The Mental Health Residue of Sex Work

It’s been some time since I was regularly sex working. In fact, I was working daily before the pandemic, and doing various forms of sex work – literally working both day and night. When I wasn’t working, I felt immense worry that I was losing money and should be working. The pandemic broke this routine for me, but my mind was still in panic and overdrive. When I moved into my flat, I was no longer homeless, but again, the panic never left. I began sex working day and night again to pay for furniture, carpet, paint and whatever else I needed.

In a conference last month, I said that sex work itself saved me from sex work. By this I meant, sex work allowed me the money to get me away from sex work permanently, and it’s been my saving grace many times – who knows where I’d be without it. However, I can’t deny that at times, it’s been the thing that has sent me into emotional downturns very quickly, even when I didn’t realise it at the time. This week, I cried and pleaded to my support worker that I couldn’t go back to sex work anymore, but I didn’t realise how upset it was making me.

Although much of this post will be about me and my own experiences, I know some of these people relate to. I think it’s good to have these conversations, even though they are difficult to have. We often mute ourselves in fear of abolitionists using it against us, but it is wrong for them to use our lives for their fodder. We should control our own narrative, instead of constantly defending. For me, sex work and mental health are intertwined, because you aren’t just buying a service, my body is there too. With that body comes my mind, thoughts, emotions and whatever else. I am a human being, not a mindless sex robot.

Irrational thinking

Sex work can truly alter the way you think about a lot of things, and one main thing for me has been money. You either have none of it or loads of it, and there is rarely an in-between in sex work when you’re caught up in the thick of it. Sex work income is sporadic and is not continuous and reliable, unless of course you have a strong base of regulars, but that takes years. How you think about earning and spending it also changes, and I would argue is one of the hardest things to grapple with when it comes to leaving sex work and transitioning away. I always tell people who start sex work to always keep an eye on their money and a foot in the vanilla world, because you simply can’t compare it to normal earnings, and not because of the way you earn the money.

One of the things I have been so grateful for with regards to sex work was for the first time in my life, I didn’t have to check the prices of things in the supermarket and I could buy the little luxuries without guilt. This wasn’t and isn’t because I am rich, but it’s because I know the money can be earned back. When I used to spend £200 on something, I would feel immediate panic but soothe by telling myself I can just earn that back tomorrow in an hour or so. Money used to go through your hands very quickly, particularly when caught up in the cycle of drug use because money was easily accessible. I used to work out how much things cost by blowjobs, what clients I could see and when the money could be earned back. Most people work out their income by their hourly wage, and budget on a monthly income and work out big expenditures out by either saving or working overtime.

When it came to leaving and moving away from sex work by going into a vanilla job, it took ages (and continues) to adjust to the fact that money couldn’t be earned whenever I needed it and actually, to buy something. I told my mate that when the times comes to buy a car, I will just simply sex work to buy it because that’s what I know. It’s my answer to a big purchase, because the concept of putting aside 10% of my income doesn’t come naturally to me. Even when I had money and no longer needed to sex work, I still did it. I was so scared of being homeless again, losing out of money or fearing that due to the erratic nature of sex work income, I will never find a job again so I must take advantage of it now whilst I can.

Sometimes, it is only when I talk to people who have never done sex work do I realise how irrational I sound. However, when you’re so absorbed in that life all the time, and your peers around you might think the same or do the same, you don’t realise how odd it is.

Men

I would be lying if I said sex work didn’t change my opinion of men. However, I didn’t realise how much other people noticed it. I recently went for a job as a homeless outreach worker, and I passed the interview with flying colours. However, when it came to the outreach trial shift, they said I didn’t pass because I was incredibly jumpy and almost disinterested. It’s not because I have 0 compassion and empathy, of course I do. I realised that on reflection, I shut off around men and in fact, they do scare me, particularly when they’re walking towards me. After all, I probably wasn’t the right person for the job and maybe it turned out for the best. Although, this is the first time I ever thought about how I interact with men but it was because I was forced to, and I felt almost embarrassed that other people noticed it because I thought I had myself under control, and my personal life didn’t impact my professional life.

