Cathryn Berarovich is something of a renaissance sex worker; she’s currently employed as a stripper (and writer) but has held numerous interesting jobs in the industry. Each week, she shares her stories in Harlotry.

Sex work is, at its root, an incredibly elaborate game of pretend. Talking a man into an appointment or a lap dance or anything, really, requires me, the sex worker, to find a lot of different ways to say things like, “Let’s pretend I’m not completely out of your league” or, “Let’s pretend I’m not working right now” or, “Let’s pretend I’m actually interested in how distressed you are by the state of your life.” All your life you’re told that people will like you just as long as you keep being yourself, but while that isn’t really true all the time, it especially isn’t true in sex work.

In order to be a successful sex worker, most girls have to put on a pretty extreme persona. There are, I’m sure, those few, those proud, those totally not awkward ladies who actually do find the lives of office workers interesting and who are good at forgetting they are working, even while they are working. I’ve never met one of these magical unicorns but I’m sure they’re either amazing at their jobs or terrible at them.

Most sex workers are not magical unicorn ladies. I am not a magical unicorn lady. I am, as I’ve said before, painfully awkward in person, and very, very low on patience with human failings such as boringness, or worse, simple douchbaggery. If it weren’t for the fact that I’m very good at masking my contempt and pretending to be full of social graces, I would be a complete failure as a sex worker. Fortunately I know how to hide all of these qualities and, if given a sufficient incentive I can be the sweetest, most amiable creature known to man. I accomplish this by essentially playing dumb and, to an extent, submissive and pliable.

“Oh my God,” I say, “I had no idea accounting/restaurant management/baggage handling/sugar sales/other boring job could be so fascinating! So what do you get up to in your free time? Oh, you hang out here and drink the cheap drinks and try to negotiate the dance prices? You don’t say!”

I am good at erasing my self. I make up stories about my tattoos for the people who invariably ask me what all my ink means as they grab my arm, I resist the urge to call potential customers out for being drunken idiots, I laugh at stupid jokes and laugh off horrible and sometimes racist comments. It doesn’t pay to have opinions, unless you share them with your customer. The object of the pretend game is to put on the face of the customer’s dream girl.

I am disturbingly good at this game. I often wonder why or how I manage to be so good at tailoring my personality to the specific fantasies of a person I’ve known for only five minutes or so. I worry constantly that I’ll fall into these patterns in my real life, that I’ll become one of those chameleon people who are entirely different depending on who they’re talking to. So far that doesn’t seem to be happening, but I am ridden with enough low-level social anxiety to make it a real concern.

What has happened is that I sometimes find myself falling into my sex work habits with the men I am involved with. On one level I care very little for what people think of me, but on some other level I am terrified of rejection, particularly rejection by men. I’m sure someone somewhere could find a way to attribute this to some sort of daddy issues, but I don’t think they’d be correct. It doesn’t seem as if I want boys to like me any more than the next primarily heterosexual woman does, I just have different ways of going about trying to make them like me and most of these ways are not so great for me or anyone else.

A lot of people assume I either regret sex work or regret getting into the industry so early. These people are wrong, I regret neither, but I do wish I had established healthier relationship patterns before I entered the sex industry.

Before I started doing sex work, my romantic experience was limited mostly to the too-old-for-me man-children I pursued in my teenage years. It’s been said time and time again that there is something wrong with men in their twenties who choose to date teenage girls, and while I wouldn’t go so far as to say something is wrong with them, I can definitely say the power imbalance between a sixteen year old girl and a twenty four year old man is probably not the healthiest thing. When you’re fifteen, it’s really, really easy to convince yourself that this older guy who’s into you absolutely must be cooler than you, and that you therefore must change yourself for him, if only to bring yourself up to his level. I am fairly certain that the relationships I carried on with older men during my teenage years had infinitely more to do with my struggle to maintain a genuine and authentic self than sex work alone.

The worst relationship of my life, my relationship with Stanley, was mainly bad because he was a controlling psychopath and it would have been bad regardless of what I did, but I can also say with perfect confidence that my pre-established habit of molding myself into a fantasy girl did not help matters.

He required an ever-higher standard of behavior and I had convinced myself that people are unlovable as their most authentic selves. It was very easy to see: most of my clients were married and had been married for years, sometimes even decades. Why did they cheat with sex workers? In part, because their wives had given up putting on a show.

As a sex worker, showmanship was at least seventy five per cent of what I did and my clients responded to it the way they probably wouldn’t have responded to me as me, the somewhat sardonic, shy girl who wore raccoon eyeliner and smoked too many cigarettes. The pattern of changing myself for my older, supposedly cooler boyfriends grew and became a monstrous thing I couldn’t control. Because I had convinced myself that showmanship and artifice were the ways to keep a man, I began to treat my relationship as a very, very long job. I laughed at stupid jokes, I agreed with everything he said as often as possible, I never blamed or accused, and I retreated into persona.

It took me a long time to figure out that I’d essentially been on a three-year, badly-paid call, and now that I’ve seen it I’m somewhat horrified. I don’t want to be the fantasy girl, it’s exhausting and I’m pretty sure it kills as many brain cells as say, huffing paint. I like my brain cells, I want to keep all of them, and in order to keep them I realize I must re-train myself and destroy the old patterns. It’s so easy to say that if a relationship starts to feel like a job it is not a good relationship, but to actually remember it and keep it in mind is an entirely different kettle of fish. Even before I became a sex worker I was so used to turning myself into a nothing girl, a blank slate for men to write upon, that I’m not so sure I know any other way.

But not knowing things, or having unfortunate habits has never stopped me on my journey to greatness. I taught myself most of the things I know and though I can’t seem to quit smoking (though I haven’t tried all that hard), I did make myself stop eating my cuticles and only revert to that disgusting little quirk at the most stressful of times. I am learning to be a real person who keeps the nothing-girl in the club and so far I’m having great success.