How Sex Workers Do Their Taxes

Want to know what strippers can deduct and how prostitutes declare their earnings? We talked to writer and former sex worker Melissa Gira Grant to find out.

For sex workers, what are the practical reasons to pay taxes on sex work? What are the reasons not to?

Avoiding an audit is awesome. No one wants to be Heidi Fleiss’d. Particularly sex workers who operate a business with other sex workers — a house of BDSM, or a porn site with multiple models — the more people you have in business together, the more you might want to run a tight ship. Then again, if you’re an independent escort, you might raise huge flags for claiming all of your income. It’s a trade-off.

What percent of sex workers would you say pay taxes on sex work?

Even if I were inside the IRS, I couldn’t throw out a reasonable guess: because prostitution is illegal almost everywhere in the US, and sex work more broadly — porn, stripping, etc. — carries such a huge social stigma, sex workers who file their taxes don’t often claim “sex worker” as a profession on their taxes. The thing is, even though we face the risk of arrest, harassment, and social isolation for our work, we’re still supposed to pay taxes on our income. How many do? It varies by industry. Strippers, phone sex operators, and porn performers work in slightly more formalized workplaces than escorts and massage parlor workers. They may even get W2’s or 1099’s.

Do you think MOST of them do? Or is there no way to say?

We put so much money back into the economy — hotel rooms, air travel, work clothes (the whole Pleaser company, which sells stripper shoes, would not exist without us), cabs, sex toy shops — all of which is taxed at point of sale. This idea that just because prostitution is illegal or sex work is part of the underground economy means we don’t pay taxes is totally false. We just want to get something back for it, you know? And “sin taxes” on porn or strip clubs are always getting proposed as a way to financially punish people in the sex industry, or customers. In California they actually wanted to use a tax on strip clubs to raise money for domestic violence programs — as if strippers were somehow responsible? It’s a hot button issue.

For those who do pay taxes, how do they report sex work? Are there any accountants who specialize in working with sex workers?

Again, that varies on the work, if you have another job that does generate a financial paper trail (always a good idea, and it makes you less reliant on the whims of the sex economy), and if you work independently or as part of a more formal business.

There’s understanding accountants out there: ask your local Sex Workers’ Outreach Project chapter for a professional recommendation.

What can sex workers write off?

If you are working in the sex trade as an independent contractor, like other freelancers, you can claim some work-related expenses as write-off’s. Usually this just serves as a kind of chuckle-chuckle for dude econ writers who think it’s absolutely hilarious that strippers could write-off heels and hair extensions. Tools of the trade, though. And especially when we don’t get health insurance or other benefits from our employers — and if we’re self-employed we might not be able to afford to cover those costs ourselves — every cent counts. Freelancers unite.

If sex work were legal, do you think more sex workers would pay taxes?

Sure, if the cops — whose salaries are paid for in part with sex workers’ taxes — would stop arresting people for prostitution, that would certainly make paying taxes a much less bitter task.

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