Sunday, February 21, 2016

Trade Secrets for Sex Industry Workers - Our Emotional Health

Post reproduced from Trade Secrets: Health and Safety in the Sex Industry which was published in BC, Canada in 2009. All advice given in these posts comes from sex industry workers who shared their experience and knowledge for this guide.

The Naked Truth will occasionally feature one section from the guide. This week's post is from Chapter Five: Us.

TRIGGER WARNING: This post shares and addresses sensitive stories and issues.

Emotional Health of Sex Industry Workers

This chapter focuses on us. It focuses on our emotional health and how our jobs impact our feelings about our lives.

Sometimes we feel compelled to minimize the exploitation that occurs in our industry so that the square world doesn't exclude us as much. We notice that the more we legitimize our work by focusing on the positives, the more respect we are given.

But in reality, service in exchange for money IS work. We should not have to legitimize our work by denying exploitation. Exploitation in this industry is a direct result of others looking down on us and denying our labour. It is because of this exclusion of our work as work that we feel obliged to hide the negative aspects of the industry.

We admit the hardships in this chapter. There are aspects of our work that we do not like. We are entitled to feel both good and bad about sex work. People in square jobs hate their jobs as much as we do sometimes. (If you've ever had a square job, you know it's true.)

This chapter is not a confession of exploitation in the sex industry. It is a realistic summary of the emotional complexities of sex industry work. For those who read our words looking to justify prohibitionist views, please do not use our painful moments against us.

What Stresses Us Out

“On the whole most clients are great and the hour is easy as pie. Sometimes though, I get clients who want to work me to the bone for the entire hour. It is difficult to maintain energy, enthusiasm, and interest when you're trying to suck off a 400 lb asshole who keeps telling you to ‘suck harder.'"
“The most stressful aspect of stripping for me is having to lie to friends and family about what I do for a living.”
“I supported my addiction and the addictions of other guys I hung around with. We kind of took turns with this role depending on who had the dates and how much each of us was pulling in. It was very stressful not knowing how you were going to survive minute to minute, hour to hour.”
“For me, the hardest part of the work was “playing dumb." I’m a well-educated feminist and it was very hard for me to have my clients believe I was a nymphomaniac bimbo.”

Interestingly, most adult entertainers feel that working in other common occupations, such as retail or hospitality, is far more stressful because of the low pay and poor treatment.

However, sex industry workers have unique stresses not experienced by mainstream workers. They worry about people finding out what they do, how their parents feel about their jobs, and what their friends and families back home are saying about them.

More things that stress us out in the words of Trade Secrets contributors:

  • Uncertainty of confirmed work.
  • Lack of professionalism.
  • Not making any money.
  • Standing out there where everyone can see me. (on the street)
  • Fighting with other workers.
  • Fighting with clients.
  • Working outside in the cold.
  • Wondering if I am going to have a safe night.
  • The stress of always keeping thin, looking hot, and having a deep enough tan line.
  • Pressure to perform.
  • Competition.
  • Hate crimes.
  • Internalized homophobia (my own and clients).
  • Health.
  • Emotional and mental health issues.
  • Shame and stigma.
  • Not knowing if I’m going to get busted for solicitation.
  • Gay bashing on the street.
  • Knowing that the residents do not want us working on their streets.
  • Being asked personal questions by clients.
  • Fear of getting caught doing sex work in my own home.
  • Fear of using public transit late at night while coming or going to outcalls.
  • Aging.
  • Language barriers.
  • Not having enough clients.
  • Robbery.
  • Police and building manager.
  • I am afraid of no money at the end of a day.
  • The long hours.
  • Physically and mentally strenuous nature of performing and interacting with customers.
  • The preferential treatment of some dancers, and not getting paid what I know I'm worth.
  • Threat of violence or arrest.
  • Witnessing drug use, violence, and other destructive behaviours.
  • Talking to and sharing emotional experiences with clients.
  • Negotiating rates.
  • You can’t predict whether it's going to be feast or famine.
  • Fear of losing my children.
  • Fear of losing my straight job if found out.
  • Fear of my children finding out and how they might react.
  • Constantly answering the phone.
  • Consumers who just call and waste your time or even book an appointment and no show.
  • Having things thrown at me when I'm working on the street.


“I have felt burned out and not wanted to deal with horny men before. I keep other square jobs that I work on-call on the side in order to take a break from time-to-time.” 
“I remember long stretches of time, like years, when I thought the job was easy and safe. But I could go from feeling comfortable to burnout very quickly.”

