The week of July 12, 2015

Me, Myself, and Charlotte: The third identities of sex workers

By Charlotte Shane

When I established the online identity that would later be named Charlotte Shane, I was living in a small city I hated, with few friends. (OK, I only had one.) An unhappy relationship constituted the entirety of my social life, and if I wasn’t melancholy at home by myself or angry at home with my boyfriend, I was at work selling various forms of sexual engagement: sensual massage, light domination, foot fetish sessions. My boyfriend knew what I did, but he couldn’t stand to hear about it. My only friend knew but was notoriously difficult to make contact with. (She’d go radio silent for weeks and resurface sporadically at intervals I couldn’t influence, no matter how hard I tried.) My family, naturally, was entirely in the dark.

This loneliness was compounded by how cheerful and accommodating I had to be in my job. My clients didn’t really care about what my life was like or how I felt, even if some pretended they did. What they really wanted was to elicit a personal detail that would make them feel more special than everyone else I saw. They were buying physical intimacy, and they wanted the illusion of emotional intimacy, too, so I performed disclosure while withholding it. I rigorously maintained interior distance at work, in spite of how regularly I was overwhelmed with emotion.

Eventually, exhausted by the effort of not sharing, I started a blog in which I tried to process my sadness by examining my most memorable work encounters—the eccentric, the frustrating, the funny, the boring.

I can’t remember why I chose “Charlotte,” but it started in 2008, during an online conversation with another sex worker who blogged. After our third email exchange, not including a signature felt disrespectful, as if I were holding her at a distance. In a fit of decisive spontaneity, I typed the name that’s now the one by which all my closest friends know me.

It’s not news that many, many sex workers are online. We use the Internet like everyone else does—to market ourselves—and almost always, we use pseudonyms. Stage names provide basic protection from stigma, arrest, and stalking. They also help us get into character and project our working personality—the person we’re paid to be. But that demands being “on,” maintaining a carefully constructed facade appealing to current and potential clients. (Like I said, it’s marketing; this is a form of branding.)

Admissions of how one really feels are, classically, saved for relative strangers: your online-only friends, your therapist, your escort.

The entire service industry is predicated on publicly swallowing the anger and humiliation that come from managing the demands of entitled strangers. But no one can keep that bottled up forever, and sex workers often lack “real life” outlets to talk about the disgusting and infuriating aspects of our jobs. Increasingly, that’s leading sex workers to create other online personae, third identities (apart from their IRL selves and their working selves) where they feel comfortable speaking candidly. They’re using a second pseudonymous identity—often on Twitter, though online identities tend to migrate across platforms—to create a space where they can still be protected from stigma, arrest, and stalking, but also from the demand to cater to potential clients.

“I wanted to respond to a tweet but didn’t feel that I could while keeping the ‘pristine’ image I wanted for my original escort Twitter,” says Sally, who created another pseudonymous identity just this March. “[With my third account] I can complain about clients, I can discuss political injustices, I can brag about my offspring.”

Clients generally don’t want to hear about work interfering with family life, or even know that work is necessary to make that family life possible. And it’s not smart business to unleash your sickest burns on existing and potential clients.

Consequently, Twitter is filled with sex workers venting about clients under their third identities, and many, like Sally,  joined primarily or exclusively for that reason. Handles often reflect this: Grumpyhooker, Broth-hell, Cuntubine. Beatrice, an escort in the U.S., has had her account for five years: “Beatrice was made exclusively to say and be whatever the hell I wanted to say and be. My work and real identities both exist to some extent to serve someone else—my clients or kids or whatever. Beatrice doesn’t answer to anyone.”

Annora, who’s been tweeting from that handle since 2012, adds: “The people I would generally ignore or block [on the third name account] are the ones I have to acknowledge and engage with on my work account, or risk ruining my image.”

The entire service industry is predicated on publicly swallowing the anger and humiliation that come from managing the demands of entitled strangers. But no one can keep that bottled up forever.

Some personae are not just about finding a respite from the ever-watchful eyes of clients. “I needed to talk to other sex workers in a way my manager couldn’t see,” says Fornicatrix, a sex worker and activist in the U.K. “She watched my work Twitter like a hawk.”

Eithne, also in the U.K., devised her third name for use in a physical activist space where going by her work name started to feel risky. I wanted an additional layer between me and my work and legal names,” she says. “I thought, ‘If someone knows my working name, all they need then is my legal name to out me, whereas if I use a third pseudonym, people will find it harder to find my work site, and it will be less likely.’”

My own Twitter presence grew out of my Tumblr and blog, an extension of my third identity rather than the creation of it. But once I started actively participating there, I discovered a ready-made community of like-minded, smart-mouthed women who were eager to connect over the unique challenges of the job. In the words of Annora: “When I found sex-work Twitter, it was like I had finally found my people. It was a space to talk about everything from annoying clients to the real hazards of in-person sex work.” Sometimes that supportive aspect—community, information-sharing, advice-giving—is more important than the need to release pent-up fear and irritation.

This community typically takes great care to respect names and identities. While some fellow sex workers can be willfully or purposefully bad about respecting boundaries, most follow an unspoken rule: Don’t ask for someone’s “real” name—a request odiously common among clients—and don’t ask for someone’s work name, either. Anna, a full-service sex worker in the U.S., always takes this approach. “I wait for them to tell me whatever information they want to about themselves. I honestly don’t care what someone’s legal name is, and while I may occasionally be curious to see how a friend presents themselves to clients, I would never assume they’d want me to see.”