I always have my guard up in sex work around men. I am constantly expecting them to do something; remove a condom, grab me, pick me up and always need to have safety in your mind. Putting your guard down isn’t an option, you have to be control and show no weakness. I have reasons to be this way, because it happens. I’m 5 foot tall and weigh 7 stone, and men remark on how they could ‘just pick me up and snap me’. I’ve had men rape me, push me down, remove condoms, drug me, push boundaries and whatever else. I wouldn’t be human if I wasn’t effected by these things, and to be honest, it helped fuel the drug use and it became an excuse to use.

I spent many hours listening to men tell me their woes, worries and slag off their partners. I listen to them tell me horrible things, but know I can’t argue with them cause the power dynamic and I need their money. Sex workers are very often untrained therapists, whereby men have emotional problems but find sexual and mental release confiding in a sex worker who is not qualified to grapple with this, and the power dynamics are inappropriate. I know men cheat on their wives, I know they’re shagging someone else on their lunch break; I know they’re sleeping with women younger than their daughter; I know they feel no shame or guilt about it. The thing is, their partners have no idea and would be none the wiser.

People like to say that it’s different, not all men are like this, but they are. You have no idea who buys sex, and it’s estimated that roughly 1 in 10 men do. I’ve seen everyone from the anaesthetist, to the urban planner, to your local plumber, taxi drive and your stair fitter. You can’t say which men it is, and therefore we must assume all men. You can’t pick a client out of a crowd, and many would be perplexed to find out that their friend, father, brother, colleague or son was sending escorts abusive messages on advertising platforms, stalking or raping them, but it happens every day.

The feminists

This was a paragraph I never thought I’d ever write, and something as a woman myself, never anticipated. However, the feminist arguments over sex work are absolutely gruelling, exhausting, personal and nasty. Often, sex workers are blamed for violence against all women – this suggests we are either not part of the women they’re talking about, or that we are to blame for our own violence. This is victim blaming, and the only people responsible for violence, are those who commit the act themselves – not sex workers. I am not the cause of my own assault, and this wouldn’t be acceptable to say to anyone else.

Although they deny it, radical feminists hate sex workers and would like to see the back of us. We are not the aspirational women they are fighting for. They want women in the board room to challenge men, they want women in STEM. They don’t want women sucking men’s dicks, flashing their tits and appealing to men for money. Instead, they want us to be fierce and financially independent from them. I know this because I’ve sat in meetings where they say that yes, the Nordic Model may cause violence and murder against sex workers, but it is for the betterment of all women in the long-run, and perhaps it will be a deterrent for sex workers. We know this is bullshit because even serial killers were out targeting sex workers, they still went out and worked.

It is no mistake that they praise people such as Julie Burchill who famously said ‘When the sex war is won, prostitutes should be shot as collaborators for their terrible betrayal of all women’. Sometimes, the masks slips and they really say what they really mean.

For people who say they really care about us ‘prostituted women’ who are victims, they do a brilliant job at degrading us, using the language of our abusers, and speak over us. They say nothing about us, without us, unless of course you’re a sex worker. I’ve been told by people who have never met me that I am ‘very deeply damaged’ and ‘injured wild animal’. The impact of these things are awful, and I’ve sat and cried over it many times, and the things they’ve said or accused me of. I was sent messages from the local radical feminist group in Leeds that were reported to the police, after they said they were watching my sex work on the streets and hoped I would ‘get raped so bad’ that I ‘never go back to prostituting myself’. Alongside this was comments saying that I was a ‘dirty prostitute who men dump their cum in’. Like I said, they use the language of those who abuse us.

