#433: What if my past as a sex worker hurts my current employment chances?

Hello CA,

I am finishing up a PhD in the social sciences, and will be on the academic job market soon. I really want to teach more than anything, either at the university or high school level. 

I need advice with regards to something in my past which may or may not come up as I look for positions and hopefully begin teaching: for several years, I did various forms of sex work in order to survive financially. This work falls within a grey area in terms of the legality of it in the place I was living at the time. 

Although I worked under an fake name, was never arrested, and did not consent to clients taking photographs or video of me, I know that it is possible that my images are online, and/or that I could be involuntarily “outed” some other way. This causes me a great deal of anxiety, especially in light of recent stories about teachers being fired when their involvement in sex work was discovered. 

I have no shame or guilt about how I used to get by (I don’t consider myself to have had much of a “choice,” in the matter but that’s a different discussion!) However, I’m aware that some may think my participation in the sex industry somehow diminishes my teaching abilities or sense of judgement. 

At this point I am wondering if I should have some sort of response prepared should the issue arise – and I guess I don’t even know if it would be better to deny my past (lie) or defend it. I don’t know what my “rights” to privacy are in a situation like this, or even the first thing I’d do if anything surfaced, now or ten years down the line. 

In the meantime, I feel like I’m carrying a big, dark secret around, which is isolating and stressful. After extensive research, I’ve determined that the area where I live does not have any resources for current or former sex workers, so I’m on my own trying to sort this out. What would you do in my situation? 

-Good Teacher

Dear Good Teacher:

Anyone who went into a room with you during your life as a sex worker was there just as much as you were there. Were their entire lives & career prospects & worth as human beings transformed by that act? Did a professor who hired your services back in the day become less of a professor because of it? Did he turn every class after that day into a lecture on “doing it”? Did he try to influence all his students to go hire or be sex workers, too? No? He probably carried on quietly being good at his job, the way you will be good at your future job. Why should someone’s entire adult life be relevant to their job application, anyway?

People can be jerks, and they can really latch onto a faux scandal and puff themselves up at the importance of vulnerable people, and the culture is definitely sexist. So your worries that your past could haunt your future aren’t misplaced – a mean-spirited, judgmental person could do a lot of damage to you with information about your past. I don’t have an easy fix for the way that sex workers carry more stigma than the people who hire them or consume pornography do. Still, I think it is very unlikely that your past will have an effect on your current job search, so maybe I can help you feel less anxious about this particular aspect of what is a stressful, competitive, and difficult venture for everyone who looks for academic employment in the social sciences.

True Story: There is a porn video where someone who looks EXACTLY like one of my friends is doing…stuff. A former boyfriend sent it to her (Pro-tip: Never do this). The physical resemblance is so uncanny that my friend joked that she might not remember doing porn but definitely would have remembered becoming fluent in Russian.

My friend has the privilege of joking that you do not feel that you have, but look at it this way: The massive amount of porn in the world feels like a curse to you right now, because you think “Chances are, pictures of me are out there somewhere. There’s just too much for that not to be the case.” But the massive amounts of porn in the world are also your shield. If images & video of you do exist somewhere, the chances that someone who will be on a search committee has a) seen it and b) will both recognize and remember that it’s you, ten years later and c) get past the infinite amounts of plausible deniability that you have on your side and actually put your name to that face in a way that can affect your employment chances are very, very small. Even in the above example, where someone who knew my friend saw the porn and then was crass enough to pass it on to her, NOBODY believes it is actually her, not even the guy who sent it.

Something you always have on your side is “How gross are you (coworker, future employer) for emailing me pornographic images and telling me that they look like me? This makes me very, very uncomfortable and is completely unprofessional and out of line.” cc: Human Resources. Anyone who did that should be crushed like a sexually-harassing bug, and the question of whether the images are actually of you should never come into it. “Do you email everyone links to your personal masturbation stash, or just coworkers?

Let’s talk worst case scenarios:

#1: Say you apply for a teaching position. Someone on the search committee used to be a client of yours, so they know FOR SURE that it was you. How could they out you to everyone without outing themselves? My prediction is that they will not do that; they will find a pretext to prefer the application of another candidate. Is it discrimination? Yes. Is it actionable, provable discrimination? No.

