There is a common framing of sex work, where people suggest that sex worker’s bodies are being “purchased” or “rented” when someone pays us for sex. This is not the case. Those of us who sell sex are doing exactly that – selling a sexual service, which will include certain things and not automatically include others. Agreeing to have sex for money does not mean we have no boundaries and is not an agreement to any sex act the client might think of, or to various rough or violent acts.
For me personally, I experience clients pushing my boundaries the most with several specific acts. Either clients will not ask and will simply attempt to do the act without my consent, having not agreed upon it, or will repeatedly ask me and try to wear me down. These specific acts are: sex without a condom, anal sex, and choking.
Choking might seem out of place in that list to a lot of people. It’s important to keep in mind that trying to push someone to engage in any sex act they haven’t agreed to is a violent action, so the fact that “choking” seems out of place there is only due to the way society might frame that as more physically violent. All of these acts are assertions of power, which is what sexual assault is about. They want to exert power over someone they see as vulnerable.
Often clients will wait until the middle of sex to initiate an action that they know or suspect I would not agree to. When a client starts choking you in the middle of sex, there aren’t a lot of options. Saying “stop” may invigorate them or cause them to get more violent, there’s the added fact that they’ll often cut off your air and you’ll have a freeze response, and often it does not go on for a long period of time. They may do so briefly and then continue as normal, before trying it again. Refusing them has made clients belligerent and even to do it more before finally stopping, when previously they might have let up after only a few seconds. It’s most common for clients to try this sort of thing when they’re about to finish, and allowing it for a couple of seconds can mean them finishing and leaving, whereas trying to stop them means dealing with their pushing of boundaries for longer as well as risk of worse violence.
This is part of why narratives that sex workers are being “sold” or that we’re being “rented” are harmful. Clients, or people who will become clients, see those things too. Even when you’re talking about the poor treatment of sex workers being abhorrent, if you dehumanize us and misrepresent the nature of selling sex, clients will take that to mean that it is expected for them to harm us. Clients who try to strangle me are not the same as those who simply pay me for an hour and respect all of my boundaries! They should not be spoken about as though they are all the same.
Clients who do harm like this usually aren’t actually assuming consent. They might claim they were, that they misinterpreted things or that they figured anal and choking were part of the service, but it doesn’t seem to be true that they really think we’ll be fine with it. Plenty of men don’t read my profile to see which services I do any don’t offer, and yet even in cases where it’s possible that happened they will be tentative in pushing my boundaries or try to distract me before attempting a sex act they haven’t asked me about. This suggests to me that they don’t think I would otherwise agree.
Outside of these extremes, there are more minor things that clients seem to assume they can do. There seems to be less active malice and manipulation, so I find it easier to believe they think I will be fine with it. The problem then arises that they are so unused to discussing things with their partners that it doesn’t even occur to them to ask. Clients will feel free to leave marks, either in the form of hickeys or of bruises from holding too tightly. It can happen quickly enough that by the time I tell them not to do so, they’ve already left marks on me and the point is moot. This is an issue, particularly since many sex workers will have another clients before those marks have faded. A client giving a smack in the middle of sex that is far too hard could mean a mark that the next clients sees and is put off by. That can affect our income.
Clients need to talk to us and gain reassurance of consent for various acts. This doesn’t mean checking every few seconds, but it does mean an active consideration of our comfort and asking before performing a new or different sex act. If in doubt, don’t do it. When a client pays a sex worker for their services for an hour, that doesn’t make them suddenly the owner of our bodies for that time.
Hence, it is important that even when discussing situations where sex workers have been abused, we don’t fall back on language like “sold” or “rented”. Call these things what they are. If a sex worker is under the control of a pimp and is being forced to see clients, that should be said. If a sex worker is being abused by clients whilst selling sex, describing it that way gives people a much more accurate description than telling people they were “rented” by violent men. The latter description implies that the violence is expected whenever a person sells sex. I certainly don’t experiences violence from a majority of my clients, though the minority of times I do causes me significant harm.
Consent cannot be assumed from a sex worker you’ve paid any more than it can be assumed from someone who has agreed to have sex with their partner for the first time – it is fine to have an expectation of sex, it is not fine to assume that means you can do whatever you want with the other person.