Sex work is shrouded in misconceptions. Jane Blanchard, who works in the industry and lives in Bushwick, is no stranger to them.
“There’s an assumption that we’re powerless, that we’re in the industry because of a vulnerable situation,” Blanchard said. “I came into this voluntarily because I needed more money than I was getting. It was an informed decision.”
Two years ago, Blanchard (who asked that I not use her real name) was like any other freshman just starting college. She was busy adjusting to life as a student, balancing the demands of a full course load with a job she had as a nanny. She found that she wasn’t earning quite enough as she’d like, so she began charging men to spend time with her to earn some extra cash.
“I started in this way where I didn’t really think of it as work,” Blanchard said. “I’m comfortable with my body, comfortable with men, and so [I thought], I’ll go on these dates and get paid for it.”
Gradually Blanchard began to establish herself as a professional, publishing ads online and gaining a roster of regular clients.
“I saw an opportunity to do better,” she told me.
Blanchard has been living in Bushwick for less than a year. Because she works mostly in Manhattan and downtown Brooklyn and goes to school full time, she doesn’t explore the neighborhood much; but many of the people she’s met in the sex-work community are active in the art scene, she says. They’ve opened her eyes to the world of sex-positive performance art, both in Bushwick and around the city. When she has free time, she enjoys the Bushwick burlesque scene, and particularly likes attending the kinky burlesque shows at Bizarre.
When I first started talking to Blanchard, I was somewhat nervous that I was going to ask something ignorant or say something offensive; however, she was patient with my questions and open to sharing details about her work and life. She struck me as self-assured in an understated and reserved type of way. She spoke gently but confidently, and her answers to my questions were, at times, so honest and well-articulated that I forgot she was only twenty years old.
“I’m not going to stand up here and say I love my job,” she told me. “At the end of the day, it’s work, and you complain about it like any other job.”
After a couple of years in the industry, Blanchard has built a solid business. She earns anywhere from $700–$900 a week, charging an hourly rate between $300 and $450. As she talks about what she’s learned from her first few years in sex work, it doesn’t sound all that different from the skills any young person develops in the first few years of their career.
“It’s really cool and scary to own a business, but it does give you this autonomy where I have business skills, marketing skills, negotiation skills. So, I can be selective and take it where I want,” Blanchard said.
She has also gained a new perspective on men and their attitudes towards women and sex. Most of her clients are straight white men, but she has been surprised by the age range of her clients, who have been as young as 20 and as old as 80.
“[Men] don’t change with age necessarily at all. I get the same bullshit with the ones towards the end of their lives that have had wives … as I do from the 20-year-olds,” she told me, chuckling a bit.
new laws make it harder to stay safe
Blanchard admits that violence is an ever-present threat in her job, and she’s come up with rules to keep herself safe.
“One basic idea around staying safe is time: Hold out a week,” she told me. “Talk by phone, video, social media. [Take] small deposits. And the end result is a client that has an online footprint of talking to you.”
Blanchard also uses online forums dedicated to keeping sex workers safe. VerifyHim allows sex workers to check whether a potential client has a criminal record by entering his phone number. There are also sites that offer “provider references,” where potential clients provide names of other sex workers who can vouch for them.
SESTA-FOSTA, a bill that Trump signed into law earlier this month, threatens the livelihood – and lives – of Blanchard and other sex workers across the country. Historically, website publishers have not been held accountable for content that their users create. In an effort to crack down on sex trafficking, SESTA-FOSTA creates an exception to that rule in the case of ads for sex work. For example, if someone posts an ad as a sex worker on Craigslist, Craigslist could now be held liable for it.
As a result, many of the most popular sites where sex workers advertise, which is a major way that they are able to safely find and screen clients, have shut down. Safety forums that sex workers use to warn each other about notorious clients are also shutting down for fear that they could be prosecuted under this new law.
SESTA-FOSTA was written with the good intention of curbing sex trafficking, but it actually harms voluntary sex workers, Blanchard told me; the law makes it more difficult to connect with potential clients in a safe way.
“With SESTA-FOSTA, a lot of people are just ditching their preventative measures,” Blanchard said. “There are a lot of rules that I’ve had that I don’t feel like I’ll be following.”
It’s not apparent that the law is going to make it any easier to identify and prosecute sex traffickers, either.
“If you think of it this way, anything that is pushed further underground is more susceptible to abuse and exploitation,” Blanchard said.
If there’s one benefit of SESTA-FOSTA, it’s that it has brought the sex work industry together in solidarity as never before. Blanchard has attended meetings where powerful women with connections to law and tech have offered up resources to help other sex workers find ways to stay safe. It’s also reignited demands for full decriminalization of sex work. Blanchard, who is aware of the advantages of being a voluntary sex worker and a cisgender white woman, explains that before SESTA-FOSTA, many sex workers had abandoned that push for decriminalization altogether.
“It makes me embarrassed that decriminalization wasn’t talked about as much as I would have liked to have seen it talked about,” Blanchard told me.
the road ahead
The passage of the law has also cleared the way for new conversations in Blanchard’s personal life. Her parents know what she does for a living, but they have a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. A couple of weeks ago, in light of SESTA-FOSTA, her mom reached out to find out more about the implications of the law. It was the first time they had spoken explicitly about Blanchard’s job.
“That opened up a further conversation around, ‘Hey, what exactly happens with your work and how do you do it?’” Blanchard said. “We had a really long conversation that ended well.”
Right now, Blanchard is taking a few weeks off to focus on finals and school, where she’s working towards a career in special education. She’s not in a huge rush to leave the sex work industry, though.
“The dream job is similar to what I do now: working one on one with people,” she told me. “I’m better at the interpersonal.”
“It is something that still feels worth it to me. It would be different if I had a bad experience or a series of bad experiences, but I’ve been lucky to avoid that,” she said.
Still, it’s exhausting in a way that’s different from any other type of work.
“It’s so, in some ways, unlike other jobs in that I can’t necessarily go home from it and sleep soundly at night.”
Cover image courtesy of Gianandrea Villa