Allure | Lillian Stone
Adria (working name) is fairly new to the sex work industry, as she started serving and dancing at a club less than a year ago. Though she enjoys the work, the physical toll of dancing came as a shock. For her, the bruises were the most surprising part of her job. “I knew I would be sore from doing pole work,” she says. “But no one warned me about the ugly bruises, burns on your thighs from doing lap dances, the ache in your hips from the positions you’re in — or that all the floor work would literally take the skin off your knees.” And she's not alone: Across the sex work industry, many newcomers are struck by the effects of the physical labor associated.
The physical demands of being a worker also mean taking care of yourself in new ways that may not be intuitive. From icing bruised knees to carrying pepper spray, sex workers’ meticulous methods of self-care is further evidence that sex work is, in fact, work. Still, sex workers often continue to be left out of the conversation around self-care.
The Physical Toll of Sex Work
“As a dancer, our bodies go through a lot in one night,” says Renee Wilson, a full-time stripper and occasional cam girl. “Dancing and bopping around a hard floor and doing pole work for hours every night, being used as a verbal punching bag by customers, sexual harassment — even assault in some cases — it all takes a toll on your body.”
Because of these things, Wilson makes extra time to nourish her body on and off the clock. “I do yoga when I’m not at work, as well as breathing exercises, stretches throughout the day, I eat as healthy as I can, and go to the gym the very few times I feel like it,” she says. She’s also a fan of holistic remedies like CBD cream, Epsom salt baths, and Ayurvedic herbs, all of which she uses to soothe the aches and pains that often course through her 22-year-old body.
Emelia* (whose name has been changed for anonymity), a former stripper who identifies as nonbinary, sought treatment from a chiropractor when they first started dancing. “I was working five days a week and also trying to learn pole tricks, so it was very hard on my body,” they say, explaining that they’ve since left stripping and turned to powerlifting. “I’ve no doubt sustained some damage from my dancing days. I now have to work to prevent reinjury by stretching, properly warming up before lifting, and self-massage.”
Workers Know All About Sexual Health
Sexual health is a crucial part of self-care for workers. Lola Jordan (working name), a 31-year-old full-service sex worker living in the Midwest, is obsessive about using condoms with her clients. “Even with past relationships, I wear condoms with every sexual partner I’ve had,” she says. Though she has three kids and has had her tubes tied, she uses condoms with clients to avoid STIs.
There has been very little research regarding the sexual health of workers, largely because of criminalization around the world. For many researchers, it’s difficult to ethically study criminalized groups, a phenomenon that only serves to further marginalize sex workers. One study, published in 2014, found that while female sex workers in England were “assumed to be at an increased risk of STIs,” the subjects of the study made more visits to sexual health clinics than other female attendees. According to Phoenix Calida (working name), an escort living in the Chicago area, that diligence is overshadowed by the stigma sex workers face. “It’s like, ‘When’s the last time you got STD tested? Do you know how birth control works?’” Calida says. “Yeah, I know how birth control works — I’m an adult.”
For Calida, patronizing assumptions like these are harmful to folks in the industry who want their health concerns taken seriously. Oftentimes, that means lying about their occupation during doctor’s visits. “I did make the mistake of telling one of my doctors about [sex work],” she tells Allure. “I almost had child services called on me.”
The challenge of finding quality healthcare can also take a mental toll on sex workers. “In most places, a lot of forms of work aren’t legal, and a lot of doctors don’t have training for patients who are in this industry,” Calida says. “It might be difficult to find a therapist, a counselor, or a medical professional who’s going to treat you seriously and respectfully.” For Renee Wilson (working name), that means keeping a close eye on her mental health after a challenging day at work. For instance, she employs regular verbal affirmations and reads self-help books, including Thriving in Sex Work by Lola Davina. “There is a lot of unreciprocated emotional labor as a stripper on our end,” Wilson says. “Almost every night, we have to play therapist, mother, mistress, friend — so I make it a priority to have even just a couple minutes a day to clear my head and just exist.”
