Resources for Sex Workers: Self-care and Avoiding Burnout

Managing Stress; Balancing Energy: The Constant Draws Upon the Sex Worker 

Sex work, like any other intimate labor, or other professions that require an intense and personal connection with your work subjects, carries with it a higher rate of burnout than with some other jobs in the world.  When one works closely with others, in particular in ways that require both physical as well as emotional care, the caretaker can become depleted or “burned out” by the demands of the job.   When this happens, it does not necessarily mean the worker is not capable of the job, or that the work is somehow toxic or harmful because of the challenges involved.  What it does mean is that the worker is having a hard time finding balance, and perhaps boundaries in their work, and that if they are to continue in a way that feels consistent and rewarding, more attention must be given to maintaining a careful balance in these personalized service fields.  Other professions that demand similar challenges are fields like nursing, elderly care or day care, teachers, therapists, social workers and even law enforcement. 


Another key factor to burnout in our industry is the constant low-level stress that sex workers often face. We always have to be on alert against possible violence or arrest (especially if we are working in direct service fields, or independently), as well as also possibly having to hide what we do for a living from loved ones and family.  Again, this additional stress does not mean the work is inherently bad, as not all workers experience these conditions in the same way, nor do all workers have identical factors at play (i.e.: some workers may be open with friends and family, also known as being "out" to them).  These particular stresses mean that the work has specific challenges and considerations that need to be addressed for those working as sex workers.  This can be considered no different than what an undercover police officer, fire fighter, emergency room worker or other workers in high risk or high stress professions may go through.  While those within the same profession may not react the same to the challenges of their job due to environmental and other factors, it makes sense that the higher the stress one experiences, the more likely a person is to deal with burnout, including subsequent issues like health problems, addiction or personal relationship problems at homeYou can see a list of the effects of stress at the National Institute of Stress website, as well as other information about workplace stress.    Sex work is certainly not the only industry to have these possible hurdles arise due to stress, and care should always be given to look beyond the stigma that sex work is “damaging” to those working in the field.  The root causes of stress and burnout are shared by other, more socially acceptable professions, and are not at all unique to sex work.


Support Systems

For a long time, sex workers have worked in relative isolation, with limited places to turn to for advice or support when they started to feel taxed or drained by their work.  When I started working almost 20 years ago, there were very few books about sex work beyond titillating memoirs, and no real resources to explain how to work in the industry.  While I was lucky enough to start in the protected environment of a brothel-type establishment, and my friendly demeanor allowed me good working relationships with my peers, the underlying rivalry created in directly vying for customers and money prevented workers from offering assistance in how to work smarter or better, let alone offer any guidance about dealing with self-esteem issues that perpetually ebbed and flowed for me. For anyone that has worked side by side with other workers where customers make the choice right in front of you about who they are going to spend their money with, you are probably familiar with what it feels like when you have to deal with direct competition, sometimes at cut-throat levels.  The internet has shifted some of that now, as currently there are message boards, blogs and other ways to network and educate ourselves, market our respective businesses, and also find support.

Support is still not something that is as accessible as it is to other professions though.  For instance, there is no section at Borders devoted to sex work business management and development, or self care in the sex industry. But it is getting better as other sex workers create resources to fill the void and provide manuals about exactly how to stay safer, work efficiently, and employ standard marketing techniques used by most other mainstream businesses.  Audacia Ray created The Red Umbrella Diaries as a way for sex workers to have an outlet to speak for themselves about their work experiences, but it goes beyond being  a mere resource for authentic and diverse stories of sex work by also providing an avenue for sex workers to connect and realize we are not alone in our experiences either.  The Desiree Alliance conferences provide an opportunity for networking, skill building, and empowerment that incorporates a variety of sex worker backgrounds and perspectives.   Also, my long time friend and colleague Crysta Heart and I founded the OPC (Original Pussy Cartel): an escort and erotic service provider education and empowerment group that is run completely by its members. (Note: we do not have any public websites for discretionary reasons, but you can contact o.p.cartel[at]gmail[dot]com for more information.  Be sure to include your work experience information with your inquiry.). 


