I first heard from Emma—that's not her real name—after our cheating episode. She emailed me about all of the married men that she encounters through her job. "Am I facilitating cheating? I guess so," she wrote. "Can I sleep at night? Mostly."
She wanted to share her story about what it's like to be a sex worker. So we set up an interview. She told me that for her, sex work is a job. It’s something she does to pay her bills and support her kids. She has a boyfriend, but his income can’t support her household.
Emma does sensual massage; she doesn't do "full service," as she says. She has other boundaries too, “though there are times,” she says, “where I choose to let things happen to my body where I feel like I’m violating myself. And that’s hard.”
After I spoke with Emma that first time, she called me back, saying our interview made her realize how much she needed to get away from her job. She cancelled her appointments, and took some time off. She also asked us not to use her interview. But after a few months, she started seeing clients again—and told me that she wanted to talk. We had a follow-up conversation about why she continues this work, how much money it would take to stop, and why she decided to speak about her story.
The Downward Spiral
Emma: I realized while I was laying in bed trying to sleep how much fear I actually have.
This is Death, Sex & Money.
The show from WNYC about the things we think about a lot…and need to talk about more.
I’m Anna Sale.
I often hear from guests after interviews. But this time was a little different.
E: I was awake most of the night, and what little I slept I dreamt of this. This is hard to ask, but I am asking. Please don’t use my tape.
The day before, I'd talked to her for about an hour and a half. This all started a few months earlier, when she reached out to me in an email, after listening to one of our episodes.
E: I’m responding to your episode on cheating. As a sex worker, I play a role a cheating on a weekly basis.
She told me—most of her clients are married.
E: Sometimes I think about the wives. I think about how they would feel if they knew where their husband was, and what he was doing with me. Am I facilitating cheating? I guess so. Can I sleep at night? Mostly.
In this first email, she was fairly unapologetic about the benefits of work: her clients leave with their sexual needs fulfilled. She leaves with money.
It’s sex work. And it’s illegal.
We emailed back and forth and she said she wanted to talk with me about what she does for a living, as long as her identity would be concealed. That's why the sound of her voice has been manipulated, and we're not using her real name.
AS: This is Anna.
AS: So I'm calling you Emma?
E: Yes. Thank you.
AS: Where did the name Emma come from?
E: I like simple names, and I think I’m somewhat traditional.
This was the first of several conversations between Emma and me over the last few months. Talking about about her work hasn’t always been easy for Emma. At times she wanted to scrap the episode, like in that morning after our first interview. But ultimately, she chose to share her story.
And a reminder—she’s a sex worker—so this episode is more sexually explicit than usual.
Emma got into sex work after a divorce left her broke, and she had kids to raise.
E: I had a lot of savings. And that basically all got used up.
Emma had a job...but she wasn’t bringing in enough. Then she met a woman...who told her about a way to earn a lot more money.
E: She first told me she did sensual massage, I had no idea what she was talking about…and she told me—she really opened up to me and shared her story with me, which was very similar. Had been married for 20 years, was going through a divorce, her husband wasn’t able—actually had completely lost his income and they had three kids. And she kind of realized, wow, okay, you know, this might help, and she let me know how much money she made the first year, and it just, this was was literally at a time where within a month I was not going to have any money.
AS: How much did she tell you she had made?
E: Oh I think she made...She made somewhere between 150 and 200,000 her first year, working.
AS: And that’s doing sensual massage? What does that mean?
E: Um well, it’s not full service. It’s not—it doesn’t involve intercourse.
AS: No intercourse.
E: Yeah. And it’s massage that’s very sensual.
AS: Does that include oral sex?
E: It can...I think anybody can do whatever they want. If you were to go and Google sensual massage, it probably—it might not say oral sex, but it definitely happens. And it also definitely doesn’t happen. It really just depends on the person.
AS: How long did you have to think about it to decide that this was something you were willing to do?
E: Not very long. I’m pretty—I’m very proactive. I’m just—you know, I can make—I just knew I had to do it. I had to do something. And it was a solution to my dilemma. Um, this woman, who was really wonderful, she talked to me a lot about it and she invited me to come in and watch a session. And then this person that I watched offered to be a client and let me just try a session. And so, you know, I kind of just kept doing—just kept slowly getting in there and seeing how it felt and making sure that I could do it. And yeah, I could.