Recently, I had complete burnout. The Managed Zone in Leeds was shut, and I went down the day before the news broke with a friend. I didn’t work, but I wanted to look out for her safety as much as I could. Quickly, our lives were made national news, and once again, we were the focus of every feminist with an opinion. That week, my friend died of an overdose, I was working with friends who were returning to sex work and overall, we were all struggling. Instead, I felt the barrage and abuse of feminists who were ideologically focused, with no personal investment. Karen Ingala-Smith named her DV refuge Daria House after sex worker, Daria Pionko, who was murdered in Leeds. Our lives seem to be political fodder, with no concern about the sex workers on our doorstep.

Over time, I’ve realised to remove myself from these conversations, walk away. When you are arguing with someone over ideology when it’s your life, your friends, the people you love and people you’ve lost, you’ll never win. You will only walk away hurt. There have been many times I’ve thought that I’d rather just lay on my back and shag a client and get paid, than have to listen to the verbal vitriol of feminists.

Sexual violence

Of course, this is not unique to sex work. I find it really difficult talking about sex work in my mental health appointments because I am cautious to not paint the tale that sex work is the cause of my problems, but rather sexual violence, not sex work itself. It is not sex work that is the issue, it is sexual assaulters. I can’t deny the risk is higher in sex work, then compounded with that is struggles to report or seek adequate support without judgement, shame or stigma.

One of the hardest things I find about sex work and sexual violence is having to return. Rape is horrific, and for many they take time off work, push it deep out of their mind, turn to the bottle or avoid the entire act of sex itself. These are all natural responses, but if you are sex working and you are raped, you will likely need to return to it, and that is more damaging. Sometimes, you have to return to the same client because you have no money, and if you have a drug problem then you have to go back out the next day or soon after. Eventually, your mind numbs out and despite everything in me that says otherwise, I just put it down to an occupational hazard and move on, despite being on the front-line arguing that rape is not something we have to accept as ‘part of the job’. Of course we don’t, it’s vile and nothing to do with sex or work, but power. However, you couldn’t go on if you didn’t compartmentalise it and store it away for another day.

We can’t deny that there are men who specifically target sex workers to harm. When there are serial killers, they tend to kill sex workers or other marginalised, vulnerable women. People find it easier to harm us because society sees as disposable, the bad and immoral woman and the stigma fuels the shame. Lowman’s research on ‘discourse of disposability’ showed that when people used language like ‘clean up the streets’ then in turn, violence and murders of sex workers went up. When you don’t investigate until an ‘innocent woman’ is murdered, you are simply fuelling the stigma, and reminding us that we are not worth even putting resources in, especially in death. It’s vile, and you internalise this too. I am already prepared for ‘prostitute murdered’ being the headline.

It does take a toll on your mental health and your body. In January 2020, I was assaulted whilst working and the next morning, I had sepsis. I was rushed to hospital with 40c temp, had an adrenal crisis, lost almost a stone, spent a week in hospital, but only to return a few weeks later. I was in urinary retention and they put a catheter in, strapped to my leg for 6 weeks. I couldn’t work, and never felt so low. I remember feeling so fragile coming back from hospital, I got in the bath and felt disgusted at how skinny I was. I laid in the bath and the catheter bag was floating on the water, slightly tugging at my bladder as it drifted away. I couldn’t help but cry, and felt so depleted. Years of dealing with this stuff had taken a toll not only my mind, but my body. I was born intersex so surgical scars used to rip, instead of taking the doctor’s advice to have a break and heal, I used to slap on numbing cream and power on, at great cost.

It takes years to grapple with these things, and I find myself randomly crying at the most silliest things. I realise that the smell of a mens aftershave can set me off, and I can’t sleep in my own bed after a day of working from my home. I watched a police documentary about a sexual assault last week thinking I was fine, and by the end I was weeping when it mentioned the court case. This is because I have my own court case coming up for rape, and I imagined what it would feel like if he plead guilty and didn’t have to drag me through the added trauma of court; having to relive it all, be ripped apart and make out that I’m lying.

Relationships

I have never imagined myself in a relationship because I can never imagine myself even getting close to someone like that. Not just that, but in my mind I think, why have sex when I could get paid for that? When I have sex, I go into work mode and that isn’t normal. My mind switches off, I’m not paying attention and I just want it to be over. People say sex with your partner is different and I’m sure it is, but for me it’s all the same and I can’t separate the two – this might be because I’ve never had a relationship, even before sex work. The thought of sex itself is just not appealing to me, and I would happily go without it forever.

