Talking with queer sex worker and activist, Tilly Lawless, about her experiences as an independent sex worker, the “whorearchy,” and why it’s super annoying when “feminist” Hollywood actresses are anti-sex work. By Karley Sciortino <3 Main image by Chloe Nour :)
I have a serious internet crush on Tilly Lawless. Tilly is a 23-year-old queer sex worker and activist based in Sydney, Australia, where sex work is decriminalized. Over the past year, Tilly has become one of the leading voices of sex workers online, fighting against the destructive stereotype that sex workers are dehumanized victims who need to be saved. Talk about a whore heroine.
Last Spring, Tilly caused a social media uproar after Tweeting/‘gramming a photo of herself, with a big smile, under the hashtag #FacesofProstitution. The tweet was a response to an article on the Australian website Mamamia, titled “Think the fantasy of prostitution in Pretty Women is harmless? Think again.” The article was originally posted on an anti-human-trafficking site in the US, and was accompanied by images of battered, emaciated, supposedly drug-addicted sex workers.
Tilly’s tweet went on to inspire hundreds of sex workers (mostly Australian) to post images of themselves under the hashtag, many coming out publicly on social media for the first time, in order to humanize themselves as autonomous individuals, and to fight against the notion that all prostitution is harmful. One powerful tweet read: “College student. Aspiring lawyer. Activist. Daughter, sister, sex worker. I don’t need rescuing.”
Since then, Tilly has gone on to use social media as a way to speak out about issues like female sexual autonomy, violence against sex workers, and the whorearchy. I recently talked with Tilly about her own experiences as an independent sex worker and parlour/brothel worker, and I also asked her to help me better understand the whorearchy, where it comes from, and its repercussions. Oh, and we also talked about how it’s super annoying when so-called “feminist” celebrities fight against the decriminalization of sex work, ugh.
Karley: When did you become a sex worker and what led you to do it?
Tilly: I started doing sex work in 2013, and I started because I needed to pay my rent, bills etc. So basically I started for money, the reason most people start jobs. Very few people in this world are financially well off enough to choose a job purely for pleasure.
What is the whorearchy? And where, do you feel, it originates from?
The whorearchy is the hierarchy that shouldn’t – but does – exist in the sex industry, which makes some jobs within it more stigmatized than others, and some more acceptable. Basically it goes like this, starting from the bottom (in society’s mind): street based sex worker, brothel worker, rub and tug worker/erotic masseuse, escort, stripper, porn star, BDSM mistress, cam girl, phone sex worker then finishing with sugar baby on the top. Sugar baby work is the most accepted as it is the closest to marriage in that it mimics monogamy and usually involves the exchange of material goods over cold hard cash (also, in a lot of places where sex work is illegal, sugar baby-ing falls in a sort of legal grey space). Of course, these rungs aren’t set in stone, and the order varies from place to place.
The whorearchy comes from both within and outside of the industry; non sex workers will view certain workers as dirtier/more disposable/less worthy of respect than others, and sex workers themselves will often throw other workers under the bus, in order to distance themselves from them and make themselves seem more respectable. It’s driven by assumptions and prejudice. While you will find people of all different races, backgrounds, genders etc in all different kinds of jobs within the sex industry, racist and classist assumptions feed into the whorearchy. For instance, a non-English speaking, immigrant WOC will be seen as “less valuable” than me (a white middle class woman) and further down in the chain of things. Often, more marginalized people will be forced to work in lower rungs, for example trans WOC often won’t be hired in brothels and so have to do street based sex work.
Do you ever feel you are judged within the whorearchy?
All sex workers are judged in this system. There is a (perceived) big gap between full service (penetrative penis in vagina sex) and non full service sex work. For instance, when I crossed over from a rub and tug to working in a brothel, many of the girls said “Yuck, that’s disgusting.” I have heard strippers described themselves as ‘like a whore but I keep my dignity.” Escorts describe themselves as ‘high class’ in an attempt to market themselves, which suggests that other workers are low class, and feeds into the whorearchy and the idea that the rest of us are worthless. (I always say: we are not deserving of rights and respect because we are high class, but because we are human). Sugar babies are some of the worst I have come across for playing into this. Because they are at the top of the whorearchy, they think they can shit on the rest of us and pretend their work is intrinsically different. “I’m not a prostitute/whore” is something I have heard time and time again from them, as if being a whore is a bad thing, or as if they don’t also suck the cock of a man they aren’t attracted to for gain.
People outside of the industry also judge you based on these misconceptions, too. “Oh, but you’re pretty, don’t call yourself a whore, you’re not like those women I see on the street, don’t class yourself with them,” a guy said to me at a party once, meaning it as a compliment. I could list so many things like this. So yes, I constantly “feel judged within the whorearchy.”
What is an average day at work like for you?
If I’m working at a massage parlour or brothel I do a night shift, so usually start at 8pm and work till 2am-6am, depending on what place I’m at and what night it is. If I’m working privately I could have an hour or two job at any point in the day, usually at a hotel. I don’t like talking about my work day too much in interviews because I think it too easily becomes one of two things: 1) a voyeuristic focus on the sexual aspects of my job, that draws salacious audiences or 2) an attempt to prove how ‘normal’ and like other jobs my job is (I have to show up at a certain time, I fold laundry, I do all sorts of normal human things and am therefore just like everyone else).