Now, Emma has a regular stable of clients. She doesn’t have to see anyone she doesn’t know. They’re mostly men. And they meet her at a place she rents out for work.
E: Yeah, it’s in an area where there are just a lot of people coming and going and not really paying attention to each other. It feels really safe.
AS: So what are your boundaries, how do you describe that to a client?
E: Well I say, you know, there’s no full service. That’s pretty easy.
AS: And people know what that means?
E: I try and protect myself from—and you can hear even with the words I use what it’s like for me. For, you know, some of my own personal, my private areas, I really would prefer that they just stayed for me. And so, touching and so forth. And that can be difficult, though. That’s a hard boundary sometimes to keep.
AS: So you like to give and not be touched.
E: I like to give, I like to touch, yeah. And not to—I mean I love receiving massage. But you know, I’m talking about sexually—I don’t really like to be sexually touched by other people other than my partner.
AS: That’s a really—um—I imagine that can get really potentially uncomfortable when you’re thinking about, "Am I consenting to what’s happening right now?"
E: This is hard for me to say because I don’t want to be speaking for all sex workers, so it’s hard for me to admit this part of it. But for me, personally, that part of it I feel a little bit like I’m violating myself. Because I am giving permission, I always give permission. There is—I’m never forced to do anything that I don’t want to do. I make the choice myself, and there are times when I choose to let things happen to my body that I feel like I’m violating myself. And that’s hard. That’s the hard part. That’s a really hard part.
AS: And when it’s mixed with money? I’m assuming that if you’re going further than what you anticipated, does that usually lead to more money?
E: No, not directly, not in that, "Oh now I’m going to get more money today." It’s more part of the relationship.
AS: Was your gauge for what felt not comfortable, was it if you would get that creeping shame feeling afterward?
E: I only feel shame when I talk to other people. I actually had this woman tell me—I started charging immediately what she charged, and she said, "Oh well, are you doing this, this, and this?’"And I said, "No, I’m not doing that that and that. I don’t want to do that, that and that. That doesn’t sound safe or that’s not what I want to do.” And she said, “Well they’re never going to come back unless you do those things, and they’re coming to you now because you’re new, but you’re not going to be able to sustain yourself unless you do those things.” So I did those things for a little while, and ick!
AS: What’s like a—what’s an example—what are we talking about?
E: You know, like oral sex. Allowing myself to be touched intimately, penetration I guess with fingers, that sort of thing. But oral is a big one. I think there’s probably a big separation between who does that and who doesn’t. And I came to realize I don’t have to do that, I’m actually worth—I can ask for what I want, and I can give what I want, no matter what. And the people who accept that, that’s who I’m gonna work with.
AS: How much does it cost?
E: I don’t know if I’m comfortable sharing that. I’ll tell you this. Okay? I'm—I don’t make anything like that woman that I told you about who I met in the beginning. I just do enough to get by. And then I have other work that I do. That doesn't—you know, it’s like piddly money.
AS: I wanna talk about guilt, which is how you opened your email to me.
E: Yeah, yeah.
AS: So I wanna start first by talking about—you know, you’re very aware that your clients are in relationships. And in most cases their partners don’t know that they are there with you. How do you feel about that?
E: Sad, really sad. I talk to my clients about, you know, this may sound awful, but sometimes they will open up to me, and I’ll coach them on, “Well, you know, what do you—what would you like your relationship to be like?" And so many of my clients are coming to me and for one reason or another, they’re in a relationship where they’re not getting physical intimacy. They don’t get hugged. Nobody hugs them. Nobody touches them. Nobody looks at them and says, "You’re amazing." And I get to do that. I get to give that to those people. And I love that.
AS: Are you still doing it for the money?
E: Yeah, yeah, I wouldn’t do it for any other reason. I mean we all do our work for money. So that’s just the way it is. But if I didn’t have to do it—if it wasn’t the best pay, by far, just so above and beyond anything else that I can make, in the time that I spend doing it, I wouldn’t be doing this.
AS: You’re in a relationship.
AS: It's a man?
AS: So he’s known the entire time that you’re doing this work. What’s been hard in your relationship?