When third-identity friendships make the leap to offline space (and they often do), it’s key to check in with each person about what they’d like to be called. “I always ask them what name they use and if we’re in a public space, ask them if it’s OK to refer to them thusly in earshot of others,” say Fornicatrix. “When meeting up with another sex worker in person,” Sally adds, “I will generally ask what they’d like me to call them, a gentle way of asking if they want to share another name besides the one I’ve found them through.”

The pressure that civilians feel in keeping some parts of their emotional lives entirely private is compounded for sex workers, who must shroud so much more of their individual realities from public discussion.

Occasionally, third-identity sex workers can be easily matched to their work personae, because of commonalities in tone, images, or overall vibe. But for anyone to make the connection explicit is the equivalent of doxing, an outing almost as serious as making the public link to their legal name.

“I think it’s hideous and manipulative to try and match secret identities with work identities,” Beatrice says. “People maintain secret identities for a reason, and violating their anonymity or making social or emotional assumptions makes you as bad as a [client] who assumes he can be your boyfriend, or who thinks you’ll be impressed if he can figure out your real name.”

This studious attention to privacy is just one way that sex workers’ “secret” life diverges from the pseudonymous Internet life of most everyone else. Plenty of people form profound bonds with others online under silly Reddit names, long Tumblr handles, or message board logins with too many numbers. Online pseudonyms facilitate confession and honesty as much as they allow for cruelty and abuse, and that’s true for everyone. Physical proximity and intimacy can preclude complete honesty, and not only in the form of the biggest, most destructive secrets (like stealing from work or cheating on a spouse). If you love your girlfriend, you probably don’t want to tell her that you hate her mother. If you want to stay on good terms with your brunch friends, you’re not going to talk about how much you resent them for marrying into money while you’re working three part-time jobs. Admissions of how one really feels are, classically, saved for relative strangers: your online-only friends, your therapist, your escort.

But for sex workers, their secretive work life creates tension that demands the third identity. It feels less like a lark or a diversion and more like a proper necessity, a way of digesting experiences that are sometimes dangerous, traumatic, and confusing—and would otherwise have to be managed alone. The pressure that civilians feel in keeping some parts of their emotional lives entirely private is compounded for sex workers, who must shroud so much more of their individual realities from public discussion.

When developing our work identities, we think about what rate we should charge, what services we want to offer, and what overall brand we need to create to attract the customers we want. It’s calculated to create a sustainable container within which we can maximize profit. In contrast, third identities are often created off the cuff, whenever the need to distance oneself from one’s work name (while still identifying as a sex worker) demands it—an identity that becomes an emotional release valve.  We forge our new selves through interaction with others rather than wily strategizing. It makes sense that the thoughts, impressions, and ideas we express under those names are closest to who and how we’d like to be when we’re given the freedom to do so.

“My working name is just a stage name, and my legal name feels like something leftover, like a tailbone or an appendix.”

A secret identity cuts both ways: There are two secrets. No one knows Peter Parker is Spider-Man, just as no one knows Spider-Man is Peter Parker—at least, not right away. Though the life that was there first is usually designated “real,” and the second one therefore “fake” or somehow unreal, the experience of living with two distinct identities is rarely that clean-cut. Each persona has a distinct shape for outsiders, who are precluded from seeing that those two shapes fit inside a single, larger one. But the person maintaining the identities exists in the center, and each identity flows out of and feeds back into this center point. The center is the core, and sex workers’ third names are the public manifestation of that core.

“I think when I started my Twitter account I would have said my legal-named self was the truest me, and work and Annora were just secret sections. But slowly Annora has taken over. The people I have the strongest connections with knew me first as her,” says Annora. Overwhelmingly, the sex workers I spoke with shared her sentiment, often rejecting their legal, “real” names as stressful to maintain and less indicative of their personalities than the accumulated actions and expressions performed under their third names.

Eithne is especially clear on this point: “I live Eithne 95 percent of the time, and I like it that way. My working name is just a stage name, and my legal name feels like something leftover, like a tailbone or an appendix.” Fornicatrix agreed in similarly evocative fashion. “My third name is my favorite—the one that’s been rinsed of much of the anxieties around identity and belonging I had as an awkward teen.”

With our third names, sex workers can relish the strength of enduring in work that is reviled and frequently harrowing—and also be honest about the toll of such work. There’s no shame in founding what may be depicted as yet another “secret” identity; on the contrary, we make moves out of shame with the help of this third space. It’s a secret—or really, a tool—that assists us in living more truthfully. As Beatrice said of her pseudonym, “she’s given me more opportunities to be myself in my real life, too.”

I’ve never thought of my various names as schisms in my personality, but rather as delineations. All my names, even the work name, indicate me; none of them are inherently false. Over time, I’ve become better able to live in concert with that belief, and I’ve become comfortable with the concept of many valid, intimate names.

As I write more under my third name, I meet more people under it. I’ve reached out my hand to shake another and said, “Hi, I’m Charlotte.” I’ve formed deep friendships with friends who save my name as “Charlotte” in their phone. I no longer think of Charlotte as  third identity but as a point of triangulation between my other two, a peak identity. What was started in private is now highly public, and in a way, I’ve become Charlotte. But in a more important way, I already was, and always have been.

Illustration by Tiffany Pai