OUTcast S1, Ep 1 • 27 Sep 2021 • 27:15
Rosie: Welcome to the inaugural episode of OUTcast, the podcast where we catch up with some of the most engaging, courageous and inspiring LGBTQ+ people from all over the world.
We ask our lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and queer guests where their coming out journeys began, what they’ve gone through along the way – the joy and the pain, but we promise there will be more joy – and what gives them hope.
You can follow us on social media at @OUTcastLGBT, and you can find us online at outcastpod.com.
For our very first episode, we are joined by Tilly Lawless. Tilly is a novelist and queer sex worker based in Sydney.
She’s passionate about sex worker rights and feminism, and she utilises her online platform – and now her debut novel – to speak honestly and revealingly about her real experiences within the sex industry, from a queer prespective.
Through writing and public speaking, she works to shine a light on the everyday stigma that sex workers come up against. Her 2017 TED talk on the importance of sex work to the feminist movement has been viewed nearly 80,000 times.
She’s also spoken at venues like Sydney Opera House, for their feminist and ideas festivals and series, including All About Women and Ideas at the House.
She studied history at the University of Sydney and got into sex work to supplement her scholarship, and cover the costs of living and studying away from home.
In 2018, she wrote a spectacular piece in Archer Magazine about her queer identity and her experience of being a sex worker – and about how identifying as both things has contributed to her being shut out of both communities on occasion. Confessing herself to be a bit of an outsider, then, she wrote, “I’m used to having to build my own spaces, by tooth and nail, stiletto and pen.” It sums her up well.
Her first novel, Nothing But My Body, was published in August 2021 and she’s already writing her second book, with a third underway too.
Rosie: Tilly – welcome to OUTcast. It’s great to have you on.
Tilly: Thank you. It’s nice to do something with my day.
Rosie: How’s lockdown been, is it okay?
Tilly: I mean, it was really awful in the winter. Like we went into lockdown at the end of June, and that was obviously awful because it was cold. But lockdown now is prime. I’ve been swimming in the ocean every day, I mean obviously it sucks in some ways and I can’t work, but I’m on Centrelink so I’m not too stressed money-wise, and I’m just really glad to be close to the ocean. And we’re probably going to open in about four or five weeks now.
Rosie: Oh, that’s good. Yeah, yeah. With this podcast I want to tell fascinating coming out stories, so I’m going to go to the beginning of yours if that’s okay.
Rosie: How do you identify, first of all?
Tilly: A queer woman, really. I use she-her pronouns. I’m cis. If I was asked, am I gay or bi I would say gay. Like I sometimes refer to myself as gay or lesbian.
I mean, I’ve only ever dated women. But I also in my private life sleep with trans guys and non-binary people so I just use the word, the term queer to be a little bit more inclusive of the diversity of the people that I sleep with.
Rosie: And when did you come out?
Tilly: When I was fifteen, so thirteen years ago now.
Rosie: Was it family, or – ?
Tilly: Oh no, so I came out – I realised I was into girls when I was fourteen and I think I told some friends first when I was fourteen or fifteen, I can’t remember the exact age. Like some close friends.
And then I kind of just randomly on a whim came out one day before science class, at the beginning of year ten. I don’t know, some guy was saying something to me, and I remember responding being like “Oh well, I don’t really care about that because I’m into girls.” And we were all queued up to go into class and the whole line went silent and he was like, “you’re joking right?” And I was like, “No I’m bisexual,” which was a term I was using at the time because lesbian just felt too confronting to use as a fifteen-year-old.
And so then suddenly I was out. 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 also an Anglican school, so there was no one out in my year, or even I think any of the years above me.
Tilly: So it was like a really big deal. And I remember though, interestingly people didn’t make as much of a fuss as you might expect. I remember a guy in my year was like to me, “Oh well, you know, we all knew you were weird anyway. So it makes sense you’re weird sexually to.”
Rosie: Yeah, I can relate to there not being that many people out at school. And that’s even talking about Western schools in the 2000s: British schools, US schools, Australian schools… And that guy’s comment sums up how being LGBTQ+ was associated with “being weird”, in air quotes.
