Sex Work Saved My Life
[trigger warnings: depression, suicide]
This is a fairy-tale that starts off with a nine-to-five job and ends with sex work.
Don’t worry, I’m not about to force some indigestible moral tale upon you. We’re all used to watching TV and going to the movies and seeing hookers end up shot or beaten or reformed. That’s all garbage. I promise that this story really does have a happy ending – no pun intended! In all seriousness: sex work saved my life.
Four years ago I was in my mid-twenties and worked in sales. I had a lover I adored, and a part-time child (not mine) that I adored just as much. Don’t get me wrong… I wasn’t a career woman. I’d partied hard, explored the goth scene, frolicked with the queer and leather crowd and gotten a couple of degrees at uni. I thought I was ready to settle down.
What I remember most about that time was how cold it was when I had to get up for work in the morning. I remember feeling a creeping sense of wrongness. My job was the most respectable and best-paying position I’d ever had but I hated it - I’d eat my lunch at my computer because I had so much work to do. In winter it would be dark when I went to work, and dark by the time I left. I couldn’t imagine where else I in life could possibly be.
At some point my partner chose to end our relationship and overnight those insidious tendrils of wrongness blossomed into full-blown depression. I grieved that relationship terribly, and the loss of his child. More than that, though, my complete lack of joy in all other aspects of my life left me with nothing to grasp onto. Being assaulted by depression is the mental equivalent of being knocked out in the first round of a boxing match. Total shock - I’d always been emotionally intelligent but I had no idea how to cope with the things I was feeling.
Depression is not in your head – it becomes part of your whole body. It feels like wrestling with a huge, black beast. I had no control over my thoughts. I’d sit in front of the TV in my flat and do nothing for hours. I wanted to slit my wrists but I was too scared of the pain and of what came after. Instead I would sit on the floor of the shower, close my eyes under the hot water and let myself imagine what it would be like, tricking myself for a moment into thinking that the pain was about to be over.
My family tried their best. “I just heard today, a guy who comes into work all the time found out he’s got cancer. They reckon he hasn’t got long.” My dad remarked one afternoon. He gave me a significant look, labouring the point a little: “I guess you never know, do you?”
“That’s awful!” I’d quickly remark, eager to show how grateful I was. I didn’t have a terminal illness. I just wanted to die.
Having run out of options that lay within the norm, I started looking around for anything that could stop me from leaping into the abyss. I took a trip to the USA with the last of my savings and cried myself to sleep in every city on the West Coast. I met a guy with whom I was completely incompatible and had lots of desperate, no-strings-attached sex. I started thinking about moving interstate for a change of scenery (the TV room was getting a little stifling).
I even answered an ad in the local paper looking for ‘receptionists’ for a brothel in Chatswood. It was – I know now – a very typical affair, a small house in the industrial area. Inside, the walls were papered in brocade print. The little cubicles where the clients waited to meet girls were curtained off in red velvet. I’d pop in and out of each one, uttering the same lines over and over: “Have you met anyone you like, sir? Can I get you a drink?”
The woman who ran the place was a bitch and I stayed out of her way. I envied the working girls, sipping their drinks out the back and fussing with makeup whilst I ran up and down the hallway non-stop. Every guy that came in was polite and decent-looking (even if it was in a Sean-Connery-older-man sort of way). In addition to bad management the pay was low, so after one shift I declined the job.
What next? My innate but random sense of self-preservation dictated that I pack my little Hyundai hatchback and drive to Melbourne to seek a new life. Melbourne is a wonderful city. I have loved it ever since my teens, when I’d make yearly pilgrimages here to buy second-hand clothes. The rent is cheaper in Melbourne, the people are friendlier, and it’s more fun to be in – unless of course, you can’t find a job and are living ten to a room in a Fitzroy hostel! I must have sent out thirty job applications, between walks in the park and regular five-dollar pizzas at Bimbos.
After two weeks, no job. The economic downturn was not working in my favour. My options and my savings were running out and I was almost ready to give up and go back to Sydney. Luckily it was my good fortune to run into Helena – a blonde-punk extravaganza whom some of you may already have met. I had known her for a long time but we hadn’t spoken in years. Over dinner I explained my situation.
Her response was “You should try sex work.”
Well, actually it was more like this: “Oh my god, you should try doing sex work – I’ve been working for ages now, didn’t you know that? I’ve been overseas but I just got back to Australia and it’s been so much fun working here! I have the most wonderful clients; so sweet, although some of them are very energetic, I have one in particular who talks so much and I keep having to say ‘George! Are we going to just talk all night or are you going to take your pants off?’ But, you know, sometimes just having someone to talk to is so important. A lot of the time it’s not even about the sex, it’s just about getting a hug or someone to listen to them. You’d be great at that - I think you should give it a go. Just call up the nearest place!”
The ‘nearest place’ was called Scarlet Lady. Its website was abysmal but it claimed to be female-run which I found encouraging. I’m embarrassed to say that I can’t remember the name of the woman who answered the phone, because we ended up working together for a year. I remember the place though – another tiny house, this time painted red with a neglected flower bed in the front garden.
Humans have a built-in resistance to too much change. It’s a survival trait: stick with what you know. This is why we all run with the herd – to feel successful, one is expected to work hard and fit in. One does NOT become a hooker. I felt strongly that I was crossing a line, one that couldn’t be uncrossed. However I also knew that doing things the ‘normal’ wasn’t helping me. Sometimes having the courage to change is also a necessary survival trait!
I remember being petrified when I met my first ever client. I was ashamed of my nervousness when he turned out to be a gentle, disabled man who worked for Social Services. I remember the faces of all the women I met at Scarlet Lady, young and old, who shared their advice with me. I remember the ‘lightbulb’ moment when I realised that in a client-worker dynamic, sex workers have all the power: power to help people feel good about themselves, to counsel, to teach. I wasn’t just making a quick buck, I was fulfilling a vital function. Our Western society simultaneously over-values and under-values sex – we use it to sell everything from cars to frozen meals, but we deny its importance on a personal level. I believe that everyone has the right to inhabit their own sexual spaces; to be accepting of their own diverse sexualities and to be able to share that consensually with others. This is a necessary part of living and without it we all become sad, lonely and insecure. Sex work provides space and support for people off all genders and backgrounds. It is indispensable.
The road out of depression is a long one, an uphill battle. But I can honestly say that the process started right there, in a room full of women sharing endless pots of tea and talking about life and sex…or in a tiny bedroom with gilt wallpaper where men chose to reveal to me their needs and insecurities. I was reconnected too, finding a place where I could make myself and others happy. Sex work did save me, and I’m grateful.