sex work as group therapy

Cathryn Berarovich is something of a renaissance sex worker; she’s currently employed as a pro-domme at a fetish house but has held numerous interesting jobs in the adult industry. Each week, she shares her stories in Harlotry.

This is a difficult essay to start. By the time it’s published, you will all have essentially seen me naked. I’m no stranger to varying degrees of public nudity, but that is completely different from the nakedness that comes with displaying one’s battered, stitched up heart on the internet.

I considered just diving right back into my sex work narrative and writing another musing about my profession or possibly sharing some amusing anecdote, but I don’t think any of us would be served well by such a piece. Instead, I’m writing about recovery again, this time in the context of community among sex workers.

I’ve been a sex worker in a community structure three times, all of which have been different, and I prefer working in a group to working independently for a number of reasons. The main reasons is, of course, that by working in an environment with other women who not only know exactly what you do, but do it themselves, you have a built-in support network.

I’ve already written about the sense of community and sisterhood at Paradox. We were a tiny, close-knit group, bound together by deadbeat partners who lived off our incomes, the bizarre behavior of the men who came to watch us spread our legs behind glass, and the kind of friendliness that can only come from sharing a 5×15 corridor with four or five other humans, their assorted possessions, and a makeup counter. We got along partly because we had to, making sure that anyone who threatened the tranquility of our tiny dressing room was summarily ejected.

At Heavenly Creatures, I found a similar sense of community.

There were many, many more girls there, enough to fill two dressing rooms, but we were all so badly treated that it was hard not to bond with each other on some level. Since we were really only allowed to take breaks to smoke, most of the girls, myself included, smoked. If you weren’t a smoker when you got to Heavenly Creatures, you’d probably become one within a few weeks.

We’d sit in the back and complain. We complained about the absurdly high and convoluted house fee structure, we’d complain about the men who came to the club expressly to watch whatever sports event was on that night with no intention of buying lap-dances, we’d complain about how cold the floor was kept, how we were being mistreated by our boyfriends, girlfriends, or exes, how our feet hurt, how our knees hurt, how our backs hurt, and how the DJ was calling us to stage too much or not enough. We built close friendships based entirely on complaints. Very few of us would probably have been friends in “real life,” we simply didn’t have enough in common outside of our jobs at this terrible, terrible club. For the time being, though, that was enough. We commiserated when friends died or children got into trouble, we talked a lot of shit, and despite the occasional petty rivalries, our dreadful work environment and stressful jobs tied us together.

When I decided to return to the sex industry I thought very, very hard about how I wanted to do so. I already knew the sex industry is tough, but I had no paradigm for what it would be like following the acknowledgement of my rape. I had a feeling some of my difficulties with Heavenly Creatures stemmed from the fact that I’d been failing to deal with a lot of sexual baggage, but I wasn’t sure what it would be like to go back to such an environment once I’d started to unpack things.

We assume, in our culture, that rape fundamentally changes people. In reality, it’s more of a worst-case scenario. There’s a pervasive message that if rape isn’t the worst thing that could ever happen to you or anyone else, there is something wrong with you. I knew there was nothing wrong with me, and so I assumed that being raped would somehow make my job more difficult and considered my options carefully.

Since I neither drive nor own a car, I was limited to things either within the city or in the very nearby suburbs.

The options for strip clubs here were limited to The Admiral Theatre, Pink Monkey, or going back to Heavenly Creatures, something I wasn’t terribly excited about. I investigated the working conditions at both The Admiral and Pink Monkey, and found them both to be lacking in various ways. The house fees at both clubs were high, but nothing I didn’t think I could handle under good circumstance. Unfortunately the clientele at Pink Monkey did not seem to be the kind of men who would appreciate a skinny tattooed girl with a complexion only a shade or two darker than your average albino and the clientele of The Admiral seemed to mostly be kids celebrating their 18th birthdays by getting fully nude lap-dances for twenty bucks a song. I was not interested in these things, but I was sure I wanted to work in a group environment again. I knew I’d need the support and understanding of other women in my position and I wasn’t sure if I could handle the stresses and instability of freelance work.

But I was, as I’ve mentioned, elated to be returning to sex work. And then I found my fetish house.

Things have gotten progressively better as I’ve settled into my new gig–“Dolorous Delights”–and a great deal of that is because of the group dynamic. In my previous experience, the community was cemented by dissatisfaction, but at my current house we are bound together by the fact that we’re all huge perverts who love what we do as much as we love dick jokes. We have actual conversations, sitting around the kitchen island of the sleek condo we work out of, we laugh in a way that holds no trace of cynicism, and we mostly enjoy our sessions.

Sex work can be very isolating, it’s impossible for even the most sympathetic civilians to really understand what we do, how we do it, and why, and having a group to which one can turn for support is possibly the most important part of retaining some semblance of mental health in times of trauma. While support comes in many forms, the sense of being in a bad situation together simply doesn’t compare to the ability to bond with others over shared passions as well as shared professions. There are other women at my dungeon who have been raped. The number is statistically appropriate to any gathering of women, civilian or otherwise, but it is wonderful to have a group of women with whom I can talk about what happened to me, not just as an awful thing, but in the context of a profession that requires us to rent our sexuality, if not our bodies. It’s been more helpful than I ever could have imagined to have models for loving the work we do after such a traumatic experience, but more than that, the simple fact that we are in an environment that allows us to enjoy not only what we do, but also each other, is practically magical.

I haven’t been at Dolorous Delights long, but I have friends, security, and stories and for the time being, at least, I think I’ve found my home.