The industry of secrets

No matter how hard we try to educate ourselves, view things from a different perspective, and challenge what we’ve been taught our whole lives, it’s difficult to not stereotype- especially with something as taboo as sex work. I’ve always considered myself someone who has a relatively open mind, and yet when my professor told us we’d be having a presentation from a sex worker in our next class, I still found myself immediately wondering what she’d look like, what she’d be wearing, and if her stories were going to feel dirty, sexy, or both. I chose to take a core class titled “Prostitution and the sex trade in Europe,” and my classmates and I have all recognized that we’re likely a little more open minded about the subject than others may be, but many of them admitted to having similar thoughts, too. 

We entered our classroom as if it was any other day- the typical harsh artificial lighting and scattered plastic chairs, with the added scent of freshly brewed coffee and pastries from a bakery nearby that our professor brought in to continue our core course week festivities. We all mingled as usual until the sex worker came in ready to share her story.

The woman, who looked like she was in her mid thirties, was dressed in a nice pink shirt and slacks, had her hair pulled back in a ponytail, and wore glasses. Truthfully, she looked just like any other DIS professor. We talk so often in class about sex workers being just like any other person, but this is the first time we really were able to meet someone who had had sex for money right here in Denmark.

She began her story by telling us about a boyfriend she’d had around ten years before who wanted an open relationship. This was very clearly not for her, but she went along with it because she was in love.

“It was a very hard way of living,” she said. 

As she continued with this way of life she wasn’t entirely comfortable participating in, she grew more and more fascinated with the sex working industry, describing it as a ‘fantasy’ of hers. 

“It wasn’t because I was horny, it was because I so badly wanted to know what was happening behind that door,” she said.

After discussing it with her brother and boyfriend, she decided to try it out.

To her, escorting was the most attractive form of sex work. It seemed more glamorous- and she admitted this was entirely based on the stereotype surrounding escorts versus a brothel or people on streets. It felt like the classy form of sex work, with an agency backing and drivers.

She stopped for a minute, looked down for a moment, looked back up at all of us and said with a sigh, “working as an escort is the dirtiest, filthiest job I’ve had, and I cannot recommend it at all.”

It was around this point that I noticed my peers were not acting as they normally do in a regular class. There was no checking of phones, looking up unrelated things on laptops, or staring at nothing in the distance. Everyone was completely focused on taking in the story of the woman before us. I’m honestly not sure if I’ve ever seen a class pay attention so well. She told her story so eloquently, it was so hard to not get pulled in. 

The agency she worked for didn’t have any sort of background checking system for their employees or their clients. She said oftentimes the drivers that she previously had thought was so glamorous would show up to drive her to the clients’ location high, and although they were there to offer ‘protection’ while she went into these men’s homes, she knew they would never come save her if she needed it. Although sex work is legal in Denmark, they would have to commit other crimes like breaking and entering and property damage in order to intervene, and this isn’t something the escort service ever wanted to deal with. Additionally, the service would take half of her 1800 DKK earnings- meaning putting her safety at risk and having sex in these unfamiliar homes and hotels was only worth around the equivalent of 140 USD. 

She talked to some other people in the industry about what she should do, and mentioned how much she cringed when someone suggested working in a brothel instead.

“I didn’t want to work in a brothel, because that would make me a real prostitute,” she said.

Nonetheless, she decided to prioritize her safety and began working at a brothel.

“I was already old ten years ago compared to the other girls. [They] had fake everything basically, it was like they were living in a fake skin,” she said. “I felt so sad for them because they were so young, and I’m not sure they really knew what they were doing. And of course, they instantly hated and loved me basically because I was confident and comfortable in my ways. They envied me, because I didn’t need to work in the industry.” 

The class at this time was almost silent- with nothing but the sound of scribbling pencils and the sound of rapid typing on keyboards to try to remember everything we were being told. No one wanted to miss a word of the secrets it felt like we were all getting let in on.