E: I think the hardest thing for us is that there are things that I’m doing as part of my work that are not authentic to me, and that hurt me. And so I bring that home—I come home sometimes and I’m vulnerable and weak. And I’m normally really strong. And needy. And also a little bit withdrawn, I have walls up, you know protective walls, and so that can affect our relationship, it can take me time to let that down. I might have some physical aversions—it can take me a little while to want to be physically intimate.
AS: Has he asked you to stop?
E: No. No, he would never ask me to stop.
But the next morning...Emma left us this voicemail.
E: This morning, my partner held me while I cried and confessed all my fears. This morning he asked me to cancel all my appointments this week. He’s worried I’m getting too fragile, that it’s getting to be too much.
Coming up…Emma tells me what she decided to do next.
Thank you for all your stories about death and money, including some about inheritance...and whether you even deserve it. Like for Claire in Austin, who got some money after her grandmother’s death.
Claire: My grandmother was widowed a few years ago by a man who was not my mom's father, but who left his money to my grandmother. And so, taht was her money, and now it's our money, which has left us all feeling a little bit strange.
But Claire needed a new car...she got a nice one.
Claire: If you look at my tax return, it's probably not the car that you would expect I would be buying. Not that it's anything crazy outlandish, but it's something that makes me feel a little bit uncomfortable, and like something that I shouldn't have.
Keep sending in your stories about death and money for an upcoming episode. Record a voice memo on your smartphone...and send it in to email@example.com. You can also just send a note there—again, the email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
On the next episode, Dr. Jonathan Clark—a Navy veteran and former flight surgeon for NASA.
Dr. Jonathan Clark: I’ve been exposed to a lot of death in my career, both in medicine and in the military. A lot of death, a lot of death.
...including the death of his wife, Laurel Clark. She was one of the seven astronauts who died in the Columbia Shuttle disaster.
JC: By the next morning, the house was literally full of people. And everybody is like grieving. It was just this massive, cathartic, you know, you just shed tears like heartbeats, just constantly pouring, pouring, pouring out tears.
This is Death, Sex & Money from WNYC. I’m Anna Sale.
After we recorded our first interview, Emma had a tough night. She was nervous about what she’d shared...and haunted about what she’d left out. She sent us a long email...then called and read it over a voicemail too.
E: This is what I wish I shared. I am afraid. I am afraid because what I do is illegal and because I have no voice. I can’t reach out for support. I am afraid of being caught by law enforcement. Why did I minimize that with you? I am afraid of that every day. I am afraid of having to defend myself. Of being put in jail. Of losing my children, and my ability to support my family. My home and my freedom. I am afraid of being physically hurt or killed. I am afraid of running into someone I know, or the family of someone I know, and being found out, turned in, stalked, again—having my family impacted, losing everything that matters to me. I am afraid of my clients finding out about the part that’s fake, that I don’t enjoy it all, that sometimes I am grimacing, sneaking peeks at the clock. I am afraid that someday I will forget to hold my tongue and shout, stop!
When she left this voicemail, Emma was about a week away from a planned break. After her boyfriend’s request to stop early and cancel her remaining appointments...she did.
I talked with her on the phone too. We agreed we’d talk later in the summer after she had some time to think about our conversation.
That was a few months ago. When she called me in August, she said she wanted to share the interview, if her identity was protected. She also told me she was scheduling new appointments with clients...and we scheduled a follow-up interview.
AS: I’m calling you Emma, remember?
E: Yeah. It’s hard to keep track of all the different names sometimes.
AS: Can we just go back to after the first time we talked and did a long interview. What happened afterwards for you?
E: Well, I didn't sleep that night. At all. And I finally got up at, what was it, like 3 or 4 in the morning I got out of bed. And I got on my computer and I started writing. And I wrote you that letter. And I've been working consistently for about six months almost every day seeing a client. And, um...
AS: Like seven days a week?
E: Like you know, five to six, at least one person. It's just every day. It's just something I know that's going to happen every day. That I'm going to do every day. And so, it was just a long time. I had never gone that long without taking a break and so I think it was already kind of, it was wearing on me. And then just after talking to you, I just realized how much it was wearing on me, how much I needed to get away from it and I just felt sick.
AS: How did it feel to cancel those appointments?
