Superheroes and Superhoes
Now you and me, we're both the same
But you call yourself by different names
Now your mama won't like it when she finds out
Her girl is out at night...
-Donna Summer, "Bad Girls"
Like the Superhero saga of living secret double lives, entering the adult industry is the only profession that expects you to have an alias, a fake name that represents your brand and a facade to protect you and your loved ones against public scrutiny. I've been a Jack (or Jill?) of several sex worker trades over the last ten years evolving through identities, names, titles and types of sessions. When I created my escort name "Joy" and her persona, I branded her as a semi-exclusive (read: expensive), mature (industry code for a woman over thirty-five years old but vague about her actual age), upper-educated but down-to-earth girl next door who advertised authentic connection. The perfect seamless Girlfriend Experience (industry code for GFE.)
As I was creating my new website and images, I was excited to dust off my creative skills in my "civilian" career as a photographer (which was no longer paying the bills) and point the camera at myself. Taking racy selfies and curating a persona that was based on me-- but the fake name and blurred face photos meant I could reveal more than Melissa _______ (your author) could do under her legal name on the internet. I created my own Superhero-- a stronger, confident Goddess version of myself who commanded worship and could leap large stacks of dollar bills in a single bound. I would strike a pose arching my back, arms behind my head wearing just lingerie, heels and a sly red-lipsticked smile peaking out from under a hat covering most of my face-- something that Joy did confidently and Melissa felt pretty shy and clumsy. It felt empowering to monetize my sexuality and define my boundaries after turning to a minimum-wage sales job at age forty-two. I slid into a depression over several years, watching my successful photography business I had for fifteen years disintegrate due to supply-and-demand forces brought on by the digital age. Stumbling into the underground industry, it came to my rescue and saved my life in many respects.
Over time I gained confidence in my body but the upscale persona I created to command my high rates started to wear me down. As much I loved the income (money and power is my aphrodisiac and love languages), the wild adventures and the secret illicit thrill-- the pretense of being that Superwoman felt inauthentic and drained me mentally. The most exhausting part of being a Professional Mattress Actress (I want that title on a business card) wasn't the physical sex act itself, it was the emotional labor of playing the pretend girlfriend who loves everything about you, laughs at all your misogynist jokes and says you made her cum twelve times after sex to stroke your fragile ego. I started to let go of my escort persona as I enrolled at the now-defunct Institute for Advancement of Human Sexuality in San Francisco. It was an intensive training program for somatic sex educators ("Certified Sexological Bodyworker" or CSB as it's also known.) The title and training didn't protect it from criminalization, it's still considered sex work in the US but it sits in a gray area, like cannabis legalization laws that vary state by state. When asked at a party what I did for work, I would read the room carefully before I answered. Sometimes I said freelance photographer and we would have a perfectly boring ordinary conversation about the best lenses and what subjects did I shoot, questions about their camera and how they always wanted to be a full-time photographer. Blah blah blah. But sometimes I would be feel brave and tell them a bit about my secret underground work.
"So what exactly does a somatic sex educator do?" they would always ask in a whisper. Somatic means Body. A sex educator who's also teaches, similar to a therapist and a medical doctor but we aren't just talking to our clients about sex-- we touch bodies and coach clients on masturbation, self-pleasure, prostate massage, focusing on breath during erotic touch to achieve full-body orgasms, similar to Tantric massage techniques. After I finished the program at the Institute I wanted to be more authentic in my brand, so my name evolved into "Melissa Joy", incorporating part of my legal name but not quite ready to come out to the world and be integrated as Melissa ______. I started showing less skin and more face when I created my sex and relationship coaching business. Even with this fresh start, I still felt a disconnect as I had to keep my artist self (my legal identity) muzzled, but I wasn't ready to connect my civilian name to the sub-Superhero world and come out. So Melissa Joy created a boudior photography site so she could show off her artistic talent and market her skills to other sex workers without censoring her sex worker background and activism. Melissa Joy would have to stay in the closet and could never speak of Melissa _______ 's accomplishments or connect with her relatives on social media (I picture Clark Kent's grandparents stumbling upon their grandson's secret life when they run into him and all his Superhero colleagues at a swinger's kink party and how awkward it was for everyone on so many levels.)
I always saw a connection to sex workers lives being similar to Superheroes: We have a vetted underground world where only other Superheroes exist, our own terminology and language to keep us a little safer from predators. We live the burden of a secret double life, the upkeep of identities and keeping the little lies straight. We weigh the pros and cons of when to confess our secret to the person we've started dating, or a coming out to a friend or loved one. We use our Superhero sensual powers to bring pleasure, entertainment, connection, touch and healing to civilians but we can't put any of it on a resume. We may harbor a sadness that we can't be a fully integrated person in the world. I asked the internet why Superheroes have to lead double lives: "It is kept hidden from their enemies and the general public to protect themselves from legal ramifications, pressure, or public scrutiny, as well as to protect their friends and loved ones from harm secondary to their actions as Superheroes."
Like Superheroes, sex workers walk silently amongst us in the ordinary world every day. One might work next to you at your office, sit across from you on the bus or work out at the same gym. Superheroes live in the Marvel Universe, sex worker heroes live in the Clandestine Demimonde, the shadow side of the world. They are ordinary people who do extraordinary jobs fighting the good fight every day. Fighting stigma, shame, SWERFS and law enforcement. They are mothers, sisters, wives, parents. Many have a second mainstream jobs or enrolled in college or trade schools. Some have disabilities so they may not be able to work a mainstream job that require long shifts or physical abilities. Many LGBTQ, Black and Brown folks choose sex work as they've been discriminated or harassed in mainstream employment. Many take care of disabled family members, paying off medical bills, college tuition, taxes, buying homes, creating wealth, stimulating the economy, living their financial dreams without The Man or a man telling them how to do it.