Non-comforting solution: Jobs in the social sciences are hard to come by and the process is extremely grueling and competitive for everyone. You will never even know if your past was a factor in getting the position. Maybe they just liked another candidate better. I think you would do well to assume that if you don’t get a certain position or interview, it had nothing to do with your past and everything to do with the shit job market. This scenario is extremely, extremely unlikely and if it did come up it would be a weird, one-time fluke kind of thing and it would not follow you from search to search, institution to institution.

#2: Say you are already working somewhere. Say someone comes forward with a rumor that you used to be a sex worker, and it gets to your employer, and they ask you to respond in some way. Say it’s a little whisper campaign, and you feel conversations stopping when you come into a room and lots of weird, sidelong glances. Or, since this is a worst-case scenario, say that you work in a high school and the person bringing the rumor forward is one of the parents. Say that the media is interested in “allegations that a well-respected high school teacher used to be a sex worker!” and a shitstorm is a-brewing.

I think this is all extremely unlikely, but you asked in your email if you should have some kind of prepared response ready. Any response is going to be so situation-dependent, right? A good boss who knows & supports your work would completely ignore (and tell everyone to completely ignore) the rumor. A bad, insecure boss will run to you to try to find out if it’s true. Maybe keep “And this is relevant to (work topic) how, exactly?” at the ready. My best advice is that most people will be looking at your reactions more than anything else, and they will take their cue largely from how you react. Make anyone who would come after you with this show their hand completely before you tip any of yours.

You shouldn’t have to lie or deny your history. But you also shouldn’t have to disclose if you don’t want to, and you definitely shouldn’t have to do it on anyone else’s schedule or anyone else’s reasons when you are not comfortable.

I can think of four concrete steps you could maybe take right now to alleviate your anxiety about this.

1) Do an employment background check on yourself. Hire someone reputable do do a standard employment-check on you and report to you in confidence anything they find. If anything about your past life shows up, you can deal with it on a case-by-case basis. If nothing shows up, relax.

2) Find a lawyer. You want to educate yourself about your rights, employment discrimination, about libel, slander, defamation of character, harassment, etc., and you also want the number of a friendly lawyer or two you could consult if things did go haywire. Did any of the research you did on organizations list resources for legal advice?

3) Find a counselor or other safe space. The likelihood of someone actually outing you or of your history of sex work impacting your job search is, in my opinion, very small. But the anxiety is big. Talk to someone. You said you found no local resources. Could you find a hotline or online community here? Do something to make sure that you are less alone with this.

4) Write your whole story and put it aside. Get the story out of your head, lock it away behind a password. Someday you are going to be a big-time tenured Somebody, and it is going to maybe be time to tell the whole story of your life because it will help you to tell it and it will help other people to know it. Think of the amount of porn in the world. Then think of the number of people who work in porn or sex work for a while and then transition into other careers. Maybe down the road you can be the one to help them. Do it (or don’t) on your own time in a way that feels right for you. 

I congratulate you on finishing your degree and wish you luck on your job search. I hope you can let your fears go and really enjoy working in a field you love.



34 thoughts on “#433: What if my past as a sex worker hurts my current employment chances?

  1. Good on you for finishing your degree!

    As a practical note, it would be useful for you to know what information a search committee would turn up on you, even outside of your past as a sex worker. You might consider having a background check done on yourself using one of the resources available to people looking to hire in-home help, nannies and suchlike. There is probably a company in your area if you want to use a local rather than on-line company. You don’t have to tell them what they’re looking for, just that you’re afraid that there’s some dirt on you online and would the perform the most extensive background check on you that they can. It’s unlikely that they’ll turn anything up, but whether they do or they don’t, you’ll be able to breathe a sigh of relief knowing what is out there.

    I once had a basic $20 background check done on myself because of a minor criminal matter and I needed to make sure that my record was expunged like it was supposed to be. People do checks on themselves for all sorts of reasons, particularly in jobs where minor financial or legal matters can prevent you from getting employment or from rising in a given field. You can do anything from a basic, public records type search on yourself up to full financials and facial-recognition searches.

    But I don’t think you should live in abject terror of something turning up. It would be useful to know what’s out there. But your past isn’t the end all and be all of your life. Unless you intend to teach at a very conservative or religious institution, if someone does try to start stuff about past indiscretions, it’s unlikely that there will be much fallout from it without large amounts of proof (which is unlikely to be in existence given the care you took).

