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No, sex work is not “just like therapy”

One of the recurring tropes that infuriates me is “sex work is just like therapy”. Whilst I can understand the appeal to respectability politics inherent in dismissing the fact sex work is, largely, physical labour there is more that needs to be challenged in this idea.

The idea that sex work is a form of therapy, or shares on anything but a superficial level therapeutic practices, is about more than people wanting to separate themselves from those who sell their bodies, from brickies to baristas. There are a few structural elements which amused me as I trained. Both therapists and sex workers sell time, their working life set up in hourly blocks, each with a set, predetermined value. Both, should, be heavily boundaried relationships. When either type of client leaves sex workers and therapists need to not “carry” them on into their everyday lives. It was a source of frustration for me that I was unable to tell my classmates the lessons I had learned about keeping good boundaries being a sex worker.This is however not unique to either sex work or therapy. Nurses, teachers, social workers, a whole host of what might be called the caring professions, have to navigate the issues around paid intimate involvement in the lives of others. All have to find a way to disengage for their own self care and mental health, and all, it must be said, encounter violence and abuse as part of their work day. So the structure, and demands of the work are nothing more than a shared experience of millions of workers.

A dangerous trope

One of the reasons the trope makes me angry however is because it actively encourages dangerous mindsets, dangerous especially to new sex workers, or those contemplating sex work as a job. One of the cores of the therapeutic relationship is that of unconditional positive regard. Its hard to explain easily what that entails. Some use love, and if we were not so screwed up as a society about what love exactly is, associating it with sex, it is the term I would most readily use. Carl Rogers described it as “prizing” the client. It means you enter so much into their lives and experiences you fully experience “their side”. It does not mean you do not believe they can make mistakes, nor are you an unthinking cheerleader, however you believe in them, as a person 100%.

If you view sex work clients like this, you are a fool, no, more than that, you are blinded by your own advertising, and you will get hurt.

Sex work clients remove condoms

Sex work clients attempt bareback

Sex work clients rape

Sex work clients murder

There is an attempt in some quarters to claim that men who abuse sex workers are somehow not clients, as if by the act of abuse they somehow fall into a different category. They are certainly not all clients, however it does no one a service to somehow pretend they are anything but a subset. Its like the desire of society to see men who abuse children as identifiable, strangers in dirty rain coats who lurk in parks with offers of puppies. We want to say there is some magic division between the good men, the good clients, and the bad, sorry to break it to you, there isn’t, and no matter how good the screening, there is no way of knowing before you are alone together if a client is safe or not. We cannot be safe and have the kind of unconditional positive regard a therapist has, we must always know where our phone is in order to call for help, check a penis still has a condom, stay extra alert in certain sexual positions, and do so with a performativity which means we dont wear the half smile, but the full smile which is a mask hiding the checks and observations. That some in their public persona create the impression that they do not do this is not a problem, advertising is advertising, however if they really do not do this, they are living with an unbridgeable gulf of cognitive dissonance.

In the same way sex workers must be judgemental, its how screening works. Everyone has their own methods which go towards keeping themselves safe.Put simply, if a counselling client sounds anxious or nervous on the phone, my role is to put them at their ease, and explore the roots of that anxiety. If a sex work client sounds nervous or anxious on the phone, I cancel the booking. Being judgemental keeps us alive as sex workers, and kills the chance of therapy as therapists.

Your therapist sucks

In order to maintain the healthy boundaries and work life balance I mentioned earlier, sex workers tend to create a work persona. Again this is not unusual, I imagine most of you reading have a work face, a way of being in the work space which differs in some ways from your authentic self. Its usually easiest if this is not in opposition to your authentic self, more a limited, selected version of it. A good example of someone who does not perform this selection is the “office wag“. We all know them, someone who believes themselves to be so amusing their behaviour is full of jokes only they find funny, and behaviours which ignore how they are being perceived by their workmates. It is easy to imagine they are exactly the same in every environment, with no consideration of whether this is the right environment for the behaviour. Selecting how you wish to be seen in a work (or other environment) is not therefore a bad thing, its part of being a social animal and an adult. Some sex work personas are very close to our authentic selves, others are completely created constructs. There is no right or wrong here, some people like me find the energy of a construct too hard to maintain, others need the strict boundary between work and non work selves. I would say that all those sex workers I know who have remained for more than a couple of years have constructed a work persona which builds on aspects of their authentic self.

