Harlotry: How Sex Work Is Physically Changing My Body For The Worse

The Physical Effects Of Sex Work.

The Absinthe Drinker, Viktor Oliva (1901)

Cate is something of a renaissance sex worker and has held numerous interesting jobs in the adult industry. Each week, she shares her stories in Harlotry.

I’ve written at length about how much I love my work. And for the most part I do, but it hasn’t been entirely without physical consequences. I don’t mean that my work has injured me–although two years of stripping didn’t exactly do good things for the already not-great state of my knees and back. What I mean by “consequences” is that I now respond differently, even rather negatively, to certain physical stimuli.

Since people seem to assume the worst when it comes to ladies of my profession, I should probably preface all of this by saying that while I have been raped, it was long after I became a sex worker and I was not raped by a client. While not mutually enjoyable, my overall sexual experiences with clients have certainly not violated the trust set in place, nor would qualify as anything I would consider assault. In my experience and the experiences of my friends, this is pretty normal. Clients seem to be, if anything, less likely to be dangerous than other, non-paying men. However, despite my overwhelmingly positive experiences with clients, I’ve recently noticed that my responses to certain sexual activities–both in and out of work–have changed. And sadly, they have changed for the worse.

The first thing I noticed was my response to oral sex. Now, I’ve honestly never been a huge fan of being gone down on in general. I’m very particular about exactly how I like to be touched, and most people, women or men, just don’t really manage to achieve that, no matter how explicit my directions are. Extremely well-performed oral can make me speak in tongues and call upon the names of forgotten gods, but in the long list of people I’ve slept with for either business or pleasure, there have been exactly three who managed to achieve that, two of whom were women. Usually I’m just lying there bored and wondering if I need to fake it or if I should just try to steer the activities in another direction. These days, though, my response is more likely to be actual revulsion than simple boredom.

There are certain techniques now that can and do almost make me wretch. I’m frequently in the awkward position of trying to suppress nausea while a client tries to be a good guy and get me off. It’s not necessarily a lack of skill–many of the clients that I find so off-putting are at least passably decent at going down on a lady, as a matter of fact. It’s certainly not revulsion at their physicality, either. The looks (or lack thereof) of a client don’t really have anything to do with how much or how little revulsion I feel at their ministrations. I’m never sure what to do in these situations, obviously it’s bad form to let my disgust be known, but at the same time, I wonder how much damage I’m doing to myself by letting things continue and ignoring the visceral physical response I feel.

The only thing that may gross me out more than certain oral techniques is having my nipples played with, or worse, sucked. I’ve nearly thrown up on clients’ heads when they decide to go for my nipples, and usually manage to choke out a squirm and giggle so I can simply pretend my nipples are ticklish and make them stop. This is probably the thing I find most distressing, primarily because of how it used to make me feel.

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    • Kaitlin Reilly

      Once again, really interesting post!

    • http://www.tinyroomproductionsonline.com onlyelise

      Out of curiosity, have you ever gone back and read all your articles chronologically? I’d be interested to know your take on them when they’re read all together.

      • http://toyboxkiller.tumblr.com/ Cathryn Berarobitch

        Oh man, I never have, but I feel like I should. It will have been two years in June, and I know my feelings about my work have changed a lot since then.

      • http://www.tinyroomproductionsonline.com onlyelise

        I’ve been reading your articles since you started, and I’ve seen a lot of changes in how you feel about different things. Might be interesting for you to do!

      • http://toyboxkiller.tumblr.com/ Cathryn Berarobitch

        I am definitely going to be doing this.

    • Martha Lampley

      Awesome post, thank you

      • http://toyboxkiller.tumblr.com/ Cathryn Berarobitch

        Thank YOU!

    • Charmless

      I’ve never thought about how difficult it must be for a sex worker to complain about his or her job. A natural response to listening to someone complain about work is “well, why don’t you quit?” It’s perfectly normal to ask a waitress or a plumber or a middle-manager who was just dressed down by the VP of finance for the 18th time, but for a sex worker, asking that question in response can have an implied “because your job is gross and you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place, no wonder you hate it!” attached to it.