  2. Here’s the thing–you’re probably not going to be teaching in the K-12 field unless that’s what you specifically trained to do (most K-12 teachers have a BA or BS with a substantial education component by state law unless they’re teaching in a private school. Some get an MA or MS, but very few a PhD unless they’re in administration, and that’s something like Ed Leadership.) The public morality rules school districts put on things probably won’t apply to you. So, we’re talking universities in your case, probably.

    As long as you fill out applications honestly about jobs for which you had a W-2, and perhaps to cover gaps put in some self-employment lines like “tutoring”, this will not be an issue for reasons the advice above suggests. What WILL catch you up is anything verifiable that you don’t disclose on an application, because a lot of generic state laws about public employment require termination if a discrepancy is found (this has happened to people who left off the pizza delivery job they had in grad school).

    Depending on the social science, your background might actually be an asset! If you’re in sociology, or anthro or public policy, being able to say in an interview that you developed rapport with and interviewed sex workers or their clients is kind of a coup and deflects any other inquiry into what you were doing. A lot of social scientists research stuff that in other contexts would be creepy–sex tourism, fringe political group websites, the culture of secret moonshiners, etc.

    But please keep in mind that the academic job market is brutal and non-success probably has absolutely nothing to do with your background, just the fact that there might be hundreds of candidates for one tenure-track job. I do a pretty good job advising my grad students about how to go about this–let me know if I can be of some help.

    1. Yes, the Scary Case that the LW is probably keeping in the back of her mind is the case of the K-12 teacher who was fired over parental complaints. She had once worked as an exotic dancer, and she unfortunately lost the lawsuit she brought against the school. That’s a particularly worrying case, but like you said, she was a K-12 teacher.

      Someone with a PhD in social sciences might find a better role model in Dr Brooke Magnanti (aka Belle du Jour, of “Secret Diary of a Call Girl” fame.) Magnanti performed sex work while getting her PhD at the university I work for, and she blogged about it; when she felt concerned that her sex work/blog identity /academic life worlds were going to collide, she took control of the information in a way that LW may find useful. As far as I know, Magnanti has gotten on with her life but has moved away from lab-based work into public speaking.

      Now, I’m not suggesting the LW should paint her experiences as a sexy fun BBC romp in which she is played by Billie Piper; it’s just meant as an example of an academic/sexworker managing being “outed” without losing respect, dignity and income.

    2. I was going to reply that it’s very unlikely that LW will get a job as a K-12 teacher because they simply don’t hire PhDs for public schools, but you did it for me. I did once know one adjunct professor who was employed by a Catholic high school, but he said he knew of no one else with his creds. So yeah, I second that it’s extremely likely that LW will never work in the K-12 system. I have an MA in history and everyone I work at in my school got no further than a BA in their subject (most have MAs in education, though).

      Universities simply won’t care what LW did to get through school. It’s an open secret that a lot of law school students are sex workers. At the university level it might be seen as a private scandal, but since LW’d be teaching adults who do not HAVE to be in school, it’d be largely a matter of “eh – who cares??”

      FWIW one of my friends has a PsyD, is employed as a psychological doctor, and has an extensive history as a sex worker and no one has ever cared once. She doesn’t talk about it at work, but she doesn’t treat it like a huge secret, either.

      1. It’s an open secret that a lot of law school students are sex workers.

        Very true. Although it’s not applicable to LW, who is in the social sciences, I do want to point out that if a person is considering becoming a lawyer and also doing sex work, sex work that crosses a legal line (i.e., prostitution as opposed to exotic dancing) poses a greater risk for a future legal career. An arrest or conviction doesn’t necessarily prevent being licensed, but the admissions process for the bar is burdensome and will require disclosure of any arrests or convictions. So something to think about, if sex work is something you’re doing or considering doing to make ends meet.

    3. “perhaps to cover gaps put in some self-employment lines like “tutoring””

      I would actually recommend against putting anything false on a resume or application, particularly if the OP was in school or engaged in some other underpaid/unpaid activity at the time.

      I know employment gaps seem really hard to overcome and the chance the OP would be found out lying is fairly small. However, being discovered lying during an application process is one of the few things virtually guaranteed to remove you from consideration from the job. IMO it’s not worth the risk.

