These tips are from sex workers for sex workers.
Self-Care Kits is a series dedicated to curating tips for specific communities, from specific communities. So many factors impact our personal self-care needs, like being of one or more marginalized identity, having a certain illness, or dealing with specific life circumstances. When you connect with people with similar experiences, not only can you feel less alone—you can also get some of the best advice from others who have been there.
The thing about self-care is that it is never one size fits all. Sex workers—those who offer services between consenting adults like companionship, intimacy, escorting, dancing, camming, and countless other sexual and nonsexual services—are as diverse a group as the general population, and their individual self-care needs can vary just as much. That said, when I asked members of the sex work community about their personal self-care routines, a few themes popped up, from dealing with the stigma against sex work to taking care of their bodies.
Of course, there’s never going to be a list of tips where every item will apply to every person, so when reading these suggestions, take what you like and leave the rest. And remember, getting enough sleep, staying hydrated and nourished, and prioritizing personal safety are foundational forms of self-care that everyone should work on, sex worker or not, psychotherapist Dulcinea Pitagora, Ph.D., L.C.S.W., who specializes in working with adults in the kink, polyamorous, trans, GNC/NB, LGBQ, and sex work communities, tells SELF.
On top of those basics, here are some tips sex workers and experts in the space recommend others in the industry tuck into their self-care toolboxes.
Build a stress-prevention toolkit.
Let’s be clear: Sex work itself doesn’t automatically cause mental healthtroubles. However, sex workers are subject to unique stressors because of the way they’re often treated and viewed by others, sex and relationship therapist Katie Bloomquist, L.A.M.F.T., tells SELF. On top of that, Bloomquist says work involving emotional and sexual labor lends itself to a type of burnout called compassion fatigue, which includes symptoms like mental, emotional, and physical exhaustion, isolation, and depersonalization. (Depersonalization involves feeling detached from yourself, like you’re outside your own body looking in, or having a sense that you or your surroundings aren’t real.) These stressors are sometimes known as “minority stress,” which Bloomquist notes is not unique to sex workers, but is common among those of marginalized identities. (Minority stress has historically been explored through the lens of mental health disorders in gay, lesbian, and bisexual people, for instance).
“The minority stress of sex work is essentially a result of the ways society responds to and subjects sex workers to higher rates of violence and rejection related to their work,” says Bloomquist. “This [can look] like identity concealment or disclosure issues around sex work, internalized stigma and identity issues, and expectations of rejection, which can result in isolation.”
For all these reasons, your self-care kit should include targeted healthy coping mechanisms and stress managementtools. If you don’t know where to start, Bloomquist suggests creating a stress-prevention toolkit. There’s a bunch of great advice for making one in this webinar on sex worker self-carethat Bloomquist created during her time as the vice president of the Sex Workers Outreach Project-USA (SWOP-USA). Creating a toolkit is a personal process that takes into account your own circumstances and needs and includes exploring questions like: What are warning signs I’m not doing okay? How can I check in with myself? What do I have control over? How can I reduce stress in my life? From there, you can work on building a personalized toolkit that takes those insights into account.
Find your social support system.
“Social support is a universally important form of self-care, particularly for sex workers because they are often closeted,” says Pitagora. “Finding social support that is truly supportive can be difficult.”
All of the sex workers I talked to named social media as a potential source of community and connection. “A lot of my self-care started with finding other sex workers online,” says Nora B., 27, a sex educator and former sex worker. “Instagram especially can be a positive community around sex work.” She suggests using tags like #SexWorkIsWork, #SexWorkersUnite, and #SexWorkerRights to find others in your shoes.
It’s worth noting that accessing online sex worker communities has become a lot more complicated since President Trump signed into law ‘‘Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act of 2017” (FOSTA), a mashup of a previous version of FOSTA and the Senate’s Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA). Referred to colloquially as SESTA/FOSTA, the act intended to protect sex workers from trafficking, but in practice, many argue that online platforms have become overly cautious and restrictive in the content they allow and are silencing marginalized voices as a result.
Pitagora points out that these effects have started bleeding over into social media and that many sex workers are consequently suffering. For example, after the bill was passed, Reddit banned several long-running sex worker communities, like r/Escorts, r/MaleEscorts, r/Hookers, and r/SugarDaddy.
If you don’t have anyone you feel safe and comfortable talking to about your job or don’t want to risk getting banned from social networks onlin
e, Pitagora suggests looking into local or online groups, meetups, events, or resources for sex workers. For more info, scroll down to the resources at the end of this article.
Take measures to protect yourself on social media.
Anyone on social media knows it can be a total shit show for your mental health sometimes. “While sometimes social media can be a valuable source of social support and connection, it can also be painful and triggering,” says Pitagora.
Muting words on Twitter (which can be an especially nightmarish platform) is a good way to make your mentions a safer space, according to Nora. What you mute depends on what kind of messages you want to filter out, but you might want to start with terms related to body shaming or, like Nora, certain political figures. “I mute the word ‘Trump’,” she says. “If I need that information, I can get it elsewhere. I don’t need to see that name when I go on Twitter.”
