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Author and sex worker Tilly Lawless reveals biggest misconception about industry

A Sydney-based sex worker and writer has revealed how she became a sex worker, and shared an unexpected truth about her sex life.

In Tilly Lawless’ debut novel, Nothing But My Body, the 26-year-old narrator contemplates how sex work is similar to many other jobs — an athlete, a nurse, a therapist, a babysitter — until her reverie is interrupted by the fact she’s washing semen off her hands.

The book is a work of fiction — but Lawless, like her protagonist, is a young, queer sex worker from northern NSW. She moved to Sydney after graduating high school — and when Centrelink didn’t cut it when covering the cost of living during her first year of university, she turned to the sex work industry.

“In my second year, I was like, ‘What can I do? What’s meant to be financially lucrative and won’t eat into my study time?’” she told to news.com.au.

So she Googled escorting, and hasn’t looked back — moving from working as an escort at first to a massage parlour, then a brothel, back to private escorting and then back to brothel work.

An industry where the work involves being put in such a vulnerable position with strangers could seem overwhelming to some, but for Lawless it’s been “a piece of cake”.

“That’s not to say that it’s not difficult for other people, that was just for me. I think that’s because I’m gay, too, so the first client I slept with was only the second man I’d slept with in my life, and it was actually just so easy. When you’ve been sleeping with mainly women, sleeping with men is a piece of cake,” she laughed.

“They come so much easier — you just have to put yourself in sexy positions. You actually don’t have to make much of an effort, so for me I found it an anticlimax when I started sex work, because I was like, ‘Oh, lol, they come so easily’.”

Having been in the industry for nine years now, Lawless says she’s become far more skilled at managing clients than when she younger, and “managing different scenarios if [the client] is difficult or have too much ego”.

Instead, the biggest hurdle she’s faced, just like every other millennial, is burnout.

“I had no awareness of burnout, you know? To me it was, as I said, a piece of cake. I didn’t properly burn out until maybe three or four years into the industry … So I wouldn’t say it’s gotten harder with time, but I have had to deal with burnout as has anyone who’s done full time after a few years,” she said.

Her job has also made her “far more celibate than people would expect me to be in my private life, and purely interested in sex with emotional connection”.

While Lawless says there’s always been a delineation between herself and her work, as well as an “emotional separation” from her clients — something she notes can be more difficult for her friends in the industry who are heterosexual — she now “hardly” has sex in her private life.

“Because I cannot — you know, sometimes I have ‘fun’ sex for work, like most of the sex isn’t good sex but sometimes it is good or fun — and I’m like, ‘Why would I have sex for free when I could have good and fun sex that I’m paid for’,” she explained.

“So I’m literally only interested in sleeping with someone if I have a bit of an emotional connection with them. I feel like if I didn’t do sex work, I’d have a lot more casual sex or I would date, but I have no interest in going on dates with people or meeting new people because every time I meet a client it’s like a blind date.”

As to whether it’s every created issues in her personal romantic relationships, Lawless says it hasn’t — likely because she’s dated women who aren’t threatened by the fact that she sleeps with men for work, and also because she’s often hated people within the industry.

The one time a partner did get insecure was when she dated another working girl who “would get jealous if I made more money than her”.

“In dating me, if we were working the same shift and I was getting picked by more guys, she would pick a fight with me because she was upset that I was getting picked more than her,” Lawless recalled.

On the side, Lawless has worked to overturn negative public perceptions of sex workers through her social media posts — sprawling captions that detail a work booking or a queer party she has attended, her love life or her hometown — and website columns.

Asked whether it was a conscious effort for her to help destigmatise a workforce long relegated to stereotypes of girls with “daddy issues” and fantasies of Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, Lawless says it was far more “inadvertent” at first.

In fact, she went viral around the world after responding to an article by an Australian publication that declared Roberts’ aforementioned character wasn’t “the face of prostitution”; instead it was the “face” of “this woman beaten up in a gutter or whatever”.

“I thought I was just saying it to my followers and then it went bigger than that, so I was like, ‘Oh f**k, now the internet knows I’m a sex worker and that’s never going to go away because it’s my real name and face’,” Lawless said.

“And then I was like, well I’m in a position now that so many sex workers are terrified of because they might lose custody of their children or lose their normal job, or lose a partner or family. And I was like, well I’ve already risked all that, so I felt like I had this obligation to utilise that in whatever way I could.”

In the near-decade since she entered the industry — which she has no intention of leaving any time soon — Lawless also worked on her book, with a second slated for release later this year, and the draft of a third currently in the works.

Nothing But My Body may explore the life of a sex worker and in part be based on Lawless’ own experiences and observations, “I deliberately wanted to write fiction to be like, sex workers can write beyond memoir”.

“I wanted sex work to literally be just part of the atmosphere in the same way that Sydney was the atmosphere,” she added.

“Whereas I wanted the actual topics that the character is interrogating to be romantic love, and mental health, and queer community, and what it means to create a family and friendship and all that kind of stuff. I didn’t actually want sex work to be the problem topic.”

Especially important was the theme of friendship — which “for queer people is really important, or was historically important and still is to many, because perhaps their family didn’t accept them and so friendship formed the place of family and became that lifelong structure they could rely on”.

“I also know that a lot of queers are more critical of the kind of romantic love structure of like a partner that you’re with forever — and so I think when you become critical of those insular partnerships, like the nuclear family, you really start to celebrate and rely on friendship a lot more,” Lawless said.

“I think that friendship is one of the things that are long-lasting and we need to nurture, rather than a relationship with one person that you exclude everyone else from.”

Nothing But My Body was released on August 3 2021, and is available to order here.

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