Burnout is a common health hazard in this profession. If you are working all the time, hustling for a living, or taking on too many clients, you’re sure to experience it. There is only one cure for burnout – taking a break.

Depending on how bad your burnout is, you may need to take an extended vacation from entertaining. Turn to your closest friends and family. Do what you need to do to have a break. To reduce extreme burnout, take breaks often. Whenever you feel yourself beginning to hate life, take a break. Don’t wait until you’ve convinced yourself life isn’t worth living anymore and you’re two months behind on rent.

If it is not financially possible for you to take a break, at the very least, try to cut down on your hours or clients. In between work - eat healthy, sleep, and exercise. Cut down your personal life obligations until they are as minimal as possible. Veg out between work engagements and don’t feel bad about it. Your health is number one.

How We Feel About Our Jobs

“Satisfied. I only take one or two calls a week. This way I can eat well and not worry about money. Student loans don’t give enough to live on.” 
“Overall, I'm very satisfied with my job. I love dancing on stage, doing my makeup and wearing beautiful costumes. The freedom to take time off work whenever I want is another fantastic aspect of the job. Stripping has done wonders for my personal development. It's made me far more assertive, more adept at thinking on my feet, and more efficient at deflecting criticism. Developing the athleticism and strength to dance and do pole work, and seeing my body become more lean and toned as a result, has also done a lot to boost my self-confidence.”
“I love my job. I love the costumes. The high pay. The freedom of time. I do have to worry about my appearance a lot, and keep in great shape. When I feel bloated, or I am having an off day, this affects my self-esteem just like with anyone else.” 
“It wasn’t until after 10 years of working that I became dissatisfied for I then wanted to form a relationship with just one man. So I quit and went back to school.”
"I feel like I am providing a very healthy and helpful service to people. It can be hard when I get the clients who don’t appreciate that, but I try to focus on the ones that do. Usually when the clients are disrespectful, it’s a reflection of how they feel about themselves, not me."

Adult entertainers, for the most part, consider their work creative and empowering. Other benefits include freedom of time, increased confidence, and becoming more open-minded sexually.

However, this work is not always beneficial for our souls. It’s easy to become dependent on the praise and love given by our customers. Then when we are away from the work, we feel inadequate and invisible. Then there is the added complexity of having lovers. (Explored more in Chapter 7 – Our Relationships.)

This business enables us to fend for ourselves financially, work flexible hours, and support our families. But, like any job, it can sometimes be bad.

“Sometimes it feels disgusting. I think I’m as lonely as they are.” 
“It depends if I have money or not. It changes from day to day.” 
“Unsatisfied. I got raped and I quit. It was too dangerous. I was really scared. Before that though, I always had good food and nice clothes.” 
“At the time I was doing sex work, I was not sexually functional due to childhood abuse issues. Sex work (having sex when I wasn’t sexually aroused and faking arousal) was no different than sex in an intimate relationship was for me. I had my first orgasm with another human being at the age of 40, nine months after exiting the sex industry.” 
“I feel like because I am a part of the sex worker rights movement that there isn’t a lot of room for me to talk about how shitty it sometimes was. That I have to maintain a strong face, and never appear to be the victim.”
“I know today that I used my body to get what I wanted. I believe that the work contributed to my low self-esteem and sense of worthlessness. I still feel a lot of this now that I am no longer in the trade. I found participating in degrading acts has left me with this sense of emptiness, this disconnect, guilt, shame, and remorse.”

Maintaining Boundaries

It is very important to maintain your boundaries in this work. You may test them once in awhile and find that you do not like the outcome. Go back to the old way until you’re ready to try something new again. If the old ways are tried and true – find ways to be more creative with them, rather than crossing boundaries to turn up the spice.

Forgive yourself and forgive others. Forgive the people who have harmed you. And forgive yourself for any harm you have caused. That is the only way to emotional liberation.

Emotional Clients

“It’s just a part of the job, seeing clients who are paying you to brighten up their lives. So many of our clients carry heavy emotional loads. It can’t help but affect us.” 
“I experienced a lot of internalized homophobia from dates who took out their own anger/frustration/shame on me. This ranged from cold/unfeeling quickies to rough/violent episodes.” 
“There were days when I thought of myself as a counsellor. I felt that clients actually left feeling less guilt and shame than when they came in to see me. Other days I was just numb.”