While the mentioned peer outlets provide frank, straightforward information about the industry, the criminalized status of some areas of sex work still makes it difficult to give advice without fear of legal repercussions for all involved.  Even beyond the short-sighted competitive nature of some sex workers, there will always be limits to information sharing as long as our work is stigmatized and/or criminalized.  We must guard what we share, and with whom, in order to protect ourselves.  This makes it difficult for someone that is completely new to find a mentor that will be totally candid with them about the ins and outs of our work.


Support systems are key to helping find balance in our profession, but make sure they are truly *supportive*.  Family and friends can be either great forms of strength, or something we cling to, hoping that some day they will magically shift into the unconditional love and support we fantasize about.  If your family and friends judge you, judge the work, or are in general just not very positive and supportive, consider limiting how much you share with them and how much you rely on them for support.  It doesn’t mean you have to stop loving them…just be realistic about what their capabilities are, and understand that sometimes it takes time for people that care about you to understand why you might be making the choices you sometimes do.  They also may have their own underlying hang-ups that come in to play also when discussing sex, or working in the commercial sex industry.  Keep in mind that sometimes telling a loved one can actually be a burden to them, and create undue stress in their lives due to excessive worry, or if they have a job that is in conflict (like a government or law enforcement job) or could otherwise be effected by your activities.  It may not always be the right choice to come out to those people, and other sources of support must sometimes be sought.


Network with your peers, develop work friendships, but by mindful of boundaries.  Sex workers have a tendency to fall quickly and deeply into friendships with other sex workers due to our shared experiences and need for understanding and acceptance of our work.  We can share our most difficult moments with other sex workers, as even if they have not had the exact same thing come up yet, they are almost always an empathetic and non-judgmental place to vent.  Cultivating friendships among colleagues is great, just be mindful that if you are craving emotional support, you are sometimes not as discerning about sharing too much, too soon.  Jealousy and competitiveness can turn workers on each other quickly, and someone that you confided in with personal details and secrets may be in a position to potentially use those things against you later.   Developing solid friendships takes time.  Make sure you really get to know each other and assess how someone handles different situations or other relationships before you start giving them any of your more intimate details or secrets.  Consider how grounded or stable a potential confidante seems, and take the time to measure how consistent they are in how they conduct themselves.  Start with public meetings for coffee or drinks, then work up to things like inviting them in to your home or introducing them to significant others or family (if that is what you choose to do). 


If someone pushes to get too involved in your life too quick, don’t be afraid to assert your boundaries and tell them you are mindful about how you develop new relationships, and prefer to take things slow.  A fellow sex worker can be the best friend you ever have, or they could be the most hurtful friendship gone wrong.  Keep in mind that not all friendships are meant to deepen and become fully entrenched either, and some friendships are better left at work, not invited fully in to your life.  Keeping boundaries on work friendships will NOT detract from meaningful and rich connections with those colleagues. 

Also remember that it is ok for each of our work experiences to be different, even if we are working side by side, or offer similar services.  You may be in sex work because you enjoy the lifestyle and adventure, and do it by choice, but someone else working at your club or agency might be there out of circumstance, and may not process things the same way.  And just because one thing works for one person a certain way does not mean the same method will (or won’t) work for you.  When a work colleague or friend extends advice, be sure to listen to your own instincts and inner voice beyond all else in every choice you make.  Not the voice that says, “I need to make my rent, so maybe this will help” either, but the one that says “Yeah, glad that worked for you, friend, but not sure that is how I want to do my business…”  Always honor your own sense of self, and your own individual needs and values above what others may try to dictate for you.  When you find someone that is willing to show you the ropes or offer advice, they sometimes can be a little too helpful, and may try to get too involved in telling you how they think you should be doing things.  Sometimes this is from a nurturing and protective instinct. Sometimes it is out of a need to control others.  Sometimes it is because they think they are an expert, and they probably are in their own life, but that doesn’t make them an expert of yours.  Or sometimes because they have a personal agenda you may not see.


