how to talk about past jobs as a former sex worker — Ask a Manager

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A reader writes:

For nearly two years I’ve been a self-employed independent sex worker (mostly an escort, but I’ve also sold photos and videos and done some cam work). I’m registered self-employed in the UK, have an accountant who knows exactly what I do, and pay my taxes, and I chose this line of work because I genuinely love it so I would appreciate readers not criticizing my career choice.

However, due to the pandemic I’ve lost pretty much all my escort work, which was the bulk of my income. I’ve scraped by, largely with the support of family and friends, but things will remain tough until it’s safe to meet with clients again. To that end, I found a flexible temporary job that lasts until the end of April which will give me a bit of guaranteed income and also something to structure my days around. Lockdown has been beyond awful for my mental health and I’m struggling to do much more than curl up in bed cuddling my cats most days, so I’m really looking forward to a change, even if it’s not in a field I’d want to stay in.

My question is if you have any advice for fielding questions from future management or coworkers about what I usually do. For context, to the government I’m an “artist and entertainer” (not a lie, art is my first love and the reason I enjoy my usual job so much is that I have the time and flexibility to work on creative projects, and I certainly entertain people), and to family … well, my sibling knows what I do but they’re cool and a similarly queer arty individual, my dad and I have an unspoken “don’t ask don’t tell” thing going on where I only discuss the specifics of being self-employed (taxes, etc., as he’s been self-employed for over 20 years) but not how I actually earn money, and the rest of the family I give obscure answers about “modeling and performing” and try to change the subject very quickly.

Obviously I can probably use the same tactic I use for extended family for the short period of time I’m employed in this part-time job, but there will come a time when I want to make a permanent career change (not likely for a few years, because again I enjoy my job and it works perfectly for my artist/cat mum lifestyle) and I’m gonna have to start including my period of self-employment on my CV and it’s not unreasonable that I’ll get questions about what I did. Sex work is work, I believe that very firmly, but there’s a huge stigma still and if possible I’d like to avoid being judged for my consensual career choice at this point in my life.

Agggh, I really want to have good answers to this and I don’t, and it makes me angry that I don’t. The stigma around sex work is harmful and misogynistic.

However! I did an “ask the readers” post a few years ago on a similar question, and here’s some of the best advice from readers’ suggestions then. (Some of this is targeted to interviews specifically, but much of it works for non-interview conversations as well.)

• “I would suggest keeping some freelance work as a side gig. Diversifying isn’t a bad way to go for financial security anyways — there is always ebb and flow with self-employment (whatever kind of work), and it’s useful to have a fallback if your main gig is more ebbing than flowing for a period of time. That way, your marketing and other cross-over skills can also fit under your “mainstream” freelance work on your resume, and you have work you can talk about in an interview. It can be very minimal, just a few hours a month, but that’s not something you need to explain on your resume or in an interview, and it will fill that space on your resume so you don’t have an apparent employment gap.”

• “Freelance consultant or something similar would be a good example. It even opens up possibilities for talking (in generalities) about managing accounting, invoices, client conflict, etc.”

 “Maybe a personal trainer? That wording is pretty close to the truth. You don’t have to specify WHAT you’re training people to do. I’ve been a fitness professional on the side of my full-time job for many years, but I teach fitness classes (Zumba, cycle, sculpt, etc.). Personal trainers do plenty of in-home and in-studio work on mental and physical fitness, injury rehabilitation, conditioning, event preparation (like marathons and triathlons), work with special populations, and so forth. With the right wording, it could fit.”

 “Saying you were an actress could also work, and it’s probably fairly accurate. Unless you’re applying for anything in the actual entertainment, they probably won’t care enough to ask about specific roles.”

 On the question of what to say if you say you were an actor and someone asks what if they might have seen you in anything: “That’s easy enough to answer, though: live performances, mostly fringe/small-time work, so probably not. If you’re a good enough liar, you could even give specifics like ‘character actor in the local ren faire,’ ‘experimental theater,’ ‘performance art pieces,’ and so on.”

 “A freelance / self-employed ‘virtual assistant’ or PA, who worked for a variety of clients. (As an example, I’m a trainer, and there are some organizations in the UK that I work for and I cannot talk about what they do because it’s subject to the Official Secrets Act or because they deal with confidential / personal information about, say, children in care.)”

 “Since you’ll be doing advertising, bookkeeping, and such like that anyway, I might make a side gig where you do that stuff but maybe for other small businesses (I’ve been told self-employed tradespeople would appreciate that service) such that you have another income stream and also a more socially acceptable line of work to refer to. I freelanced copywriting at night while my kids were small and I spent the day raising them. I’m pretty confident not having that gap helped me.”