After years of dealing with men in various capacities, I realise that I don’t like and am scared of them. I have seen men turn very quickly, and just when you think you know them, you realise you don’t. Nobody knowingly walks into an abusive relationship, it happens over time. If they flipped out in the first month, you’d be running a mile, of course you would. I just see that all men have the capacity to be violent, manipulative and use abusive. For me, it’s just a big no no. I don’t want to invest my time and life with someone, just for them to finally show their true colours and realise, I’m in too deep emotionally.

I couldn’t think of anything worse than sharing a bank account with my partner. For me, financial independence is crucial to avoiding abuse. It is nearly impossible to leave someone if you are economically enmeshed together. One of the reasons I became a sex worker to begin with was to get away from bad situations like that, and to ensure that I was financially independent from everyone and anyone. Of course, addiction got in the way and messed that up but the fact still remains true to this day, sex work allows me to move away if I need it. I know in relationships, this wouldn’t be possible, there would be trust issues, arguments and above all, they would ask that I stopped being a sex worker.

Although I appreciate that there are sex workers in relationships where their partner is okay with it, but these are not common. The ones I do know of, their sexual history and job is either fetishised or used against them in arguments. I have no time for that, I have no shame in who I am or what I’ve done, and I refuse to be someone’s sexual fantasy in a relationship for being a sex worker. Even the relationships I know that are stable whereby they’ve been in a relationship for some time, their partner has made comments about them several years in, or suddenly expressed they are unhappy when they see clients. No thank you, not for me.

Overall, I know I can not be in a relationship. I am not mentally ready, and I am aware of that. I do not want to get into one knowing full well that I will be the problem, and constantly feel that I am the burden for my partner to deal with. I know I can’t handle sex well, that I can’t handle rejection well either and have my own problems with trying to trust. I see relationships as giving someone a key, which has the capacity to fuck up your whole life – mentally, financially, emotionally etc. and just trusting them with that key not to do that. It’s a big risk, and the damage can take years to heal from.

Years of watching men cheat on their partner puts you off to, and despite what people say, sex workers are not here to heal people’s marriages or sexual intimacy problems. Listening to them speak about how they are in long term unhappy marriages, are physically unattracted to their partner etc. It does put you off, because you know these things do exist, and you’re surrounded by them every day. Men get infatuated with you, stalk you and ‘fall in love’ with the person sitting infront of them, which isn’t me.

Vicarious Trauma

Sex work can be really difficult, and this is sometimes the experience of other sex workers. You absorb this, especially when you’re constantly surrounded by it. We forget this, and as a community, we can’t switch off or put in place in professional boundaries. We are a marginalised group that often only have each other to rely on for rape crisis support, mental health, food and shelter. We can’t just switch off at 5pm each day because it is not professional work, it is our friends! Sitting in the hostel living room one evening, we were all casually talking about extreme violence – speaking of rape, having hair ripped out, beaten almost to death, teeth pulled, water thrown on us etc and in the moment, I took it all in. It was only when I sat in my room did I think my god, that was a lot.

Although I have my own experiences which are challenging, you find yourself supporting others, and this can be difficult and triggering itself. I am not the best person to talk to about rape at times because my mind immediately goes to my own traumatic experiences, and this doesn’t make me the appropriate person to support others. Equally, as much as I love working with homeless sex workers, I am often reminded that I was in that position just over a year ago, but also never far off being back there myself. I then feel I over-relate to them, and it can bring back experiences of how I felt.

Of course, this is my own stuff to manage and deal with, and this is why I argue that at times, sex workers are not always the best people to support other sex workers. Although mutual aid is invaluable, I always liked that my support worker has never been a sex worker because at times, she brings me back to reality and gives me an outsider’s perspective which I appreciate. Also, exchanging sex for money doesn’t immediately make you a good practitioner either, and I’ve met many sex workers with appalling attitudes towards drug users, homeless etc.

