Written by Sunday
Art by Joshua Fuller
The first thing I do when I walk out of therapy is check my phone, scanning over the messages on my lock screen for any content warnings sent in all caps by my friends. I’m on the lookout for the type of message that will make me turn my phone off, mute our group chat or ignore them for a day – but it’s the message that lets me talk again. Being an ex-sex worker in recovery from the PTSD it caused, having friends still in the industry is hard.
One thing that’s never quite captured in any conversations about sex work is that the journey into this work often happens accidentally. Having stuck tightly to the gentler label of ‘sugar baby’, it was an entire year before I realised I was a sex worker. I can’t help but notice that as the public conversation grows, making the topic of sex work more common – almost every teenage girl has heard of OnlyFans, while TikTok allows videos that give tips for finding a sugar daddy – well, that accidental slope into the industry seems more slippery than ever. Meanwhile, as I go deeper into recovery, the realisation that I had worked a year in the industry without ever knowing anything about safety or legality is terrifying.
Each TikTok scroll is hot with the potential for upset – with the chance that I could be confronted with a version of my younger self, naively suggesting Seeking Arrangements as harmless fun, I’m always purse-lipped and white-knuckled. I’m angry at her. The past version of myself is invisible in the chair opposite me during each therapy session. I find myself pointing the finger, blaming her for putting me in the position that found me physically and emotionally abused, hating her for what she’s made of me. “But you didn’t hurt you, they did”, my therapist says, reminding me to be the victim, not the blamer.
I’m so often both. Now the bubble of my faux glamour has burst, the wave of fear and trauma caused by my experience has hit me at full force. I struggle daily with trying to hold onto my relationships, my body and my self-love: trying to forgive myself and, hardest of all, trying to balance all that pain with love. I love my friends, and while I might not be able to engage in conversations about their sex work yet, I support them doubtlessly. I know that amongst my hurt is a certainty that I see sex work as worthy and sex workers as deserving of safety at the least and sheer joy at the most – what I don’t yet know is how to balance the two.
People only seem to care about stories of sex workers who are wholly empowered, or dead. It all falls into two categories; split between op-ed pieces about the power of sex work, writings about the industry as a forever party populated by the bravest and most beautiful people, or tabloid trash about teens gone astray and bodies found. These stories make it simple, cutting a generational line in our understanding of the topic, the cultural shift from sex work as Victorian-style, destitute prostitution to something modern that people can safely and rationally choose, even as a career path. But I’m neither. I’m alive and traumatised, where does my story fit?
People only seem to care about stories of sex workers who are wholly empowered, or dead.
I ask myself, how I would even write about it? I could write novels about the attacks, pouring myself into paragraphs, bleeding it all out, but each line would feel like throwing a punch at the wrong person. I worry it would hurt my friends, that my words could look like disapproval in the wrong light.
When I berate my younger self for straying down the path, I can hear my logic arguing with me. Feeling out of my body, I could debate until my face went blue. I would yell at myself that the safety of sex workers is a systematic failure: the fault of a system that has no interest in protecting them regardless of how many injuries and deaths gather. I could list policies and precautions that could be implemented, list off charities and resources that provide help, and passionately champion sex work as care work – as essential to society as any other service. All this without a second of doubt. But in it all, I know there needs to be a space for me – I’m a quiet moment that needs to be had.
My story is uncomfortable. I am the dark and ill-informed side with all the possible bad outcomes mixed up in a lack of support and resources. And the challenge to balance supporting sex workers while acknowledging and validating my experience, and the millions of times my story will have been mirrored for other women – well, it’s a tricky one. It’s hard to address the downsides of sex work without coming across as anti-sex work. It feels like any slight suggestion that there are faults in the industry positions you on one side of the cultural debate. SWERF rhetoric uses the topics of safety and degradation so obsessively that it feels like the opposing side is allowed no rope – as if even the slightest whisper about my abuse or that I was dangerously objectified gives them fuel. But I don’t want to be theirs to use. My pain isn’t their cautionary tale.
I want the pain to be useful. Even if I can’t reply yet, I want my experiences to come through to my friends like passionate yet informed messages of support, helping them to be safer rather than demonising their work. Instead of hating myself for accidentally slipping down that slope, I want to build ladders up and out as well as safe steps down, empowering people to know what they’re getting into, making an informed choice with the good, the bad and the ugly. I want space to acknowledge my pain, and the pain of so many others, without the risk it could be used against the people I love – a way to talk about safety as an ex-sex worker, never a SWERF.
About the Author
Sunday is a full-time writer, splitting her time between journalism, poetry and essays. She is interested in the power of personal memory and passionate about destigmatising and encouraging vulnerability.