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 nasty moral tale on you. We’re all used to watching TV and going to the movies and seeing sex workers mistreated (or, worse, reformed). That’s all garbage. I promise that this story has a happy ending – no pun intended! In all seriousness: sex work saved my life.
Ten years ago I was in my late 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 earned a couple of degrees at university. 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 recall a creeping sense of wrongness. My job was respectable and well paid but I hated it – I’d eat my lunch at my computer because I was too busy to take a break. In winter it would be dark when I went to work, and dark by the time I left.
One day, my partner ended our relationship…and overnight those feelings of wrongness blossomed into full-blown depression. I grieved the relationship, that was part of it. But the real problem was that my life lacked joy. I had nothing else to hold on to.
Sudden-onset depression is the mental equivalent of getting knocked down in the first round of a boxing match: total shock. I’d always been strong but I had no idea how to cope with this situation.
When it comes to mental health, people often say “It’s all in your head.” In fact, depression takes over 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, pretending I didn’t have to face the world.
I did all the right things. I spoke with my doctor. I had counselling. I got a prescription for meds, but didn’t take them – I was too worried about messing with my brain up even worse.
I searched for anything that could help me feel better. 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 considered moving interstate for a change of scenery (the living 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 an industrial area. Inside, the walls were papered in brocade print. The little cubicles where the clients waited to meet the ladies were curtained off in red velvet. I’d pop in and out of each one, saying: “Have you met anyone you like? Can I get you a drink?”
The woman who ran the place was a bitch. I envied the working girls, sipping their drinks peacefully out the back and fussing with makeup while I ran up and down the hallway. The guys were polite and decent-looking, often in a Sean-Connery-older-man sort of way. But the pay was low and management was bad, so after my first shift I never went back.
What next? I packed my little Hyundai hatchback and drove to Melbourne.
Melbourne is a wonderful city; I’ve loved it since my teens. The rent is cheaper in Melbourne, the people are friendlier, and it’s more fun – unless of course, you can’t find a job and are living in a Fitzroy hostel dorm! I must have sent out thirty job applications, between walks in the park and daily five-dollar pizzas at Bimbos.
After two weeks, still 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, I happened to run into Helena – a blonde-punk extravaganza whom some of you may already have met. I’d known her for a long time but we hadn’t spoken in years.
Over dinner I explained my situation. Her suggestion: “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. 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 the now-defunct Scarlet Lady in Clifton Hill. 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 – one is expected to work hard and fit in. One does NOT become a sex worker. I worried that by trying this I was crossing a line, one that couldn’t be backtracked. But I also knew that ‘normal’ wasn’t helping. Sometimes having the courage to change is also a survival skill!
I was terrified when I met my first ever client, but he turned out to be a gentle, man with a disability who worked for Social Services. I met so many wise women 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: to help people feel good about themselves, to counsel, to teach.
I wasn’t just making good money – I was also serving a vital function. Our 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 feel sexy and experience good sex. Without this, we often become sad and lonely. Sex work allows people to get their needs met in a way that’s fair and respectful.
The road out of depression was a long one, an uphill battle. But it started right there, in a room full of women sharing pots of tea and talking about life…and in a tiny bedroom with gilt wallpaper where men shared their deepest desires.
I was healed too, finding a place where I could make myself and others happy. Sex work did save me, and I’m grateful.