Healing power of sex work
There’s a story not often told about sex work. It’s a story that most of society would scoff at, write off as a deluded fantasy. Many of us won’t allow it to be true.
I am a sex worker, and even I felt that it was too tall a tale to tell.
It’s the story of the empowered sex worker who finds healing through her work, the sex worker who has become a more whole person because of what she does. But it is a story that rings true for many of the incredible women and men I have had the pleasure of knowing, women and men who work as strippers, escorts, tantric practitioners, porn actors, and erotic masseurs.
I have been stripping for half of my life—since just days after my 18th birthday. Almost immediately, I became aware of the judgment that would come my way from my partner, friends, parents, and siblings. They all expressed their disappointment in me for having chosen to make money by taking my clothes off for strangers. When I explained to people that I was doing it to save money for university, they eased off a bit, conceding that it was, indeed, a good way to put oneself through school.
Eighteen years later, I’m still stripping. It’s gotten harder in the past few years to explain this. For most of my years in the industry, I have been a university student. When I was younger, it was a very plausible story: the stripper working her way through college. I finished one degree, entered my mid-twenties, decided I was enjoying life too much as it was, so I continued stripping and headed back to school for another degree.
I travelled a lot, earned the envy of others while at the same time accumulating greater disdain. It was celebrated that I was so committed to my education, so well travelled and free-spirited, but there was a growing sense of impatience among my loved ones about when I would exit the sex industry. I internalized the knowledge that I was letting my parents down. I was the first in the family to get a university education (financed by my stripping career, mind you), but I wasn’t doing anything that my parents could share with their friends. They were getting bored of telling people that I was a student. That story was getting old. Partners asked me when I planned to quit. Clients asked me when I would quit.
Apparently, when you are in the sex industry, the only way to keep it remotely respectable is to have a clearly mapped-out plan for your escape. It doesn’t matter if you are happy, healthy, satisfied. You must have an exit plan.
I really bought into this. I held my degrees up in defence of my career. See? I have a plan! I’m educating myself! The older I got, the less believable was my story. I even started to doubt it myself. My partner demanded that I set an exit date. I understood. It was cool to be a stripper while you were young, but in your thirties? Time to grow up and get a real job. I began to see how I used my education to legitimize myself, my trade, but that wasn’t going to last forever.
Clients always ask me what else I do, and I try so hard to be okay with telling them that I’m just a stripper. Why can’t I be just a stripper, when a waitress can be just a waitress, a construction worker just a construction worker? Why should it matter one iota that I have a university education? I don’t plan on using it to get a job one day. You might tell me that my education was still a very valuable experience, that I have gained so much from it. Why can’t my 18 years as a stripper have value? The much greater lessons I’ve learned in life have come from a strip bar rather than from a place of supposed “higher learning”.
Yet it is difficult to really let go of the societal stigma, to release this idea of sex work as inherently unhealthy, and to allow myself to really see value in what I have done, what I continue to do. To allow myself to continue in this industry without the weight of shame and disappointment tugging at me, tempting me to stay at home. But I have started the process of recognizing the many things I have gained as a stripper.
What I value most in this world is connection. I’ve had the incredible opportunity to work with hundreds, maybe thousands of women from diverse backgrounds. I’ve learned to really listen to them, to share with them, to bond with them. I now understand why we talk so much about work when we’re together: it’s not for lack of other things to say but because there are so few people in the world we can share our stories with. There is such an obvious longing to share, to connect, that it has become very easy for me to do so and to recognize that very same longing for connection among others in our society. I’ve been amazed at the conversations that have emerged in the change room and beyond.
Some of the most basic things that trouble people—rejection, criticism, competition—are the things strippers deal with on a daily basis. Many people think this manifests as an environment of cattiness, and I have seen that element. But I’ve also seen women use that environment as a place to learn and grow.
I’ve learned to be unafraid of rejection, to not take it personally, even if I am rejected in a very personal way. I’ve had the experience of being criticized and having to immediately move on, smile on my face. I’ve learned to remain centred. I’ve found my source of confidence, and it’s so deep inside that it is neither bolstered nor beaten by the whims of the crowd.
I’ve worked in a highly competitive environment yet learned that my coworkers are not my competition.
I’ve learned that what has damaged me the most is the disdain I have felt from so many others regarding what I do, allowing myself to feel somehow less for continuing to strip when I have what it takes to get a “real” job.
I’ve learned that kindness does not dress a particular way. That generosity doesn’t always wear a suit. That love can pass between strangers.
I’ve learned that I am okay—no, so much more than okay—just as I am. Strip me of my degrees; strip me of my clothes. Let me stand before you, with no excuses. I am more than okay, exactly how I am.