Tilly: Yeah, when I’d been in year seven, some of the guys in my year used to tease me for being a lesbian. Looking back, they just teased me for being a lesbian because I didn’t give them the attention that some of the girls gave them. I don’t think they actually had cottoned on to the fact that I was gay because I didn’t even know I was gay when I was thirteen. But looking back now, I’m like maybe they did sense something in me. I’m not sure.
Rosie: Yeah. And how about your family, was that a separate situation?
Tilly: Yeah, so my dad when I told him was like… he wasn’t against it, he was just like “oh, maybe you haven’t met nice enough guys yet.” He was like, “how can you know?”
He was like, “you know, you’re living in a small country town. Wait until you get out into the big world. I’m sure you’ll be more interested in men then.” Which is so funny, because I feel like the more men you meet the less interested in them you are.
I mean, it’s also like so funny because I was like, “well, did you know you were into women when you were fifteen, and he was like “of course”, so it’s like well how come I can’t know I’m into women at fifteen?” Yeah, look he was like accepting of it, just a bit confused.
And I don’t have a relationship with my mum, so I’ve never actually told her. So I’m not sure how she would have reacted. And my extended family were a bit less accepting. My extended family is quite christian though. They were, I think, confronted with it from that point of view, but I’m also not close to my extended family so I don’t think it really bothered me.
Rosie: That was when you were around fifteen- to sixteen-ish. So fast-forward to about nineteen or twenty and you were at uni, and you started working as a sex worker, how did you get into that?
Tilly: Yeah, so I actually started when I’d just turned twenty. And I started because, yeah, I’d moved to Sydney to go to uni from the town I was at. And I had an equity scholarship, so I had to keep up a certain mark to keep my scholarship at uni, and I was really struggling to cover rent and things like that. So I needed a job that was going to be financially lucrative but wouldn’t cut into my study time.
And so obviously I feel like sex work is presented as this thing that is just endless money. It’s quite funny, I was sitting in this gender studies class with another queer girl next to me and we’d bonded over the fact that we were both queer girls when, you know at that time, there weren’t so many people out you know?
Tilly: And so we’d bonded over that and I confided in her one day and said “I’d been thinking of trying sex work because I really need the money” and she was like, “me too”.
So we just Googled an escort agency and went in together, did an interview and started together. And, like, yeah I’ve been doing full-service sex work for eight years now and part of the reason I think I’ve been able to do it so longterm is because I am not into men. So there’s a real delineation between my sex I have at work and sex I have in my private life.
I mean 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. Which, to me, is so funny because 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.
Rosie: Yeah, it’s so interesting. I mean, that was going to be my next question: how does being queer intersect, or coexist, with sex work? It sounds like any kind of interplay between the two is absolutely packaged up in people’s preconceptions that need to be smashed.
Tilly: Definitely. To answer your question, though, there’s also another huge interplay between queerness and sex work, because there are so many queer sex workers, both historically and in the now. For a lot of queer people, you know 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. And so 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, so sex work is still really, really populated by queer people. I can say that out of all the sex workers I’ve met, 50 percent of them would be queer, which is way higher than the percentage across the general population.
I think it’s partly because, yeah as I said, queer people are drawn into sex work because of their economic circumstances, and things like that, and hiring discriimination. 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, and one of my managers has always said that lesbians make the best sex workers, because they can last longer than anyone else.
Rosie: Brilliant, brilliant.
Rosie: How do people tend to react when you say you’re queer?
Tilly: I feel like this has changed a lot in ten years. So much. I mean, I’m sure you’ve noticed the same. I feel like when I used to say I was queer in my late teens, people would be like, “oh, what? Really?” – especially because I’m so feminine.
When I was younger, also people just didn’t believe that I was queer. Like I would say I was gay and people would just be like, “Oh, you’re just saying it for attention…” or like, “you’re a fake lesbian” or whatever. All because I was really feminine, you know?
These days, because I’m kind of known in Australia, I feel like it’s very rare to meet someone these days who doesn’t already know who I am, and therefore already know that I’m queer. So I don’t get people questioning my sexuality in the way they did when I was younger.