      • http://toyboxkiller.tumblr.com/ Cathryn Berarobitch

        Oh seriously. It’s impossible to complain about work to most civilians. It’s ridiculous how black and white things are thought to be when it comes to sex work. Either it is always the best forever, or it is the absolute pits and you are a miserable human. There seems to be no in-between, as far as most people believe. This is ridiculous of course, but I experience it every day. I’ve ended relationships over it, because it is EXHAUSTING to try to vent to a partner only to hear “well then why don’t you quit?”

      • Alfreda Wells Morrissey

        “well, why don’t you quit?”

        I agree that this is a terrible
        response to people who complain about their job. It is not like finding a
        new job is an easy thing these days. My Uncle was working in sawmill
        that was making him sick, since he was allergic to the type of wood they
        were cutting. Since most sawmills were laying people off and shutting
        down. He is not a young guy and is not educated so his skill set is
        limited. It took him a long time to find another mill, so he could quit
        at the one that was making him sick. It is not like he can just quit,
        because there is rent to pay.

        Also, some people hate parts of
        their job but love other portions. There is no guarantee that a new job
        will not be worse than the existing job. In some ways the devil you know
        is better.

        I do think that the issue you are having is something to pay attention to. I agree with onlyelise that the tone of your articles
        has changed a lot over the years. I started reading recently, so I read them all in a row. In the last few articles, there is definitely a
        change in tone. I don’t know if it is because you have just started feeling comfortable expressing the negative aspects, or because sex work is taking a toll on you.

        I love that you are so honest about your
        experiences. Reading your articles has changed the way I think about sex
        work. I have never been exposed to the industry, and although I think I
        am a pretty open minded person, had only ever heard the poor trafficked
        sex worker side. It is very interesting to see that side. I don’t think
        expressing some negative effects will not detract from the sex workers’
        right movement agenda. In fact it makes you more believable. Plus it is very important to keep the discussion open and honest. I think even if you chose to leave sex work, you could still be a poster girl for the sex worker rights movement.

        have always believed that prohibition doesn’t work. In fact, I think it
        endangers more women than it saves. Also, it hides the women that may
        actually be trafficked because everything is underground. Some
        trafficked women may not ask for help because they are scared to be
        arrested and nobody will talk to the police because they are the bad

      • http://toyboxkiller.tumblr.com/ Cathryn Berarobitch

        Oh, definitely the somewhat more negative tone of recent articles is more due to the fact that I’m coming out of a pretty intense winter depression and also that I’m trying to present the negatives a bit more than I did before, since as I said in the article these things are not talked about very much by otherwise happy hookers like me.

        It’s so good to hear someone say that just quitting really isn’t an option. Not only is it difficult to just up and find a new job, especially with a massive gap like this in my résumé, but sex work is a job that suits my needs for a flexible schedule and ability to take proper care of myself and my craziness.

      • Alfreda Wells Morrissey

        I find most people in life, especially men, want to fix things when they hear problems, so they oversimplify the problem, then give a ridiculously oversimplified solution.

        Sometimes it works if you tell them, just stop trying to fix it, I need to just vent.

        Other times you can try a sarcastic comeback, “Does that mean you are offering to pay my rent? No, oh do you have a great job lined up for me with a flexible schedule? Oh, I guess it’s not that easy then is it.”

        I have a person I talk to, about once a week on the phone who is called a listening partner. It is kind of like therapy but it is free. The deal is you each talk 1/2 the time allocated, the other person listens, empathizes and does not try to fix things. I got involved off a parenting website, but maybe you can find somebody who would agree to do this with you.

      • Tina

        Totally agree with your comment and think you should completely have the right to complain about your job just like anyone else in any other profession! However, I’ve been wondering why you use the word “civilian” so often when referring to those not in sex work?

      • http://toyboxkiller.tumblr.com/ Cathryn Berarobitch

        Oh! This is a sex worker thing. For whatever reason it’s pretty common in the ho community to refer to non-sex workers as civilians or, somewhat less commonly, muggles, like we are a magical sex army or something (I sometimes feel like we are on days when I’m feeling the stigma especially hard)

        I probably should have explained this years ago, but like I mentioned to Sam last week, I’ve been doing this so long that our terms are just part of my way of speaking and thinking that I forget other people don’t necessarily know what I mean.