As sex industry workers, we are on the front lines often dealing with people who are looking for solace, some kind of respite from the pain of their lives. There are many techniques entertainers use in different situations. Here are some suggestions from contributors to this guide:

  • If your client is experiencing extreme emotions, the best thing to do is listen.
  • I have never experienced an angry customer. And if I did, and he was angry towards me, I would probably leave.
  • I leave if it’s too much.
  • Talk to them and help them through it.
  • Distract them with sex.
  • People with disabilities- be compassionate, support them, this is the noble part of our job.
  • I feel bad for them but I have to let it roll off of me.
  • It is better that there is no emotional connection whatsoever.
  • I have done a lot of studying of psychology. I'm not exactly a therapist, but I can relate and understand.
  • This rendezvous is based on fantasy and illusion. If too much reality gets in, I remember it is his life and it doesn’t have to affect me personally.
  • I respect his sensitivity that he felt comfortable enough to talk about it with me.
  • I always have the power to redirect the topic of conversation.
  • With some of my clients, listening was the primary activity during a date.
  • I ignore customers who project their anger or other frustrations onto me and I try not to give them much thought, so as to not take on their negative energy.
  • I massage the customers and then clap my hands three times to dispel negative energy. A plant in the room where you work will dispel negative energy too. Crystals can absorb also.

Confidence and Body Image

“I have never understood what other people see in me or even believed them when they said I was beautiful. And so when complete strangers pay ME for sex, they CHOOSE me. It’s a huge ego boost.”

Being in this work creates an interesting relationship with our bodies. Sometimes we are more confident about our bodies and our sexuality (as well as our ability to seduce our way to financial freedom) once we become adult entertainers.

One sex worker said she felt better about her body when she realized that women with big hips and cellulite were the top bookers. Another woman had been insecure about her small breasts until she started dancing and realized that her body was just as appreciated by customers as her “Double D” co-workers.

It can also work the other way, making you feel less confident. If you get fired for having small breasts or told by an employer to lose weight, this can have disastrous effects on your performance.

When we don’t feel good about ourselves, it impacts our ability to do our jobs well. The spark just isn’t there. We feel it. The customers feel it. It sucks. That’s why with confidence we have to fake it till we make it – at all times.

The pressure to be thin really affects confidence. It can lead to eating disorders and threaten your very life. Develop a thick skin. Try not to take anything that anyone says to you personally. You are not going to be ideal for every client or employer. But there are clients and employers out there that think the world of you. Focus on the people in your life who bring positive feelings into your world and forget about the ones who impact you negatively.

Growing old is particularly difficult for adult entertainers. We rely on our beauty for an income, so when our ass(et)s start to sag, it’s not only depressing, it’s financially hazardous. Plastic surgery is always an option, but exercising, eating right and wearing natural sun block will actually slow aging.

Aging can be slowed, but it cannot be stopped. And so, as the days go by, so does the ability to make it in this industry.

Find things to be good at that don’t involve looking beautiful. Nurture your interests outside of work. This will help the transition from entertainer to retiree when the time inevitably comes.

Take heart. As we age, we also become savvier. With all our years of experience, we can do anything. We can start our own adult entertainment businesses – and run them ethically and responsibly to honour our own histories. We can join the square world and wow them with our entrepreneurial skills and charm. We can do anything because we are strong, resilient, creative, and self-driven - common traits among us.

Our Sexuality

“It has had a mild impact on my sexual relationships. Because I've really found what I enjoy in sex, it has been difficult to go back to traditional vanilla relationships. But not impossible, I just really need to be truly enamoured with the person.” 
“I would use my sexuality to boost my confidence. I would take men home for a few hours, then kick them out when I was done with them. I still have issues with my sexuality, trying to find the balance between housewife and stripper, as well as what I really want from a sexual relationship.” 
"Sexually speaking, performing in an adult film is not satisfying at all and can be quite frustrating as the sexual performances are only for the purpose of other people's enjoyment" 
"Stripping for eleven years was an amazing experience that freed my mind from the constraints most people feel about their sexuality. Being naked in front of hundreds of people was sexually empowering and not a bad way to meet guys. Yet finding a significant other that loves you for who you are instead of what you look like is difficult as a stripper." 
"My job is my personal sexual relationships; when I am horny, I go to work!"

Being sexy is the job, so it goes without saying that the job impacts our sexuality. Inhibitions have a lot less power over us. We become more secure in and comfortable with our sexuality.

