A brief (well-intended and non-reductive summary) of Tilly Lawless might go a bit like this:
– Begun sex work four years ago to – as with all and other forms employment – earn a living
– Graduated from university two years after that
– Is a positive proponent of the sex work community. Through her personal Instagram account she diffuses misconceptions about the industry, thoughtfully opines on issues affecting disenfranchised individuals (thoughtfully opines on things far and wide, actually) – all intermingled with pure joie de vivre. She's balanced and nuanced.
– Continues to do sex work today
Here's our conversation with the deep-thinking 24 year-old from Sydney.
Your job certainly extends beyond just the physical work you do. A lot of your energy appears invested into recounting your experiences of sex work and queerness, while educating others about both of these things. Why is sex work real work? What are some of the things you commonly find yourself speaking about passionately?
Sex work is real work because like any other job it's an exchange of services for money - to me it seems incredibly simple, why does it need to be justified as real work constantly, & why is that the default question? To me the more pertinent question people should be asking is 'why do people not consider sex work real work?' & with the answers to that you would really get down into the prejudices & paternalism. Some things I talk about passionately are rape culture, the whorearchy (the hierarchy that shouldn't but does exist in sex work where some sex workers are seen as more valuable than others according to the work they do. For instance, escorts being better than brothel workers), femmephobia in the queer community (for example, the way masculinity is valued, the invisibility and undermining of femme queer women), sexual health.
I imagine you get this question a lot, but how has sex work affected the sex you have in relationships; in your private life?
I actually wrote a post about this recently which summed this all up pretty succinctly, so if you don't mind me repeating myself I'll put it here:
If you have sex for work, what is your relationship with sex?
People ask me this all the time, always perplexed. They expect me to fall into the category of mythological nymphomaniac who uncontrollably fucks all and sundry or that sex must be spoiled for me in my private life, devoid of any meaning seeing as I trade it as a commodity.
The reality is having sex for work has changed sex in my private life, but in more nuanced ways. Firstly, I have come to value emotional connection as a vital component. I have enough sex with strangers that one night stands have absolutely no appeal to me. There has to be a degree of familiarity there and mutual respect and trust.
The idea that sex workers must be an 'easy lay' is hilariously wrong; why have average sex with a stranger when I could be paid for that? An extension of this is that I have no desire to sleep with straight men one on one. The last few times I did all I felt was regret that I hadn't been paid - I could've had that same orgasm with a client, or with my own hand.
Also, it has changed my preferences. As a teenager I was a top and liked to run my sexual encounters. With work I spend so much mental energy managing the time, making sure they orgasm, changing the positions etc etc that when I am in my private life I want someone to take the lead. Sex work has turned me into a pillow princess in my private life.
Having sex for work has made me all the more selective about who I sleep with in my private life, and value the emotional connection that can make sex transcendental at its best. Sex hasn't lost its wonder or beauty or been rubbed dull like an over-handled coin. I just waste less time chasing and having sub par sex, or using it to to pad out emotional gaps in my life. Having it for work has stripped it of its power to be used as a substitute for other things, and it's never a means to an end for me anymore in my non-work life.
What makes women’s bodies, in your opinion, beautiful?
I'm not really sure! I've just always been attracted to women/realised it was sexual attraction from my early teens. I try not to dissect women's bodies by placing emphasis on certain parts, because I think as women we are so often socialised to nit pick parts of our physical selves rather than accept ourselves as an ensemble. Also often the things I like best about women are things that are often associated as more 'masculine' traits which makes me think about how limiting it is to think in the binary of men's/women's bodies.
I saw you speak [at a panel at Cake Wines in Sydney] last year, and you were invited to give advice to the all-woman audience. I liked your response. It was something to the effect of ‘I can’t speak for other women; each experience is a different one; all advice should be tailored.’ Beyond the abstract idiomatic justification that ‘we are all different’, why is a tailored approach for all women the right one? Is it easy to strive for a vague, perhaps blanket kind of ‘empowerment’ here in 2017?
