05/24/2012 04:28 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

The Girlfriend Experience

I wrote a post last week about the reality of being a sex worker in a relationship, explaining that it's sometimes good, sometimes hard, often complicated.

Well, I have intimate experience with one of the greatest media-fed taboos in sex-worker romances: I fell in love with a client once.

It was completely unexpected. I have generally been good with emotional boundaries, having been in nonmonogamous relationships for years; I knew how to keep people as close or as distant as I needed to. It was part of what made me a good sex worker. Or so I thought.

I remember the session. He had sent me a long email detailing this crazy scene that really weirded me out, and I was nervous about it; particularly as a pro-domme, I tended to make it clear that I would do as much or as little as I wanted, but I still wanted to satisfy some of the client's needs. This one wanted me to spit in his face and restrain him in a variety of intense ways as I humiliated him, things I didn't tend to do with my lovers at home. I worried we wouldn't click well during the session, but I was determined to try.

I walked into the dungeon, and he was so attractive that I couldn't believe it. Only a few years older than me, hot, and submissive? It seemed like a dream. I gathered myself together, determined to offer a dominant experience that would be sexy for us both, and then just walk away. I tied him up and called him all manner of humiliating things and found myself turned on by how he reacted, by the way he writhed for me. I found myself relaxed, comfortable, enjoying myself even more than usual. When he left, I stopped myself from asking him out for a drink and took the train back home, confused but figuring I wouldn't see him again.

He wrote back the next day wanting to book another session that week. I agreed and instantly felt butterflies in my stomach.

I felt so unprofessional, so unsteady. There was a forum for sex workers, and I posted there, asking if any of the girls had ever felt that kind of attraction to their clients before. Some had, some hadn't, and all sorts of advice was offered to me to help me work out what to do. Ultimately I was asked the important question: Could I afford to lose him as a client? I thought about it, my heart asking if I could afford to not take a chance. Was this a real-life Pretty Woman thing? I didn't want to be so cliché, but there was chemistry swirling.

We had another session, and it was both incredibly sexy and absolutely hilarious. I tripped over my heels, and we giggled about it, an intimacy developing between us. I no longer felt on a pedestal. Two hours later, as we snuggled for some aftercare, I decided to go for it and ask him if he wanted to go to a fetish market with me, as he had commented on his lack of kinky clothes. He accepted, and we made plans.

I immediately panicked and asked my girlfriend to come with me to keep me from making a mistake and maybe let me know if I was being ridiculous and misreading him. Together we browsed stalls filled with kinky toys and pinstriped clothes, trying things on and trying toys out. There was an ease to our interactions, a comfortable friendliness, and my girlfriend said to me that she thought he liked me, too (I seem to recall she was OK with him but not overly fond of him). So I did the suave thing before we parted ways and said, teasingly, "You know, if you let me do what I want, you wouldn't have to pay me anymore."

He grinned.

And so we began dating. We went to his first sex party -- my girlfriend, my new boyfriend, and I -- and proceeded to have fun dancing, making out, and watching the various goings-on. Early into the morning we left the party, exhausted, and he invited us to his flat to rest. He was in media, an exciting job that allowed him to live on his own in Soho, so we took him up on his offer and fell asleep, all snuggled together. I thought I was in heaven, sandwiched between these two sexy people. I found myself thinking that this might be the beginning of something lasting.

He was so kinky. I loved the challenge and all the things we did and tried. I made him nose hooks and mouth hooks, wrapped him in cling film and duct tape, spat in his mouth and pissed on him in the shower. We went to dark places together, he and I. But it was more than sex for me; we hung out, watched movies, and went grocery shopping. I was so in love with him, and I thought he loved me back, two perverts who had found each other, a crazy, sex-worker love story.

I encouraged him to go with me to Burning Man, to meet my friends and communities in the hope that he would find acceptance. We'd go to pubs, sex shops, and bookstores, holding hands and talking about politics and psychology. I fell deeper in love, so thankful to meet someone who didn't mind my work, whom I didn't have to explain it to, who seemingly accepted me. We went to kinky clubs, slow dancing to electronica and kissing like we couldn't stop.

It all seemed so perfect. And it was, for a few months. This is the thing: He was a lovely guy and a great boyfriend, except for the ways in which he wasn't -- but isn't that like most relationships?

There were hints that the fairy tale was unraveling, but I ignored them. The desire he had to be enhanced in some way when we did kink, for example, I chalked up to his shame around his desires and let it slide. He was embarrassed telling his friends how we met, so I was always a writer to them, my sex-worker self put into the closet, if I met them at all. My friends knew and loved him; it didn't matter to them that he was originally a john, but he never seemed to notice that. Family was out of the question. It was hard, because I wondered if he was ashamed of me, when I was so proud of my job, happy to have met a great guy at work like any other girl. I felt frustrated sometimes, trapped in pretending to be someone I wasn't, but I loved him and respected him, so I kept quiet, even when friends of his said things about prostitution that made me uncomfortable. There were other indicators: The relationship was open, but he went on dates with monogamous girls, something that made me feel jealous and unstable. We'd fight, then fuck and make up, over and over again.

The truth is, we both realized that the sex work had created a rushed intimacy; each of us knew so much about the other's desires but so little about what made the other tick. Our sex became kinkier and darker, our fantasies more dangerous and tense, in an attempt to make up for the chasm between us. I felt less inclined to do other sex work and spent my free time trying to understand what was going wrong, what I could do right. I worried I was losing him but told myself that I was being paranoid, that I had heard so many times that sex workers couldn't be in relationships that I believed it.