We talk quite freely about sex and all things sexual. There is a rare comment that makes us blush.

Sometimes we are sexually drained from work, and so neglect our lovers. Sometimes we respond in the opposite way. Watching other men seek services when their wives are withholding sex inspires us to meet the needs of our partners more consistently.

It is sometimes difficult for us to be sexy for our partners because it feels fake. We do it so often for money, that it can seem insincere doing it for the people we love.

All of these are normal feelings that are felt by many sex workers. Do what feels right for you. When it comes to sex, there are no right or wrong answers. Isn’t that what we’ve really learned in this business anyway?

(See Chapter 7 – Our Relationships, for more information about managing personal relationships in this industry.)

How We Fit Into The World

“For the longest time I felt I did not fit in though now I am out of the trade, it is easier because I can talk about what I do for work.” 
“I feel like a normal person who goes to work and does their job, just like anyone else. At the same time I'm acutely aware of the fact that I lead a double life. I have a 'real' life that revolves around me stripping, and a 'fake' life I create as a front for family, friends, and others who don't know I dance. Maintaining this 'fake' life is highly stressful and causes me to feel extremely detached and alienated from many people.” 
“I don’t like being around people who have it all, like jobs and no violent past.” 
“I pass for normal.” 
“In the beginning it was like I was doing a bad thing but I continued to do it because I enjoyed the attention from men. In the end I felt like a cockroach of society.” 
“Outside. Condemned. Oppressed. Ostracized.”

It’s easy to assume we just don’t fit into the world. We are treated as outcasts and deviants. We are equally pitied, hated, and worshipped. While we are at work, it all seems quite fine and comfortable. But out in the “real” world, people try to shame us and force us to change.

However, the reality is that we are neither worse, nor better than any other person in the world. “I am not better than anyone” is easy to follow. But “no one is better than me” can be difficult for people who’ve consistently been treated as the lowest class of humans.

Yet, we all have inherited the earth. No one person has more right to being here than any other person. We all shape the world we live in by how we outwardly behave and react. If we avoid places where we feel inferior, we are depriving the world of our greatness - a greatness that every single person in the world has.

Read this quote from American author Marianne Williamson from her book A Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of a Course in Miracles:

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?

“Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking, so that other people won’t feel insecure around you.

“We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It is not just in some of us; it is in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
You do not have to believe in God to know these words are true. You just have to believe in yourself.

Some ways to feel more connected to the rest of the world are:

  • Remember that you are equal to every other person in the world.
  • Reject any suggestions – personal or societal – that make you feel of low worth.
  • Join groups you are intimidated by (Parent Advisory Council, board of a charity, etc) – you’ll soon see that everyone else is just as intimidated by you!
  • Don’t identify yourself by what you do for work. We are not our jobs. This is just one of the ways we make a mark in our lifetimes.
  • Volunteer with charities that are meaningful to you to feel like you are contributing to something important.
  • Realize and remember that what you are offering through your work is also an important contribution to the world and nothing to be ashamed of.
  • Spend time with other industry workers where you feel free to be yourself.

Quotes from Sex Workers – How We See Ourselves

“I am a facilitator, artist, healer.” 
“I am a good person, independent, intelligent, doing a good job to support myself.” 
“I am straight-forward and compassionate but I won’t take any crap. I have a big heart but it is sometimes guarded. I am easy-going. I care about people. I don’t like to see people suffer. I don’t believe in religion. I believe in spirituality.” 
“I think of myself as a single individual in my community. I’m just another person on this rock floating around a star in space.” 
“I'm a professional providing a service. I'm no better or worse than anyone else.” 
“I provide a service that is a healthy outlet for people. Healthy, that is, if all of our companion rules are followed.” 
“I am a pioneer. I am an entrepreneur. I am an exciting person who is ever-evolving with the ever-evolving, changing world.”

Substance Use as a Coping Mechanism

"I rarely drink at work, but frequently smoke marijunana before or at work. It makes me more sociable. I consume GHB at work sometimes too. It has the same effect. I usually have an Ativan (lorazepam) in my purse in case I get an anxiety attack, but that has only ever happened at one club, twice."

Many people use substances to cope with the stresses of life. Whether it is a glass of wine in the evening or a doobie in the morning, substance use is a common coping mechanism.

If you find that you are using substances to cope, it is good that you are at least aware of it. Try to monitor your substance use to reduce its harmful effects.