  3. 2nding the Captain’s advice. If you are in a situation, and want a response, here are a few ideas:

    1.) Be honest in your denials. “I’ve never modeled or acted. I’ve certainly never done porn, at least not that I’ve known of. I’ve made some poor dating choices, but I don’t think any of them hid cameras. I’m not a criminal; I don’t go around breaking the law. ” The questioner has some anxiety, and by laying out really bad things and denying them, you’re setting fears to rest and giving them a reason to drop the subject. (“Did you ask so-and-so about the rumors?” “Yes, it’s nothing serious, certainly nothing serious.”)

    2.) If someone is asking vague or open-ended questions, stick to denying the things you haven’t done. If they start “fishing” with oddly specific questions, (“have you ever been a paid escort?”) point out that asking such specific, pointed questions is unusual and rude, (“Do you ask everyone you meet if they’ve done sex work? How well does that go over at Sunday School?”) and change the subject.

    3.) If the questioning isn’t hostile, and doesn’t feel like fishing, use a mix of “past-and-pivot”: admit that you’ve taken some odd jobs in the past (don’t be any more specific than that) and pivot either back to the questioner (“What, you never had to wear a giant hot dog costume or sing silly songs for someone’s birthday meal at a restaurant?”) or pivot to another topic. (“I’ve also dated some real jerks in my day, and lived in a few sketchy apartments. Live and learn, right?”)

    4.) If someone has specific knowledge and asks pointed questions which you cannot honestly deny, (which is extremely rare and unlikely) then you can consider defending the work. But engaging in a personal defense of sex work should be your last choice.

    1. Wow, thank you for this, I hope you don’t mind if I save it in my gmail drafts folder to look back at periodically. It is very relevant to my interests right now.

      1. I feel I should point out what makes these approaches work, and when they won’t work.

        Step 1 works by giving the questioner an excuse to drop the subject. It won’t work if the questioner is really, really interested in knowing more about your past. That creepy guy who wants to know more about you? He’ll definitely pick up on what you don’t say, and will want to know more.

        Step 2 works by trying to make the questioner uncomfortable, so they have a reason to take the excuse in step 1 to drop the subject. It won’t work if the questioner is comfortable or even eager to be asking these questions. Even if the questioner is empowered to ask these questions, they may be able to exercise discretion and making them uncomfortable is a good way to encourage them to back off.

        Step 3 has two moving parts: a ‘soft confession’ that you have things you don’t want to talk about, and an attempt at empathy to make the questioner understand that you have personal and valid reasons for not disclosing further. It won’t work if your questioner is personally antagonistic, or if they are compelled to get specific, definitive answers. (compelled from a sense of job duty, or legal responsibility, or personal agenda)

        If you know Step 3 won’t work ahead of time because of these reasons, do not use it! Because it includes an admission that something exists in your past that you don’t want to talk about, a questioner who is determined to root out secrets will seize such an admission to keep asking questions. In that rare scenario, stick to steps 1 & 2, and stonewall everything else.

        Last note: people who are good liars or manipulators will recognize this strategy, and realize that you have something you don’t want to talk about. That doesn’t mean they’ll know what it is.

        1. “Last note: people who are good liars or manipulators will recognize this strategy, and realize that you have something you don’t want to talk about. That doesn’t mean they’ll know what it is.”

          Or people who are neither, but are good at reading between the lines. Shall we say, people who deal with liars and manipluators? However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they won’t respect your evasion.

  4. I have no direct experience, but I share some anxiety about what might happen should a female high school teacher be outed as having once been a sex worker… I think that it would be very unlikely for that teacher to get the support from the school that she would need to be able to draw the strong boundaries necessary to manage snickering teenagers and still teach them things.

    LW, I think it’s completely unreasonable that this is a legitimate concern of yours. It should be totally irrelevant. It sucks that it’s not. I’m glad you’re looking for ways to protect yourself!

    Hiring someone to do a background check is a good idea. Doublechecking if any of the ways customers found you could still connect to you is another possibility, although I personally wouldn’t want to hand that over to an investigator.

