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Meet a sex worker: How sex work actually works

Sex work is Sadie Lune's dream job. She enjoys her work and wants to break down the stereotypes of the controversial trade. With more than a decade of experiences she shares her insights - from psychology to business.

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According to a report by the French fondation Scelles, about 32 million women in the world work as prostitutes.

Back when Sadie Lune was still in high school, she drew a picture showing what she wanted to be when she grew up. She still has that faded image, drawn in pencil, showing her and her best friends in a velvety brothel called Chez Cecile.

"I don't think it's super frequent to be fantasizing about that as a profession when you're an adolescent," she says now. "But I'm not the only person thinking about this in the realm of fantasy as something very appealing."

Sadie decided to talk to Life Links, in part, because she wants to change the stigma around the world's oldest profession. She's not saying sex work is just like any other job, just she hopes it can be seen as a unique job that is a valued part of society. And she wants people to know that she's happy with her chosen profession.

"You don't have to understand it, you just have to believe me when I say it's true for me."

Stripping: the gateway drug

Sadie started doing sex work when she was 19 years old - she did not want to give her current age because it's a tricky topic in sex work. Many lie about their age so many in the business simply add years to an age to get to the expected reality.

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Sadie Lune works in the United States, Netherlands and Germany. [Photo by Alexa Vachon]

She had been thinking about it for years but diving straight into prostitution seemed too extreme and she feared doing something illegal. But there was a serious pull towards sexuality outside the status quo.

"I had a lot of sexual curiosity and a lot of curiosity in general," she says. "I felt like an outsider growing up, so things on the fringe felt like a place I belonged. I had a straightforward curiosity about sex that wasn't necessarily connected to the romantic idea of what people expect of girls at that age. And I can say a lot of my peers were the same."

So when she met a friend of a friend who was a stripper, she jumped at the chance to do that kind of work herself. Later, she moved into other parts of the business, from being an escort to acting in porn and working as a dominatrix.

"There was not a velvet couch to speak of," she says. "I was really bummed at the style of outfits and venues that the late 90s and early 2000s offered."

Eventually, she discovered more of the work aesthetic she wanted - those red velvet couches and fun dress-up opportunities - as well as the sisterhood that she hoped to find with other sex workers.

Breaking sex worker stereotypes

Sadie doesn't fit any of the classic stereotypes about sex workers. She was raised in an upper-middle-class family in America. When she started working as a stripper, she told her parents.

"My dad is more of the let's-not-talk-about-it type. I'm not sure what his idea of my work is but he knows that I am a sex worker."

She's also a mother. Although Sadie said she prefers not to speak about her young daughter and other personal relationships, she is open and public about her profession as a political choice. She wants to be a face for sex workers rights. But that openness has been a long process with her family. At first, she said her mom was upset and scared. Later that developed into comfort, then acceptance and finally respect.

"I'm amazingly lucky in that way. We got that far because it is part of my identity. This is what I've been doing my whole adult life to support myself."

It took a lot of time and communication to get there. But it's not just a conversation she has had with her mother. She has explained the basics of why she chose her profession to many, many people.

"There is a certain personality type that is most often able to have long, positive relationship with this type of work," she says. "I don't think it's for everybody, but what is?"

She found that she was apt to question many societal structures around sex. She enjoyed playing with costumes and with characters, trying out different ways of being in the world. She also found she enjoys giving and receiving attention.

"Part of it is about having a more straightforward and experimental approach to sex. The willingness to experiment is greater than the compulsion to stay within the rules. That was true for me before I ever had sex."

The emotional side: Separating sex and feelings

As she got into the business, she also found that she was able to have sex and put that moment in a box, to be kept largely separate from a relationship or other intimacy.

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It's a common stereotype that links sex workers being forced into their profession or trafficked. However, the scope of the problem difficult to evaluate in numbers. For example, US estimates of cross-border trafficking involving commercial sex vary between about 40 and 60 percent.

Sometimes that means she enjoys the sex in a session and sometimes that means she endures it. Just as someone in a relationship for 20 years might endure a night of sex with a partner to make them happy, she sometimes endures something unpleasant for a client.