She went on to describe how the brothel worked: there were two twelve hour shifts in a day, with two girls working during each shift. It was around a thousand DKK for an hour with one of the sex workers, and the sex workers had to pay 700 DKK a day to the brothel for ‘rent’, 200 DKK to the woman that worked at the front desk answering phones, changing bed sheets, talking the girls up to potential clients, and ensuring that they were doing okay. Generally, she would get four or five clients, meaning the twelve hour shift would end with 3000-4000 DKK in earnings. 

“It’s like men are buying an illusion and I sometimes wanted to ask them, ‘so you really think I’m enjoying this?’” she said with a laugh. “Of course they don’t. But they like the illusion of believing it. And that’s what they pay for.”

Sex work, although an easy form of money, didn’t offer the emotional fulfillment she really longed for. 

“I had plenty of orgasms while being a sex worker. I don’t really care about orgasms, though,” she said. “I just wanted to be touched by the heart. Sexual pleasure comes easily to me and it was pretty easy to pretend I was enjoying it even if I wasn’t.”

So why did she keep going? She had a different job, a boyfriend and children at home, why did she keep going on with this unfulfilling lifestyle? She posed these questions to the class, and stopped for a minute. There was complete silence in the room as we all anticipated what she was going to say next.

She leaned forward a bit, and said slowly, softly, and with great intensity, “there is no more wonderful feeling than doing something so secretly that you can’t even tell your best friends. I lived a pretty ordinary life, and in the nights, I turned into a slutty girl with dirty underwear living out my dirtiest fantasies. Isn’t that wonderful?”

At the time, her mom and kids thought she was doing yoga on the days she was working. Although she ended up telling her mom, she never really talked to her about it. Despite the exhilarating thrill she got from living a secret life, there was still an incredible and awful stigma surrounding sex work, and her mom was embarrassed. 

She told a story of a time she now looks back on and realizes was rape from when she was an escort, a story she’d only ever shared in full detail to her closest girl friends many years after the fact. The story feels too personal to share, but the environment of the room during this part of our time was absolutely still. 

I’ve never been in a classroom with so much attentive silence. No keyboards clicking, no papers rustling, no chairs moving. Complete silence as we watched this woman recount her heartbreaking story. Although there was silence, you could feel the emotion weighing on everyone around. I began to feel tears come to my eyes and I wanted to look around to see if I was the only one, but I didn’t. I knew I couldn’t possibly be, and I didn’t want to break my gaze from the brave woman in front of me. It felt like I would miss something if I even blinked. 

She mentioned that even though this experience was awful enough on its own, she couldn’t even talk to her own mother about it due to the stereotypes her mother believed about this type of work. And this is what hurt her the most.

In her time at the brothel, she mentioned constantly feeling safe. The men that come to these brothels have a sense of humility to actually go out of their own comfort zone and into a brothel, and this led to polite and humble behavior.

“There’s always a narrative that [sex workers] are damaged by the men, but the media never talks about the sex worker feeling damaged by the slander of the media,” she said with what seemed like tears welling in her eyes. 

She ended her time of sharing by apologizing for making the industry seem dirty and reiterating that it really wasn’t. She felt safe, and the community she had in the brothel created deep relationships she’s been unable to recreate elsewhere. They were all experiencing the same thing, so they needed to have each other’s backs. She ensured she wasn’t trying to glamourize it or demonize the industry- that it really was just a way of life that some people have. Although she decided to end her time as a sex worker, she understood why others would choose to continue.

She offered to stay after to answer any additional questions and offer any advice or support on some of the more triggering topics she discussed. It felt like we had a mother figure before us, offering care even though we were all complete strangers that now had connected through the sharing of these deep secrets of hers. For one hour and a half class period, we all got to feel the exhilaration of being in on such scandalous lifestyles.

Published by hawkelki

Hi! My name is Ellie Hawkins, and I’m currently a senior at Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois. I’m studying abroad at DIS Copenhagen for the Fall 2021 semester and am so excited for all I will get to experience.

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