Your therapist has no work persona

Or rather, if your therapist is any good, they have no work persona

Authenticity, like unconditional positive regard is a cornerstone of the therapeutic relationship. If a counsellor is worrying about how a client perceives them, is constructing an inauthentic self for the work space, there is something wrong. This does not mean they should ignore how they are perceived, aware constantly of the interplay of transference and countertransference. A therapist however must be able to say I am what I am, I am who I am.

Recently I was asked if a therapist who was LGBTQ but not out would be able to provide ethical, “good” therapy. I had to think long and hard, there could be good reasons they were not out (such as living in a country where it was illegal) however my conclusion was that no, it would be too big a barrier if they had not reached a place of authenticity with their own sexuality/gender. This is not the same as disclosure, indeed a client need not know your sexuality/gender (in either sex work or therapy) but as a therapist, you need to have already done most of the work around being comfortable with your authentic self.

If your experience of therapy is of someone as performative in their work as a sex worker, your therapist sucks.

Sex work is the most performative of all work. Whilst every job has days in which we work when we would rather be anywhere else, in sex work the very labour is performative (one of my issues with porn). It has to be in order to be safe, for all the reasons previously covered. This does not mean it cannot be enjoyable, however, to reiterate, if you are abandoning yourself to the sex, without the meta awareness around safety, you are endangering yourself, and others by creating a false impression of what sex work is.

Sex is not therapy

I am aware that in some jurisdictions sex workers need to use other titles to avoid prosecution, so someone who is not a qualified sex therapist, terms themself as some form of therapist. This is a sad side effect of criminalization, and it is something I do not want to criticise. However, just as advertising should not be misconstrued as reality, so the use of the term does not make someone a therapist. Sex can of course be therapeutic, for any number of reasons. As a sub, who is a survivor of childhood sexual abuse who has a little side, the way in which our sexual explorations can be healing is written across my life. However therapeutic is not therapy. A run can be therapeutic, or a cycle ride where you set a personal best, so can colouring books, journalling, or a whole host of different activities. Therapy however is not about making you feel better, it is about journeying through the reasons you feel worse, and hopefully, after exploring each, reaching a point of wholeness and healing. It may benefit someone to have a good sexual experience, but the conflation of therapy with this misunderstands what therapy is, and perhaps explains why so many people drop out when the process becomes painful. In terms of specific sexual problems, whilst sex work may enhance confidence the real work of determining why a problem exists can only be done with clothes on, and by confronting, if that is not too forceful a word, the pain. A sex worker who made clients feel worse (apart from masochists) would not have any customers.

A concrete example is the client who visits sex workers because their marriage is sexless. I have had those conversations where they confess their love for their partner, their choice to see sex workers, their balancing of their sexual needs and desire not to hurt their partner. Expressing their feelings may well make them feel better, and some sex workers may feel they are in the role of therapist, but, in my dual existence, I can safely say you are never further away from therapy than in those conversations. One of the key practices of therapy is to look beyond the presenting issue, part art, part skill you ask the questions the client has been unwilling to address; Why did you marry someone sexually incompatible? How does it feel to look back on those choices? Why do you believe they do not know? Why is sex work non hurtful to them, in your eyes? Of course I would never put the questions this bluntly, this is how they would form in my mind, as I hoped to guide the client in their exploration of their choices, their life. Therapists do not say “there there, its not your fault” Not unless, to repeat myself, your therapist sucks. Being the mirror in which the client sees himself, truly, means often you reflect things they would rather not look at. Part of the problem here I think it some sex workers want to believe their clients are being honest with them, rather than looking for external validation of their choices. Two people looking for external validation is not therapy, its not even the basis for a non dysfunctional relationship.

At its core the “sex work is just like therapy” claim is about an appeal to respectability politics, ignoring that as schrodinger’s whores we can never access that respectability. It can be hard to accept that, and may seem nicer to present what we do as more than a combination of physical and emotional labour, determined by the negotiated content a client request. When sex workers make this claim though they leave behind all of those without privilege, who usually dont even know their clients names, who rely largely on the physical nature of sex work. Respectability politics always harms the most vulnerable, while raising up those with the least to lose in the first place. In a sex work context it is particularly useless, since we shall never be respectable, the most we can hope for is to not be openly harmed or discriminated against. Then again, perhaps someone’s desire to be seen as respectable is something they need to take up with their therapist?


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This entry was posted on May 8, 2016 by in Uncategorized and tagged , , , .

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