Ahhh I have such a pet hate for naff career motivation like 'never take no for an answer' because often the person that is coming from comes from completely different circumstances to those hearing that advice, and that advice won't necessarily apply to others. I think with any kind of generalisation you are in danger of focusing on a dominant narrative, which leaves individual context in the shadows. To be entirely honest I don't understand taking advice from someone you don't know who doesn't know you either - like god damn it is hard enough to agree on movie tastes with a close friend, why would you take important life advice from a stranger? That is just how I feel though, and is why I have such a knee-jerk reaction to generic inspirational quotes.
You’ve recently endured a break-up which is something you choose not to suppress online. Is there catharsis in the process of sharing for you? Do you consider that there is a mutually beneficial angle for you and your followers? Most people might choose precisely the opposite: to retreat, communicate with core people only, perhaps even disable social media entirely.
I share most of my life so it felt like it would be lying by omission to not say I had broken up, especially when I had chronicled my romantic relationship with that person over the course of two years. I think it's also important for these notions of perfect love to be broken down, and I know from the messages I've received that so many people have felt the heartbreak I've felt and have found solace in me sharing it. The original break up post was cathartic, but since then I have found a real strain and block on my writing, because for the first time I feel a restriction on what I can write about my healing process and moving on for fear it'll impact my ex's life. So I have taken a step back from social media, in that I feel like a wounded animal turned in on myself, and only my close friends know what I am up to and feeling at the moment. I'm sure with time I will find I can be vulnerable again online though.
Recently you published a post reiterating your identification with the label ‘queer’. This transcended resonance with being a lesbian or being gay or otherwise. Can you please paraphrase that here and explain why you've chosen to make queerness your foremost association?
Queer is a political term for me, as well as a sexuality. It's an umbrella term too that ties you in with part of a larger movement. It breaks down gender binaries and questions arbitrary morality. It also allows for more fluctuation for myself personally than the term 'lesbian', which is what I used to identify as (and still feel a strong connection to!).
You reveal a lot online. I mean this beyond the visual precedence that Instagram cultivates – I refer to your long, soliloquy-like captions.They’re more often than not written in a raw, revelatory way. What makes you want to speak so frankly and candidly to a body of people who are largely strangers?
All we can offer to this world really is our truth. Transparency and integrity are important things to me, and if my words bring about some people rethinking their attitudes towards women, or queer people, or sex workers then that is all I can hope for. Also it's a release for me. I was writing diary entry type captions long before I had a big Instagram following, so I still write with the compulsive disclosure that I did at the beginning, because that is what it has been for me.
It's sometimes said that the longer a caption gets, the worse it gets. Your predilection for length proves otherwise. What’s your relationship with writing like away from IG?
I have always written, since I was a child. I think Instagram has just given me the perfect platform for my style of baring my soul and processing my emotions and vulnerabilities through writing. Often I only know what I think about something when I have written it out. It clarifies things for me.
I get approached for a lot of writing gigs but I say no to most of them. It has to be something that I a) am passionate about and/or b) feel that I have a great obligation to utilise the platform I have been given to speak. Sex work is my job/the way I make money and I am not interested in monetising my writing if it compromises what I want to write about. Writing is far too important to me.
I imagine your relationship with sex work has changed overtime. Did you have any opposing perspectives that you needed to reconcile before beginning sex work four years ago? How have you developed since then? Anything you are struggling to reconcile?
Hmmm I guess the one thing that I really learnt about with time and had had absolutely no idea about was how big of a political organisation/push existed both nationally & internationally for sex worker rights.
At times I have had to navigate the fact that I financially profit off the selling of a lesbian fantasy, which feeds into the trivialisation and fetishisation of lesbian relationships. I guess the way I have allowed myself that is by being quite clear to clients that it is more than just a depiction for their own eyes - that my lesbian reality that they get a glimpse of extends beyond or one hour interaction into my every day life. It does not exist only in relation to them.
What do you love/appreciate about your body?
So many things! That it brings me joy and pleasure with those I love, that it is my most constant and every day and long lasting relationship and is with me through everything, that it is both me and my vessel through life, that it helps me make money and careens me around the world.