After a particularly difficult night before I was to fly home for a few months, we drove to the airport in silence. I was panicked about leaving the country, leaving him. I was sure everything was about to fall apart, and while I knew I was digging my own grave, I wanted reassurance that he cared, that we had something special. I was in tears as he gave me three CDs. I spent the flight analyzing each song, reassuring myself that the music suggested that he was confused, too, but that we loved each other, that we would find a way. It had been only five months, yet I felt like I had found my soulmate. I slept fitfully.

When I landed, I discovered an email asking for space. He felt like we were struggling too much. I agreed; I could see that we needed some time for things to calm, for me to realize that he did love me, that things would be OK. I started journaling every day to work out what needed to happen for our relationship to get back on track. I vowed not to sleep with anyone else, professionally or otherwise, while I reflected on us.

Three days later he was dating someone new, someone I had introduced him to. They moved in together. They broke up. He hadn't planned on fixing our relationship; he was just putting off the inevitable. I knew that our relationship was dead by then, and I mourned it. I felt like someone had ripped out my heart, my trust, and burned it in front of me. I railed at my friends. I fell apart.

In time I tried to heal. We tried to be friends, meeting for coffee, but I was furious, and hurt, and not ready. I felt like he had betrayed me, that he had shunned me for my work. It was one of the most heartbreaking experiences I had ever had, and I cursed myself every day for losing control, for letting myself blur the boundaries between client and sex worker. A year later I still hadn't recovered. Two years later I still struggled seeing his picture. Even now, I'll come across his profile somewhere or other, and I'll feel sick to my stomach.

There was a party I went to, about a year and a half after the breakup. He was dating someone else, a woman who was in some of my communities. She and I ran into each other at the party; she was probably on something, and I was sick with the flu and somewhat delirious. Flopping onto a chair and draping her legs on me, she told me how thankful she was that he had met me, that he was so self-aware and open thanks to me. I realized that I had taught him how to be sexually confident in his kinks, that I had helped him become the ideal lover. I felt like I was going to throw up. I felt like love was something that would screw me over every time, that all I could ever be as a sex worker was training wheels for a "real" relationship. Never had I been hit so hard with the irony that while the service I provided was invaluable to his well-being, society ensured that my well-being was ignored while claiming to want to protect me.

After that I cut him out of my life for a while. For the most part, I'm glad I did.

However, I think, years later, that he left raw wounds that still affect me today, in my current relationship. I was hurt far more than I was angry, and that vulnerability can be dangerous for me in my profession. I still worry on some days that as a sex worker I will only ever be the girlfriend experience and never the girlfriend. I have never gotten close to a client like that again, and I doubt I ever will. There is a part of me that is still traumatized and miserable about the whole thing. It was one of the hardest lessons in boundaries, trust, and honesty I have ever had. And yet it was the Cinderella story brought to life, Pretty Woman in real time.

He seems happy now. I doubt he ever thinks of me, and I feel silly for thinking of him, for the fact that he still affects me. I wonder if it ever mattered to him how much he hurt me by keeping me as his secret lover. I wonder how things might have been different if there wasn't this stigma about sex workers and clients, if he hadn't felt he had to hide me away, if he hadn't been ashamed of being a client. I wonder if he might've been able to see me as his white-picket-fence girl after all.

I guess I'll never know.

When they talk about trauma in sex work, they tend to mean being beaten and raped on the job, a daily reality for many sex workers worldwide. As an indoor sex worker with a lot of privilege and no arrests, I haven't experienced that kind of violence. I'm lucky in that way; while I live under the shadow of physical or sexual violence (more from the police than the clients), I've really only experienced various forms of emotional abuse, usually from people who felt they had the right because my choice to be an out prostitute was, apparently, consenting to constant public scrutiny: an ex-girlfriend telling me that her presents came with a caveat -- sex, whether or not I wanted to; an ex-boyfriend saying he just didn't see us having a future together. It was often horrible, but nothing compared to what street workers deal with on a daily basis.

So I got off easy, really, when it comes to trauma and sex work, and I want to acknowledge that -- yet even as a privileged sex worker, I do feel scarred. I think of how I tore my own relationship apart with my internalized whorephobia. I think of how stigma about sex workers not being people can affect relationships and the people in them. I think of the way I have worried I would have to choose between having a job that gives me autonomy and agency and having a partner (something I no longer stress over, having had experience to the contrary).

Writing this, I'm pretty sure I know what the response will be: "Hookers can't afford to love"; "He was just using you for sex"; "You don't deserve a relationship anyway"; "If you don't like it, quit your job." And that's exactly the problem: People feel very entitled to mistreat sex workers like me every day, like we're not people with hopes, families, loves, and losses. On the other side, people feel like it's OK to say that clients are ugly old men who want to treat women badly and that sex workers need protection from them, but clients are diverse across the board. Even now, I don't think he entered the relationship to hurt me. I don't think I went into things expecting to fall so hard, either.

Our relationship was not a political statement; it was just a girl loving a boy who didn't love her as much. The trauma had already been done before I ever met him, by a society who told me I was worthless because of my job.

If I am one of the lucky ones, imagine the stigma, shaming, and cruelty rained down on those more marginalized than I am.