Do you have sex work internal stigma?
Anyone can become a sex worker. It’s not hard to enter and this is part of the reason why it can be so attractive for anyone in between jobs, needing (possibly extra) income or someone who needs more hours in their day. You name a price, do the deed and wallah, you’re a sex worker. What is hard is lasting as a sex worker. You can go one of two ways: trial and error, learn the ropes and get better at it or decide it’s not for you for whatever reason. Both are fine. There are a number of attributes a person needs to learn or to grow to be a successful sex worker. I say successful as to mean at peace with. If you’re in it for the long haul you want to be comfortable within your own existence. This can be hard if you take on board the sexual desires of men as if they relate to how you’re perceived/valued, if you listen to the advice or opinions of non-sex workers (which for the most part are negative) or if you have difficulty acknowledging or negotiating with your emotional and mental body (especially within a sexual setting). You want to be at a state where the opinions of the masses have a slippery hold on your worth and that you trust yourself enough to know who you really are (and this is not set by the outside world). To achieve this state you’d need to reconcile with any pre-existing personal moralities with the work and to operate sex in such a way that it didn’t intrude on your character or value.
And people think sex work is easy… Sheesh, that’s not even half of it…
I have little regard for the outside world on the subject of my work having learnt what I have in my time. They do not know how to employ similar skills to steer a sexual setting, they can never ascertain the tools I’ve collected and it is easy to disregard their underdeveloped opinions or thoughts when they’re not useful or helpful. They haven’t lived it, breathed it or thought about it critically or practically because they have not had to. I can call them ignorant and dismiss them as aptly as they can call me delusional and assume that I have twisted things in such a way so that I can live with myself.
Could it be? Is the manner in which I think, breath, feel, be so inappropriately wrong?
What I do find fresh is when outsiders assume that they are untouchable by the principle of delusion, and how it is uniquely afflicts sex workers. Every human tricks themselves one way or another, for better and for worse. They do this with their habits, their addictions, their lovers and partners, their family, their work, their friends, their studies, their hobbies and associations, all coming together to form their warped sense of self. Or should I say, their ego does this for them. No one is any better than a sex worker simply because they’re not a sex worker. There is some truth when others mention delusion but this is an incomplete truth lacking context and sustainability. Indeed, I must live with myself day in and day out and so I must construct a narrative that works for me because there is no hard science or exact formula for character, happiness, outlook or life. If there was we’d all be doing it, wouldn’t we? This does not make me extraordinary, strange or fascinating. This makes me human and more like you than you thought.
Can’t believe that’s not obvious…
Then things get more complicated when I move beyond how I think and how the general public thinks. With respect to every current and former sex worker and their differing experiences, it is the concept of internal stigma that perplexes me. Internal stigma is usually subtle, sex workers don’t always realise they have it and sometimes people don’t pick up on it because it can be viewed as normal, common sense and not due any questioning. I have come across this countless times within myself and others. It appears like a residue stigma from the world from whence we all came, sketched deep into our ways of thinking. An example would be how some strippers think full service workers are (whatever negative adjective) because they make contact with their clients. Or how sugar babies distance themselves from sex worker, as though they are utterly unalike. Or how sex workers think porn actors are irresponsible with their sex practises. Or how porn actors think any other sex worker is bizarre because they have no background on their sexual partners.
I could go on, really.
I witness sex workers hold themselves morally culpable for their work. I’ve seen some play the martyr by harbouring guilt for how their loved ones feel about their work. When not recognised I’ve seen all this energy transform into a bitterness or resentment for the self, or the industry, or the male gender, or the world, simply because the sex worker is reluctance to acknowledge that there is no shame or degradation in sex work besides the ones they place upon themselves.
You’re probably wondering how someone can work when they have such feelings at the same time. It comes and it goes, but the need for money never does.
