Sex Work Is Inherently Traumatic…
…but not the way you think it is, and if you’re a civvie it’s probably partially your fault
Last summer my friend, whose partner had just moved in with her, called me before work to purge some feels. The two of them had lived together for about a week, but this was the first time she was leaving for work since they’d shared a home. So far he’d said all the right things about supporting her career, and he’d even backed it up with actions, but he had not yet had to experience the reality of her leaving their shared space to go see a client, and like all sex workers, she’d had so many partners who had told her they accepted her work and her, and then…didn’t.
“I’m afraid it’s gonna be weird,” she said, “I know it won’t be, he’s so great, but I’m scared it will be.”
It was painful to hear my friend, who I love, say those words. Because I knew exactly what she was feeling, I’ve felt those same feelings so hard so many times. And usually they aren’t great and usually it is weird. You don’t always feel it right away, especially if you don’t want to, especially if you pour all your faith and love into believing that they really mean the PC fictions that they spout in their efforts to be a good person, a good ally, a good partner,
“Oh no, of course your job doesn’t matter.”
“Who do you think I am that I would leave you over something like that?”
“Look, I know the stuff you do with those guys isn’t real.”
“Please believe for me that I’m not the kind of person who ultimately just sees you as a whore. I can’t be that person because I say I’m not, goddamnit.”
But the weirdness lurks there, under the surface of all. And even if they try to push it down because good people support sex workers, good men support sex workers, and they are good man and because they are good man they believe that sex work is real work no matter how many times they say, “hey, at least you don’t have to work a real job” it always rises to the top and sits there like the slime of rotted food over dishes left to soak too long in a full sink. Sometimes it rises quickly, a scum of rancid grease over the grey water, but sometimes it takes years of you believing them because you want to so bad, and you’re in love, and you’ve ignored so many things because you just want to be a fucking person. And then one day they can’t be with a whore, you know, they want a real relationship one day. And your labor makes that impossible because it makes you less-than.
The worst is when they use their love for you, or who they think you are or want you to be, to shame you.
“I love you so much, I hate to see your work make you so unhappy,”
“I love you so much, I don’t know how you keep doing that work, it’s so dangerous.”
“I love you so much, I hate to see you degrading yourself like this.”
As if all labor under capitalism isn’t degrading, as if gendered labor, which sex work absolutely is, at least in common dialogue, isn’t doubly so. But they love you so much, how could you. They love you despite your labor, and therefore more than you love yourself.
It isn’t limited to partners, either. Every so often I’ll make friends with someone, usually another woman, but not always. Everything will seem great until I start meeting her friends and this civvie broad introduces me as “this is Kit, she’s an escort,” uttered in a stage whisper as if I’m an alien from another planet, there to be exhibited. Or until we get comfortable enough that she feels she can ask questions about my job and it becomes all we talk about. I’ve gotten better at sniffing those people out now, but it still happens sometimes. And shit, you wanna talk about emotional pain?
People think that the emotional pain that comes from sex work is the emptiness that must come with offering your body up to strangers, but it isn’t. Clients come and go, if all goes well they leave no mark. The pain comes from others. Being reduced to nothing but your job by somebody you thought was a friend is some real fucking emotional pain. Never being just Kit, but being Kit the whore, is pain, especially when you’re constantly bombarded by messages saying that your labor makes you different, even subhuman. Especially when you’ve been hearing that hookers aren’t the same as women since before it occurred to you that you might not be able to make it as a ballerina or a princess or a painter.
I talk ad nauseam to my friends who are also sex workers about the way we’ve been injured by men so many times it gets into our DNA. We never have to say that so, so, so many of those injuries have been related to our work, specifically men’s inability to accept our work. We talk about the way we assume the worst off the bat, assume that any petty annoyance is ultimately related to our labor, and how hard that is to unlearn.
The first time I had to get up and leave my partner to go to an appointment I thought about that phone call last summer and all the conversations since then. I sat next to him on my bed, putting on my whore face, more makeup than I ever wear in my normal life, shading the sides of my nose to make it look narrower, shading under my cheekbones to make them look thinner, sharper, making myself look more fragile, less working class. Like my friend’s partner, my partner had never shown themselves to be anything but down for the hos. The first time I realized I might love them a little bit we were drunk outside a bar and they were telling me they respect us so much because we do the most, how much they respect the skills required to conform to femininity, the courage we must have to risk our lives every day, our ability to be palatable when necessary. But saying the right things and living the right way are different, and lots and lots and lots of people say, and even believe, on some level, the right things until they have to live them when they see their partner go off to suck dick not for pleasure or passion, but for something as base as money.
Every sex worker who has been working any amount of time and tried to simultaneously have a relationship knows this painfully & intimately. Nobody else knows it, not really. The most empathetic civvies speak of stigma with the best intentions, and their hearts are good and they aren’t wrong, but they don’t know the pain of labor-based rejection the way we do. They don’t know the anxiety of that first time we have to go from the space we share with our partners to the spaces where we work, that anxiety is only ours. It lives in our bones and collects in the knots in our necks, our backs, all the places we carry the stress of being constantly othered. The fear of being cast aside lives in the instinctual, animal parts of our brains that we allow to overdevelop because we are never not under threat of violence. Civvies don’t live with that, and so when we tell our friends and partners about our anxieties, they take it as a personal attack. They interpret us voicing our fears as us judging them, or saying we don’t trust them, when the reality is the opposite. You can’t express fear of betrayal to someone you don’t trust. To say, “I’m scared you’ll betray me” is also to say, “I trust you.”
Sex work is inherently traumatic not because of the labor itself, but because of the way we are treated because of our labor. It’s the reactions to our work, the rejection, and often violence, we face because of it, that traumatizes us. Whorephobia isn’t just people killing us because we’re whores. It isn’t just people telling us we’re dirty. It’s little shit too. It’s people saying they support us but couldn’t date us. It’s people treating us like zoo animals by reducing us to our jobs. It’s people who say they love us leaving us not because the relationship has run its course, but because they don’t feel comfortable with our mode of survival under capitalism. Whorephobia, in all its forms, both micro and macro is what traumatizes us more than anything.
In case you’re wondering about my friend’s partner, he’s stayed cool. He’s stayed supporting us. He’s an A+ dude, to be real. And as to mine, I came home after my session to find him still at my house, calmly looking at memes on Facebook, still unbothered by my job. He is also an A+ dude, and he’s still here for us hos too. And me and my friends, all of us queer sex working femmes, all of us survivors of so much violence, stay living despite everything.