Let’s Talk About Sex: Dr Charla Hathaway on personal pleasure, performance activism, and becoming a sex worker in her 50s
January 30th 2023
Photo supplied by Dr Charla Hathaway
“Becoming a sex worker was one of the most fascinating, lucrative, empowering, freeing experiences of my life.”
Dr Charla Hathaway entered the world of sex work at age 54. Two decades later she’s a PhD clinical sexologist, certified sexological bodyworker, surrogate partner therapist, and the author of two books on eroticism. A teacher, performer, and above all a storyteller, Charla now travels the world sharing her experiences in order to destigmatise professional sex work and help others uncover the power of authentic erotic passion. She popped by Mornings with Maia Bilyk for Let’s Talk About Sex alongside segment regular Tanya Koens to chat about how she got into sex work in the first place, sex as a tool for personal development, and the importance of sex worker rights.
Back in 2003 Hathaway was working as a highschool teacher, living with her husband and son in Colorado, US. Soon after her son left for college she decided she too wanted to embark on a new adventure, beginning with what, in her words, “you might call a sexual renaissance.” She told Maia about how after leaving her marriage and moving to Texas she realised her growing interest in the science of intimacy might offer a new career path.
“I looked down at my table and all the books I had were about sex. I must be arrested in sexuality. And then I saw an ad to become an escort… I took the plunge. I knew that if I didn’t answer that ad, I would forever regret it.”
Despite initial doubts about getting into the industry at age 54, Charla soon found that her experienced body was a potent base from which to find her own empowerment.
“I had a mature body – I wanted to make sure I wasn’t going to get fucked too soon, too fast, too hard, too often or whatever… so I took the lead. Slowed them up. I got them to breathe. Maybe take a half an hour to take our clothes off. And all at once, I realised the power I had in myself to design the sexual experience… They were coming to me to lead and take initiative.”
Each encounter quickly became an opportunity for creativity, experimentation, and pleasure as Charla learned more about herself by exploring all the choices that are out there. She described how this reconceptualisation of sex as a skill and tool for self-development proved potent not only for herself, but for her partners too.
“[You] meet people at their rawest, at their most hopeful and their most feared, and you can take them just one little baby step at a time towards more comfort and love and acceptance of themselves and their body. When you’re in that place in you and I’m in that place in me and we understand our humanity and our journeys together, then we are one.”
Vulnerability in particular plays a key part in Charla’s work. Tanya Koens brought up how sex workers have paved the way for today’s consent culture, not only in all the obvious and extremely important ways, but also through uncovering the more nuanced, subtle aspects of consent, such as the way in which thorough consent unlocks deeper pleasure. Charla agreed, stressing the notion of consent as a signalling of a person’s readied vulnerability to receive.
“[The more you talk earnestly about consent] the more comfortable you can be with someone who you know feels safe to tell you, ‘No.’”
“They can take responsibility and you know you’ve got someone you can make something with.”
Through sex work, Charla uncovered her innate autonomy and pleasure, hitherto repressed by life in a patriarchal world. However, this discovery of the transformative potential of sex work for both the individual and society was rapidly contrasted by the stigma she faced surrounding her profession.
“It’s a very stigmatised, isolating, and misunderstood world. How do you introduce yourself to a neighbour or a friend even? My family… my sisters didn’t want to hear about my work. [But] we could talk about theirs fine, you know?”
Her experience led her to engage in deeper reflection on the social myths surrounding sex work, including the perceived powerlessness of workers in the industry. In this way her personal experience and growing social consciousness prompted her to explore performance activism and teaching.
“The sex workers in North Hollywood have unionised for the first time and I mean,… to get together and to know we have rights! We need to be treated correctly. We’re a value to society. Sex work is adult, and its consensual, and its valuable to a community. We need to make it safer, and we need to start decriminalising sex workers and their clients.”
This mix of pleasure and activism underscores all of Charla’s work, and is a key part of the message she hopes to spread in her upcoming Australian shows.
“[I’m] impassioned to tell the message to normalise and destigmatise [sex] work. Sex workers are the foot soldiers of the women’s movement; we need protection, we need to get loans, we need housing, we need all these things.”
Want to hear more from Dr Charla Hathaway? Listen to her full interview with Tanya Koens and Maia Bilyk up top, or catch her live at the Red Rattler Theatre this week (deets below) – proceeds from her shows go to decriminalise sex work.