In my work, I do still have people surprised that I’m gay. I mean, I don’t tell clients that I’m gay; I say I’m bisexual. Because if I said I was gay, it would ruin the illusion of what they were paying for. So I always say I’m bisexual to clients. And they’re often really surprised.
The rare times I do still experience overt homophobia, you know like someone being like “that’s disgusting, how could you do that?” or “that’s wrong” or whatever, is occasionally from clients, yeah.
Rosie: Yeah, I mean you can imagine I suppose if you’re getting a lot of heteronormative male clients, then that’s sort of the world they’re from.
Tilly: Oh yeah.
Rosie: It’s a good point. I wonder if there’s a notion… I don’t know if I can articulate this well… But I guess the more you have sex with heteronormative men at work, it’s not like you’re suddenly going to be converted to how brilliant it all is. They might all think they’re so magnificent that how could you possibly be a lesbian after that, you know?
Tilly: Totally! I had a client the other day that I actually ran into at the park, a man I used to see. And he knows my real name, he’s even read my book – he emailed me a few weeks back to be like, “I loved your book.” He knows I’m gay. And I ran into him at the park and he was like, “what are you listening to?” and I said, “ Oh I’m listening to John Prine” and he was like, “I wish I was twenty years younger,” and I said, “why?” And he said “because if I was twenty years younger, I would have turned you by now, and introduced you to the best music.”
Rosie: Oh my God.
Tilly: And I was like, “I can’t believe you’ve read my book and you’re still thinking you can ‘turn me’”. Like, this is so absurd, like, how… It’s such an ego thing.” I also thought the concept of turning had been let go at this point. And it was also just so funny, I was like, “dude, your age is not the problem. Even if you were twenty years younger, we would not be together.” And also, I can find my own good music. Like, I don’t need you to introduce me to it.
Rosie: Oh my God, there’s so much just in that. That packaged up a lot that’s, patriarchy, basically.
Tilly: Fully! Anyway, I wanted to put him in his place, then I was like, “he might be a paying client again in future,” so I couldn’t offend him. I have to be diplomatic all the time.
Rosie: What about colleagues? A lot of them are queer anyway, but do you ever get weird, knee-jerk reactions there?
Tilly: Definitely used to, but again not so much anymore. I think when I started I never had bad reactions from colleagues, more like slightly homophobic. Not like, “you’re gross,” but like, “oh, how could you? Vaginas are so gross.” You know? Stuff that I would say is more women having internalised issues about their own bodies and sort of projecting that, rather than finding me gross for being gay, you know?
Maybe I’m being too kind, maybe it was just homophobia.
Rosie: Yeah, I mean homophobia… internalised shame as well… there’s so much going on there. You know, women that think vaginas are disgusting like “come on dude, it’s like the centre of you.”
Tilly: Yeah, exactly and that’s why I’m like, yeah I see it more as internalised shame… but could have been a combo of both. But yeah, I definitely did used to get that when I first started working, but I really feel like stuff has changed so much in the last decade, with conversations around queerness and stuff, yeah.
Rosie: In terms of your relationships, the people you’re with, how do they deal with you having sex work as a career? From the outside, you can assume jealousy and things…
Tilly: Yeah, so most of the people I’ve dated whilst being a sex worker have been other sex workers. So, I haven’t actually had that as an issue because they’ve understood the work. Or not necessarily another sex worker, but someoone in the industry, so a brothel manager or something.
And I also think because I mainly sleep with clients, and I date women, women are less threatened by it because they don’t compare themselves to the clients.
Rosie: So I guess you do predominantly have hetrosexual male clients? Do ever have queer clients?
Tilly: I’ve probably seen in eight years maybe between 50 and 100 women clients, but most of them have been in couples. So often you’ll have bi girls who are married to a man, and for their fortieth birthday, or for their tenth wedding anniversary or whatever, they’ll book a threesome. That’s always really wonderful.
And then I’ve had maybe ten women who’ve booked me just one-on-one, which is always really, really special. I love women clients. Like, I wish that happened more. I mean, I also get very nervous when I get booked by women clients. I’m like, “oh my God, I’m being paid for this, I have to be so good,” which is so funny because I never worry about being good with a man.
