There's much more work than sex in sex work | Opinion | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

There's much more work than sex in sex work

Selling panties is not just taking them off and stuffing them in an envelope

There's much more work than sex in sex work
CP photo: Jared Wickerham
Jessie Sage
If you’ve never done sex work, you might be led to focus on the sex at the expense of the work. In popular media, sex work is variously characterized as easy money, as seedy liaisons, or as glamorous rendezvous. What is typically missing from these representations is the extensive planning, preparation, and organization behind the scenes of every interaction/transaction.

This invisible labor is part of all sectors of the industry. It is easy to log into a cam room and watch a model flirt without recognizing the careful attention put into camera angles, lighting, set design, etc. Similarly, it is easy to call a phone sex operator without thinking about the work she put into crafting an ad, setting the tone, and catering to specific desires. This is true of in-person, full-service work, stripping, and all sorts of online sex work. It is also true of low-key sex work like panty sales.

Since Orange is the New Black made panty sales a central story line in Season 3, many non-sex worker friends and acquaintances have confessed to me they sometime think about selling panties as an easy way to make a few bucks. After all, many of us wear panties every day, so it hardly seems like work. You just have to stick them in an envelope, right?

Because few things in sex work are as simple as they seem, I decided to finally take on this question and reach out to several sex workers who sell panties. I asked them if it is really easy money. Spoiler alert: They resoundingly said no.

Online sex worker Lillian Jane said, “I read about selling panties couple years back and I thought that it was an interesting and easy way to make money! WRONG.” She goes on, “Panty selling isn’t very steady unless you’ve built a steady stream of regular clients. In my personal experience it's hard work, and some days I feel discouraged but other times I’ll be glad when I’ve made a few sales.”

Part of what Lillian Jane is suggesting here is that one of the things that customers are looking for when they buy panties is a connection with someone they have a pre-existing relationship with. The majority of these sales are from established clients. Cam model Rosie agrees. For her, panty selling wasn’t her entry into sex work, rather it came from the work she was already doing. She says, “I started selling panties because of a regular’s request.”

A couple of questions arise from this. Why is it that customers buy panties, and what is it that they are buying when they buy panties? If they were simply buying the panties themselves, any panty from any woman would do. But as Lillian Jane and Rosie have both pointed out, most sales are from customers they already have an established relationship with.

A panty customer who goes by Joe on Twitter said, “As a buyer, for me, I love the smell of a woman. I’ve only bought them from women I’ve interacted with, in particular cam girls.”

A customer who goes by iworshipSTELLA expanded upon that point, saying that panties are a way of having a closer connection to the cam models that you follow. He says, “Millions of men visit cam sites and online sources for sexual release without leaving home. Panties add an element of reality to that fantasy.” He also points out that while the panties give him a sense of connection with their wearer, the digital boundary is still maintained. He says, “Dirty panties (worn not so much dirty) allowed me to connect with someone without meeting them.”

According to Rosie, “Not all sex work customers like ‘hardware’ (as panties are often referred to). But for those that do, I think it’s about breaking that barrier of that screen. It’s more real to them.”

Cam model Anna Cherry explains how panties serve to break this screen barrier, saying, “[Customers] want something close to me, although mostly it seems about the smell (maybe even taste) that they can inhale while pleasuring themselves to enhance the experience (by getting that elusive magic of special hormone release when having sex with another person).” She goes on, “It’s that humanness, that womanly smell, the pheromones of another person whom they find attractive in some way and experiencing that. Olfactory satisfaction is key, I would say.”

This personal connection often extends beyond the transaction of the panties themselves. Lillian Jane says, “These guys who buy panties I feel are more respectful than guys in real life. They respect your rates and pay and are not judgmental at all. It’s sort of a trust thing too when they send you their addresses. I think in this business it is transactional but you really do build some sort of relationship with them.” Of those relationships, she remarks, “I will get some that buy from me for a long time and we check in on each other from time to time. Nobody wants to be treated like they’re just a wallet.”

Beyond maintaining a close tie with panty customers, the sex workers I have spoken with also talked about the emotional labor that goes into making these sales. Lillian Jane comments, “I meet so many men who are shy or ashamed about their panty fetish, and I help them open up and make them understand that it’s OK.” It is not just selling the panties, in other words, sex workers who sell panties also work with their clients to normalize their clients’ desires and open up a safe space to discuss them. She concludes, “It is hard work and mentally taxing sometimes.”

There is a large market for panty selling, and like every sector of the sex industry, most sex workers will find clients whose desires line up what they offer. But that doesn’t mean the work is easy. Selling panties is so much more than taking them off at night and sticking them in an envelope. It involves building a brand and an audience, cultivating relationships, and becoming a safe space where customers can feel comfortable sharing their desires.

Circling back to my friends and acquaintances are attracted to the idea of selling panties: if it is something you are really interested in, there is a market for you. But if you think it will be easy money, think again.

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