Mary S., 25, is a performer who does cam work and used to strip. She’s also a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, so she has a list of muted words meant to fend off the triggering incest fantasies men often drop in her mentions. It’s about assessing your own needs—and also being liberal with your use of the “block” button.
Also, if your business practices allow for it, Pitagora suggests taking occasional breaks from social media in general. “If not, I recommend using an app that can schedule posts and provide notifications [you] need to respond to without having to wade through disheartening content,” she says. TweetDeck, for example, has many ways to customize your Twitter experience, including scheduling Tweets.
Don’t ignore the physical demands of the job.
Of course, this applies to nourishing and hydrating your body, but don’t forget about tending to your job-specific aches and pains, too. “I was 23 when I started stripping, so I thought my body was in pretty good shape,” Christina O., 31, tells SELF. “I wasn’t prepared for how bruised and sore I’d feel after coming home, so stretching and yoga both before and after a night at the club became essential to me.”
It doesn’t hurt when a soothing physical ritual also has job perks. “I’m obsessive about my skin-care routine,” says Mary. “It grounds me and I can also justify how excessive it is because, hey, I’m a dancer. My skin needs to look good.”
Physical care can have mental benefits, too, in that it can reinforce that you’re a person who deserves care and respect. “I need to be gentle and loving towards my body when it’s being critiqued constantly,” says Nora. “For me, a lot of that is being mindful of my triggers and surrounding myself with a lot of body-positive and fat-positive folks.”
Set professional boundaries.
Boundaries are necessary for keeping you feeling safe and comfortable in all aspects of your life, including at work. “I didn’t set good boundaries when I was younger,” Heather T.*, a 30-year-old professional domme who also works in academia, tells SELF. “But now I have a list of stuff I will and will not do so I don’t fuck myself up.”
Some boundaries can be about protecting your mental health or physical safety, but they also don’t all have to be super deep. “Pegging I just don’t do because I feel like an idiot wearing a strap-on,” says Heather.
Nora suggests creating boundaries that extend beyond the physical work and into your business practices. “There are a lot of scammers out there, so I set my boundaries with clients and don’t back down,” she says. “Things like not allowing people to shake me down for cheaper prices, waste my time with a lot of messaging, and not sending pictures without a deposit.”
Come up with a healthy way to process negative work experiences.
Depending on what you do, your day-to-day work might be taxing in one or more ways. It might be physically hard on your body or emotionally draining. It might be annoying or enraging or exhausting or scary at times. A million things can impact how you feel when work is over, so it’s crucial to know how to take care of yourself afterward.
Heather took to journaling after bad sessions with clients, whether it was because she felt off her game or because the clients, well, sucked. “Writing helps me recontextualize some fucked up shit as something that could be cathartic or entertaining,” she says.
Keep your vanilla friends close.
Heather, whose work can involve being degrading to and humiliating clients, finds it helpful to decompress with her friends who aren’t in the sex work community. “Sometimes I need a reminder from my vanilla friends about what is normal human interaction,” she says.
Even if you don’t need people outside the industry for gut checks, people not in your line of work can help you keep some work-life balance. “When I’m around my sex work friends, sometimes all we talk about is work,” says Mary. “It’s nice to have people [who] get it, but it’s also important for me to take a break from that part of my life.”
Try to find a sex work-affirming therapist.
For Heather, finding a therapist who had a history in sex work was total luck, but she recommends giving it a shot if you can. “Talking to someone who has been in that world was unbelievably helpful for my mental health,” she says. “I’m pretty candid to a fault, but even I get nervous talking to just anybody about golden showers.”
Check out this guide to finding a sex work-affirming therapist here.
Give yourself a break if you’re working through internalized sex work stigma.
Real talk: Stigma against sex work doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It’s totally understandable if you find yourself thinking some unfair, unkind, or judgmental things, whether toward yourself or other sex workers. Some of the books and resources at the end of this article might be helpful if you’re looking to unlearn some of your attitudes towards sex work.
In the meantime, Heather suggests fighting back against your negative voice. “I have to domme my brain,” says Heather. “Like, ‘Brain, you’re being an asshole right now, and I need you to shut the fuck up. You know that’s not true.’”
Also, keep in mind that it’s okay if you don’t love your work.
According to Mary, with the rise of sex work communities on social media, a lot of people put their best, most empowering faces forward. It’s okay to give yourself permission not to embody the persona of a triumphant, self-possessed SWer if you don’t feel that way.
“I love the rise of accepting sex work as work and sex worker positivity, but it sometimes comes with a lot of pressure,” says Mary. “We spend so much time defending ourselves against people with bullshit opinions that I feel guilty if I’m not the paragon of a feminist sex worker who is doing this to reclaim my sexuality and agency over my body or whatever. Like no, I’m doing this because I need to pay my bills, and it’s hard and sometimes degrading.”
Heather finds it helpful to remind herself that sex work is, in fact, a job, and guess what? Plenty of people don’t like their jobs. “At the end of the day, we’re all using the tools that we have to labor under the structures of capitalism,” she says.