In some forms internal stigma acts as a deprivation, deriving any notion of acceptable to flourish in their atmosphere. They put too much value on what other people think of them and adopt these beliefs until they become their own. Eventually, they are reduced to the effects of a hostile reality without believing that they play any role as the cause of this reality. They often do not hold themselves responsible for their choices and this is why they do not express an interest in reconciling with their internal stigma. They focus on what they are doing in the workplace, rather than how they are doing it. The stigma of the outside world manifests into a real thing inside them. In the most extreme examples they turn on the industry and blame it for whatever (essentially victimising themselves and becoming overly sensitive). If I sound harsh it’s because I am, I’m not a fan of adults not taking responsibility for their actions or jumping on the victim bandwagon to clear their guilty conscious.
‘But Estelle, what about sex trafficking/abusers/rapes/assaults etc. Aren’t you victim blaming?’ Settle down, I’m referring to consensual sex work, not crimes. There’s a difference. Note that things do get so much more complicated when a sex worker truly must work for whatever reason and continues to exhibit internal stigma, but that’s a whole other blog post.
Us sex workers are talented when it comes to compartmentalising and so internal stigma can be supressed when one really must work. But then it resurfaces conveniently when the industry has given them the money they wanted. Some digress that what they do is bad, or that they are bad, or that something is wrong, and think that if only they stopped working, they would be a better person. That everything would get better. They do not realise that the problem and solution is rooted deep within them and not within the work. They do not see that when the internal stigma is confronted, their feelings and thoughts about work evolve. They play helpless and hopeless when they are not any of these things, these are the by-products of internal stigma. They do not know how to command their work setting, an attribute of the successful long haul worker. Remember I say successful as to mean at peace with.
No one can ever be wholeheartedly at peace with their work for the rest of their days, but you can observe that seemingly successful sex workers are those inhibiting little (or no) internal stigma.
I cannot dismiss sex workers with internal stigma as readily as I can non-sex workers who have zero experience because I’ve caught myself with internal stigma countless times. I flip back and forth like a pancake in the pan, undecided if it’s a fully cooked thought yet. How can one co-exist harmoniously with such a base line of intolerance for their means for work? How can they make an effort to accept themselves as they are and not be so convinced by the opinions of others? How can I push this upon anyone? I’ve seen people read into their work as though it says more about their identity than anything else they have ever done or will ever do. They lack a reality-fuelled perspective of themselves: that they are fine, that they are not a bad person and that there isn’t anything wrong with consensual sex even when they’re sleeping with someone that is (whatever negative adjective). This is what I mean when I say that not everyone can be a successful sex worker. If you cannot believe there is a purpose to the work then you cannot be comfortable in your own skin. In these sorts of situations I wonder who is tricking who; me tricking myself for believing there’s nothing wrong with consensual sex or strangers tricking sex workers into believing that sex is only acceptable in certain forms.
And if you really want to take it a step further you can choose to believe that there’s a true value to the work and that by one orgasm at a time you’re making the world a better place.
It’s interesting to note when sex workers wait for a saviour, a partner who will sweep them out of the industry. It is only then that they admit to the delusions about their work. I agree that sex with a loved one or partner dawns in comparison to sex work, and that in an ideal life you’d only have sex with someone you love. But this is not the reality we can all have. We must accept reality for what it is. A sex worker once left the industry to be with the man she loved; a good client of mine who had for many years been eager to fulfil a romantic relationship with me. I was not interested in romance at that time in my life. When I was speaking to her she said: “Don’t worry Estelle, one day you’ll find a man who loves you and you’ll be happy and then ready to leave the industry.” I tried to convince her that my happiness did not equate to my exit from the industry. I was happy with my life as it were but she did not believe me. She told me I did not have to lie to her, and that that she understood my denials because she had committed these denials a million times herself.
This is subtle internal stigma at its finest ladies and gentleman. It has more room to grow when a sex worker leaves the industry because there’s little incentive to keep it down.
