Working Girl: Sometimes We’re Caught between Exploitation and Empowerment

Just a Regular Working Girl: Moralistic Values Gleaned from My Time in Chicago’s Seedy Underworld

Moral 55: Sometimes We’re Caught between Exploitation and Empowerment


Image by gaelx at Flickr Common

Image by gaelx at Flickr Common

My boss Caroline claimed that being a sex worker was empowering.

“Here’s how it is,” she said, as we walked down the street toward her latest real estate purchase. “Women are sex objects. Always have been, always will be. Women are sexy, and men are visual, and since men have more power in society, there’s nothing to stop them from making women into sex objects. Most of them don’t even know when they’re doing it, so it’ll never stop.”

I had to agree with that part. I’d lost count of how many times I’d felt invisible, voiceless and powerless while some guy imagined he was complimenting me with his gaze or suggestive comments. It was like my discomfort was irrelevant and immature.

And some guys honestly do believe they’re complimenting women. But . . .


Moral 53: There’s a difference between liking women, and liking to have sex with them.


I didn’t like the idea that women being treated as sex objects was somehow an unavoidable part of society. I didn’t feel I had enough experience to offer a valid opposing opinion, though.

Caroline continued. “Men can’t help themselves. They always want sex. So really, it’s me exploiting them. I’m the one who gets their money.”

Huh. I’d never thought about it that way.

I wondered whether Caroline really believed it deep down, or if it was just what she told herself. I suspected the latter. As her assistant, I spent more time with her than almost anyone else, and her actions and behaviors spoke on levels her words could never touch. She took extreme measures to prevent herself from being exploited or taken advantage of, and even so, she often wound up furious, crying, and even violent because of the way she felt she’d been treated.

I’d seen her physically attack a client who rejected her. I’d seen her swallow a small handful of unidentifiable pills after a session with a rough client. I’d seen her meticulously plan to extort a client who she felt had received more than he paid for. She’d once told me to follow a girl she thought had stolen money from her. She constantly tried to rip of retail stores, because she felt she’d worked hard for her money and stores overpriced their goods. (Was one Fendi handbag really worth four sessions of letting random guys f—- her?)

Was her behavior exploitative? Yes. But it came of feeling like she had to protect herself from exploitation.

When it came to actually selling sex, here’s what I think now: Caroline was definitely into exploitation. But she wasn’t exploiting men. What she was exploiting was society’s tendency to objectify women. She was cashing in on women’s status as sex objects. (Yay Capitalism!)

Was the ability to exploit people empowering for Caroline? She thought so. She saw the world as a cruel place, or at least an uncaring one; one in which people used, abused, and ripped each other off. In order to get ahead, she had to be better at that game than everyone else. So she felt empowered when she did that.


Moral 54: Everything depends on context and culture. There’s nothing inherently wrong with sex work. But there is nothing inherently empowering about it, either.


And in our culture, I’d say that 99% of the time, sex work does not empower women. Because to my mind, part of being empowered means being respected. Our culture doesn’t respect sex, and it certainly doesn’t respect sex workers.

Caroline also felt empowered by having lots of stuff. Like the gutted high-rise apartment she took me to that day. It was her new real estate property. She was going to renovate and resell it.

“Just think of where I would be if I wasn’t an escort,” she said. “I wouldn’t have any of this. I make better money than any woman in the corporate world. I grew up poor, and early on I swore to myself that I would have a job that made money, and lots of it. Even if I had stuck with show business,” (she’d wanted to be a talk show host when she was young) “I’d still have had to spread my legs to make real money. You’ll probably have to, too, if you really wanna be a successful writer. So being an escort is the next best option for making a lot of cash. And look at this place! You can’t tell me it doesn’t pay off.”


Moral 55: Independent sex workers live between exploitation and empowerment. Of the ones I met, their feelings of power or lack thereof varied from day to day.


The apartment was probably on one of the highest residential floors in Chicago. The view from the windows–which spanned the entire west wall–was of the entire city, including the sunset and Lake Michigan in the distance.

It was a beautiful view, but I grew up in Kentucky. I was more a country girl myself. I found some cityscapes beautiful–especially at night, with all the lights blazing–but most often, I just found them dirty, industrial, and colorless. I’d been in Chicago almost four years, and I was more unhappy than I’d ever have admitted. That’s the downside of a talent for optimism. You can find beauty anywhere and convince yourself you’re okay, when you’re not.


Moral 56: When it comes to what’s true, we can convince ourselves of anything.

L. Marrick is a historical fantasy writer and freelance copywriter. She waxes poetic about swords and the Renaissance Faire at her author blog. She looks all professional-like at her copywriting site. She eats too much chocolate and still doesn’t believe downward dog is supposed to be a restful yoga pose. You can connect with her at either of her websites, and follow her on Twitter @LMarrick.

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