E: It was really hard. Really really hard. And I, I wanted to. And yet, I'm thinking about my rent and I'm thinking about, I already know I'm going to take some time off. I'm thinking about just the money that I lose just in one week. This is actually a big week because this was going to be my last week. So this week was going to pay—would pay for my rent and probably my utilities for a month and it's a big deal to just walk away from that.
AS: So that's like thousands of dollars?
E: You know like a couple thousand dollars. And it's just me. Taking care of my kids.
AS: How much time total did you take off this summer?
E: Probably two and a half months.
AS: How'd it feel?
E: It was great. It was really good. I did a lot of writing and a lot of reading. I've started to do a lot of research on just the sex work industry and the history of it. But it felt really good every day to just not wake up with that, just that knowledge that I was going to go have an appointment.
AS: Did you miss any of it?
E: No. Not at all, no. Sure, the money. The income. The inco- I missed the income. The safety net. The knowledge that as I'm putting money out when I'm buying my food, that there's money coming in to replace that. I mean I—every time I get paid, I'm immediately thinking, "This is going to pay for this. And this is going to pay for that." And when I'm not bringing in that income, you know, like this summer, I don't feel so good. It's hard—it's harder to spend the money. It's harder—because any time I spend something, I have that little sense of insecurity and a little bit of a fear. Like, am I going to be able to replace this?
AS: How did you know the time had come that you needed to schedule new appointments and go back to work?
E: Well I came back. I did have a kind of schedule planned in my head of when it would happen. And what happened was just I kind of went almost to the end of what I had because I took that extra week and a half off. So it was fine because there's no way I'm dipping into my real savings that I have, you know over the last few years. I'm not—I will not dip into that.
AS: Is that the "how I'm going to stop doing sex work" savings?
E: Um, no. I think it's the emergency savings. It's if something happens where I have to stop. If I end up, you know, if I get injured and I have to—and I have medical bills I have to pay. Or if something happens to somebody in my family.
AS: I—you know I just want to—I think for someone who has never done sex work, and to hear that for you it's a financial imperative and then to also know that you have money saved...
AS: It might be hard to understand why you're continuing to do the work that you—
E: Because the money I saved would last for maybe five months. And then what do I do? Then I'm in the exact same place and I have noth- and I have no cushion. Then what am I going to do? I'm going to end up on the street. I don't have—I don't have an IRA. I don't have good health insurance. I don't have anything. And um—so this is a job. The thing is that I think that what's really important and for people to understand about sex work is it's a job. Why does anybody work at Walmart? It would be great if we could all work specifically and only at something that we loved and were truly passionate about. And I think that if you're young and you don't have kids, this is a great time to make that happen for yourself. But I didn't do that. I didn't make—I didn't create that career when I was 21. I actually got pregnant when I was 21.
AS: How did your first day back feel?
E: It was actually really easy. It's funny because I didn't know who was going to be on the other side of the door when I opened it. So many people use kind of these generic names. John, you know. Tom. Whatever. And I don't—so sometimes I don't always remember just by that exact name and I didn't bother to look and see exactly who it was I was going to be meeting.
AS: I can't believe you didn't look up the nickname. Like my god! I would want to know who I'm going to meet.
E: I knew was somebody who I'd been seeing for a long time. So I knew it was somebody I was going to be real familiar with. I know, that sounds strange, doesn't it? It sounds really strange to me. Except that this is the thing is that, you just—it's so compartmentalized. It kind of doesn't matter who it is. I just go, I get there and it's just—I open the door. And I just go into this place. And I get my stuff out and I change my clothes and I put my makeup on and it's just, I am this person. I am playing a role and I have my routine. And I know I'm going to be seeing somebody safe. I know I'm going to connect with them in a certain way, you know, that's going to be fine. I know what I'm going to do. It doesn't really matter who it is.
AS: Did you have any different boundaries after you went back?
E: Um no, no. I was—I probably maybe a little bit less. My boundaries might have opened up a little bit.
E: Yeah, just because towards the end there I was just so tired and protective that I kind of had, I was just on a weekly basis just limiting taking, "Okay, I'm not going to do that. I'm not going to do that." And you know, like my clients said to me, my first week back, "You need to go away more often." Because I was definitely fresher. I mean I don't have, it's not like there's a lot of boundaries to play with because, you know, I'm not an escort. I don't do full service and there's, there's just a lot that I don't do. I'm pretty, I'm pretty just vanilla normal. And, um, I was definitely more open and more just kind of in certain ways that I wasn't allowing people to touch me anymore that I, you know, was okay with.
