The Soapbox: On Sex Addiction, Sex Work & The Wall Street Intern Who Quit Her Job To Pursue Porn

Last week, a Wall Street intern quit her job to pursue porn. Paige Jennings, who goes by Veronica Vain, was working at an Lazard’s alternative-investments marketing group in New York when she “quit [Wall Street] before it fired me” (according to her Twitter page) after it was discovered she was tweeting nude selfies from inside the bathroom of Lazard’s offices.

I worked in the sex industry on and off through college as a stripper, and then later for a stint as a call girl, selling myself as a non pro on Craigslist and performing what amounted to “the Girlfriend Experience.” When I lost my job as a public school teacher after it was discovered I was writing and speaking openly about my past, I argued — as Jennings does so articulately in this interview — that sexy and serious needn’t be mutually exclusive, and that women have the right to do what they want with their bodies, and not be shamed for the choices they make.

My participation in the sex industry was my choice— and I defend a woman’s right to make that choice. That said, I think it’s fair to critically examine people’s choices, just as I’ve learned to critically examine my own.

For me, the choice to sell sex was a mistake. Moreover, that choice was partially a consequence of addiction. From the sound of it, Paige Jennings may qualify as a sex addict, just as I did. In her Twitter bio, for starters, she says the reason she left the Wall Street job is because she couldn’t stop masturbating at work. Maybe it’s a marketing ploy — part of her brand and not an authentic personal detail — but it’s a detail she constantly returns to in tweets (“When you really just want to nap but can’t stop masturbating,” reads one). Compulsive masturbation isn’t sexy— it’s a sign that something’s wrong.

It’s hard to talk about sex work and sex addiction. To begin with, the term ‘sex addiction’ is a misnomer. A relatively recent study found that sex doesn’t do to a sex addicts’ brain what cocaine or heroin might do for a drug addict, and so the addiction model doesn’t really fit. Hypersexuality is another term sometimes used to describe frequent or suddenly increased sexual urges or sexual activity. For someone suffering from this condition—which is characteristic of personality disorders, such as Borderline Personality Disorder—sex is irresistible, and sometimes against one’s conscious wishes.

Sex addiction, in the most basic sense, is when you feel powerless over your sexual activities and it’s making your life unmanageable — for example, you can’t stop masturbating at work and so you have to leave your job. It’s when sex, or the pursuit of sex, becomes a pointless pattern that threatens your physical, mental and emotional health.

Of course, sex work is never “pointless”— the point of sex work is that you get paid— and so talking about compulsive behavior in the context of sex work becomes complicated. In most circumstances, there are very rational economic realities that lead a person to choose sex work over other kinds of work. But for a sex addicted sex worker, the money might just be icing. To put it another way, getting paid for sex enables a sex addict to maintain an addictive lifestyle that’s already reeking havoc on his or her life.

Although I became a stripper out of financial necessity, there was nothing rational about my decision to sell sex. I had a decent job at the time that would have led to even better opportunities had I not quit to become a full-time sex worker. Like Jennings, I didn’t like sitting still at a desk for eight hours a day, and I was already having sex compulsively so why not get paid for it? Jennings wasn’t economically motivated to leave one job for another — on Twitter she says, “I was not frustrated by low pay and high work volume at all. I would just rather have orgasms.” This is exactly what I might have said at the time. But this flippant justification belied the emotional truth of that experience.

The year prior to my selling sex, I was having sex for free with people I neither liked nor respected. People that disgusted me. I felt disgusted with myself. I woke up most mornings feeling guilty and ashamed, only to do it all again. Part of the guilt was because I was in what was supposed to have been a committed, monogamous relationship at the time. When that relationship ended, my mental health took a turn from bad to worse. I was emotionally unstable, and frequently disconnected from reality. Shut down and depressed, and having no other strategies for coping, alcohol-fueled sex had become my only mechanism of escape.

Sex felt good. Better than the feeling of being alone. Better than the feeling of not knowing my future which, before I’d left my fiancé had been laid out before me like a yellow brick road. Sex took me out of my fear, out of my head and away from my insecurities, if only for as long as it lasted. The less I knew the person, I discovered, the better. Sex with classmates had led to sex with strangers, which would ultimately lead to having sex for cash.

One of the biggest hurdles in recovery has been reconciling the truth of my personal experience with my political beliefs. In my twenties, I considered myself sex positive and prided myself in being an “empowered” sex worker. I clung to a belief that I had made a choice, and that consensual sexual activities were necessarily healthy and pleasurable. Rachel Kramer Bussel makes a good argument of how, in our sex negative culture, “normal” gets confused for “healthy,” while everything else gets marked as “deviant” and “wrong.” Hypersexuality is a charge aimed at more typically at women than men, and I still think we ought to look critically at how a woman’s desire for sex may be hastily pathologized.

Whereas casual sex didn’t necessarily violate my principles—intellectually, I still don’t think there’s anything wrong with promiscuity, just as I don’t think there’s anything morally wrong with prostitution—my sexual conduct was cause for alarm, and my political views made it all the harder to admit I had a problem. I told myself that sex work was work, a job like any other — so what if I enjoyed it? And yet, I worked all the time, and when I wasn’t working, I felt fragile, stressed out, and depressed. I never felt nourished, protected nor provided for. Not feeling particularly respected in any capacity, I fell further into despair.

Not all sex workers are sex addicts. Obviously. But this is not obvious to people interested in criminalizing the industry. Sex workers are thought of as victims or as inherently damaged, either before or as a result of working in the sex industry. For this reason, stories like mine are oftentimes suppressed. We keep negative aspects of our careers and our personal lives separate and to ourselves, afraid we’ll be judged. And yet, overly permissive views can be as harmful as shaming ones. Sex work didn’t cause my mental health issues, but it didn’t help either.

The circumstances that compel women to sell sex are complicated, and so it rubs me the wrong way when people uncritically celebrate the decision. This is what I sometimes see when a sex worker comes out. People, including well-meaning feminists, held me up as a beacon of sexual liberation — but there was more to my story. Perhaps there’s more to the story here, too.

[Photo via Twitter]