Almost two-thirds of all sex workers will experience sexual violence during their careers. A 2004 study found that 1 in 5 people who went to a U.S. emergency room for sexual assault were sex workers. When I asked Rachel how she avoids being taken advantage of, she laughed. She doesn’t believe there’s a way for sex workers to fully protect themselves. “People joke about sugar daddies all the time, but it’s really sketchy.” She told me about a time when a client refused to pay her. “I ended up yelling at him and he was drunk. It was a bad situation.” He did not hurt her though, she added, or she “would’ve killed him.”
Rachel is currently out of her “sugar daddy phase.” She tried escorting once, which she likes more than sugar babying. “I thought that was almost more empowering because then they know it’s a transaction, it’s a service, it’s no bullshit,” she said. “But it’s still really nice. It’s like getting your hair done, you know, you have an nice experience with your hair stylist. It’s a great exchange or whatever, but you know you’re not actually best friends.”
Escorting at a high-end level is also safer. “People want to use condoms,” she said.
Rachel has transitioned from sugar babying to web camming and stripping. Both give her more control over her body and schedule. That’s the upside of sex work, she said: you are your own boss. “I hate people telling me what to do. I can’t imagine being a waitress.” Since last June she has made $11,898 through web camming and averages up to $100 in four hours and, because it’s a legal activity, she files taxes for it.
“I’m an independent contractor for many, many people,” she said. Her work as a stripper is also considered independent contracted work. “You can choose whatever hours you want. You pay to rent the space,” she said. “I expected it to be more like a restaurant where you have a manager, but really, as long as you wear a garter and a nice g-string…you can do whatever you want. It’s kind of awesome.” When I noted that she is still being bossed around by others in the bedroom, she responded that we’re all working in an attention economy: “Aren’t we all ruled by the attention of something?”
Of all her sex work experiences, Rachel ranks stripping as the most empowering. She has met “cool” people through web camming, but she has also dealt with specific and complex requests like five-bulleted instructions on shipping her used underwear with “very light skidmark(s) so I can see where your butthole has been?” Oh, and could she please “double bag” it and “provide a tracking number”? (She completed that request for $70.)
Above all, she is very aware of the permanent digital evidence web camming leaves behind: “There’s like tons and tons of images of my face out there and me like putting random things in my butt.”
With stripping, it’s easier: “People literally throw money at you for just being there.” She strips 30 minutes away from her school in an area where there aren’t many strip clubs. Even with the strip club’s close proximity to her school, she does not worry about being identified by classmates there. “It’s not illegal, I don’t give a fuck who knows, I’ll tell everybody, I’ll tell my professor,” she said.
“I have this anger at how the sex industry is supposed to be so secret, it makes me so mad sometimes.”
Being a sex worker has changed Rachel’s relationship to her body, making her want to be healthier and safer. She also acknowledges that staring at her body through a web cam has made her more obsessive about her appearance. To be successful in her line of work, she has to look pristine. “I have to have everything, manicure, pedicure, laser hair removal, eyelash extensions, perfect everything,” she said. “If I weren’t staring at myself all the time, or being looked at all the time, would I be so obsessed with what I look like? I don’t know…”
I shared with Rachel what Zadie Smith once said about the irresistible allure of pretty girls:
“I’ve risked everything for a certain look, for tapered fingers or a particular mole. So I hear you when you say it’s not what she says, not what she does, that it’s on her…Pretty girls lie at the centre of straight culture, dyke culture, fag culture. They sell everything, they buy everything, they ruin great men and women, and finally they ruin themselves, accidentally, simply by getting old.”
Rachel thought Smith was right on the money. “I feel like I would honestly be nothing if I wasn’t attractive. It’s a scary thought. I don’t wanna be older and in the sex industry.” Since her job is often to “manipulate the male gaze,” Rachel knows that it’s dependent on men finding her desirable.
Along with having an effect on her self-esteem, sex work has also affected Rachel’s personal relationships. She has been romantically seeing a man for several months. She feels as if she “could be convinced very easily not to do [sex work]” anymore, but he’s never asked her to stop. “The guy I’m with now doesn’t give a fuck. I’ll come over with bruises up and down my leg from people hitting me, or even bite marks and stuff. And he’s like ‘ehhh, I don’t care,’ and it kind of drives me crazy. How could you not care?” Rachel acknowledges that her feelings about men are complicated. She works in an industry where success sometimes depends on “gross attention” from men, so in her personal life, she says, she may be “addicted to what doesn’t want me.”
“I’m not this hot girl stomping over all these men and feeling great about it…There’s a lot of vulnerability and self-doubt,” Rachel said. Setting the record straight is why she was open to talking with me in the first place. “The positive thing is that I get a bunch of money,” she said, making it clear that she is in sex work for the money, not to explore kinks. If money weren’t a factor, she wouldn’t be selling videos of herself pooping or roleplaying incest on web cams. In her personal life, she describes herself as more “vanilla-ish.” “I feel like guys sometimes invent fetishes because they’re so alone and isolated in their room and are hating women for never talking to them, like, ‘ugh, I would love to see this bitch pee.’”
Rachel plans to continue with sex work until she finishes law school and gets a job. She hopes to become a criminal defense lawyer. Recently at the strip club, one of her clients, a criminal defense attorney, “tried to hook me up with an internship this summer” that she’s hopeful will come through.
Her advice to others who want to get into the sex industry? “Wear thick underwear and don’t let strangers stick their fingers in your ass,” she said. “Don’t get swept up in the glamour, don’t give in to the rush of recklessness, because in the end, it is all an image. Everything is just an image. It’s a lot more than a transaction of sex or a lap dance. People are also paying to feel a certain way, they’re paying to feel powerful, they’re paying to feel like their boss, picking you up in a private room—they’re paying so they can feel like they identify to Lil Wayne lyrics. And that’s all bullshit. So just see past the image. Think about it seriously. Have paying off your rent in mind when you’re doing it.”
*Name has been changed.