Something you feel confident in
Okay, yes, we just touched on how capitalism sucks, but hey. In a profession that can be intricately linked to your body—which can be a source of complicated feelings for so many—sometimes a little retail therapy is helpful. “It’s sometimes hard working with a bunch of beautiful goddess women,” says Heather. “Most of my anxiety is centered around my stomach, so I try to find outfits that’ll make me feel good. I’m a big fan of Savage X Fenty.” She says the Lace Corset ($105, Savage X Fenty), in particular, makes her feel like a boss.
A classic Magic Wand or your sex toy of choice
“Masturbation is self-care for me,” says Mary. “It obviously feels good, and it also helps me take ownership over my body and ground [myself] in pleasure that’s for me and me only.” She recommends the classic Magic Wand ($56, Amazon) as her sex drawer MVP if you don’t know where to start.
Something to help you get into character
Whether you like thinking of your work persona as an alter ego or just like to have fun, Heather says a uniform or costume can do wonders. “I always wear a wig to help get into character and gain confidence, especially when my own hair is a mess, which it always is,” she says.
Just some really good tea (or another drink you love to stay hydrated)
When she was stripping, Christine never went to the club without a stash of tea to keep her awake. “One of my first nights, I was offered drugs, but honestly, I didn’t realize I was being offered something until later,” she says. “I had mentioned I was exhausted and another girl offered me a pick-me-up, to which I said, ‘Oh, I’ve got hot tea!’ Definitely not the reaction she was expecting.” One of her favorites: an Earl Grey Lavender ($36, Rishi).
A stress ball
Stress balls, putty, and other therapeutic trinkets are a must for Heather when she needs help grounding herself. These therapy massage balls ($10, Amazon) are her favorite to toss between her hands. “They’re softer than a tennis ball but harder than the average stress ball,” she says.
A handheld back massager
Mary swears by the Body Back Buddy Junior ($22, Amazon) for getting at the hard-to-reach places on her body that need a little TLC. “I have a desk job half the week, and it’s terrible for my neck and back,” she says. “I can’t be so tightly wound for the body work I do.”
Some CBD goodies
As SELF previously reported, cannabidiol (CBD) is a cannabinoid, or a compound present in cannabis. Cannabinoids can interact with our bodies’ cannabinoid receptors (which only exist because our bodies naturally make similar compounds called endocannabinoids that influence various physiological processes). Although some cannabinoid receptors are involved in the pain response, experts are still iffy on the actual benefits of various topical CBD products for pain. Basically, there’s not yet enough conclusive research out there to recommend CBD products for pain relief. But, anecdotally, the trendy stuff has plenty of uses among its fans. Nora recommends the brand Rose Moon Ritual if you want to purchase CBD products from a sex work-affirming company. They even have a Stripper Recovery gift set ($50, Rose Moon Ritual PDX).
Your Silence Will Not Protect Youby Audre Lorde
Or any of Lorde’s work. The writer’s posthumous collection of essays, speeches, and poems touches on themes like power, feminism, and the importance of using your voice. “I’ve been rereading [it] to deal with shame, especially from [fellow] academics,” says Heather.
Some curated playlists
It’s never a bad idea to have music on hand to get in the mood—whatever that mood may be. Heather goes for “empowering playlists to make me feel like a badass domme,” she says. Her current playlist has a lot of Cardi B, Blondie, and Grimes.
This podcast features interviews about sex, sex work, BDSM, and kink, and Heather recommends it because it “makes me feel less weird and makes me laugh.”
Playing the Whore: The Work of Sex Work by Melissa Gira Grant
Nora recommends this book, in which journalist Melissa Gira Grant takes on myths about sex work, highlights exactly how sex work is work, and explains why sex workers’ rights are human rights.
SWOP-USA is a national social justice network dedicated to the fundamental human rights of people involved in the sex trade and their communities, focusing on ending violence and stigma through education and advocacy. Notably, they have a volunteer-staffed community support line where current and former sex workers, as well as activists and others seeking peer support, can access direct support. To reach it, call 877-776-2004. (Volunteers will respond to all calls in 24 hours, the service says. It’s worth noting that this isn’t a crisis line for emergencies.)
Nora recommends this podcast, hosted by two sex workers named Elle and Jon. “They cover lots of topics, including sex and the politics of sex work,” she says. “It’s informational and keeps me up to date on issues and laws affecting the sex work community.”
Revolting Prostitutes: The Fight for Sex Workers’ Rights by Molly Smith
Here’s another book rec from Nora, this time a manifesto written by two sex workers arguing for full decriminalization of sex work through a personal and political lens.
This online sex work activist cooperative and emergency fund that helps support marginalized workers is not a bad thing to have bookmarked in case you’re ever in crisis. Lysistrata is available to assist individuals in the case of emergencies related to illness, injury, homelessness, wrongful arrest and incarceration, unstable or abusive working conditions, domestic violence, discrimination, and a number of other crises that can impact sex workers. Priority goes to POC and trans workers. You can find their guidelines for fund requests here.
*Names have been changed to grant anonymity upon request.
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