    In general information-security terms, you may want to scrap any social media accounts you used at that time, change to a new google user, have a new phone number, that kind of thing. (You cannot count on privacy settings for any social media network.) If anyone asks why your facebook only goes back a year, you can have my explanation: that you were upset about their privacy rules and deleted your account, but then found you couldn’t keep up with family so you rejoined.

    1. It’s strange how things have changed because of the Internet. In my high school, it was common knowledge that one of the English teachers had been a Playboy centerfold. And not a billion years ago, maybe 6-7 years before I had her as a teacher, and she’d been there a couple of years by that point. Every year, some one would dig up the Playboy she was in and pass it around (jerks). But she never addressed it with any students that I’m aware of, and the novelty wore off quickly and we became very blase about it. Yeah, yeah, Ms. X was in Playboy, big whoop. It certainly never caused her any career issues that I’m aware of — she was there for about 15 years total, then moved on to a high-end private school last I heard. That’s one of the problems with the Internet — no one is ever free to be forgotten.

    2. Or that you just… didn’t join Facebook until a year ago. Some people aren’t even on it still. I only got one two or three months ago that I use SOLELY from my tablet, SOLELY for the study group for one of my classes.

  5. LW, you are such a courageous person! I admire your strength and the brains it takes to achieve all you’ve done. Don’t let small-minded people take that away from you.

    If you’ve never been arrested and there is no official record of your sex work, it didn’t happen. And people suggesting that it did could be considered to be sexual harassers. The Board of Behavioral Sciences only cares if you have a felony on your record or if you commit ethics offenses after you’re hired somewhere. I don’t think you need to worry about that.

    You have some extraordinary pluses about you: I bet your people skills are amazing because of the sex work, I bet you know exactly how to dress for success, and you are used to dealing with difficult people, and now you have the education to make all this work toward wellness in the world.

    Be yourself. People in the sex work trades are often pretty battered emotionally and that’s hard to deal with. If you’re not in therapy now, get some help working with the fear and misery you are going through right now. It will help you through the tough times ahead, and interviewing for jobs, no matter how qualified you are, always has the option of being seriously difficult.

    I think you’re going to be incredibly valuable in your field of endeavor and should do whatever it takes to get there. Congratulations, and good luck!

  6. LW, I’ve actually lived one of your worst-case scenarios. Although I was never a sex worker, but I did some modeling for a while to get by, and there are pictures of me in very compromising positions floating around online (with my name AND surname attached, even!) It’s only come up once in my life, when I was studying to be a teacher.

    Basically, one of my teachers came up to me all righteous-like and confronted me with what she’d found. She told me she’d seen the pictures and waited for my response. I just said, “So?”

    The way I see the situation now, she was telling me what she knew and then put the ball in my court, but I refused to play. I wasn’t picking up that ball. I gave her absolutely nothing to go on. I didn’t defend myself, I didn’t try to explain or even asked any questions. That “so?” sort of put up a wall between me and her, and she didn’t know how to follow up. I think she expected me to panic and talk about it and try to explain, and me refusing to do that threw her off completely. She just mumbled something and walked away. That was about six years ago, and it’s the last I’ve heard of it.

    That’s not to say this is the universal experience, just my own. But my experience is that even with my name AND surname attached to compromising pictures, I still got to go to school and work various jobs just fine. The one awkward confrontation I had about it ended up being so inconsequential I’d forgotten about it until I read your letter.

    Again, this is just my experience. But I know from experience how absolutely terrifying it can be to have something like this hanging over your head, and how unfair it is that I could have gotten in serious trouble, to the point of losing my dream job, while the people who took those pictures and paid for those pictures will never have to feel anything even close to that fear. And the internet never forgets. It’s a shitty situation, it’s totally unfair, but in my case, that fear of judgement turned out to be way worse than the actual confrontation I was dreading so much. Every situation is different, and I’m not claiming your situation is like mine, but I hope my experience can help you sleep a little easier.

    Best of luck!

  7. If someone starts asking you too specific questions, there’s always the all purpose “Wow.” and letting the silence stretch. You won’t sound defensive, you won’t lie and you will make the person asking feel as tiny as they are acting.