If you notice you are increasing your use or binging, you could be experiencing anxiety, depression, trauma or PTSD. This is when you should be most attentive to yourself, using self-care strategies and/or seeking therapy.

Attempt to find ways other than substance use, or in conjunction with less substance use, to stay sane. (See "Staying Sane" in this chapter.)

One very good coping mechanism is to phone someone you trust and debrief with him or her on a regular basis, especially if you’ve had a disturbing experience. If you can do this in person, that’s even better. Sharing your experiences with another person you trust is very healing.

(See Chapter 6 - Our Bodies – for more information on substance use, their effects, and self-care strategies for substance users.)

Staying Sane
There are many ways to maintain your mental health. Avoiding burnout (by taking breaks) is a big one. Other good ways to feel better mentally are:

  • Have a hobby – painting, scrapbooking, something creative that will allow you to express yourself.
  • Try therapy. Many entertainers, because they are creative, prefer art therapy or other alternative therapies to more traditional ones. There are community-based counselling and therapy options that are low cost or free, although many may have waiting lists. Check with your doctor or a community health clinic for more information on free or inexpensive services.
  • Do things you’re good at that are separate from your work. You may be an incredible pole dancer, but what can you do off the pole? Are you a chef? A mechanic? A website designer? Nurture an identity of yourself that is separate from your role as a sex industry worker. We are not our jobs, after all. (Although it can sometimes seem like it in this field.)
  • Take long walks, get out of your workspace, and get fresh air. Go bike riding or swimming on occasion.
  • Redecorating your play space can be therapeutic.
  • Spend lots of time with your friends.
  • Sing karaoke or go dancing.
  • Take days off to visit family.
  • Write an anonymous blog.
  • Write poetry, paint, or make sculptures.
  • Listen to music.
  • Lift weights.
  • Run.
  • Watch inspiring movies.
  • Beading/ crafts
  • Crocheting / Knitting / Sewing
  • Have a sense of humour.
  • Give yourself time to heal.
  • Structure your life to include a balance of a little bit of everything.
  • Access services.
  • Put yourself next to happy people.
  • LAUGH!
  • Stretch.
  • Keep a journal and write down your thoughts. Get what’s in - out!
  • Yoga.
  • Honey and salt body washes once a week.
  • Take art classes.
  • Read a novel.
  • Entertaining can make us relax. Making friends is another good way to relax. (Some clients can be our friends.)
  • Eat well, exercise, and get lots of sleep every day.
  • Debrief with a friend after particularly stressful situations.

Be Strong

“Stick together, work together, find solutions, create a positive environment, treat others with respect, work as a team, be responsible for your own actions, fight for your rights, earn respect, and always present a positive image to your community and the public. Have confidence and be proud of what you do and who you are.” 
“I no longer use drugs or booze. I keep a journal and attend a 12-step program. I swim and go for long walks. I forgive myself and understand the choices I made in the past were the best I could at the time.”

We are resilient, aren’t we? We are able to withstand almost anything. We are very strong individuals. In fact, sometimes when we leave the industry, we start to become vulnerable. Then we recall how strong we can be, and revert to our tougher selves. This is a power we all have within us. It’s just that adult entertainers use it regularly.

We all have moments of feeling weak, and that's okay. It is part of being a strong individual - to allow ourselves to be vulnerable (when it is safe to do so) - as that allows us to be honest with our processes and our selves.

While retiring or once retired, we sometimes experience feelings of sadness, guilt, grief, shame, fear, or anger about the life we’ve left and the constant survival mode we may have existed in. We may need to separate ourselves from the work and criticize it for the painful experiences that we feel it brought upon us.

This is not only normal; it is extremely healthy to experience these emotions. They are part of the healing process. Just be sure to carry them out to their conclusion – which is the safe, healthy, and well-rounded human being you see in the mirror.

Even in the worst circumstances, we develop skills in this work. We become mentally prepared for anything. We learn to have a backup plan. We learn survival techniques – we practically invented them. We are resourceful, resilient, and revolutionary as a community. And we have absolutely nothing to be ashamed of.

About Trade Secrets 

Trade Secrets is a collaborative project that was contributed to by diverse members of the sex industry and their community.

About the Project

Who Contributed?

Some of this information may be outdated. Please feel free to comment below the relevant posts with information you'd like to add or update. Your help is appreciated.

Thank you for your commitment to supporting health and safety in the sex industry.

In Solidarity,

Trina Ricketts (Annie)

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