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How Sex Work Made Me Value My Body More

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Illustrated by: Anna Sudit
Imagine you’re in a dungeon dressed in thigh-high stockings clipped into lace garters. You’re wearing a tiny black thong under a black leather corset that’s pulled so tight you can barely breathe — but it gives you the perfect hourglass shape. When you catch a glimpse of yourself in the mirror, you think I can’t believe this is my body, and you feel a rush of confidence. You’re not wearing the high heels you walked in with, because there’s a handsome naked man kneeling at the base of your bed, kissing your feet, rubbing them, and telling you that you’re the most beautiful woman he’s ever seen. He addresses you on his knees, and wouldn’t dare do anything to upset you. He has paid you £250 for this privilege. To him, you are a goddess.

Now, imagine you’re at home wearing sweatpants and browsing through Tinder. The introductory messages you’re getting are commands from men: "take off my pants," "give me your number," "let’s fuck," "send me a nude." These men make lewd comments about your breasts and describe the rough sex they’d like to have with you. And if you do decide to meet them, many try to pressure you into sex or ask, "Don’t I at least get a kiss?" These men think they’re entitled to your body, simply because you exist.

You finally meet a somewhat normal guy, and he asks you out to drinks. He’s a lawyer, and you’re not sure you guys have much in common, aside from the fact that you both live in New York and enjoy beverages. This guy will be taking up your time, which is now worth at least £2500 an hour. You won’t be compensated for this time, and you're actually missing out on money by not booking sessions. You know you’ll feel compelled to entertain or please the guy in some way or another, and wonder what will happen when you explain to him what you do for a living. You can already picture his judgmental smirk as he reduces you to a sexual object — if, by some chance, he hadn’t already. At the end of the date, he’ll assess whether or not he wants to see you again as you do the same. But the power dynamic isn’t in your favour, and the boundaries aren’t well-defined.

At least when you’re in the dungeon, you know you have the upper hand, the boundaries are clear, and there’s an understanding that everything is fantasy.

These scenarios aren’t hypothetical for me: I worked as a dominatrix in a New York City dungeon for two years. It’s how I earned a living as I completed my master’s. When I first started domming, I stopped dating. It wasn’t a conscious decision, but I think it was my attempt to protect myself from the crude men I kept meeting on dating apps and reclaim control over my body and I how I perceived it.

But I wasn’t always so attuned to my needs. Growing up, I discovered early on that women tended to receive compliments based on physical attractiveness and niceness, so I formed the belief that my value was dependent on those two attributes. Although I was always shy and uncomfortable with my body, I adhered to the implicit social pressure to dress pretty during the day and sexy at night. By my teens, I was dependent on men’s approval. I was reading countless magazine articles about "how to entice a man" or "how to keep a man," which left me emotionally needy, overly giving, and nice to a fault in my relationships. I’d succumb to the pressure to have sex with guys I was only lukewarm about. I felt that if I listened to my gut and got to know them before hooking up, they’d lose interest. Unsurprisingly, sex left me feeling used and devalued.
Illustrated by: Anna Sudit
Sex work was never on my radar, but when I first heard about working as a dominatrix, it seemed like the ultimate validation, and I wondered if men would consider me attractive enough to pay for the pleasure of being around me. I sent in my photos to a nearby dungeon, and I was immediately called in for an interview and offered a job as a dominatrix. I was definitely flattered about landing the gig, but I also began to think of it as a means to self-discovery. I hated how docile and submissive I had become, especially when it came to my body, and I thought playing the role of a domme might help me actively rework my wiring and my relationship to societal expectations.

For me, entering into the sex industry was a highly personal decision. I hoped it would give me the opportunity to suss out all of my complicated feelings about my body and my relationships with men. And it did, but not in the way I expected. (Contrary to popular assumptions, and just like many women in the industry, my decision to be a sex worker was not fuelled by desperation or victimisation.)

When I started the job, it blew my mind that men were willing to pay hundreds of dollars to be in a room with me. As I watched clients enter the dungeon, their faces bright red with nervousness, I began to understand my power for the first time in my life. These men were willing to do whatever I commanded them; they were so eager to please me and earn my favour. All of them knew that they’d never possess me — and none would ever imagine they’d be able to penetrate me. But of course, I could choose to penetrate them.