And while friendships are, in my opinion, an essential part of avoiding burn out, they are not the only tool to have in the tool box.  Be sure to cultivate other strategies to use while you are taking the time to make new friends, or if you are on a time out with one of your main sources of support. Mini-vacations, self-pampering, mediation and exercise are all other ways to stay in touch with yourself, and replenish your spirit.  Also, remember that there are some things that we can only do for ourselves, so support and nurturing is not always going to be from an outside source, which can sometimes be inconsistent or outside of our control.  We have the power to create rituals and healing for ourselves too, without anyone even helping us.


Self examination, ritual and self care

If you work in sex work for any length of time, expect to have things come up that require periods of self reflection. How can we not examine ourselves when every aspect of what we do, from our bodies, skills and service, to our morals and values, is under a microscope?  When we work in such intimate ways with others, where our boundaries are challenged and butted up against every day, this provides an amazing opportunity for personal growth if one chooses to recognize and cultivate these opportunities.   But be warned: ill prepared, short-term thinking can leave a person vulnerable to deep-seated issues sneaking up them, and possibly becoming overwhelming.  One of the first places we will have to take a look at ourselves, and be honest about what we see, is when we experience burned out.  This can be hard, because it is not easy to admit we are not made of steel, and that we have frailties like anyone else.  Often times we are defending our profession to others, so it becomes a habit to put on a brave face, say everything is fine, and ignore the fact that no one, and no job, is perfect.  Hopefully when some of you read this and understand some of the outside factors that contribute to burn out, it will help you see that it’s ok to feel this way, and there are ways to work through it.  Expect to have past issues you hadn’t thought about in awhile get dredged up also, but new ones may crop up too. 


Personal relationships can become strained, and there may be times that these contemplations make it difficult to engage with your partner.  Burn out and its surrounding issues may affect your work, and your ability to engage with your customers the way you are used to.  You may need to take time off in order to allow the space for processing without having the work confuse things further or distract you from your feelings.  There may even be things that arise that shift your ability to work as a sex worker from that point forward (and that’s ok!).  People come and go out of sex work for a variety of reasons, and if the work is affecting you in ways that you are not able to cope with, do what you can to get out and stay out.  It does not mean you are weak or incapable of the job…it means that it’s not the job for you, or at least, not the job for you right now in your life.  That being said, I realize that not all have that luxury of choice, and that options may be limited or virtually non-existent, for alternate employment.  For you, please see my blog piece on Finding Empowerment in the Circumstance, and continue to do all you can to find support and take care of yourself until other options come your way. 

Talk therapy might be helpful for some navigating particularly deep-seated issues, but be sure your therapist is sex worker “friendly” (not just tolerant), preferably having a history of providing therapy for other sex workers, so they have some frame of reference to the lifestyle.  This is again where asking for professional references from peers can come in handy, but also understand that finding the right therapist is as much about chemistry as anything else.  Don’t be afraid to say someone isn’t the right fit for you, and look for another until you find the right one.  You will know it when you find them, and without the right therapist, you will find it harder to move forward, grow and heal as needed.

Informal support groups can also be found among peers as well.  Some sex workers will create worker-only events, outside of the work place and away from clients, to gather and share information or simply enjoy other activities that don’t involve sex work.  This is a great opportunity to talk candidly about work, but also to find emotional support from others that may share some of the same issues or challenges you have come up.  This can be anything from child custody or divorce woes, to legal problems, or how you handle work with family or significant others.  While these outlets are not a substitute for seeking out professional help, they can be a band-aid until you find the right therapist.  If you are really in a difficult place, contact advocacy groups for sex workers that might be able to help you find the outlet of someone to talk to.  The Sex Workers Project continues to expand a listing of resources for workers across the U.S., as does SWOP.