      • Tina

        No worries, that makes a bit more sense. Now I get it’s more of a colloquial use of the word to mean like an outsider of the industry. I was just confused at first as to your connotation behind it when I started reading your articles as my mind grouped your job in the same “civilian” category as my office one, compared to public servants. I think it comes from spending too much time with my boyfriend and his friends, they’re all in the military and they like to be really clear on who is and isn’t a civilian lol.

      • http://toyboxkiller.tumblr.com/ Cathryn Berarobitch

        Ah yes, I’ve been there, though hopefully your boyfriend is way nicer than my military boyfriend.

      • Tina

        Oh yeah, fortunately it’s the healthiest relationship I’ve ever been in. Sending those vibes your way:)

      • http://toyboxkiller.tumblr.com/ Cathryn Berarobitch

        Fortunately he’s long out of my life now and I’m embracing the forever alone life, but boy, that was bad, and I’ve met many women with similar experiences.

      • Tina

        I have too and it’s so sad that these sorts of experiences are so common:( I’m so sorry to hear you had to go through that. Sometimes I don’t think enough responsibility is put on men for their actions and way of relating to women.

    • YarghMatey

      I find that if I’m engaging in sex that I’m not really that into, things that normally drive me wild end up causing revulsion. Nipple play is one of them. If my head is not in the game, I will turn squeamish.

      Now, I’m not equating the issues of placating a (now former) spouse you’re no longer into with the issues you’re coming across having sex with clients you’re not attracted to. But maybe you have a higher threshold, and it’s become a cumulative effect? The only thing I can think of to do is try avoiding the triggering activities as much as possible, to see if you can disassociate the activity from the ick factor.

      I like your last point, though, that even sex worker activists should be able to vent about the things they don’t like. It seems silly to silence that, because sharing these things could lead to people figuring out ways to make them better, which would lead to more happy hookers, maybe?

      • http://toyboxkiller.tumblr.com/ Cathryn Berarobitch

        That’s my main tactic.
        My other main tactic is continuing to (probably stupidly) sleep with the dude I mentioned last week. He is the one dude who can, for instance, suck my nipples without making me wretch. I’m not totally sure why, we have great chemistry but in the past year or so that hasn’t seemed to matter much. The fact that I have one place where I can totally enjoy myself is HUGELY important for me.

    • BDC0213

      YarghMatey started going there perhaps, but I do see an analogy between your fatigue and the feelings experienced by women in long-term relationships with men they’re over. The revulsion and extreme annoyance ring true with friends I have in the long-term crowd. Sometimes, even I feel like screaming: I know what I’m doing here! How about you sit back and enjoy the ride; keep your hands in the car (ok, to yourself, you know what I mean) at all times. I have other friends who are more in the downright disgusted category. So to the extent these two situations share similarity, here’s what I think is going on.

      We’re all regarding sex as an obligation, more or less. We want to get our jobs done well and with the least resistance. If we stay focused on his arousal, things follow a nice predictable path to completion. If they insist on getting us off, the whole thing takes longer and ultimately requires more work on our part (faking it, tolerating it and trying to find a way to like it, tolerating it and getting pissed, liking it and needing more time, redirecting without bonerkilling…all the while the guy can be losing arousal, which means more work in getting him rarin’ to go again and done.
      I think we’ve previously discussed how your clients like to view themselves as some sort of exception in being capable of arousing you. I think that’s getting to you. Just like a pliant husband, maybe you want that guy to shut up and enjoy the ride–you’re the expert, after all.
      I’d like to say it’s nice of them to involve us, to ensure we’re satisfied, but that might have more to do with their egos than putting smiles on our faces.
      And I do enjoy great sex––it’s just not a given for everyone at every phase of your life.

      • http://toyboxkiller.tumblr.com/ Cathryn Berarobitch

        Everything about this is accurate. EVERYTHING, down to equating my work with obligatory relationship sex. I’ve been there, and I basically know the relationship is over when the sex starts to feel like work, because man, the feels in either situation are exactly the same.