I began to learn about the concept of "body capital," a term that describes the assessment of the worth of a body. As a dominatrix, I held the majority of the body capital, since I wouldn’t have sex with my clients, no matter how much they paid me. My power was in my denial and withholding, and that elevated me in that dynamic. And when I later left the dungeon and went independent, I had control over the price they’d pay, and I had the power to adjust the rate if I particularly liked a client. The funny thing is that the majority of my clients, most of whom were good-looking white men, either held high-power jobs in their daily lives or had amassed certain socioeconomic privileges — the cost of coming to the dungeon alone required clients have a mix of disposable income, privacy, and control over their own time. This flipping of the script — from me feeling obligated to please men to me having men at my complete will — dramatically changed my relationship with myself and my body.
In the two years I dommed, I never had a serious relationship or dated much at all. Before, I would talk to men on dating apps and meet them for a drink and maybe kiss or hook up with them. But after domming, I stopped being comfortable participating in the laissez-faire hookup culture, since it didn't feel fulfilling to me. Though I stayed on the apps as a voyeur, my accounts remained inactive and my messages unanswered. The idea of purposely going to meet a man who might expect sex from me seemed unpleasant at best and dangerous at worst. I may have been in a relatively progressive profession, but I became much more conservative in my dating life. By the time I finished my first year of domming, I noticed that I had stopped wearing tight-fitting clothes and instead wore baggier outfits. The last thing I wanted was any sort of sexual attention when I wasn’t working.

At one point, I thought I'd finally made the progress I was waiting for. For the first time in my life, I didn’t sleep with someone unless he made me feel both emotionally and physically safe. Instead of jumping into sex like I did before, I first needed to know that the person was willing to compensate me emotionally; I needed to spend time with him and be courted. I’d unconsciously perform calculations in my head to determine "payment" was received before I’d cede my body capital, even though I wanted to sleep with all of these men. Oddly enough, I found that valuing myself more — by listening to my personal needs — made men value me more, too.

Even still, none of these experiences turned into relationships, because there was always a part of me that wasn’t able to give over my entire self. Looking back, I think I was compensating for how vulnerable sex made me feel, which led to even more mental calculations of value and worth — and caused me to become emotionally unavailable to men. I also think I purposely picked men who were either also emotionally unavailable or somehow incompatible with me (because of an age difference or physical distance). Even though these guys treated me better than the men I had in my life before I knew my "value," I’d keep these interactions one-dimensional. I was too busy trying to keep up with the changes happening internally to allow myself to be vulnerable in the dating world beyond sex.
It took me a long time to realise that relationships aren’t always an even exchange. They demand vulnerability and compromise, not a constant maintenance of power dynamics. But my internal power struggle with men has always directly related to how I treated and regarded my body, and so the evolution of my body image has been inextricable from my relationships with men.

But I soon realised that the newfound value I was finding in myself was still about traditional beauty standards. As I became more connected to my body and its needs, I started to be more conscious of how it felt and how it moved, and I took better care of it — it was now the source of my income, after all. Although this definitely had its benefits, I also became a little too fixated on my physical appearance.

By the end of my two years of domming, I had returned to my old habits, and I noticed I was unconsciously conforming to conventional standards of beauty. I grew out my once-short, unnaturally coloured hair; I became more stringent with my makeup routine; I took birth control pills to make my breasts larger (it’s well-known that larger breasts can allow sex workers to earn more money). And I was even more perceptive of whether others were sexually attracted to me. I started domming because I wanted to better understand my relationship with beauty and attractiveness, but after seeing the power my body held, I ended up internalising these ideals and allowing them to govern me even more — just from a different vantage point.

This all led to an important realisation: Knowing the power my body holds over others is separate from understanding and appreciating its real worth on a deeper level.

I decided to take a break from domming a few months ago so that I could really think about what this realisation means to me, and how I can use what I’ve learned in the past two years to grow as a person. As addictive as being worshipped and desired is, I want to figure out how to love myself without the outside world’s validation. It turns out, two years of being coddled by clients has made my ego even more fragile. The girl I used to be, the one who would freely give herself over to men and who was constantly unsure about her attractiveness, is no more. That insecure, naive person has been replace by a guarded woman who is more sure of her aesthetic value, but dubious of men’s intentions and sensitive to being objectified or praised. When men tell me that I’m beautiful, it’s no longer validating for me — it just makes me wonder what it is they want.

For now, I’ve found some sort of equilibrium. I’m starting to understand that my body is truly worth something, and that no man’s approval or dollar value should be able to change that. Working as a domme has allowed me to see that I alone have control over my worth; it kickstarted a new relationship with my body. I’m still trying to reconcile what this all means, and I know I have a lot more work to do. But at the very least, sex work has empowered me to be selective about who I share my body with. And for the first time in my life, I finally realise that I’m entitled to that.

*The writer's name has been changed to protect her identity.
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