What do you like about your job, and what don’t you like about it, if anything?
What I value the most is the free time that comes from my job. For the amount I make, I work far less than someone would normally have to. It is allowing me to access wealth without being chained to a corporate crawl, or marrying a wealthy man. There is also never a dull day; and in this drawn out sapped dry unappealing vista of vanilla jobs, amusement is a juicy oasis from which I suck and survive.
What I don’t like is the stigma around it—how exhausting it is dealing with other people’s prejudices, how people dismiss it as ‘easy money’ or not a ‘real’ job. It is an emotionally demanding job. It is skilled labor. That stigma becomes incredibly draining to deal with, which is common to jobs in all stigmatized industries.
What do you think about actresses like Lena Dunham, Meryl Streep and Anne Hathaway signing a letter opposing the decriminalization of prostitution?
I was particularly frustrated by that because the two jobs have a lot in common, and yet this group of white, incredibly financially privileged actresses who have no experience in the sex industry felt like it was their place to step in and dictate how other people can earn money. Rewind three hundred years and actresses were viewed as – and often were also – prostitutes. Both professions took women out of the sphere they were meant to operate in, and into the public sphere. As time has passed, being an actress has become respectable, and has been distanced more and more from sex work. Now these women think they can point down from their ivory tower of wealth and say ‘It’s fine to fake intimacy in front of a camera, but it’s not fine to fake it between two consenting adults. It’s fine to lose weight and drive yourself to mental exhaustion for a movie role, but it’s not fine to do that for a brothel shift. It’s fine to put up with a horribly abusive director for the sake of art, but it’s not fine to put up with a horribly abusive brothel manager for survival.” And not only are we going to say those things are wrong, we are also going to actively make the lives of people in those situations even more difficult by campaigning against a change that would remove sex workers (regardless of their reasons for being in the industry) from the inadequacy, brutality and corruption of police forces.
“Now these [actresses] think they can point down from their ivory tower of wealth and say ‘It’s fine to fake intimacy in front of a camera, but it’s not fine to fake it between two consenting adults. It’s fine to lose weight and drive yourself to mental exhaustion for a movie role, but it’s not fine to do that for a brothel shift. It’s fine to put up with a horribly abusive director for the sake of art, but it’s not fine to put up with a horribly abusive brothel manager for survival.’”
It’s incredibly hypocritical and out of line, and it endangers women’s lives for these actresses to ignore the voices of current sex workers. It’s also ridiculous because they think opposing decriminalization serves as a preventative for sex work, whereas instead it traps people in the industry—e.g. a working class woman driven to sex work by financial need is then arrested and convicted for it and, as an ex criminal, struggles even more to find a job. I was especially upset with Lena Dunham, because she is meant to be all about feminism and body positivity – but it seems you can only do what you want with your body if it’s something she deems is okay. A friend of mine, an incredibly talented artist, comedian and sex worker Queenie Bon Bon, refers to Lena as Lena Judas Dunham, which sums up my emotions on the matter pretty perfectly as I feel she has betrayed feminism as her feminism is not inclusive of sex workers.
What compels you to talk openly online about sex work, the politics of it, and your own experiences?
Social media allows a real, uninhibited, straight-from-the-source view of marginalized people that I like to utilize, because so much of the media coverage of sex workers does not focus on them as individuals, or on their voice, but instead uses them as tools to paint a larger picture. A murdered prostitute is an easy example of the violence of men in a TV show. The image of a girl in a street corner is a trope to show you are in a ‘dodgy’ area. And so I talk about myself as a person and a sex worker, and, by humanizing myself, try to make people view sex workers as people rather than statistics.
I am incredibly lucky in that I am a sex worker who works in one of the only two places in the world where sex work is decriminalized, so I face no legal repercussions for speaking about my work. That, along with the fact that I am white and middle class and therefore my voice is taken more seriously, means I have a “platform privilege” (to use the phrase of awesome trans activist Paris Lees) that I feel a great responsibility to make use of, purely because so many people aren’t given that opportunity, and there is so much misinformation out there about sex work and sex workers.
Many people who don’t know sex workers personally assume that sex workers must find it difficult to be in healthy, romantic relationship outside of work. What’s your opinion on that?
I think the main reason sex workers might find it hard to be in a relationship is because the stigma and prejudice that exists in regard to it, and that a lot of people would never consider dating a sex worker. We are taught to quantify love based on the level of possessiveness; we are taught that monogamy means sexual monogamy, not emotional monogamy; straight men are taught that their partner’s sexual fidelity reflects on their masculinity. All of these – false – narratives of romance need to be broken down when you date a sex worker, and unfortunately most people can’t or are not willing to take the first step towards this. And so they expect the sex worker to change, to give up their job. I’ve been with my girlfriend for a year now, and our kisses ring no less true because I am a sex worker. There are things that are far more important to me than whose cock one of us comes on – they are that we respect and trust each other, that we divulge all our truths to each other, that we don’t belittle or undermine each other, that we are considerate and try to be the best person that we can for the other. I pity people who are in sub par relationships that they both fret at the boundaries of, yet because they don’t fuck anyone else they consider their relationship healthy. So, my opinion is that yes, sex workers can sometimes find it hard to date – but that is not because of their job or their mental state, but because of other people’s reactions to sex work and hang ups about sexual monogamy.