That Awkward Silence
"I'm a sex worker." I said.
My boyfriend's best friend was holding onto his drink as though his life depended on it. His large hands were resting on the table; all of his attention was poured into his glass, where the last few dregs of ale were soaking up the afternoon sun. I could feel the warm wood of the tabletop under my own elbows. It was a Thursday afternoon and the pub I had chosen was deserted, save for one disinterested barman. Nobody had come to take our empties for quite some time.
We were there because we didn't have to be at work - just two lucky folk without the demands of a day job. In the friend's case, it was because he was visiting from interstate. In my case, it's because I'm an escort. Until a moment earlier, he hadn't known. Now we were sitting in silence as he digested this information.
Earlier that day, I'd had an argument with my partner about it.
"You tell him." He had said, as he left for work that morning.
"You haven't mentioned it already? He's YOUR best mate." I had said. I'd tried to keep my voice down, aware that the subject of our conversation was asleep in the spare room of our apartment.
My partner had waved his hand in some sort of exasperated gesture. It meant: 'you've missed the point', or 'it's too hard', or 'can't you see I'm in a hurry?' I wasn't sure which. I was also uncertain as to whether his haste was the result of an unplanned sleep-in, or the avoidance of this particular argument. It's not exactly a common problem: how should he tell his best friend that he's dating an escort? I almost felt sorry for him.
The friend in question had arrived late from Tullamarine the night before. Since my partner had to be at work during the week, it fell to me to entertain our guest until the weekend. We knew barely anything about each other; it was the first time we had met.
"And don't wear that dress." My partner had said. He was referring to the rockabilly frock that I had salvaged from the top of my laundry pile that morning. "It's WAY too stereotypical."
God forbid I should come out as a hooker while also wearing leopard print.
The phrase 'coming out' can mean a lot of things, these days. It can mean declaring one's lack of heterosexuality (I've done that) or one's penchant for leather and wrist restraints (yes, I have had that conversation too.) For sex workers, the 'coming out' discussion is fraught ... it's a discussion we often choose to avoid entirely. Sex work is one of those professions that has a lot of misconceptions attached. Movies, television and the newspaper all tell us that sex work is 'dodgy.' Even in this modern age, the idea that a woman might have sex with a lot of people makes regular folk suspicious. This means that when I come out to people I'm usually subjected to all sorts of inappropriate responses, from blank incomprehension to outright disgust. This comes not just from strangers, but sometimes from partners and friends and family. Sometimes there's outright shaming and criticism, but often it's more subtle: avoidance, strange questions and behind-the-back gossip.
So why do I 'come out' at all? As a shy, introverted sort of person, I don't enjoy 'small talk'. I prefer to skip to more interesting topics of conversation - personal stuff that really helps me get to know someone. This is one of the reasons I have such deep and enduring relationships, with both my friends and my clients.
One thing my friends and family don't realise about my job is that it mostly isn't about sex. A lot of my time at work is spent doing emotional labour: performing the task of helping someone feel comfortable with themselves and the situation. In a perfect encounter, my client will feel supported and accepted, feel confident in sharing their sexual desires, and form a connection with me that makes sex truly pleasurable. Without the emotional work, we would just be two strangers standing awkwardly in a hotel room. This is why I love my job - I really enjoy guiding people through the experience, especially if they are shy or nervous.
But that afternoon, I couldn't help feeling a bit resentful. The guy sitting in front of me wasn't a paying client, and the job of having this difficult conversation had been thrust upon me. I had known it was going to happen soon. We had managed to cover all the most obvious topics of conversation, and I could feel the next question coming with all the inevitability of my boyfriend slamming the front door.
"What do you do for a living?" My boyfriend's best friend finally said.
"I'm a sex worker." I answered.
His reply was a blank stare and a long, painful silence. As the silence stretched even further than I would have thought possible, I could almost hear the panicked gears of his brain turning beneath his blank facial expression. Something like: "Shit, she said she's a sex worker! What the fuck is that? Did she mean hooker? ... You loser, act like it's not a big deal. Am I doing some weird expression with my face? Has she fucked, like, a thousand guys? Is it horrible? She was smiling a second ago but she's not smiling anymore, does that mean it's bad? Or is that just because I look stupid? How can I get out of here?"
Mentioning sex work can kill a friendly conversation. Some folks get so choked up around the awkwardness that their minds grind to a halt, and nothing interesting comes out of their mouths.
There's only one way to stop the 'brain freeze', and that is to be honest and name your emotions. I know, I know, we all want to look like we're worldly and that nothing can shock us. This is why some of my friends try too hard: "Oh, I know TONS of escorts." Saying this, they feel,will demonstrate to me that they are perfectly comfortable. Except, of course, it's my job to discern people's emotions, and I can clearly see that they are still in a state of panic. I want to shake them, and shout, "Just be honest! I'm not going to think you're a bad person just because you don't know much about sex work!"
Which brings us back to that pub on a Thursday afternoon. My new friend sat there across the table from me with his mouth slightly open, like a fish. To my credit, I didn't shake him. I sat there, and let the silence stretch out until it became conspicuous. Finally, I took charge. (That's my area of expertise after all - doing the emotional work when someone else has gotten stuck.)
"Look, I know it's awkward." I said. "Nobody likes hearing about someone else's sex life, especially if it's your best mate's girlfriend's sex life. But the fact is that it's just a job. It's neither as exciting, nor as dodgy, as you might imagine. I don't expect you to be totally cool. If you don't know what to say, that's okay. And if you want to ask questions, I'm happy to answer them."
"Even if they're dumb questions?" he looked at me, finally. His expression was deeply troubled.
"Sure" I said. "I don't expect you to know if something is a dumb question. So just ask and I promise I won't get mad at you."
He smiled at me, relieved, and put his glass down on the table. I smiled back. Somehow, in that moment I knew that everything was going to be okay.
Then he took a deep breath and opened his mouth.
"Do you have a pimp?" he said.