Sex Work, the “Girlfriend Experience” and the Labors of Feminine Beauty

During the final year of my undergraduate degree, in a small, rural city in the south of England, I was supplementing my fragile self esteem with an over-the-counter laxative habit. I told people around me that my newly svelte frame came courtesy of my giving up alcohol (a fair-weather friend) and adopting a Japanese “eating culture.” Such typical, urban pretensions.

I had never been overweight (at this point); I had mostly been on the curvy side of slim, but due to the high levels of scrutiny being placed upon my body, those curves bloated out in my mind’s eye to become a vast, fettered landscape. My body became known to me as a problem, not a simple fact. When the scrutiny, and the sense of self-consciousness that came with it, became too much, I decided to do something about myself. Of course, I didn’t plan for laxative abuse to become a fixture of my daily life, but after a bottle one evening, the false sense that I was somehow cleansing myself, doing away with my gastronomical sins, was powerful. Philosopher Julia Kristeva might have called it “the casting off of the abject.” Or something to that effect.

Why was I under so much scrutiny? Well yes, because I was a young woman in an objectifying culture, but also because I was a prostitute. Being so, I encountered daily, direct audits of my appearance. Punters—also known as johns—were sometimes affirming and other times undermining my sense of self. I was told from the outset, by a wiser hooker than I, not to take a client’s affirmation seriously; soon I’d have to take their rejections and their criticisms, too. Best to be above it, like a floating yogi.

Indeed, everyone I worked with was pretending not to care. But everybody did care. Even that wise hooker probably did. How could you not? What with being human and all. What with living in a world that tells you that your worth is tied up in your appearance and your physical configurations. In the sex business—where your appearance is fundamental—you’d have to be the Dalai Lama to rise above it.

It wasn’t always so intense. When I first started out in brothels, we were subjected to the dreaded lineup: Several of us would slump about in the girl’s lounge until the bell rang, then we would have to line up in the lobby whilst the punter perused our bodies and decided which prize goose he would take with him to a room. Most times, he’d pick someone, but other times he would just cynically squirm his features, shake his head and inform the Madame that none of us would do. It left a low hissing atmosphere in the room, a sense of angst not well disguised. As an American punter in Costa Rica describes in “Affective Sex: Beauty, Race and Nation in the Sex Industry” by Megan Rivers-Moore, “There is no greater pleasure for a man than to sit in a chair and say ‘I’ll take that one.’”

The brothel culture later began to deteriorate with the increasing democratization of the Internet, which many women used to advertise their services independently. I began to do this too, cocooning myself in a fairly mediocre apartment and becoming Stalinesque in my discipline to work. I, like my friends in the business, saw this as a liberation, an emancipation from the demeaning rituals of the brothel world. We didn’t have to submit to lineups, the punters made their choices digitally. But the feeling was short-lived.

Before, the sense of lineup humiliation was tempered by the fact that none of us believed we were offering the punters anything more than straight sex. We had bodies that they wished to utilize, we got them out of the room as quickly as possible, and there was no delusion being sold that it was anything more than that.

However, the changing culture saw the increasing demand for “the girlfriend” or the “porn star” experience. Punters had become clients, with greater demands than simple sexual relief. The culture of the glamorized “girlfriend experience”—where a sex worker performs romantic intimacy—is meant to be our empowerment, but it is our new bind. Not only do we have to offer sexual activity, but we had to make it look good, too.

The higher demands on our labor were met with other forms of scrutiny. Online reviews on the directories where we published our advertisements had features where punters could give us marks out of 10 for our appearance and behavior. Punter messaging boards were the most scathing, posting our photographs and deliberating on how well our bodies fit with their expectations. It was hard to look away. We were not just selling something material—sex—but something ephemeral: transitory emotional gratification. As Rivers-Moore argues, “Embracing beauty as a key form of affective labor allows sex workers to present a vision of successful womanhood.”

It was no wonder that I focused more strictly on my appearance in the digital age; whereas before I felt the punter should just be grateful that he got whatever was given, now I felt that I had to prove myself in some fashion. I convinced myself that this was to my benefit, that I could take pride in the construction of myself to suit fickle male desire.

But as I got thinner, I became more stressed, isolated and uncertain of myself. Now I look back at my much thinner body and I am shocked to remember that, even then, I thought I was fat. And I wasn’t alone. Around me, friends in the sex business were obsessing about their appearance, too. Starving themselves, using laxatives, taking class A drugs to decrease appetite, binging and purging, a never-ending litany of dramatic diets. It was par for the course.

We all know that to be a woman these days is to suffer an inordinate amount of pressure to not only be subjectively attractive, but to perform all manner of pleasing emotional labors for others. In the sex business, we are at the coalface of that, and the pressure is not abstract, it is direct.

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Photo courtesy of Flickr user Thibaud Saintin licensed under Creative Commons 2.0




Rae Story is a former sex worker and sex industry critical feminist, currently residing in the U.K. She is the author of both academic and journalistic writings on sex industry culture, and is broadly critical of the move towards the industrialization of prostitution. You can follow her @raycstory on Twitter or humor her musings further at