Like Fight Club and sex work, the first rule about Superheroes to never talk about Superheroes. I imagine Diana Prince biting her tongue in the cafeteria at her day job, trying not to spill the beans to a colleague about what she did the night before as her alias Wonder Woman-- making the bad boys submit to her will, capturing and tying them up while practicing her artistic rope bondage. Saving the planet from world destruction and bragging she gets to do it while wearing a tiara with matching designer gold bracelets, a couture custom-fitted bustier bodysuit and red leather thigh-high boots. And what's her cover story at the family reunion when aunt Edna asked why she doesn't have a husband or kids, or her cousins asking her beauty secret as she's never aged a day past thirty-five?
...the legal ramifications, pressure and public scrutiny. Sex workers currently have no legal recourse and there is no employment Civil Rights Act to protect them. I know a writer who had been a school teacher and was fired from her job when it was revealed she was an escort in her past. Strippers, erotic content producers, porn actors, web cam and fetish models-- all legal but highly stigmatized and not protected-- have been fired from their civilian jobs, lost custody of their kids when it was revealed they did cam modeling, landlords can refuse to rent to them on moral grounds. They have lost their bank accounts when their legal names were linked to their porn names. Since the rise of facial recognition software, I know industry friends who traveled regularly between the US and Canada, detained and interrogated at the border with no previous history, then given a warning or simply banned for life from ever traveling to or from Canada. TSA refuses to give any reasons for their decision. Airbnb’s plaform has suddenly closed and banned accounts of sex workers (who don’t link their work information even show their face online!) and had no previous infractions or bad reviews (it's rumored the company uses AI technology to filter out "bad actors" from using their site but they refuse to say.) Visa/MasterCard, the backbone of the online adult industry, has changed their terms of service to exclude adult content such as Stripe (who shut my down my account and froze my payments as a sex educator), PayPal, Venmo, Square and Cashapp. When the #MeToo movement gained traction, some so-called "feminists" said men should see sex workers to get out their misogyny and violence out of their system so they'll leave the "good women" alone. Sex workers are the butt of jokes that often end in violence and murder. It's not easy to come out of the closet when so much is stacked against the door.
I came out to my dad in stages, first as a somatic sex educator, then as an escort. When I was visiting my father and stepmother a few years ago in Sarasota, I found an opportunity to have the talk while we had lunch at an outdoor cafe. My dad and I are pretty close and we often go into deep philosophical discussions about the nature of romantic relationships, politics and how our own relationship evolved since I went to live with him out of the blue at age eleven.
To have difficult personal discussions with people we love and care about, it must be done with empathy and good timing. It's like knowing you’ll be teaching them how to swim, but let them first splash around in the kiddie pool to warm up and get used to the water, don’t just push them into the cold deep end. I started with telling him about what I do in my somatic sex coaching sessions.
"So this sexa-ma-logic bodywork- I can't remember what you call it- what is it you do again?", my dad asked over bites of salad looking a little nervous. I tiptoed around mentioning clients getting naked but I spoke about the healing aspect of the work, focusing on women with a history of sexual trauma or pelvic pain (keeping the conversation on women clients seemed to brand my work as "noble"and less stigmatized than when I shared about clients who came to me with erectile disfunction and doing prostate massage.)
My dad nodded along. "Your work sounds really noble", he said. Then he paused and looked up at me. "So you don't touch genitals, right?"
"Um, yes dad, that's a lot of what we are doing in a session, but I'm coaching the client to learn about their bodies and pleasure. Also, almost all my of my clients are men." I answered.
He let go of his fork and turned red. He lectured me about safety and how I could be in danger meeting with strange men in private. I countered, "But you know my mother was a therapist who saw patients in our house all the time by herself when I was a kid. How come she wasn't in danger seeing strange men who were lying down on her shrink couch and talking about their sex problems?"
"I just want you to be safe", he said, which is what any parent wants for their kid. He asked if I needed money, as he always did when I expressed something he couldn't fix.
"I don't need money. In fact, I'm in the best financial shape I've been in since I was at the top of my game as a photojournalist years ago. I am safe, dad. I promise you I am."
We debated about sex work, culture and what my dad believes is the true nature of men, which is that most are terrible (maybe he's not wrong?) and then quietly changed the subject to our usual topics-- my romantic relationship (or lack thereof and why I always ended up single.) Who he was playing in his tennis tournaments and how many wins their team had this season. The class he was teaching, the new book on evolutionary psychology he was currently reading and excited about. I decided he was in a relaxed place and comfortable, so it was time to lead my dad into the deeper end of the pool. I secretly put my phone on record under my napkin as I wanted to study it later if it went really bad or really good.
"Going back to the subject of my sessions" I said self-consciously as I took a big sip of my mojito, "I also do other types of sessions with clients besides bodywork and coaching." I made a deliberate pause and waited for a response.
"Oh, ok. What other things to do you do?" Here's where I push him off the high dive. I hope he can swim and I'm not making a mistake, but I can't back off now.
"Well, I also work as a....a.....companion."