And obviously also I’m also nervous around the women because I’m attracted to them. I had such a hot woman book me last year, and I had such a crush on her afterwards. It’s not kosher to text clients, unless they text you, but I would look at my phone like, “has she messaged me to see me again?”
But yeah, I wish more women booked me, but there’s just like… I mean there’s a few things around women clients. Firstly, it’s just not acceptable for women to pay for sex. And also, women have statistically less of an expendable income than men, so you know, men are more able to afford to book sex workers, yeah.
And I once actually got booked by a pregnant woman as well, which was amazing.
Rosie: What was that like?
Tilly: Oh, I mean I’d never slept with a pregnant woman before so it just blew my mind anyway, regardless of being paid for it. She was seven months pregnant, she was like two years older than me, so late twenties. She’d never been with a woman before and she wanted to try it before she had a baby. I felt so special to be even allowed into that moment in her life, you know?
Rosie: It does sound so special, that one. And so wonderful for her to explore her sexuality in that way.
Now, going to the slightly less positive… What are the most annoying questions you get asked?
Tilly: Oh my God. “What’s the weirdest thing you’ve done at work?” That’s always an annoying question, because weirdness is relative anyway: one person’s weird is not another person’s weird. And I know when people ask that, they want me to talk about fetishes. The weirdest thing at work is if a guy wants me to do something for free. That to me is weird.
About queerness… oh God I used to get asked when I was younger – I’m sure you got asked this too – ”how do lesbians have sex?” People always ask!
Rosie: Yeah. It’s like, think about what you’re asking us! Apart from the fact it’s very private, it’s also homophobic and mysogynistic. Also, how could someone be that disconnected from their body that they couldn’t imagine what you do?
Tilly: Yeah! And I also remember I used to get asked, “then you must be a virgin right?” That was always the worst question. I was in a two-year relationship with a girl, from seventeen to nineteen, and I used to get asked that. And it’s so insulting because it completely discounts the validity of your entire relationship.
Rosie: What qualities has sex work, or being a queer sex worker specifically, given you, that you’d describe being proud of, or grateful for?
Tilly: Definitely being really shrewd, and being able to pick up red flags, in men’s behaviour specifically. When any of my straight friends start dating a guy, I can have a suss on the guy very quickly and assess what kind of man he is, and often notice things before anyone else does in the way he behaves.
I think it’s also given me really clear boundaries, especially in physical interactions, of knowing how to assert myself but knowing how to assert myself in a way that doesn’t escalate the situation. Because sometimes saying “no” to something can make someone reactive, and so I’ve learned to be tactful and diplomatic, as I was saying earlier with that client.
Rosie: You try and turn over negative and narrow perceptions of sex work. What are the most positive reactions you’ve had, or the revelation moments that you remember, that encourage you?
Tilly: 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.
And then 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.” People being like, “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, and their life. That to me has shown me that the things I’ve been doing have had some positive effects, or good or whatever.
Rosie: Absolutely, Tilly, absolutely.
Tilly: And you know, obviously striving for huge legislative changes and stuff that a lot of activists do, and a lot of community organising groups do, is so fucking incredible and important. I am just grateful to have made changes in people’s lives on a more personal level, you know?
Rosie: Mm hm, yeah definitely. It’s really powerful. Like that just one… you know, a post could just have one person’s life changed. It’s pretty amazing to think, really.
This is 2021, and unfortunately we’re still talking about the pandemic a lot… How has the pandemic impacted your work?
Tilly: Basically, like I guess any in-person physical labour job, my work was done last year. Brothels closed in March, and for three-and-a-half months I did OnlyFans while brothels were closed. Which I fucking hated. I do not like online work at all, for numerous reasons. And then this year, yeah brothels are closed again now; this year I’ve gone on Centrelink instead of getting OnlyFans.
Rosie: And you got to do a lot of writing I’m guessing… let’s talk about your book, Nothing But My Body, which was out this year. What can OUTcast listeners expect from the novel?
