'It Was A Wonderful Adventure’: What It’s Like When You Retire From Sex Work
We spoke to former sex workers about their careers after sex work—from a professional dominatrix turned chef’s little bitch to the escorts who became leading activists and academics.
Illustration by Grace Wilson
After a decade as a professional dominatrix, Mistress Suz knew it was time to get out of the game. "I got old," she says bluntly. Whilst her regular clients didn't mind having a 40-year-old dominatrix, the physical exertion got to be too much.
"My body was too old for it," Mistress Suz—now aged 50—remembers. "I developed a bad case of tennis elbow from wielding a whip for ten years. Then a torn rotator cuff." At a critical juncture in her life and uncertain how to proceed, Mistress Suz did what many a recent divorcee or failed novelist has done before her: She checked into a Buddhist monastery.
"Going to a monastery was a dream of mine," Mistress Suz explains. Two months later, she was running the monastery kitchen. The professional sadist had found her new calling as a professional cook.
And Mistress Suz had a talent that made her an asset to any kitchen willing to employ her—namely, her advanced rope work skills. When asked to truss a turkey breast by her head chef, Mistress Suz wowed him with how quickly she caught on. What her new co-workers didn't know was that Mistress Suz was unusually adept for a reason. In fact, she'd used the same technique on innumerable male submissives throughout her previous career.
Not all sex workers are able to put a decade of training to such spectacular use, but all pick up transferable skills that they can use in their future careers. Few sex workers stay in the industry for their whole working lives, and they leave for diverse reasons—often returning for short or extended stints from time to time.
"People leave for lots of reasons," explains Raven Bowen of the University of York. Prior to entering academia, Bowen spent decades working as an advocate with sex workers in western Canada. "If people get pregnant or fall in love, they often leave right away. Middle-class sex workers might be able to make a plan when they transition out—dabble in some square jobs, then gradually leave."
Another common motivator is a child approaching their teenage years—sex workers who aren't out to their families become fearful that their kids (and his or her cruel classmates) will find out what industry Mom really is in. Rarest of all are the clients who live out the Pretty Woman fantasy and settle down with a client, although Bowen tells me this isn't unheard of. "Clients have been central to many sex workers' experience of 'sexiting' (leaving sex work)," Bowen explains. "They may refer them to resources or even sometimes invest in their transition."
Many sex workers view the industry as a short-term stepping stone to a regular (or "straight") career, and aim to retire from sex work when they've amassed enough money to fund tuition or open a small business, for example.
"Some women work for one or two years and they know they don't want to continue after that so they'll save all their money," explains Laura Watson of the English Collective of Prostitutes. "They keep their expenses low because they're just saving money to do what they want to do afterwards, basically."
I ask what careers they transition into. "A lot go into beauty, opening nail bars or that sort of thing," Watson responds. The crucial thing—if they're working in a country where prostitution is illegal—is that they don't have a criminal record. With a criminal record, leaving the industry can become impossible. "We worked with a sex worker who was in prostitution temporarily to cover the costs of having a disabled daughter," Watson recalls. "The money was for specific items, for a short period of time. Then she got a criminal record and was basically unable to leave prostitution. That's why decriminalization is so important."
"I have a Roth IRA [a special retirement account] and a client of mine is going to help me invest a crap ton of my savings for the future," writes West Coast-based sex worker Shay over email. "I hope to be a millionaire by 45," she adds, although she acknowledges this is unlikely. Shay charges $400 an hour and $2,000 for overnights, and has a clear strategy for exiting sex work. And as any freelancer knows, having a good accountant is key. "Bookkeeping is a must. I'm terrible at it. Also, there can be no trail. I'm also terrible at that. Tax law is complicated. I know an accountant that specifically works with sex workers. She's an angel."