 “What about party or event planner? You are providing a venue and managing an event at the bequest of clients. If people ask what types of events say spa/ corporate; or whatever best describes your clientele. If you don’t want to discuss the ‘parties’ themselves, just say your partner was the host (or your alter ego) and you did more of the book keeping and business side.”

 “I can’t say how totally useful this is, because it’s more ‘a woman I’ve worked with tried this’ and not really close-hand experience, but what she did is set up her own company with a non-sex work sounding name, ie. Darkroom Entertainment or Yourname Private Entertaining. Then when she would discuss it she could talk about advertising, project management, creating fulfilling experiences for her clients in the arena of ‘private parties and entertainment’ as opposed to ‘sex work.’

According to her, while some people did balk if they figured out what she meant by ‘party’ and it may have cost her an opportunity or two, overall most people were fine with it. Basically as long as she gave people a vocabulary that didn’t explicitly talk about it as sex work they really didn’t care what kind of entertainment she had worked in.”

 “It would not be a red flag for someone to say that they took time off from the working world to focus on their family and they are now ready to return. And then elaborate on what aspects of the position you are looking forward to returning to. … I would assume your time was consumed with family (aging parent, children, disabled spouse etc).”

 “So, okay. I do a little sex work. And I have friends who do more of it, some of whom I’ve given professional advice to (I’m in accounting).

Personally, I do it as a part-time side gig (although it’s as lucrative as my day job). I run my main career separately. So for future employers there is no knowledge. That’s one approach.

Another approach is taking an entry level or easy to enter job when you’re transitioning out. A friend who did this as her job for years took a bartending job when she was starting to plan her exit.

Another approach is being completely up front about it. A friend who has been in a lot of porn and worked as an escort took this route when she was trying to transition into social media marketing. Boy did she have the skills and experience for it. She lives on the west coast where this type of thing is more accepted and she did eventually land a good job. But it took years.

Last approach would be to slightly conceal the type of business it is, with something slightly more mainstream. Sex therapist? I have a friend now who is a professional cuddler, no sex. Odd but gaining popularity, and something he’s able to post about openly on social media, etc.”

 “There are many organizations who either a) accepting or b) specifically look for people with this kind of experience. Most cities have sex worker advocacy organizations, sexual and reproductive health (SRH) centers and organizations, related research institutions that need or benefit from having people with the direct experience in their teams.”

 “In San Fransisco there’s an absolute ton of personal/professional services that advertise themselves as kink-friendly; therapists, lawyers, advertising, accounting, that kind of thing, just jobs where a client might want someone sensitive to kink-related concerns. If you’re going into a job like that and you know the scene is sufficiently large in your area, it could even be an asset? But that really only works in the, like, kink-hub cities of the world, of which I can only think of SF and maybe Berlin off the top of my head. It would probably work in LA or NYC? My practical knowledge base is limited but I imagine OP would know if that would work in her area.”

 “I always always kept a ‘real’ job, even just on weekends, when I was an exotic dancer, so that you leave no employment gap and so that you have a job to talk about. The best ones are the not ‘professional’ jobs but still actual jobs with employers, etc. For example, I would bartend or serve or cocktail. Those are jobs where it would explain not being full-time, only working shifts when you needed to, you can tell them you made whatever amount (I would say I made enough to support myself by working 2-3 days a week, because it’s believable, although I made much much more). It’s also one where a) you can get close enough with employers that they’ll keep your cover if they know or b) people aren’t going to do much checking up on the amount of money you made or goes you worked because it’s well known most of those types of employers don’t track that. The biggest thing is if you get a job at one of these places, don’t tell anyone where it is if they’re the type that will try to come ‘visit’ or snoop, in case you’re not there. But it’s always worked for me. For periods I didn’t do that, I had to make up self employment that I could reasonably pass as something that doesn’t require special skills or references: babysitting or nannying for family, dog walking for friends, house cleaning, etc.”

• “I have a friend who moved from pro domming into work as a real estate agent (home sales). It seemed to be actually good transition for her. There are a bunch of transferable skills from sex work – real estate agents often need to be able to intuit people’s unstated desires, or figure out exactly what they do or don’t like about a house when they can’t really articulate it. They need to get clients to be realistic, and figure out how to get from the fantasy version to one that’s available and affordable. Realtors work directly with clients, so they have to develop a rapport, and build their client base with word of mouth and referrals.

My friend (and yes, it really was a friend) was able to study for the test by day, and start her business off with clients and friends from the kink community. The by-appointment nature of the real estate agent hours would probably make for a relatively easy transition or overlap. And being mostly self-employed avoided the interview questions and resume gap concerns.”

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