A foray into sex work invariably represents one of two things: indisputable proof of having hit bottom, or the one degrading, dehumanizing act that one simply would not stoop to — as in, “I could never sell myself.”
The first time I ever opened my mouth at an AA meeting was in 2015, during the 28-day inpatient program at my bougie Connecticut rehab. (One of the few things for which I can manage to muster up gratitude is the fact that I bottomed out while I was under 26, and thus still a dependent on my mother’s excellent health insurance.)
A buxom blonde guest speaker from the local community — prior to regaling us with florid descriptions of her 8-bedroom house in the Hamptons — recounted an incident from her time as an active alcoholic. She awoke in a hotel room following a blackout, and discovered some crumpled money piled atop the nightstand.
“I guess they thought it was a hooker situation,” she remarked, and the room erupted with guffaws.
I sat there silently fuming for several minutes before raising my hand. When she called on me, I said something along the lines of: “I don’t mean to diminish or disregard your story — at all — but I really had to say something because I was pretty shocked with your comment about being taken as a ‘hooker,’ and that so many people laughed in response. I don’t want to make it seem that I’m discounting that experience, but as someone who has done sex work, I highly doubt that I’m the only one who has been in that field to support their addiction. And it made me extremely uncomfortable that it was made into a joke.”
Laughter can, of course, be a nerve-quelling mechanism, and sometimes it is really the only tolerable response to recollections of ostensibly shameful, drug-fueled actions and relationships. But I don’t think this particular audience was giggling as a way of coping with identification. Rather, it appeared to be a clear barometer of the room’s view towards sex work, and that being [mis]taken for a sex worker is an unequivocally humiliating moment.
At this point, I had been what a non-woke civilian would brand a “hooker” for several years. In the period leading up to my bottom, I invariably snorted lines in the bathroom prior to sessions so that I could dissociate for the duration. My dirty whore money might as well have been streamlined directly into my dealer’s wallet, as I was essentially just a scantily-clad middleman. My concern for my personal safety was at an all-time low, which manifested in the form of unprotected sex acts with clients (plus random Tinder dudes) and little to no pre-booking screening.
My drug use and my sexual [mis]adventures — both in professional and recreational contexts — were hopelessly entangled. As such, I was dismayed that the rehab facility, to which my family forked over an ungodly amount of money, all but outlawed the discussion of sex within the borders of its manicured-to-perfection grounds. I felt that I couldn’t possibly be writhing around alone in this snake pit, the mental undulations of which manifested themselves in page after page of journal hieroglyphs, as well as one late-night toothy makeout session behind the tennis court.
While I by no means feel that my involvement in sex work “tainted” or “damaged” me, or directly fueled my eventual trajectory through the thickets of substance abuse, romantic codependency, and sociopathic male models, I do believe that it’s a disservice to isolate discussions of addiction from sex-related matters in most rehab centers and other treatment facilities.
In almost all of the qualifications I’ve heard and the stories I’ve read, a foray into sex work invariably represents one of two things: indisputable proof of having hit bottom, or the one degrading, dehumanizing act that one simply would not stoop to — as in, “I could never sell myself,” gaspingly uttered whilst clutching one’s pearls.
I find that this polarizing representation of sex work within the context of addiction only serves to uphold the stigmatization of those in the industry. The complete lack of nuance betrays the spectrum of emotions and reasons one may actually have for entering — and, possibly, remaining in — this field. Hopefully needless to say: everything happens on a person-to-person, individual level. Just as someone can not decide for another person how deeply any given experience — a divorce, an assault, a death — should or does affect her, it cannot be categorically declared that voluntary sex work is inherently disgraceful or reprehensible to anyone and everyone who has ever done it.
To be crystal-clear, I am not suggesting that every single person should give this line of work a try, or even that they should work to consciously change their perceptions regarding its morality. We all have our own ethical codes, and if working in any sector of the sex industry would betray one’s own principles, then of course don’t do it. But it is when this personal formulation of right/wrong, good/bad, noble/shameful bleeds in to universal proclamations that it becomes, at best, unhelpful and, at worst, truly harmful.
I honestly had no idea if I would have the interest or ability to continue to work within the sex industry once I was sober. In very early sobriety, my time and energy were wholly dedicated to nonstop treatment and therapy. But at about six months clean, once intensive outpatient programming tapered off and relapse ceased to feel like an imminent risk, the absence of failure no longer felt like success. Convinced I had already exhausted my god-given right to a period of necessary, purposeful unemployment, I began to fret over what the fuck to do next.
Go figure: my beleaguered brethren tend to not have spotless employment histories; major, suspicious gaps between jobs, constant gig-hopping, and even entire absences of any legal occupations whatsoever are prevalent. I am certainly no exception.
My triumphant return to sex work was largely motivated by a relative comfort level with it — as opposed to any other vocation — along with the disconcerting discovery of just how much $$$ I had squandered during active addiction. I figured that I may as well slither my way back in to the field in order to regain my financial independence, while I continued to trudge up the learning curve of existing within reality. Although at first it was profoundly difficult and bizarre to not be on another mental planet for sessions, I discovered that there were (and still are) aspects of the work that I enjoyed more than I remembered. For example, the fostering of a human-to-human connection that I had previously been tacitly unable to experience, because I deliberately rendered myself not quite human—or at least tried to.