    I don’t think you’re going to get much help from a lawyer as far as talking about discrimination, although they could certainly advise you in how to approach it if it is brought up. But, as the Captain said, there is so much out there that it’s not terribly likely the people you’ll be interviewing with will know you. And once you finally get out of this horrible job market, you’ll have a whole work history. And once you have tenure, they have to have a work-related reason to fire you. A job’s going to have a pretty hard time defending a claim that the way you made money 5 or 10 years ago has anything to do with your teaching performance, and at that point, you will be pretty safe from most major dangers.

    Lastly, is there somewhere you could go where you don’t know anyone, far away from your real life, and try admitting it to strangers in conversation? I realize that has a lot of practical difficulties, not the least of which are avoiding people who you might run into again and finding casual ways to bring it up, but it might be worth considering. Your imagination is usually going to be worse than any single person’s response, and you might find it helpful to experience actual reactions and to see that it is possible to normalize.

    1. “Lastly, is there somewhere you could go where you don’t know anyone, far away from your real life, and try admitting it to strangers in conversation?”

      I’ve done this, actually. It was a real relief, because I’m a compulsive oversharer most of the time, but my work is something that I have to keep secret from most people in my life, partly due to my future career. (Not in a morality sense, but more in a “my coworkers and bosses would probably try to solicit sex from me constantly if they knew” sense.) Going to a dive bar in the next town over and telling work stories to a bunch of regulars there has been one of my favorite outlets. When I’ve done this I only used my escort name, so that there would still be no direct connection between my real identity and my escort persona.

  8. Been there, done that, hung up the hat and have since moved on. For a while I too was anxious about my ugly ghosts popping up, and for me I think those anxieties came from ambivalence. When I was a whore I was very gung-ho about it. It was pretty awesome most of the time, but a few incidents were just _wretched_. However, I didn’t have a way to frame these without casting myself as a victim, so instead I minimized the uglier aspects to myself and carried a lot of residual stress from that denial.

    I wrote a lot during those years, and when I dug out my old notebooks from back then I was stunned by the bravado and recklessness of it all. It was really helpful for me to re-read my writing with fresh perspective. I no longer identify with most of what I wrote, but without sex work then I wouldn’t be where I am today (not to get all Pangloss or anything!) I emphatically second the Captain’s suggestion that you work these problems out on paper.

    I used to feel like I had a deep dark secret that was such a big part of my “true” self, so I went out of my way to tell a few very close and very trusted friends. But as I considered whether to tell other close friends I realized it was no longer one of the most important things, and it no longer felt like such a major part of me. Perhaps this is because I put distance and got lost in other things that were way more interesting than sex work or perhaps it lost its power as a secret once I let in a little light. Secrets only have magic through their secrecy. Once the mask is off they’re just bytes of information which will be swamped and overtaken by other information that is much more salacious and juicy. Like omg did you hear about the woman who gave her daughter a boob job voucher for her 7th birthday? Or how about the sordid interdepartmental gossip about things that are happening now instead of in another place and time? My parents were social scientists, and their colleagues had some serious skeletons rattling around their closets.

    You are on the cusp of some major changes that will leave your sex work gigs in the dust. It is HIGHLY improbable that anyone will out you during your job search, you probably should come to terms with this dark cloud so that you project total confidence in your interviews. And once you’ve risen in your field and are a tenured prof with grad students scurrying around at your bidding, you’ll have a killer memoir up your sleeve.

    PS: Google ‘post sex work’ and check out the personal blogs of the people whose articles come up. Seriously, there’s a lot out there.

  9. In the meantime, it might be useful to find a sex worker’s forum, where situations like this are addressed and discussed, even if you never post at all. It will probably help to put your fears to rest. There are sex worker and post-sex worker activists, and the feminist ones are for the most part sex positive. I don’t know if there are any online archives for the now defunct sex worker magazine $pread, but that publication had some interesting articles and resources for sex workers(f/m/trans), written by sex workers.

    There are so many people with a history of sex work out there(either as the workers or consumers), and I think that for 99.9% of them this stuff stays buried, even if they were performers with agents, etc.. Stupid scandals do happen, and they are really awful, but I think the actual ratio of former sex workers to outed former sex workers is really, really miniscule. So please try not to worry about this !

  10. Also, personally I think sex work is such a stigmatizing private experience and such an incendiary public topic that it’s fine to categorically deny everything. And then mentally classify whoever’s asking in the Clueless Idiot file. I mean really, who would expect you to answer ‘yes’ to such prying questions? It would be like asking for someone’s STD status in a job interview.


