For sex workers, consent is constantly given and received.
For sex workers, consent is constantly given and received.

What you buy when you buy sex

IF I'VE heard it once, I've heard it a million times.

As the brothel clock ticks towards the end of the hour, I disentangle myself from a gentleman and lay back on the bed.

"That was great," I say, and he inevitably pouts and rolls his eyes towards the ceiling.

"Well, I'm paying you," the man says.

"You have to say that."

Earlier this week, I read a piece in a Fairfax publication about the effect the author believes decriminalisation of the Victorian sex industry would have on the state.

While I'm personally in favour of decriminalisation of sex work - I agree with Amnesty International that it would make workers safer and less likely to encounter exploitation and abuse - the author wasn't.

And in making her point she used a phrase that I, and many other sex workers, have heard a lot throughout our working lives: "bought for sex".

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It's a phrase I personally find really hurtful, as it seems to paint a picture in which a worker is not only offering their time and services, but giving up their entire self for a client to do whatever they want with.

It makes me picture doll-like women being plucked off a shelf by shadowy men in suits. This doesn't have much in common with my experience of working in brothels: reclining in the back room, eating takeaway, watching reality TV and, waiting for the next client to walk in the door.

Although the idea that the clients of sex workers are somehow buying the right to do whatever they want with us is an incredibly harmful and misguided one, the author is not alone in being uncertain about what exactly is being sold by the hour.

It can be clients who are worried that paying our hourly fee means they'll receive some dishonest, performance-enhanced version of sex instead of the genuine, human response they're seeking.

Or feminists and academics who are concerned that buying our time equals buying our bodies and forcing us to submit to acts far beyond the limits of our consent - there seems to be a lot of confusion about what exactly is being bought when sex is being sold.

So allow me to try to clarify: I'm a sex worker. My job is to provide a sexual service to my clients, and although I have plenty who visit me just to talk, or to cuddle, I would be incredibly dishonest if I said that sex wasn't a huge part of my job.

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I consented to this part of my job when I called up a brothel for the very first time and asked if they were hiring and I continue to consent to it every time I start my shift.

As with any other sexual encounter, my consent can be withdrawn at any time and for any reason: I can choose to end a booking if a client is threatening or aggressive towards me, if they deliberately attempt to violate my boundaries, or if they have visible symptoms of an STI and I think that seeing them would jeopardise my health.

Despite what some people may believe about sex work, my job is a job just like any other.

I exchange my time for money, and use that money to pay my rent, bills, and taxes.

I have set hours, even though they may not be your standard office hours, and I have a uniform, even though it probably looks a bit different to yours.

Am I in the mood for sex every single time I go to work? No. But then again, very few people I know wake up in the morning in the mood to go to their job, whatever it may be.

It only takes a few minutes spent on any peak-hour train going to the city to see that.

I'm not always in the mood for sex in the same way that the guy who makes my coffee in the morning probably isn't always in the mood to make coffee, or my tax accountant isn't always in the mood to do tax accounting. Or the cleaner at my local shopping centre isn't always in the mood to clean.

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Say what you will about capitalism and the exchange of labour for money, but these are the jobs we have all elected to do and when I chose to do sex work, I did so partly because I never wanted to spend another morning sitting on a slow train headed towards a job I hate.

Money is a powerful force.

It gets some of us out of bed in the morning, and others into bed. I'm not the first person to make this point, but it's worth remembering that for many people, the part of sex work that feels most objectionable isn't the 'sex', but the 'work'.

If I chose to spend my weekends having anonymous hook-ups with as many men as I could handle, I'd be virtually guaranteed a slew of high-fives in the name of feminist sexual empowerment.

But god forbid I charge a bit of money for the pleasure, suddenly I seem to be complicit in my own victimisation.

So do clients buy more than just sex when they visit brothels or private workers? Of course. They buy time, first and foremost, which is why you'll never walk in to a brothel and see a sign on the wall outlining price-per-position.

In the time a client pays for they're also paying for the skill, talent, and knowledge of the worker they see: the skill to set up a space in which all parties feel physically and emotionally safe, the talent to bring sexual desires and fantasies to life and knowledge about sexual health and safety that goes far beyond simply knowing how to put a condom on.

Sex work might be manual labour, but it's not unskilled. And contrary to popular belief visiting a sex worker doesn't mean you have free-for-all access to their bodies, or the right to demand they let you do anything you like.

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The sex worker you see probably won't be faking an Oscar-worthy orgasm, either. You're not paying to spend time with a blow-up doll or with an actor, you're paying to spend time with a real person whose personality is - hopefully - compatible with yours.

Not everyone has to visit sex workers. Not everyone has to like us, or even respect us. But trust us and believe us when we talk about our jobs: the things we like, and the things we want to change.

The biggest issues facing the sex industry in Australia aren't shadowy pimp lobbies trying to buy and sell our bodies like ornaments, it's people whose personal beliefs are so rattled by our existence that they want to speak on our behalf about what they think we must experience. The only people whose voices should carry any weight when speaking about the sex industry is sex workers themselves: so if we say we love our jobs, believe us.

We might be having sex, but we're not getting screwed.

- Kate Iselin is a writer and sex worker. Continue the conversation on Twitter @kateiselin