Tilly: So I wrote it from March to September, but I will say, like not all of it was written then. It’s 50,000 words and about 5,000 words of it, so a tenth of it, is bits of my writing over the last ten years that I put into the book. So I kind of used part diary entries on my Instagram as jumping-off points to write parts.
I took the structure from Mrs Dalloway. 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.
And it’s a young queer sex worker, so it’s partially based on me. But not all of it’s true. And each day out of the eight days is significant for one reason – so one day she’s going through a break up; another is in the middle of the bushfire season in Australia; another day is in working in a brothel when Sydney first went into lockdown; another day is Mardi Gras in Sydney. And it follows her train of thought through each of those days, and it was 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.
It was really important to me to write a book that dealt with sex work but wasn’t just about sex work. Because I feel like sex workers… there’s always the drug addiction sex work memoir, and I was more interested in having sex work as a backdrop. So to me, it’s more about friendship, rejecting romantic love, queer community…
And the three main inspirations were all, interestingly, queer authors. So like obviously Virginia Woolf. Then one of the other inspirations was John Rechy, who’s a Mexican-American gay man who wrote in the 1960s and he had this incredible book called City of Night, which was about sex work and also queer community in New York, San Fran, LA. And then the other one was Djuna Barnes, who was a 1920s lesbian author in Paris, who wrote a really great book. People usually know her for Nightwood, but I like her for Ladies Almanac. This is so gay, but she wrote it for her girlfriend when she was sick in bed to entertain her. And it satirises all the lesbians they hung out with. I like to see myself as part of a continued queer literary tradition, because that’s very much what inspired it.
Rosie: And have I seen correctly that you’ve already written potentially a couple more things? What’s next in terms of writing?
Tilly: Yeah, I’ve written a second book, which I loved writing. I basically wrote what I would have wanted to read as a lesbian teenager. I’ve written a kind of Twilight, but queer and set in Australia, and way more sex and drugs.
So it’s queer young adult fantasy and it was so much fucking fun to write. And there is a mythological creature in it that’s very sexy, but it’s not a vampire. She’s not a vampire, I should say, she’s another kind of creature.
It’s so much fun writing for teenagers. The first book took me six months to write, and this one only took nine weeks. So yeah, it was really really fun. And also, I set it back when I was a teenager, so like 2009, 2010, so it was also fun to write something nostalgic and make references to things that don’t exist any more, like Myspace, you know.
Rosie: Yeah. Judging from your Instagram you read a lot. Have you got any book recommendations for our listeners, by queer authors or otherwise?
Tilly: I’ll give queer ones, seeing as that is what this is about. I’d really recommend Alison Bechdel Fun Home. That’s her graphic novel and it’s absolutely incredible. And I’d also recommend Leslie Feinberg Stone Butch Blues, which is about their journey as a trans man in the 1950s as a working class American, it’s incredible. What else? I read A Scarlet Pansy recently, which I really loved, which was about early 1900s queer community, about a trans woman in America.
Rosie: They all sound amazing. I for one am definitely adding them to my long list of books that I really want to read. Um, it is a massive list…
What gives you hope for the future?
Tilly: Oh, I think just seeing how much has changed in the last ten years gives me hope for the future. To see this much change in someone’s lifetime, let alone ten years, is a huge thing.
And… What else makes me hopeful for the future? I’m just kind of hopeful for the future generally I think. I don’t know, I think I’ve been through enough rough periods of my life that I have faith in the fact that no rough period lasts forever. You know, you might have a bad period again, but then you’ll have a good period again, and then you’ll have a bad period again, then you’ll have a good period again… you always do come back to some good times, you know? I guess that’s sort of what my book that came out this year was about. The fact that, you know, mental health and everything in life isn’t like a linear progression. It’s something that goes in and out, and fluctuates, and up and down… It’s just like you’ve got to ride it out, you know? Yeah.
Rosie: Yeah, yeah. I really like that, and I think a lot of people listening will appreciate that.
Thanks so much.
Tilly: Thank you.
Rosie: Thanks so much, it’s so good to have you on.
Rosie: Thank you for listening to OUTcast, a podcast with interviews and coming out stories from inspiring LGBTQ+ people.
I’m your host, Rosie Pentreath.
I hope you can join us again next week.