  11. I actually have a doppelganger on a popular porn site, which I know about because a good friend pulled me aside at a party to quietly run it by me. “This is super awkward, and I know it’s not you, but I thought you’d want to know anyway…” was how he introduced the conversation. (He was right. I’d rather know than not.)

    I bring this up because it’s COMPLETELY plausible, should a picture ever arise, to say, “Wow, you really think that looks like me??” or even, “Holy cow, that kinda looks like me if you squint. How weird is that?” and then keep on moving to a different topic.

    I think everyone is right, there’s only a miniscule chance of there ever being a problem, but… have you considered an image change, if it would help your anxiety? Something easy-ish, like growing your hair, cutting it, or dying it a different color for a while, and *only* if you think that would make you feel a little more secure? I don’t know if it’s good advice or not, but it’s probably what I would do for my own peace of mind.

  12. Having gone through my own “outing” in the workplace, I can offer some advice here:

    1. Google yourself religiously. Potential employers *will* Google your name, so make sure nothing unsavory appears. If something does, you can often contact the site asking to have it removed, If you can prove it’s you and say that you didn’t consent to its publication (I have done this).

    2. Lock down your online privacy. if you have a bitter ex-client who wants to exact revenge, it’s best that he/she can’t learn where you go to school, where you work, where you’re applying for jobs, etc. Keep your social media, blogs, etc. limited to people you know personally. Err on the side of caution.

    3. Barring an accidental Google find or a vengeful ghost from your past (that was my problem), the main likelihood you have to get caught is someone actually looking for that sort of material. If confronted with it, your best response might be something like, “What are you doing looking at sites like that?” Turn the question back around on them (without admitting to anything), and they may simply back off.

    Ultimately, there is some risk from your past if you work with minors. I wouldn’t worry about it in a college setting, as it would be harder for them to argue that you are doing any harm, unless they can prove that you did something illegal (photos or video of sexual activity doesn’t prove that any money was exchanged).

    Good luck in your career, and don’t let fear hold you back from pursuing your dreams!

  13. I second what others have second about it not mattering if (a) you’re teaching at the college level, and (b) you’re in the social sciences.

    I did some grad work in sociology. As far as I know, very few of the grad students and none of the profs I know would have had a problem with sex work in the C.V. In fact, I learned about someone in the field (I can’t remember her name, sorry) who’d not only worked her way through grad school as a topless dancer, but got a paper out of it.

  14. Just to add: well done on the degree front. What a journey you must have been on. Meanwhile, does the US have a teaching union you can join when you get a job? If so, do it – if things do come up, you should be protected if it goes pear shaped in the future. Then forget about your past until you are ready to share it. Best of luck.

  15. I don’t have any advice that hasn’t already been given, but good on you, LW, for making it through. You’ve done great so far. Best of luck.

  16. LW – I have no advice, but I’d like to add that if you were my teacher, or if you taught my child, I wouldn’t have any problems with the line of work you had previously.
    I wonder if part of your anxiety is because you personally feel ashamed of your history, so you fear constantly that everyone will find out about it. If that is the case, you shouldn’t. There are judgemental people, of course (I’m not saying that your fears aren’t valid, sadly they are), but you did whatever you had to in order to get where you are now, and now you want to use your time, your life, expertise and education to help teach others. That’s wonderful and you should feel good about yourself.

    The Cap’n is right in pointing out how unlikely it is that this would come to light, so I hope you don’t have a kind of “I feel terrible about this so surely everyone can tell by looking at me” feeling which adds to the anxiety. I only mention this because it is very often how I feel when I’m anxious, and it might not apply to you at all!

    You should be commended for getting yourself safely through a difficult situation and earning a degree, well done! Many people don’t realise that not everyone gets the easy access to safe housing and education that they or their children may have.

    If you’re concerned about speaking to a therapist, counsellor or lawyer, bear in mind that they will be legally obligated to keep it confidential, and if you are unsure in any way about their confidentiality rules, you can ask them to explain before you tell them anything at all.

