1978 movie Pretty Baby publicity still*
As Christmas is for family get-togethers, I occasionally ponder at this time of year, the place of sex workers within, or their relationships with, their families. Lately I have been talking with a few sex workers who have other family members also in the industry. Even though there are many people from the same family working as sex workers all over the world, some people have the impression that this kind of situation is distasteful, comical, exploitative as well as arousing.
In New Zealand and Australia, I knew and presently know many sex workers who are from the same family and although many sex workers receive support from friends and family members, we agreed that there is still a bit of a taboo however when two family members work as sex workers together or at the same time, for example, it may be two sisters who are working girls, a mother and a daughter, I’ve even heard of a mother and son who are both sex workers and a sex working mother with two daughters in the sex industry.
This is so hard for some people to get their heads around that many are assumed to be (in the same way that the Nordic model says two sex workers working together could each be prosecuted for effectively pimping each other) exploiting the other or being a “bad influence”, usually the sex worker who started first, or the older of the two sex workers is thought to be the one responsible for exploitation.
It is because of shaming and even ridicule that is sometimes heaped upon family members who work together, that many choose to keep their family relationships a secret. Of course once the secret is out, it will spread like wildfire, for who can resist such juicy gossip. It is no different to innuendo that is sometimes suggested about partners of sex workers when people wonder if the sex worker is being pimped or “lived off” or used.
Most ladies I spoke to however were fine with other ladies knowing about their other sex working family members but most I spoke to were adamant that they did not want clients to know. They assumed that with the sex worker code of discretion this information would be safe in the working girl community but then someone may inadvertently let a secret slip (because they don’t realise how important privacy is to one or both family members). Sometimes one family member would be ordinarily happy to be open but as the other family member wants it kept strictly private, she has to protect this secret from being leaked.
So why are some sex workers so determined to keep this information from clients in particular? One lady said that she thought clients would get “too pervy with it”. Another issue that came up among some of the ladies I spoke to is that if they looked similar, or were close in age, they occasionally get asked if they will offer a doubles service or twins fantasy. Mother and daughter sex workers often get asked the same thing, with the inappropriateness of the situation being disregarded or maybe not even considered.
The concern behind many a sex worker’s wish for this kind of information to be kept private is about how others will react or what they will think or say, even though it is none of their business. It’s all about judgement. Some people don’t like telling complete strangers that they are a sex worker or involved in the sex industry: they may react in an unwelcome sexually interested way, or they may be very judgmental.
When it comes to more than one sex working family member, even some of the most open-minded of fellow sex workers have ingrained negative attitudes usually that one family member is being coerced into sex work against her will by the other. Therefore how can we expect those outside of the industry to be any different, such as government agencies who may view sex working single mothers in a dim light, as if, as an extension of this idea, even their young, innocent children are in danger of corruption, or just in danger, (when the child has no contact with any sex industry-related activities and the mother is probably working in the sex industry to provide her children with all the social and educational advantages that money can buy)?
The fact is that when starting sex work, many ladies call on the help and much-needed advice of others more experienced than themselves, and if a sex worker has more experience, she will not want to see a newbie make the same mistakes that she may have made, particularly when certain mistakes could be very dangerous. Naturally a caring family member will want to offer the same care for her new-to-the-industry sibling or relative. This may be practical help – taking photos, helping with outfits, sharing supplies, taking calls for her, driving her to outcalls or simple things such as helping get the room together, hanging out laundry, folding towels, just like any family member pulling their weight with chores. But not quite. More than a couple of sex workers that I have spoken to had a fear that their assistance of their legal sex working relatives could be used against them somehow by government agencies, other family members or even other sex workers, even though she and others may wish that they had that support when starting out.
I hope that one day two or more family members involved in the business of sex work is considered no different from a family business such as Smith & Sons, Builders. Because there are many more families, often literally the sisterhood of sexwork, with more than one sex worker in them than is realised and I wish them all a Merry Christmas and a prosperous new year.
* The publicity still of notorious 1978 film, Pretty Baby was scanned from the back cover of the soundtrack LP. This is shot in the Columns Hotel, Saint Charles Avenue, in Uptown New Orleans. Brooke Shields and Keith Carradine are seen at center left. Susan Sarandon at center right. The costumes and poses are inspired by the Storyville photos of E. J. Bellocq. Pretty Baby was about a sex worker who had a 12 year old daughter living with her at a brothel.