Consent matters: sex work, kink, and the consent of the client and top

I have long said that sex workers are pretty much the experts when it comes to navigating consent in ways that make bioethicists look like bumbling amateurs.  For some sex workers, deciding whether or not to consent to one or other explicit or implied activity is something that they do several times in one shift–assuming that one isn’t stuck on the Tuesday afternoon sprawl in front of Jeremy Kyle and Judge Rinder.  Rarely–perhaps because of the erroneous perception of sex work as being an inherently coercive activity–do we consider the client’s consent, and the sorts of particular contexts that can interfere with that.  Our Saturday night inglorious moment made me rethink that.

On Saturday, a few of our girls had been drinking in the company of a client who, seemingly, had been on the sauce pretty much all day.  The client is a regular of our parlours, a decent sort of a chap, the sort of regular you’d want as a working girl–polite, entertaining, clean, moneyed.  So the girls hustled him and–without the sort of detail that would lead to identification–let’s just say that the client did not end up with what he wanted but instead was paraded naked and drunk through the corridors of the parlour, no services given that he had asked for, and charged pretty well for the humiliation. I’ve no issue with humiliation: most of my own clients request–indeed, insist–on it.  But this client was not there for humiliation.  He was there (at most, given he’d been hustled for hours) for a bidouble, sexy time where he could get his end away in the privacy of a room for three.  This did not happen for him.

Of course, we will be refunding the client.  Of course, we are eating humble pie. But the girls don’t see it like this.  They think he was a job, and they should be paid for it.  But the salient fact is this: he did not consent to all that happened to him and, therefore, he consented to none of it.  Most factions of the kink community, as fractured as we can be, are neurotic about consent.  Whether you’re into SSAC mantras or, like me (pragmatist that I am), RACK, or whatever other acronym to inform how we carry on with mechanical restraints, rope, clamps, whips, pumps, wands and other dreadful things you wouldn’t want to find in your mother’s closet, consent is at the heart of things.  Even here, though, I wonder if we give much thought to the consent of the top.  Again, as with sex work, consent seems to be the domain of the bottom, of the sex worker.  Tops (and clients) rarely have their consent examined.

This needs to change.  I do not appreciate humiliation, but I could have wept at the sight, on our security cameras, of that client, half-naked, his hands covering himself, marched up and down the corridors, 5am on a Sunday morning, by a gaggle of half-witted, unprofessional women.  I felt utterly ashamed.  And it made me realise that there have been times when, both professionally and personally, I have felt obliged to deliver services I did not feel entirely comfortable with at that particular time. I feel proud that, as sex workers, we can help to define consent.  I also feel proud that many of us who practice kink, professionally or personally, place consent at the top of the decision chain.  But without considering the consent of all parties, we may as well admit we’re just paying lip service.  And that risks all of us.