I didn’t start attending NA or AA meetings with any vague regularity until I was nearing nine months clean. As such, I have no personal experience with counting days in the rooms, and the inherent public vulnerability of being so freshly sober. And, in the interest of complete honesty, I originally began scoping out the local 12-step scene because I wanted to get laid.
Remembering this initial motivation always reminds me of when I went with a friend to an intimate, candlelit AA meeting a few years before I qualified for membership myself. Watching her greet and be greeted by a veritable neighborhood, I thought to myself: “Wow, this is such a great way to meet people; if only there was something like this for us normal folk.”
In any case, I never even successfully sealed the deal with a fellow, unless you think I should count being thirteenth-stepped by a bearded dude who tattoos a tally mark on his bicep for every year he continues to be sober. But as the proudly framed calligraphy on one of the long-standing clubhouse’s walls declares: “THERE’S NO WRONG WAY TO GET [AND STAY] SOBER.” Very, very slowly but surely, I became effectively embedded within the fellowship, and meetings dotted my schedule with increasing frequency.
Once I felt sufficiently comfortable within this environment, I noticed that I would have extreme, instinctual reactions to others’ intermittent remarks about sex workers. At first, the fury just clanged around in my brain and I kept my mouth shut; but eventually, I found myself unable to refrain from calling these similarly sick and suffering strangers out on their whorephobic comments. Usually, the statements were made by men, and would express their belief that having sunk to using the services of a sex worker was a latently horrible, shameful transgression. What especially struck me was the inclusion of sex work providers within a list of personal troubling behaviors and non-sentient examples of red flags. It seemed like sex workers were considered an alien species of some sort, a genus in existence solely to tempt and to corrupt. This speaks to the inability— whether in thought, articulation, or both — to separate the act from the participant. Analogously, you might hate your old drug dealer, but [s]he didn’t make you an addict.
Nevertheless, an integral tenet of 12-step programs in general is that other attendees not directly “cross talk,” or comment specifically on another’s share. After all, we are not there to police each other’s speech or beliefs: “the only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking.” Even though this is the credo, that doesn’t mean it’s always easy. Although I know I should not act in a manner that would lead to my being misconstrued as some sort of general spokesperson, there’s still a strong compulsion to defend this largely misunderstood profession and its practitioners.
Reality, that pesky little nuisance I’ve spent my whole life attempting to circumvent, has become unavoidable — or, more accurately, the least easily-avertable it ever had been. Coming to terms with The Real World and existing within it can also mean accepting that there is no such thing as a Perfect Job. The omnipresence of the gig economy and ever-proliferating barriers to long-term, stable employment have contributed to the creation of the most anxiety-ridden generation.
For me, a massive part of continuing to stay sober and become a functional, self-sufficient adult in society is the need to properly, continually examine the realism of my goals and interests. Quite frankly: No, I’m probably not going to make a veritable career off of this concoction of sex work, writing, rapping, collaging, and modeling. Yet as soon as I inch towards accepting the wisdom of relegating these pursuits to Official Hobby Land, I begin to fret that I’m actually acting out of fear, and that I’m simply too wracked with doubt to put in the earnest effort to sculpt a livelihood from these elements. Perhaps I haven’t thoroughly deprogrammed the depictions of professional “success” that were drilled in to my being since infancy.
I consider myself rather firmly affixed to immediate gratification, which has manifested itself most significantly in my drug addiction, my continued involvement in sex work, and — in sobriety — my reliance on external validation via social media. As such, it is wildly difficult to truly grasp the concept of gradually, dutifully working towards a career over the course of years. And then there’s the question of how to effectively support oneself while trudging along this likely-not-all-that-well-paid-initially path.
Then there’s the whole “if you’re going to stop using illegal drugs, you should not engage in any other illegal, or illegal-adjacent, behavior[s] either” party line. Much as I feel a propulsive panic about the need to immediately learn how to navigate life as a normal, grownup citizen, I also am not going to act as though all laws across time and space — particularly in this #blessed nation — are even remotely worth abiding by. (The recent passing of FOSTA-SESTA and its immediate repercussions further complicate the issue, as online-originated sex work is more fraught than ever.)
I’d like to close this diatribe with a piece of advice, and then a quote.
Don’t assume that participation in sex work emphatically represents one’s hitting bedrock — addict or not.
“What else do you do there except lie — lie to yourself and others, lie about everything you recognize in your heart to be true? You’re obliged to pretend respect for people and institutions you think absurd. You live attached in a cowardly fashion to moral and social conventions you despise, condemn, and know lack all foundation. It is that permanent contradiction between your ideas and desires and all the dead formalities and vain pretenses of your civilization which makes you sad, troubled and unbalanced. In that intolerable conflict you lose all joy of life and all feeling of personality, because at every moment they suppress and restrain and check the free play of your powers. That’s the poisoned and mortal wound of the civilized world.”
- The Torture Garden by Octave Mirbeau