I could not explain and she could not understand why this was so confrontational for me. I did not need her internal stigma bleeding through to my happiness or interrogating me for a confession. I could not negotiate with her internal stigma and I could not hide from it. Internal stigma rejects the notion that a sex worker can be synonymous with happiness, worth, comfortability or peace. It’s awful because internal stigma is rigid in its definition of what a sex worker is or can be, thus creating a fallacy where happiness cannot be obtained with this status quo active. The truth is that any form of contentment differs person to person and so it all depends on you, and you don’t have to obey this arbitrary definition of what a sex worker is to achieve contentment. I’m not saying that sex work is a transformative experience that ensures contentment if you have no internal stigma, on the contrary, it is what you make of it.
If you have internal stigma, get rid of it. Burn it. It’s a waste of gas and no good! You gain nothing when you throttle yourself!
A former sex worker friend detested my commitment to proceed with sex work in November. I have this issue where I give too much to Estelle’s world and not enough to the real me. She argued that sex work was de-energising, it did not make me happy and that all the efforts I made on sorting myself out (while overseas) would be rendered null and void if I returned. There was no practicality to her advice. When I explained my sustainable approach to work, with the interest of containing my contentment and with plans to cut myself off from physical work in two months, she didn’t appreciate my efforts or tactics. She believed I committed too much of myself and my energy to my work and that I was kidding myself if I thought I could engage with my work in any other way. She did not believe that it was possible for me to bounce back, or that I was versatile, durable or capable of handling myself.
Hey lady! Who do you think you’re talking to?
She was talking to herself and explaining her reasoning for leaving sex work, not my own. This was her own subtle internal stigma, parading as truth or common sense, having me almost convinced that sex work was unsustainable. Internal stigma can behave like a projection and this is how it manifests within you (‘oh I know honey, I’ve been where you’ve been’). Don’t get me wrong, people are more similar than they are unalike and much of what she said rings true. Sex work is de-energising, it’s hard and if you want to be really frank people only like you because you give a great blowie (and isn’t that great to know?). It isn’t nurturing in these aspects but nevertheless there are the rewards that balance it out. And the bottom line is: I don’t need to feel shit about my work just because you feel shit about yours. I already have my demons to dance with, I do not need yours.
And we like to dance salsa!
In this way another sex worker’s internal stigma can plow its way into my inner thoughts. Sex workers are close to home and what they say hits just as close. I risk rattling my integrity when I spend time with some sex workers, it becomes increasingly difficult to recognise my own interpretation as separate from their influences. Stigma is a valid reason not to waste gas with strangers and I can dismiss such people with a wave (bye Felecia!). When it comes to how I engage with my work mentally, emotionally, physically I can exercise all my faculties at the highest autonomy whenever I need. But internal stigma from peers cannot be so easily avoided or changed. Subtle stigma is no reason to cut communication with your peers.
‘But Estelle, if you got such a problem with the other workers, why do you talk to them? Aren’t you being overly sensitive?’
I have never accused another sex worker for internal stigma. I’m only sharing my experiences so other sex workers are made aware of how it behaves and effects them, to avoid the negativity. Sex work is also isolating, I need to be in contact with my peers. We all need to let off steam and there’s not a lot of avenues we can do that without being ostracised. Sex workers are the only ones you can speak to about the work without the discussion turning into a typical Q&A. Sex workers are supportive, even with the internal stigma, and their friendships are invaluable and irreplaceable.
Have you checked on your internal stigma lately?
Having or not having internal stigma does not make one sex worker superior over another. Nor does it guarantee any glory or financial success within the industry. If you are capable of recognising internal stigma within yourself or when someone else exhibits it, you are at an advantage. You can then begin to dismantle it and relinquish yourself from its negative effects, thereby securing your success as a sex worker. Like I mentioned before, anyone can become a sex worker and from there you go one of two ways: you either leave it or you get better at it. Neglecting the internal stigma is one of the steps of getting better at it.
Stigma is another brick in the wall separating sex workers from the world. But it’s okay, I have a sledgehammer.