  17. If there is any place in academia where they would sincerely not care that you have been a sex worker, it’s the social sciences. There’s an infamous case of a pair of social scientists who spent a good decade somewhere in (I think) SoCal, smoking pot, growing pot, hanging out with pot dealers, interviewing potheads, and generally reeking of weed. They were not fired. They were published. They were IN MY TEXTBOOK.

    In a more informal context, one of my sociology professors once spent our first class meeting regaling us with stories of his personal drug experiences. Another one gave us a detailed description of learning how to prepare hash from his youth in Persia, not to mention how he basically snuck into the US and managed to stay put long enough to get his citizenship. An anthro prof of mine once happily informed us that he’d quit smoking cigarettes by smoking other things instead.

    If your hiring committee is also composed of social scientists, they are not going to give two-tenths of a damn, as long as you’re not doing anything you’re likely to be arrested for NOW. And that only because having an instructor carted off to jail is inconvenient for the department.

  18. Remind yourself over and over that because (1) you worked under a different name, in a different geographic area, (2) time has passed, (3) you were presenting yourself very differently, (4) any witnesses were probably drinking at the time, and (5) any photos were taken surreptitiously and therefore wouldn’t be very high quality, the likelihood that anyone will ever even suspect is miniscule, and they cannot possibly KNOW.

    I think that for anything other than a confrontation with pictures, you should go with “What the hell are you talking about? If you ever say anything like that again I will report you to Human Resources for sexual harassment!” “What are you acccusing me of? Seriously?” “Is this some kind of joke? What makes you think it’s all right to say something like that to a woman in 2013?” It shouldn’t be too hard to muster the appropriate attitude of indignation that someone thinks it is ok to say “gee, you look a lot like a stripper at this place I used to go to all the time.” (Which they probably wouldn’t, because that establishes to a certainty that THEY went to strip clubs, while only raising the possibililty you are the person their drunken self used to leer at.) Put them on the defensive.

    If it’s HR doing the asking, say “Why? Are you saying that if this was true, then you would take disciplinary action against me?” And if the answer is “Yes,” then say “Would you be so good as to put that in writing?” and then “I think any further discussions had better be in the company of my union rep and/or lawyer. Would you like to set up an appointment for that, or shall we adjourn this offensive conversation indefinitely?”

    For a confrontation with pictures, you won’t have to fake shocked and dismayed. The words to go along with can be a perfectly honest “Oh my god, that woman could be my sister!” (unless the pictures are blurry enough you can say “Jeez, that could be anybody!”). You can, of course, quite honestly deny ever having seen those photos or being aware they existed, and express distress that suggestive/revealing pictures of someone who looks so much like you are out there — and demand to know everything they know about where those pictures are available, so you can see about getting them taken down.

  19. I hope that someday, sex work becomes legal. If I were an employer, I wouldn’t want to keep out people who came from that line of work. Think of all the relevant skills you hone — customer service and negotiation come to mind immediately.

    Forgot to say it before, but congratulations on your achievement. I only escaped grad school with a master’s degree and my life, so I admire anybody who can go all the way. 🙂

    1. It is some places! Though from a policy perspective, apparently the best way to cut down on trafficking etc without further victimising (or victimising to start with for those who are doing it willingly) workers is to make supply legal but consumption illegal. Where I live it’s decriminalised but I think you’re supposed to be registered and work at a brothel, not on the street (though people still do of course).

      (I’m a policy student. I’m hoping my history of bad decisions, mental illness and spending years on the sickness benefit will turn out in my favour somehow too.)

      1. Apologies for the off topicness, but I can’t let a defense of the criminalizes consumer go by unchallenged. This is a model that absolutely does NOT make things easier or safer for sex workers–it creates an environment where dependent and partners of sex workers are penalized (living off the earnings), where landlords and hoteliers are more or less legally required to discriminate against sex workers, and where clients are understandably less willing to submit to security screening, because they could be turning their details over to an undercover cop.

        To the letter writer, as a current sex worker with no plans to leave the industry, all I can say is a hearty second to the Captain and those commenters who say “Deny, deny, deny.” If I were you, I would not feel any burden to weasel around with half truths and diversions–invasive questions about sex work are not the same as invasive questions about your personal life. You could get lucky, but officially, no one will feel obligated to say that you are being treated unfairly, because our society does not value sex workers or their rights. So “it’s none of your business” just isn’t good enough, even if it’s true.

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