Some Sex Workers Defy Stigma and the Law by Showing Their Faces. Others Can't Afford to Take the Risk

Minneapolis escort Hilary Holiday says her income doubled when she began showing her face online. Photo courtesy Hilary Holiday

When Delilah began working as an escort last year, she chose to blur her face in the photos she posts on her website and Twitter profile. The Ottawa, Ontario, college student made the decision in order to keep her sex work from her conservative Muslim family and so she can transition smoothly and without stigma into a different career when she graduates.

But hiding her face has its drawbacks. "I would certainly get a lot more clients. And no one would be in for a shock when they saw me," says the 23-year-old, explaining that her baby face and chubby cheeks can surprise new customers. "I wish we lived in a world where I could show my face."

The decision to reveal or obscure their faces online is just one of the many complicated issues sex workers navigate as they seek to balance profits and competition, their plans for the future and potential attention from law enforcement. Several escorts told Newsweek they show their faces in hopes of stripping the shame from sex work. They also believe their "coming out" publicly will quicken the push toward decriminalization of sex work, which the media and Amnesty International have focused attention on this year.

Hilary Holiday, a Minneapolis escort, says she covered her face in photos when she began sex work in the early 2000s. Then, about six years ago, jealous competitors began posting in online escort forums that she must be hiding her face because she was hideous, so Holiday posted photos to prove them wrong. "My income like doubled when I showed my face, so I kind of got addicted to showing," she tells Newsweek, claiming that her annual earnings spiked from $150,000 to $300,000. (She doesn't see smokers or men under 35.)

Holiday, 48, warns new sex workers that covering their face in online photos doesn't guarantee their protection or privacy. "You're probably eventually going to get outed, so you should really be comfortable with it," she says.

Holiday posts photos with her face uncovered both for the money and because she's proud of what she does. "Everybody knows I do this with integrity. My kids have gone on nice trips, we have a hot tub in the yard. I'm a good provider."

Speaking of kids, sex work can put an escort at a disadvantage in a custody fight, especially when an angry ex-partner uses it to argue the sex worker is an unfit parent. "As soon as there's a dispute with an unscrupulous partner, the partner just says, 'Your Honor, my ex is a sex worker!' And what do you think happens?" says Seattle escort and sex work advocate Maggie McNeill, 49. She adds that her decision to show her face was made easier by the fact that she doesn't have children and doesn't plan on a future career that could "potentially be bombed" by her long history of sex work.

McNeill, who blogs as "the Honest Courtesan," says new escorts weigh multiple factors when deciding how open to be with their image online. "I tell young girls you might want to really consider whether you want to show your face or not," McNeill says. "You may get married, you may have children. Even if your family of birth is cool with it, how do you know your in-laws will be cool with it?"

Escorts still risk arrest. (Most of the escorts who spoke with Newsweek use a "work name" that's different from their legal name.) Decriminalization has been a major topic of debate this year, with New York magazine running a cover story, "Is Prostitution Just Another Job?," in March. The New York Times Magazine did the same in May with "Should Prostitution Be a Crime?"

Later in May, Amnesty International published its policy on protecting sex workers from abuse, which recommended the decriminalization of consensual sex work. "This is based on evidence that these laws often make sex workers less safe and provide impunity for abusers, with sex workers often too scared of being penalized to report crime to the police," the organization said.

Choosing whether to reveal one's face online is a bigger concern for well-off escorts who charge $400 an hour and have their own websites and Twitter profiles, while poor and marginalized prostitutes have other, more pressing worries, like being raped or earning enough money to pay their rent.

An escort's decision to post his or her face online can make it easier for law enforcement to investigate and prosecute the worker, sex workers told Newsweek. "Having your face on Twitter could be an opportunity for police to reach out to you and entrap you," says Philadelphia escort and advocate Mike Crawford, who calls himself a "full-time queer, part-time cashsexual" on his Twitter profile. "If you have the same image on your Facebook page and on your ads, an investigator could quickly use Google search to match them up." (When Holiday was arrested on prostitution charges in 2013, reports said police matched photos on her escort website with her driver's license.)

Still, Crawford says his decision to show his face is an important part of his work as an advocate for sex workers and decriminalization. He and other advocates believe sex worker rights are at the point where gay rights were in the 1950s, where coming out can jeopardize a person legally as well as his or her work and family ties.

"I've had sex workers apologize to me for not being out. And I'm like, 'Oh honey, don't apologize to me!'" says McNeill. "You have a life. I made my decision. If I were 30, I might not make the decision to show my face."