Queer novelist and sex worker Tilly Lawless tells her coming out story, shares her thoughts on feminism in the sex industry, and expounds that Virginia Woolf’s ‘Mrs Dalloway’ inspired her first novel.
“One of my managers has always said that lesbians make the best sex workers, because they can last longer in the industry than anyone else,” Tilly Lawless says with the frank openness she has become so well known for.
She laughs. As well as having a great name, Tilly Lawless has a great sense of humour.
Tilly is the very first guest in the inaugural season of OUTcast Podcast. She’s a novelist and queer sex worker based in Sydney, who uses her online platform – and now her debut novel Nothing But My Body – to speak honestly and revealingly about her real experiences within the sex industry. She is working to push back against the everyday stigma that comes with the job.
In 2018, she wrote a spectacular piece in Archer about her queer identity and her experience of being a sex worker, and about how identifying as both things together has contributed to her being shut out of both communities on occasion. Confessing herself to be a bit of an outsider, she wrote, “I’m used to having to build my own spaces, by tooth and nail, stiletto and pen.” This sums her up well.
“I kind of just randomly came out on a whim one day before science class, at the beginning of year ten” she tells Rosie on OUTcast.
Tilly identifies as a lesbian woman, although, at the time she came out she used the term bisexual because “lesbian just felt too confronting as a fifteen-year-old.” Similarly, she tells her clients that she’s bisexual, “else it would ruin the illusion of what they’re paying for.”
“I definitely hadn’t prepared for it or thought about it. I feel like I’m a very impatient person though, so it was just obviously something I wanted to say, so I said it. And then of course it spread round the school like wildfire because I grew up in a rural area and it was quite a conservative area as well, and the school I was at was an Anglican school, so there was no one out in my year, or even any of the years above me.”
Adjacent to her personal life dating women, non-binary and trans people, Tilly got into sex work while she was at university in Sydney, studying history on an equity scholarship. The job had suitable hours for study, and more than adequate remuneration.
“A lot of people struggled with my job once I was more public about it, but I think a lot of people also really struggled to grapple with the fact that I was sleeping with men when I’d always dated women.”
But, actually, sex work is full of queer people. It’s been a vital source of work for stigmatised people throughout history, and it’s also not unknown for people entering the business to become more open and exploratory with their sexuality.
Are there many queer sex workers?
“There are so many queer sex workers, both historically and in the now,” Tilly confirms. “Before it was legal to be a homosexual man, for example, before gay male sex was decriminalised, it was really hard for overtly feminine gay men to get work. Sex work was an avenue of employment, and that’s still the same for a lot of trans people as well who suffer from discrimination in ‘normal’ industries.”
Tilly shares that about fifty per cent of the people she works with in the sex industry are queer, “which is way higher than the percentage across the general population.”
“I also do wonder if women who enter sex work straight, also become more open to other things, or become more in tune with their sexuality as they’re working, and maybe realise that they’re also into women because maybe they start doing threesomes at work or whatever, and realise “oh I actually really like this and I hadn’t really thought of myself in that way before. There are just so many gay women in sex work.”
“One of my managers has always said that lesbians make the best sex workers, because they can last longer than anyone else,” she laughs.
“To think that you have to be attracted to men that you sleep with when you’re paid imagines then that every straight sex worker is also attracted to every client she gets with. There’s no necessity for genuine attraction.”
Activism through openness
Now 28, Tilly writes openly about her work and about her experience of being queer. Her reach and honestly has helped countless people come to terms with either coming out or with taboos around sex work.
“In my early twenties I used to get lots of messages from people from my hometown being like, ‘I was gay all through high school, and I was too scared to come out, but I used to watch you being out, and it eventually gave me the confidence to come out,’ things like that,” Tilly confides on OUTcast.
“Also, messages from people being like, ‘I was a sex worker ten years ago and I’ve never told anyone I’m so ashamed of it,’ or “growing up, my mum was a sex worker, and I never knew how to deal with that and reading your writing has helped me come to terms with her work.’
“So, just helping by my openness; having that help people in their own journey in coming to terms with their sexuality or their work, or other people’s sexuality or work… has shown me that the things I’ve been doing have had some positive effects.”
From Instagram diaries to debut novels
As well as a 2017 TEDx talk that’s been seen by thousands, much of Tilly’s openness comes from her Instagram, where she writes diaries and excerpts detailing her thoughts on the queer community, sex work, feminism and mental health.
She used these as jumping-off points for her first novel, Nothing But My Body. So, what else can we expect from the book?
“I took the structure from Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway,” Tilly says on OUTcast. “It’s a train of thought of one woman’s day as she’s going about doing stuff, but I instead structured it across eight days, across a year. ”
She tells us it’s about young queer sex worker – “so it’s partially based on me, but not all of it’s true” – and each day is significant for one reason or another. One day she’s going through a break up, another she is working in a brothel at the moment Sydney first went into lockdown due to the Coronavirus pandemic, then one day is set in the middle of the 2020 bushfire season in Australia, while another takes place at Sydney’s Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras.
“It’s meant to show the fluctuations in mental health and the way the pace of your thoughts changes according to your mental health and the world around you,” Tilly says. “It was really important to me to write a book that dealt with sex work but wasn’t just about sex work.”