Back when I worked as a stripper, I was just about as out-and-proud as they come. I wrote a blog about stripping under my real name. I cofounded a magazine by and for sex workers. I found community in the sex worker rights movement. But when I gave birth to my daughter two years ago, I began to wonder if I should shut up about my years in the sex industry. Was it inappropriate to post articles about sex worker rights on my Facebook page, along with photos of my daughter’s first birthday party? By continuing to talk about sex work, was I setting my daughter up to be bullied at school, or setting myself up to be judged as a bad parent?
After all, society sends a pretty clear message that sex workers and kids don’t mix. Last year, a Bronx elementary school teacher lost her job because she wrote about her past experiences as a prostitute, and sex worker parents who end up in custody battles too often end up losing their kids because of their jobs. The reality is that most sex workers have kids, and most of them trade sex in order to support their kids and spend more time with their kids — in other words, to be better parents. Yet, because we can’t talk about sex work and kids in the same sentence without causing hysteria, these millions of parents are rendered invisible, forced to hide a significant part of their identities, and sometimes even denied the right to parent their children.
So how are sex worker parents supposed to deal with this? Lie for eighteen years and hope their kids don’t find out — or is there another way? Of course it’s inappropriate to talk about sex with little kids, but does talking about sex work necessarily mean talking about sex? Is it inherently confusing to grow up knowing your mom or dad is a sex worker? To try and get my head around some of these issues, I reached out to other parents (Editor’s note: all names have been changed and/or are nicknames) in the sex worker community to see how they were handling it.
Linda got into sex work after she got divorced and found herself struggling to hold things together as a single mom. Her daughter is now 24 and knows what her mother does, but Linda didn’t tell her the whole truth when she was a young teenager. “I told her as much as she needed to know, which was very little, because I thought it would be really creepy for her to hear anything at all about her mother’s sexual activities. She would’ve been grossed out by it. So I told her I was a madam. She knew all my friends were sex workers, so I told her I helped them book appointments. In the end, she was a very demure teen, maybe because she didn’t have the need to rebel.”
Georgia has worked in restaurants and fast food joints and struggled to keep her three-year-old daughter Zoe in daycare, but she prefers to do sex work because it allows her to raise Zoe herself. As a low-earning sex worker, she can’t afford childcare, so she sometimes brings her daughter with her when she goes to see clients. A friend goes with them and waits with Zoe in the car while Georgia sees her clients. Some of her regular clients visit her at home, and she sees them in the bedroom while Zoe plays in the living room. “Part of me is like, ‘My daughter is seeing me support us,’ but I’m wondering if she’s seeing too much,” she says.
Protecting kids from “seeing too much,” however, is something that’s easier to do if you’re a middle-class or high-earning sex worker. For many low-income parents, trading sex may mean knowing that their kids will grow up with an awareness of the sex industry. This is simply reality. But what does it mean for the kids?
Syd grew up with a single mother who struggled to support her as a stripper and a professional dominatrix. Syd realized early on that her mother’s profession was stigmatized, and she would lie about it to other kids, but she says it was the shame around it, rather than the sex work itself, that bothered her. “When I was a teenager she started treating me more like a friend. I was intrigued. Not shocked. Maybe embarrassed, like, I can’t believe I just had coffee with my mom before school and she told me about some guy that wanted her to piss in the corner.” At the same time, Syd’s mother struggled with alcoholism, which was made worse by the fact that she had to drink with customers at work. “As I got older, she would come home drunk. It was pretty abusive in a lot of ways, and I don’t think she felt good about her profession.”
Syd is in two minds about whether it’s inherently confusing to grow up with a sex worker as a parent. “I thought my mom looked pretty, like, ‘You’re in that sparkly thing,’ but it does affect you. I’ve clearly done a lot of thinking about it. I’ve come to a place where I can understand why it happened, because of society and inequality, but I’m also in therapy and I have an incredibly screwed up relationship with my mother. But not because of sex work. Because she didn’t make the greatest decisions in general…”
Sexuality educator Cory Silverberg, author of the children’s book What Makes a Baby?, doesn’t think it’s inherently confusing to grow up with a parent who’s a sex worker. “It’s confusing for adults to talk to a kid about sex work, because our associations with sexuality are so complicated, but very young children don’t have those associations yet,” he says. “There’s a way to talk about any kind of sex work to a kid. You might say, ‘Mommy spends time with people and makes them feel good, and they give her money.’ That’s more than enough for any four-year-old.” He makes the point that most parents don’t tell their kids details about their jobs, especially if those details could be confusing or upsetting.
As kids get older, of course it becomes more complicated. But many ten and eleven-year-olds already have an understanding of the sex industry, whether because they’ve picked it up from media or from overhearing adult conversations. Surely it would make sense to help them understand the complexities of the industry, rather than letting them take their cue from song lyrics that glorify pimping and dehumanize sex workers?
So what does it mean to have an honest and age-appropriate dialogue with kids about sex work? Surgeon is a BDSM professional who, along with two other sex workers, co-parents her biological daughter and three other kids in a town in Arizona. “Our kids know at age appropriate levels what we do. For the four and five-year-olds, they know that I give massages to my clients, and that I spend time with them talking about their problems. The teenagers are well old enough to actually know. The process for getting there was something like, they began to understand that mom goes on dates with her clients. And then they began to understand what those dates meant. Questions were asked and answered honestly, in an age appropriate way, all down the line.”
Surgeon says she doesn’t worry at all about her kids’ ability to handle this information. “This is just life, and this is a part of the life that they understand as home from the beginning. I worry a little bit about how they will be integrating how much they tell their friends and their friends’ parents as time goes on, but that has to be taken as it comes.”
In fact, all the sex worker parents I know say their main concern is not how their children will handle the truth, but how the rest of society will handle it. After all, it’s OK for a child to go to school and tell everyone that her dad is a soldier, but if she starts telling people her dad is a prostitute, she could be taken into state care. There are no laws prohibiting sex workers from raising their children, but judges too often buy into the stereotype that sex workers are bad parents.
Sonyka lost custody of her daughter after an eight-year custody battle with her ex, even though the sex work she had done wasn’t illegal — she was a stripper and a nude model. “[My ex] brought out nude magazines and printed out pages of my website to humiliate me in court. In the end they brought in a forensic psychologist. He was asking questions like, ‘Where is the kid when she’s updating her website?’ Even when my kids are sleeping, it’s not OK for me to upload some pictures? In the end I gave up because I felt like the judge was biased and I wasn’t going to have a chance.”
Georgia is trying to get Zoe into preschool this year and she’s wondering if she should make up a cover job, in case Zoe talks to the teacher. “I don’t want to lie to my daughter. I respect her too much. But legally we can have our children taken away for this,” she says. Parents shouldn’t be forced to lie to their kids in order to protect them and keep their families together, but many sex workers don’t have a choice.
In the end, I made a personal decision to continue to be out as a former sex worker. As a white, middle-class cisgender woman who no longer works in the industry, I will be judged less harshly than others. I also can’t envisage it ever coming up in a custody battle. Moreover, reaching out to other parents in the sex worker community has helped me to believe I will be able to help my daughter process the information when she’s older. Unfortunately for millions of sex workers with less privilege than me, telling the truth is just not worth the risk.