Be aware that if one has a habit of self-medicating through drugs or alcohol, sex work provides many possible triggers to escalate that behavior.  If what was once “recreation” becomes the focus of your existence, all your other goals may become overshadowed.  Excessive drug or alcohol use can also leave you vulnerable to being taken advantage of (i.e.: boundaries pushed, activities you normally wouldn’t do, money shorted or stolen) or sloppy and perhaps not as desirable to some clients.  And if you “need” drugs or alcohol in order to work, you should consider what that means to you or about you, that you can’t do the work being fully present.  If you have to numb out in order to do the job, you could find yourself quickly on a merry-go-round of using to work, and working to use.  Let’s face it; sex work can be a bit of a rock-n-roll lifestyle sometimes, and the fast pace can sweep you away before you know it.  Being mindful of where you want your boundaries to be upfront will help you later if you get caught up in the party lifestyle.  


Non-traditional therapy, as well as other self care rituals, can also be effective in helping you move your energy, and reground yourself.  Tantric or reiki healing sessions can help shift energy and get it flowing again in a positive direction.  Body work like massage or yoga has benefits both physically and mentally.  Finding a church that you feel comfortable with, or developing a meditation practice can help center you spiritually.  Journaling or writing on a blog can help purge pent up emotions and help you move forward (be mindful of how many personal details you want to share through a blog that is shared publicly).  Even just going to the gym will help work off some of the stress we carry around.  Copy and hang this poster by Annie Sprinkle and Norma Jean Almadovar to remind you of ways to handle burnout.


Even when things are good, you still need to consider what steps you need to take to keep them that way.  Implement regular breaks, pampering/spa sessions, vacations, walks in the park, or anything that will help remind you of a world outside of sex work.  Cultivate a hobby or find a volunteer position to develop perspective and remind yourself that you are more than what you do for a living.  Have a plan before you spiral into a funk for possible strategies to pull yourself out of it.  I cannot stress this enough!  Think about what has worked for you in the past, and make a list of these, as well as new ideas, to pull out in a time of crisis.  I guarantee you will not be of the mindset to problem solve when you can’t figure out how to get off the couch or out of bed, so having this list made up in advance will help you move forward, when you are ready.  And just FYI-it’s really ok to just lay in bed for a weekend sometimes also…just don’t let it turn in to a week, or longer…  The longer you stay immobile, the harder it is to pull yourself out of it.


Remember that ours is not the only profession out there with challenges to navigate.  No matter what type of sex work, no matter what gender, and no matter what circumstance or choice brought us to the field, we are on the front lines of the most intimate and complex areas of the human condition.  We provide services that not everyone is capable of, and use skills beyond just our bodies to do our jobs well.  Some people are not cut out for the work, for sure, but just because one is going through a rough patch does not mean one has to quit their job tomorrow or risk being permanently damaged either.  Save for a rainy day so you can take breaks as needed, or better yet, plan for a hiatus whether you need it or not.  Work regular “down time” into your schedule. Have a vacation fund stashed away, and use that time to do the things on your bucket list.  The list can include modest stay-cation ideas, as well as ideas for more exotic locales.  The more pro-active you are in your self-care, the less burn out you will run up against.


Self care and Business Administration: Reduce Stress by Setting Yourself Up for Success

Most tips and advice on burn out are centered on the emotional demands of our job, but what about just the day to day hassles that also contribute to low energy, lack of patience, and difficulty working?  If you are working for yourself, keeping your motivation going is a struggle all independent business owners and independent contractors have.  Besides your immediate day to day operations, you always have to be thinking about the big picture and how to keep jobs coming in.  Keeping your energies balanced and your morale high helps you focus your attention where needed in both short and long term ways.


An essential part of navigating the challenges of sex work starts with setting up your business to work with your own personal flow and style.  Trying to be something you are not for the sake of making money is the fastest way to burn yourself out, as well as possibly a way to create a negative self image.  No one really wants to feel like they are selling their soul to make a buck, be it in the sex industry or anywhere else.  For some office workers, getting coffee for their boss everyday might make them feel like they are not fully valued or appreciated, and could compound other issues that arise down the road.  Some people have issues with any “service” type job, be it sex work, working as a waiter or waitress, or as a housekeeper.  Make sure that you really think about where your boundaries are, what types of activities you do and don’t enjoy, then set up your business and services offered using as much of what you enjoy as possible.  Think about what type of clients you want to attract, what your financial goals are, and how many hours a week you want to work, and then structure your business to fit within these confines.   Write these things down, and keep them someplace safe where you can periodically take them out and look at them to keep yourself on track and focused on your goals and clear on where your lines are drawn.


