The people for whom sex is part of their job
The advisor, the sex toy manufacturer, the sex worker and the burlesque dancer
We speak to four people for whom sex, and sexuality, play major roles in their daily lives
‘I advise young people about sex’
Paul Scott, 34
I lead discussions around sexual health and relationships, working in the Edinburgh area, with classes of up to 15 pupils, aged between 15 and 16. Sessions are open and informal.
I generally speak to all-male groups about topics including relationships, STIs, sexuality, self-esteem and attitudes to pornography. We also have a practical demonstration of how to put on a condom using a prosthetic penis. I usually work with a group for about four hours, after which I hope they have enough knowledge to lead happy, healthy, unpressured sex lives.
The level of understanding among teenagers about sex and sexual health is still quite poor. The same myths endure. Pornography is only adding to the confusion by offering an unrealistic portrayal of what teenagers’ sexual encounters might be like – it increases anxieties around how they should look or behave.
I try to challenge perceptions of how body parts should look by showing the class a series of photographs of vaginas, penises and breasts, of all shapes and sizes. I ask them to choose the breasts they find the most attractive, and they consistently pick the perfectly round, fake breasts. They find the image of an unshaven vagina repellent, and assume that shaven testicles are the norm. Again, it all comes back to the negative influence of porn.
No matter what they ask, I try to respond to groups’ questions sensitively. I find it’s best to remain impassive and to keep emphasising that it’s positive to be asking such questions. I do sometimes find myself doing the same things in my personal life. A lot of my friends, who are in their 20s and 30s, are equally clueless about STIs – a mark of how poor their sex education was as teenagers perhaps?
I don’t get embarrassed talking about sex. Discussions are often graphic and pupils will try to shock me with inappropriate comments, but I manage to stifle my laughter and challenge any offensive remarks. I don’t talk about my own sex life, I think it would be unprofessional and also unhelpful, particularly as, being an adult, my experiences may not seem relevant to their lives. However, I still believe that teenagers prefer to get sex advice from a teacher, rather than their peers. It’s not only helpful, but necessary.
‘I manufacture sex toys’
Stephanie Baker, 25
I’m the managing director of Fun Factory UK Ltd, an erotic toy manufacturer based in Manchester. We ship to locations around the world, as well as the UK, and it’s interesting to see the demands of different markets. For example, the British don’t really like our animal–styled vibrators. Patchy Paul, Dolly Dolphin, Dinky Digger: none of these items sell very well here, but they’re best sellers in Europe and Asia. Whether a product will be popular is as much about the culture of that country as the design itself.
Here in the UK, our top three best sellers at the moment are the Semirealistic Smartvibe vibrator, Smartballs Teneo Duo pelvic floor exerciser and the Cobra Libre, a unique vibrator for men. The Semirealistic is an old favourite and has been top of the list for a few years now: its success lies in the way it hints at a natural phallic shape but doesn’t copy it exactly. The bright colours and ridges add extra appeal and make it different enough to be attractive to both those who don’t like realistic shapes and those who do. From our research and feedback from customers, we have found that a completely realistic toy, with skin tone and other intricate detailing such as veins, is off-putting to women (our main target group) in general, but certain realistic features are actually appealing.
Our feedback usually comes from a group of testers we regularly use who are based in Germany. They are made from a mix of people, singles and couples and they feedback to us via product focus groups and questionnaires.
A common misconception about this industry is that sex toys and pornography are closely linked. Nowadays, women are the main consumers of erotic toys (as opposed to porn, which is bought mainly by men), but they still have to buy them in either a few select high street locations, which may seem a bit too public, or in pornography stores, which are often not very women-friendly environments. Shopping online raises another hazard: the quality of erotic toys is generally very low, both in terms of design and build, and customers are often disappointed that their purchase does not meet their expectations for the price they paid for it. Thankfully, some women-friendly boutiques have started to open up, such as Organic Pleasures in Edinburgh, but the law really needs to be updated for this to become more widespread.
‘I’m a sex worker’
Female, early 40s (anonymous)
I tend to work with clients in their mid-40s to early-60s. They are usually affluent, or at least have a reasonable disposable income. Many are actually single; either just out of a relationship after a separation or divorce, or they’ve lost a partner. Some want to experience what it is like with another woman to boost their confidence prior to dating. Those gents that are in a relationship visit me for human contact and to have someone to chat with. I have some clients that don’t require sex, but just want a woman’s company.
You would be surprised how often men just want to talk and have a gentle cuddle – how non-sexual a large part of the job actually is. What is surprising is how many men are totally clueless on how to please a woman, or even just relax themselves in the bedroom.
For me, there is a massive difference between my work and my sex life with my partner. My work is work, and I am pragmatic about it. I see it as non-sexual, even though I provide a sexual service. I have never been turned on by a client. Sex work is at the opposite end of the scale to the loving I do with my partner.
Health is one of the main issues in the job, and it’s important to be aware of the risks of infections and continuously take precautions. This is not limited to using condoms only; it’s also about how you actually work and the type of work. Keeping safe can sometimes be in the choreography of a move to ensure that hands or mouth do not become possible sources of infection. Gloves sometimes need to be used. You need to be aware of where hands are, and what is happening next.
Media representations of sex workers can be both harmful and helpful. The Belle de Jour series has certainly glamourised my work, but the actual book and blog were more honest. I find that newspapers rarely do any proper research and tend to go for headlines and pictures that scare or degrade. Their articles have to have impact value, not necessarily lasting value. Those that view the job negatively do so because they are totally unaware of what’s actually involved in sex work. It is a job like any other job – we go to work, carry out the remit, get paid, come home, act normal.
I don’t see any justification in any negativity, however, I am acutely aware of it, and therefore keep my work private. My friends and family don’t know. They would understand, but the information would spread, and it then would become everyone’s business to know my business.
‘I’m a burlesque dancer’
Gypsy Charms, 35
I run the Academy of Burlesque and Cabaret with my business partner Jane Kelly (Viva Misadventure). We have taught burlesque and cabaret workshops, hen parties and classes across Europe since 2005. Prior to that, I was an exotic dancer for about ten years. I also recently submitted a PhD thesis on striptease in Scottish strip clubs, ‘The Private, the Public and the Pubic: Striptease and Naked Power in Scotland’.
People often ask the difference between what you see in a strip club and what you see on a burlesque stage. They have similar elements: both involve removing clothing whether the intention is to sexually arouse, to represent ideals of femininity or to play on an audience’s perceived sexual norms through taking your clothes off. The difference is largely to do with venue and how graphic the movement is. In burlesque you tend not to do full nude and audiences are more mixed. It’s also about intention – is the act supposed to sexually titillate and arouse or be aesthetically pleasing?
In parody-based burlesque, you take a character (often a celebrity) and parody their image – sometimes in terms of their sexuality, but not always. For example, I’ve done a burlesque of George Michael set in a toilet. You can even get political satires – I know someone who does a Margaret Thatcher burlesque. They’re not necessarily sexy acts, but they are funny and play with the audience’s expectations.
I’ve seen occasions when people have done parody-based work and the audience were expecting a girl with a bunch of feathers and were slightly disappointed. I always check with the promoter or event organiser as to what they would like and give them a choice of different acts. Above all, it’s important to realise and remember that burlesque is much more than sexy dancing and ladies taking their clothes off.
I wouldn’t say that sex is part of my job per se; rather that working with people’s concepts of sexuality is part of my job. It’s not my own sexuality that I’m demonstrating, but a construct of what society has created. If people had sexual desires towards me I’d find that surprising. On the whole, people usually say that they enjoyed the show because it was really funny or that it was beautiful, which is always a compliment.