The beginning of the story is so common I’m loath to write it at all: I had a tuition payment coming up and had just lost my job. I had taken out loans, but all the federal loans I had taken out (subsidized and unsubsidized) covered just $1,000 shy of my total tuition payment. Not a day of rent, food, or a single book. And with the economy still in the depths of the worst of the financial crisis, I was having trouble even finding part-time work, let alone enough to cover my bills. Because I was in school full-time, I wasn’t even eligible for unemployment.
I found a website for a dungeon in New York City and it seemed a great way to make ends meet while I looked for another job and went to school. It provided me everything I needed to get by – flexible hours, time to study, and immediate cash. I was able to pay my rent and the extra thousand I needed for tuition, and after years of working for struggling non-profits, I felt more financially secure than ever. I also was able to focus full-time on a graduate degree—a privilege few of my fellow students had. I had a manager who I to this day respect and appreciate for teaching me about the work and the business in general and for making me feel like I was being taken care of.
But that was where the upsides ended. While I had nothing but affection and gratitude for my manager, the owner was a different story entirely. It was made clear very early on that the clients were more important than those working at the Dungeon. Walking out of a session with a client meant I would have been punished with less work afterwards. I regularly felt unsafe with certain clients, but was still placed in sessions with them when they asked for me. When one client had loaned the owner money she could not repay, I had to see him for two- and three-hour sessions in which I would be “tipped” instead of paid as much as I would have made from a regular session. I gave up often more than half of what I brought into the dungeon, a common scenario when working for an establishment. In one of my first sessions, I was hit with a wooden brush until I bruised.
Working with the manager I trusted allowed me to feel some safety and to take the downsides in stride. I was doing well in school and paying my bills when straight jobs were still scarce. When the manager left, though, I stared to hate going to work. I felt nervous about what I would face, and I felt increasing tension each time I would go in. There was more pressure to engage in behaviors that made me uncomfortable and things were only getting worse.
And then I went to Backpage. It was the only advertiser I knew at the time and the cost of an ad was within my reach. Just stopping work wasn’t an option for me financially, and after my experience there, I didn’t want to work for another house ever again. With the support of a client who recognized I was reeling, and with the agency and autonomy Backpage afforded to me, I was able to leave an uncomfortable and unsafe workspace. Because I could work for myself and control my working conditions, I was able to screen clients for the first time. I was able to define, declare, and stick to my boundaries and limits while demanding that they be respected. I kept all the money I made and was no longer dependent on someone else for how many clients I saw.
I feel lucky that I had the privilege to leave a bad situation and recognize that not everyone is afforded that right. Whether it is due to force, coercion, or economic circumstance, many people are not as privileged to have the ability to leave a space where they don’t feel comfortable. I know that Backpage made my departure from unsafe working conditions possible. It would have been great to have been able to just leave, but applying for jobs and waiting to go broke wasn’t an option. Taking away independent, low-cost advertisers means losing an opportunity for people to leave dangerous or undesirable agencies, houses, and pimps if they choose. It certainly would have meant losing that opportunity for me.
Vivian, Sex worker, SWANK member