        And yes, I really enjoy sex, I’m just very, very particular.

      • BDC0213

        Glad I wasn’t off base, maybe because I think sex is a transaction no matter who’s involved. It can sure feel like work to me, but I like and value what I get in return and don’t begrudge it openly, so it seems like the arrangement (a marriage in this case) is working. Of course, it’s more complicated, but I’m cynical (or a realist) and if I suddenly quit putting out, there would be issues in my happy little home.

        The two activities you mentioned as being the most bothersome also involve the most nerve endings (I think) and offer no direct physical stimulation of your partner. So, you’re having an assault on your nervous system AND not getting your work done. And/or, maybe it’s that you feel like you have to up the ante on the enjoyment act which is that much more annoying because it’s not one bit enjoyable. Plus, you know he might be patting himself on the back for his sensitivity and skill in “seeing to your needs” while entertaining the fantasy that it’s mutually pleasurable and something so great you just might do without being compensated.

        Anyway, I don’t think this means you should quit your job any more than I tell my GFs to dump their husbands of 15 years (intertwined families, kids, houses, etc). Maybe, like you said, finding space to have the sex you want would make this all the more trivial. Or you might lose your composure with a client at some point releasing some steam.

      • http://toyboxkiller.tumblr.com/ Cathryn Berarobitch

        Jesus Christ, can I hug you through the Internet? Do you understand how insanely rare it is for civilians to understand that all sex, like most human social activities, is a transaction? You are blowing my mind right now and it’s the most awesome thing.

      • BDC0213

        Yay! It’s nice to make a connection with like-minds. Rest assured, it’s not always that easy for me, or maybe anyone, I suppose. So far, life has me offered a set of experiences and influences that run the gamut…so maybe that’s it. But, I’m glad to make you see that someone “gets it.”

    • Anon

      It’s 2014 – why can’t a sex worker – or an ordinary Jane – say “I don’t like that, please stop”? Or even “Up a bit”? This sounds like 30 years ago!

      • http://toyboxkiller.tumblr.com/ Cathryn Berarobitch

        When I’m having recreational sex I’m a regular miss bossy pants. It’s not that I feel shy telling men what I do and do not like, it’s that clients usually don’t want to hear it. A lot of clients pay for sex not only for their own gratification, but in order to feel like sexual dynamos. They don’t want direction, or to hear that I simply don’t like an activity.
        Plus, it seems like in recent years men as a whole have banded together and decided their dicks are so garbage that the only way to get a woman off is through oral, meaning they get all offended if you refuse, since they believe you are refusing THE GREATEST PLEASURE OF ALL TIME. Realistically most of their dicks really are garbage, and will continue to be garbage until circumcision is abolished and more women feel comfortable saying “bro. That isn’t working,” without fear of damaging men’s fragile egos, but let’s be real, most guys’ head games aren’t exactly airtight either.

    • notaguest

      I actually have an idea of what could be going on, which is odd because I’ve had one partner for many years. I had a great sex life but a few years ago developed vulvodynia with the diagnosis of vulvar vestibulitis, which developed into vaginismus when my body began to expect pain with penetration. It’s basically a shit-show and not well researched, but here’s what think might apply to you. I used to be very sexually responsive and into it, but then the pain started and I spent too long trying to have sex through it, basically to be a trooper. I stopped enjoying oral but my man still wanted to go down on me so I let him basically with indifference (it was just penetration that hurt). My sex drive went way down as a result of the pain, but I tried to continue sexual stuff without penetration. I found myself going through the motions when I wasn’t super turned on. I used to love giving head, but when I was just doing it to be nice I got caught up in the mechanics of it and it kind of repulsed me. I ended up having negative reactions to basically everything that suggested foreplay because of dread of what was coming. I know your experiences aren’t explicitly negative or this extreme, but I think sexual activity with indifference or detachment can lead to this revulsion. There’s something about the strictly physical without the mental arousal behind.

    • MissJoy

      Thank you for writing this article. Actually thank you for writing ALL of your articles! You have really shed a light on such a taboo topic. Great job on showing a more intimate view- yours <3