AS: That you're okay with now.
E: Yeah. I don't know how long that's gonna last. (Laughs) Yeah.
AS: Have you had any of those feelings of dread since going back?
E: Yeah. You know, it's hard to share these things because I can see somebody listening and like, why would you do this thing when you have dread? And even I think about other sex workers listening to this and that's kind of one of my fears, another fear with this interview is to have sex workers listening to me and getting mad at me too for representing the downside, the hard parts. But yeah. Honestly, if I didn't choose to do it, if I wasn't doing it, I'd be—I'd just have happy days. Every day that I know that I'm going to go see somebody I have some dread. It's usually before. Once I'm kind of getting—once I open that door and I go into my routine, that goes away. But when I know it's happening, and after that first session when I got back, that went fine. And I actually came home feeling pretty good. And then my schedule was really filling up, it was like okay I'm going to see somebody every day this week. And this was Monday. And I had the first person. And by about, probably within about five hours of coming home from my first session, I started to feel kind of sick. And really like, "Every day? Every day? I mean, that was fine, but I have to do this every day? How am I going to do this every day?" And now I'm looking at another 4 or 5 months at least before I have a break. How am I going to do this every day?
AS: How long do you think you'll be a sex worker?
E: I don't know. You know maybe 'til my kids are out of the house. I don't know. It's hard, it's hard working on more than one thing at a time, you know, because it takes time to build something up. So it's going to take longer.
AS: Do you have a dollar amount that you want to have in the bank before you stop? Is there a goal set?
E: Well not really in the bank because like I said, I need to be making the income.
E: I probably need to be able to make about 80,000 a year. Maybe 90 before taxes in order to pay my basic expenses and maybe, be able to save a little bit. So if I can get to that point, or I see that I could, if I was doing this other stuff full time, then I will. I absolutely will do that.
AS: So you mentioned taxes, and I just want to make sure I understand your sex work income. Do you report that?
E: I do. I do report it. I don't, you know, I might fudge a little bit, but I actually do.
AS: And it's just like massage income?
E: Yeah, exactly. Yeah obviously I'm not reporting it as what I'm doing. But I do—it's important because it would leave me vulnerable if I didn't. You know, I have rent, I have expenses. I obviously have to pay them. So, I can't have any red flags. And so I do.
AS: How's your boyfriend feel now that you're back at work?
E: I think it's hard for him. I think he feels shame that he can't support me. We don't talk about it a lot though because he also understands it's just what I have to do. And so we just do it.
AS: And Emma, I just want to kind of hear you in your own words say, why did you decide to talk to me?
E: Well it all came up with the cheating thing. And then when you asked, I think because I feel so alone. One of the things that's really hard is not being able to talk to anybody. And you know, I'm a mom. I'm around other women and everybody talks about their challenges, the things that are hard in their life and things that are going well and I just have this big secret that I can't tell anybody. And I think people need to know because there's a lot of people like me. I'm right there. And you just don't know. So that's why.
That’s a sex worker we’re calling Emma.
Death, Sex & Money is a listener-supported production of WNYC. The team includes Katie Bishop, Emily Botein, James Ramsay, Destry Sibley and Andrew Dunn.
The Reverend John Delore and Steve Lewis wrote our theme music.
I’m on Twitter @annasale, the show is @deathsexmoney. And remember, subscribe to our newsletter at deathsexmoney.org/newsletter. And definitely check out Reply All.
And after more reflection...Emma did come up with a dollar amount that would make quitting sex work feel more comfortable.
E: You asked me how much money in the bank, you know, to stop. And I realized, that does exist. If I had, if I had enough money to go back to school, like to get a masters, I would really like to get a masters or a PhD in psychology or social work. And if I had enough money to do that, and I had enough money to live for the amount of time it would take to do that, I would definitely stop. So there is a number out there. I guess it just seems so big, that it doesn't seem like it even matters that it exists.
I’m Anna Sale, and this is Death, Sex & Money from WNYC.