Staying focused is the number one key to being successful at anything, and having something concrete to refer back to helps keep the original plan from getting muddied.  If you are in sex work for short term goals like paying off debt, buying a new car or house, or starting another business, make sure you have a schedule of weekly and monthly goals for income to keep you on task.  Outlining all of these things will give you a frame of reference that will allow you to fine tune your plan later.


Since sex work will no doubt expose you to an endless line of options for different ways to make money, always think critically about each additional avenue you might pursue, or change you make in the services you offer.  Making the move from exotic dancer to fetish model or porn actor carries with it choices that cannot be taken back, namely - having your image published for the world to see.  You cannot un-ring that bell, and must be prepared for your family, friends, and significant other to know what you do (if they don’t already).  If you have children, or hope to have children, you have to think about when/how you will tell them, and the possibility that they may find out through other sources first, and how that will affect them.  Someone looking to expand into working as a professional Dominatrix needs to make sure they take the time needed to learn important safety guidelines and be properly trained by a mentor before seeing clients for anything beyond light role play scenes.  Weigh your own preferences and comfort levels, your long term goals in those decisions, and talk to others that are experienced in the areas you are looking to move it to with any questions or concerns you might have.  If you are not thinking about long-term effects, these decisions can create stress and influence your emotional well being, contributing to burn out.


So maybe you know what type of work you want to do, but what about the administrative tasks required of any business?  Yes, there is more to sex work then just showing up at work and getting paid.  You work for yourself now (even if you are working for a club, agency, studio, etc.) and there are certain tasks you will have to do outside of the actual “job” to maintain your business and stay focused on your goals.  If you have your head in the sand and do not address these things, eventually you will wonder why you are still doing the work a year after you originally planned, taking calls with clients you don’t really like, and maybe working more then you want, leaving less time to focus on school or spending time with your kids.  All of this will burn you out and make the work turn on you, so make sure you consider budgeting time for admin duties, or pay professionals to help you (booking agents, accountants, etc.) if you don’t have time to handle certain duties yourself.  Many sex workers already have a high amount of prep and maintenance time they spend every week to keep in shape and ready for work, and we cannot do it all.  One only needs to read the E-Myth Revisited to understand how one person can never be the entrepreneur, the manager, AND the labor for any business, all on one’s own…sex work included!  Yes, it can be tricky finding “sex work friendly” accountants and such, so ask your colleagues who they use to find resources that are already broken in and won’t be shocked about how you make money.  Also consider all the tech and software options out there available to help organize your finances and schedule.  The less time you spend on admin duties, the more time you will have for taking care of yourself, and enjoying all the things you enjoy outside of sex work that keep you from getting lost in it.  If you allow all the tasks involved to take over your life, it becomes hard to see yourself as anything BUT the sex worker self, and we are all much more than that.


In closing, remember that life is malleable and ever changing.  We have the ability to exert influence over what direction most of it goes, even when influences are beyond our control, and the greatest success in life is found when we plan ahead and visualize the outcome we want.  There will always be bumps in the road, but anticipating potential problems and listing possible courses of action will help you cope better, or even avoid some of the pitfalls.  Sex work is a complex and challenging industry, but with the right tools, you can find success and make it what you need it to be for yourself.   Understanding the possible challenges upfront, building a good support system, creating pro-active strategies for avoiding stress, and having a plan for how to take care of yourself when you don’t feel like you have anything left to give will help you stay on track, realize your goals, and make your experiences in sex work positive ones.

Written by Megan Morgenson
Contributing editor, Lucidity Lambert


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