For queer sex workers, emotional labor is even more complex. Sam L. (working name), a transgender non-binary sex worker living in the rural Midwest, chooses to present as femme and cisgender at work for fear of losing clients. “It's really tough sometimes dealing with the dysphoria of having to wear really feminine stuff and step into the personality of a hyper-feminine cis woman to do my job,” they say. “But that's just what it is — an acting job.”
Boundaries Are Crucial
Safety can be one of the most fraught elements of sex worker self-care. “You basically start living two lives,” says Adria, who deleted her social media accounts after customers were finding her outside of the club where she’s employed.
Boundaries are also incredibly important. For example, Lola Jordan runs her business using several strict rules. One of those rules involves figuring out ways to protect yourself physically — she opts for pepper spray. She advises fellow sex workers to identify a check-in buddy who knows your location at all times. As a mother of three, she also chooses to never work at her own residence or client residences and only performs full-service work in hotels.
While safety is an issue across the industry, it can be even more complicated for sex workers of color, as well as queer and trans workers. Phoenix Calida is an Afro-Latina escort who identifies as queer. She’s an outspoken social justice activist and co-host of The Black Podcast, and she knows firsthand that client interactions can turn deadly — especially when race is a component. Several years ago, Calida experienced a brutal bout of harassment from a Twitter user who pelted Calida with threats and racial slurs, sending her images of murder victims and bloody weapons. Soon after, the Twitter user found out Calida’s location. “And then came the racist references,” she tells Allure. “Plantation rape jokes, landmarks in [my city] — ‘Can I find you here, can I kill you here?’”
Even more alarming is the physical harm that’s come following the controversial Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act and the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act, together known as SESTA/FOSTA. The acts were signed into law in 2018, essentially making websites liable for what users do on their platforms. After SESTA/FOSTA went into effect, websites like BackPage.com were seized under the guise of stopping online sex trafficking. But these digital resources were used as key safety checkpoints for many sex workers, who used them to screen clients and advertise their services safely and anonymously. According to Calida, losing those resources has pushed many new and lower-income sex workers into street work, which is exponentially more dangerous than other kinds of work. “Everyone I know who’s gone to street work has experienced violence,” Calida says. Especially vulnerable are low-income sex workers without the means to purchase ads on remaining websites like Eros.
Many Workers Love What They Do
While self-care for workers is a nuanced conversation, it’s one that needs to be had. For Calida, that begins with decriminalizing the industry. “That way, if you do tell a doctor [about sex work], they don’t necessarily have to carry any guilt that they’re helping you do something illegal,” she says. She also wants to give sex workers a new narrative. “People think, ‘Oh, they’re addicted to drugs, maybe living on the streets, had a horrible childhood, had an abusive pimp who got them into the industry,” she says. “Those cases absolutely do happen, but sex workers as a whole are an incredibly multifaceted, diverse group of people. And we get stuck with one narrative that hasn’t changed since Jack the Ripper’s victims were found.”
Lola Jordan agrees. “I feel so very comfortable doing what I do,” Jordan says, noting that, even if she goes back to a standard nine-to-five job, she doesn’t plan to quit sex work. “Since I’ve been a sex worker, my self-confidence has been a lot higher. I think that's because I am very independent. I rely on myself, I make my own hours and I make my own income.”
Ultimately, for many workers, the physical labor associated with the work is just part of the job. Like any job, it has its ups and downs, and it’s not for everyone — but for many folks, it’s a legitimate, autonomous choice. “It has 100 percent changed my life, and I’ll look back at this period of time proudly,” Renee Wilson* says. “Sex work is hard physically, mentally and emotionally — but I don’t care to gain or strive for anyone’s respect or sympathy for what I do. I’m happy and secure with who I am and the choices I’ve made.”
*Name has been changed.