It is hard to switch off and put in professional boundaries, and I have often imagined a time where I have to temporarily remove myself from everything sex work for a long while, for my own mental health. Vicarious trauma can end up giving you compassion fatigue, and at times, almost make you insensitive to serious things. It can also make me switch off if it feels too close to home, because I’m aware that it’s setting me off, which doesn’t help the person I’m supporting.

I often feel with sex work, the community carries vicarious trauma because we are so excluded from services, society and having to continuously defend, resist and be resilient. It is exhausting, and you can’t remove yourself from it because it is who you are, how you live, where you work etc. You’re having to make mutual aid, unionise informally, give out safety information, condoms and whatever else. It’s not just the work itself, but it’s the nature of the exclusion you’re managing.

Overall

Sex work is what it is and despite it all, it’s made me who I am today and I wouldn’t be here, on my table, writing this blog without it. However, I can’t deny the impact it’s had on my life in a short period of time, and not always for the better. I often tell people that I wish I never became a sex worker, and I stick by that. I wish I never met the feminists who hated me for existing; I wish I never discovered sex work twitter and got involved in sex worker rights; and I wish I never felt such levels of desperation. However, I wouldn’t remove it for others because it was a solution when I needed it, although I work overall to create other avenues for people who feel they have very little choices. I can’t leave it now, but I often feel that ignorance is bliss, and I envy the sex workers who go fuck it, and walk away forever. It’s not me, I feel there is so much that needs to change for people I will never meet.

The baggage of being a sex worker is immense. It stops you from getting jobs, fucks with your head, pushes you to your edge, brings out personas you never imagined. I describe it as though you’re carrying a weight with you at all times, but it’s evenly spread throughout your body. It makes your entire movement difficult, and it’s an effort to move forward and in any direction. Once you’re a prostitute, you’re always a prostitute; whether that’s because it’s what you’re known for locally, it’s what gets you sacked, or it’s because you’re so heavily involved and impassioned by the sex worker rights movement. I can’t ever imagine sitting in my armchair at 70, having lived a life of pleasant quiet away from the protests. You instantly relate to another sex worker, regardless of the length of time when you last hung up your lingerie – there is just an instant connection and understanding that requires no discussion.

It’s not all been bad. Growing up I hated my body, being intersex made it very difficult and I thought my body was disgusting. I’m not saying that I am happy with it and it’s amazing, but I’ve learned to accept it and above all, realise it wasn’t as bad as what I thought it was. Meeting other sex workers made me realise that bodies are so normal. One of the best things about being a sex worker is other sex workers. I have never met such a resilient, diverse, incredible, resourceful and overall, generous group of people (with exceptions ofc!). When shit hits the fan, we turn to each other, because we have nobody else. I wouldn’t have been able to leave sex work without other sex workers.

I recognise a lot of this shit is for me to deal with, but 2 years into therapy, I’m still working on it. During these years, things happen which set you back too. I also realise there are things I will never change such as capitalism, poverty and exclusion. However, I will have to learn how to manage how to constantly fight that wave without hurting myself. There is a little understanding or support for those with mental health problems who engage in sex work, because so often it is put down to sex work = bad and bad = traumatic. Rarely is there room to understand the nuances, the complex issues and very often, sex workers end up educating the professional or society so they can be understood first. This within itself, is exhausting.

In solidarity with the sex workers out there managing their own shit, whilst simultaneous holding up others x

If you want to support my blog that would be great. All of my PayPal’s have been shut down because I’m a sex worker of course. However, my cashapp is £graceyswer and my patreon is: patreon.com/graceyswer

One thought on “The Mental Health Residue of Sex Work

  1. Hi,

    This was one of the most insightful blog posts I’ve ever read. Please continue to write and unite those who have been forgotten, marginalised and exploited in the name of greed and search of power.

    Made me want to blog again!

    V x

    Liked by 1 person

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