But the sessions are not about her pleasure, they are about the pleasure of the client. In her terms, it's called "running the f***." So it's not about losing herself in it or searching for love but about finding a connection that turns the other person on.

"Have you ever had a one night stand that was really tender?" she asks. "I have an ability to professionalize those feelings. There is fondness and sensitivity that don't go further than that. I enjoy the multiplicity of different kinds of connections."

She says she has also set boundaries as she discovered her own areas of comfort and how she could keep some things for herself. For example, some sex workers will not kiss clients. But Sadie is happy to make out with a client and finds it enjoyable. She will rarely, however, perform anal sex on a client with a dildo. She also draws a strict line when it comes to safety and won't do any kind of oral or penetrative sex without protection.

"I think, on a basic level, I like helping people feel good," Sadie explains. "I like having the chance to help people defuse shame, which often has the added benefit that it helps work with me to defuse my own shame. I like being able to get a survey of the emotional and intellectual differences of what brings people pleasure and what people are into. Sometimes it teaches me things and sometimes it's like, whoa, that is fascinating that it does that for you."

Ready for business

When getting ready for a sex work session, Sadie says she does a number of things to help her get into the most effective persona. She takes a shower and brushes her teeth, although she says brushing teeth is not recommended by some experts because it can cause small tears in the gums that could be more receptive to sexually-transmitted diseases.

She wears perfume, which also isn't standard because people who are in relationships might not want to come home with a foreign scent. And of course, she tries to look the part.

"When I haven't done my nails,that's something that makes me feel like a bad hooker," she says.

Today, her business mostly involves outcalls, meaning she goes to a client in a hotel or at their home. Much of it is like any other small business; she puts an ad online, manages contact with regular clients and keeps track of the finances. More than anything, she says, the advertising is crucial for getting clients that will be satisfied with what she has to offer.

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Sex workers earn less now than their predecessors in 1911. Street prostitutes typically earned the equivalent of $25,000 in 1911 compared with $18,000 in 2007. High end escorts, meanwhile, earned $430,000 compared with $200,000.

When Sadie was breastfeeding, she offered lactation for those turned on by mother's milk and said she charged higher rates at that time, starting at €300 per hour and going up to €900 for a four-hour dinner date.

"Personality and conversational style is a lot of the appeal of coming to me, as opposed to coming to me for a quick f*** just because I have the best ass, because I don't have the best ass."

When going to meet clients, she takes along what she calls a "Ho-bag", filled with the tricks of the trade. Inside are high-heels, rope for bondage, a flogger for beating clients, dildos for ass-play in a few different sizes, needles for pleasurable pain, clothes pins to be used as nipple or genital clamps, condoms and other safety measures, a blindfold, a harness and a large vibrator.

So what's all that for?

"A lot of sex work is about trying to fit into or work around archetypes and stereotypes," Sadie explains. "I will be playful and fun but I will also hurt you if you want that."

Demystifying sex work

Many stories about prostitution seem to fall into two molds - the high-class escort providing the girlfriend experience or the low-class, poor, abused street walker. But Sadie doesn't fit either of those stereotypes and that's part of why she was open to telling her story. She wants to demystify her profession.

Part of that is because she sees the difficulties of the work environment being about legality and stigma, rather than about sex. "I am not a sex worker because I want to act like someone who works in an office. But I do want to have the same rights."

Here's what Sadie is working towards: stopping dehumanizing jokes about the profession, creating legal protections that extend to health care and other rights and setting a conceptual break between sex work and human trafficking.

"These are two different things," she says. "Trafficking of anyone for any kind of labor is abhorrent and disgusting. The more sexwork is decriminalized, the more of an ability we have to report trafficking if we see it."

She also wants people to understand that sex workers have knowledge of best practices for safety with regards to sexually-transmitted diseases and safety than most people. Further, she said sex workers have a valuable skill set around communication, shame-busting, emotional intimacy, sexual possibility and technique.

"If it helps understand and humanize us as workers, then I want to talk about it," she says. "I understand that people are curious about sex work because sex work is f-ing fascinating."