"Just like anyone, sex workers want to save for retirement, a home, or a career pivot," explains Marie Thomasson, a 37-year-old financial planner living in LA who specializes in helping sex workers manage their finances. "As sex workers' most marketable asset is often their body, and that's pretty much a depreciating asset, it's important to look at earnings as 'front loaded' in their career in sex work. If they choose to leave the industry or retire, planning is huge. It's critical to have a budget and adequate reserves." Keep a cool head while giving lots of head, Thomasson says, and a financially prudent sex worker might expect to retire by 35 or 40.
If you want to retire by 40, though, you've got to look after your physical and mental health. Shay has a secondary strategy for ensuring her professional success in a competitive and oftentimes physically arduous industry. "An aspect of retirement that is often overlooked is one's health," Shay comments. "In my nine months as an escort I've seen absolutely beautiful, brilliant women throw their lives away because they couldn't handle the money."
The answer? "A key part of saving for retirement," she explains, "is taking care of one's health. That includes overdue dental work, massages, Whole Foods shit, and barre classes. Also, go easy on the booze. This is an important part of my strategy for retirement and it has allowed me to get through the bad times of sex work."
Many sex workers transition out of sex work into a related field, like academia or sex work advocacy. "I'm in the middle of my second degree and I have the offer of a PhD on the table," says sex worker and advocate Laura Lee, who is taking the Northern Irish government to court over a new law that criminalizes men who pay for sex. "My exit strategy is to do that and then lecture on sex work and trafficking. I have a few years to go, but that's the plan."
Lee confirms that many of her sex worker peers have a similar exit strategy. "Some have a very structured approach in terms of a financial goal they want to achieve, such as paying off their mortgage or putting their kids through university."
Whether or not you go public with your former career can hugely impact your future options. Being self-employed helps, as Kristy Lin Billuni found. "My five years in the sex industry were really a positive time for me," Billuni says. "But I was ready for that transition out of the industry around my 30th birthday. I need to have my body be only mine for a period of time."
Now, Billuni uses her sex work past as a unique marketing point—she runs a business called Sexy Grammar, which provides editing and writing services. "I built my whole writing and teaching approach around what I learned from the sex industry," Billuni says. Like all the sex workers I spoke to for this piece, she said that her time in the industry had taught her vital transferable skills.
"Everything I had learned about how to teach people about sex—to be non-judgemental, to give people permission to be who they are, to meet people where they are and be there—these are all things that being a prostitute taught me," Billuni explains. "Being a sex educator taught me incredibly valuable tools for helping people through the creative process."
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Not all sex workers have such a happy or neat ending. For others, exiting the industry is a messy, protracted affair. Shaking off the stigma that still exists around sex work can be difficult, and transitioning into a new job becomes even more of a struggle if—like many women—you find yourself outed as a former sex worker.
"I've spoken to sex workers who've been squeezed out of employment and they have to go into more dangerous, more underground ways of working," Bowen says. "When people find out they used to be involved in the industry, they're not able to move on from that stigma and be embraced from all the experiences they've had in the sex industry. Instead they're seen as social deviants and not trustworthy, even though they're qualified to do the jobs they're holding at that time."
As with exiting a job in any profession, former sex workers look back at their time in the industry with mixed emotions. For some, it was a means to end: a debt-free college degree, a loan on a house, or a way to pay the bills when times were tough and options limited. For others, it was a positive experience, but one they outgrew as they got older. As with many former sex workers, Billuni continues to be frustrated by how society tends to view the sex industry. "People expect sex work to be something you escape," she comments. "But for me, it was a wonderful adventure in my youth that really shaped who I am, and that I had to embrace as I grew up more."
Like Biliuni, Mistress Suz looks back at her time as a dominatrix fondly, although there have been some adjustments. "As a dominatrix, I was always in charge," she remembers. "Now, Chef is always in charge, and I'm his little bitch."
And despite the role reversal, Mistress Suz is adjusting well. "I'm enjoying the switch in personal relationships," she says. "I'm fully exhilarated by the pleasures of serving. For now, I'm loving every minute of being Chef's little bitch. But like all dominant-submissive relationships, it only lasts as long as the submissive says it does—but when I eventually move on, I'll go with the title Sous Chef and a portfolio of professional dishes."