On the very tricky work life balance of sex workers

Cathryn Berarovich is something of a renaissance sex worker; she was until recently employed as a stripper but has held numerous interesting jobs in the industry (and she’s currently an excellent columnist on this very website). Each week, she shares her stories in Harlotry.

Originally I was going to tell at least one funny story this week. I could have written about the co-worker who had taken her plastic surgery to such extreme lengths that she resembled a life-sized Bratz doll, the customer who tipped his favorite girls not with money, but with gifts of cheese, beef jerky, and chocolate, or the man who bought a whole hour in the champagne room and only wanted to talk about Iron Man. These are all pretty great stories, and I will tell them one day, but that day is not today.

The week before last, a couple of people asked that I write about the emotional partitioning that sex work requires and I realized I’d barely touched on this very specific type of work life balance in all the months of Harlotry. Why this is I don’t know, as it now occurs to me that this is really, really important, and is therefore something I should have covered.

Without at least some kind of partitioning, sex work will kill you. It probably won’t literally bring about your death, but it absolutely will turn you into the dead-eyed, dead-souled kind of sex worker that Tina Fey seems to think makes up the majority population of all strip clubs, brothels, and other palaces of adult entertainment. While obviously the methods of partitioning are as unique and varied as the men and women who work in this industry, we all have our methods of staying sane.

Some of the methods are better than others.

In any industry there will be the people who hate themselves or their jobs so much that they self-medicate with drugs and alcohol, a method that may give them a momentary reprieve from the daily grind by distracting them from the real problems in their lives. Despite the stereotypes surrounding the oldest profession and its offshoots, I don’t think the sex industry has a uniquely high incidence of these characters. I’ve met more drunken waiters than I have strippers or prostitutes.

My personal method of separating real life from work life relies pretty much entirely on persona. I create a character to play while I’m working and if I am within sight of a customer, I am a different person. I talk differently, I hold myself differently, I have a different sense of humor, I even laugh differently. If it weren’t for my distinctive physical appearance, I would probably be almost unrecognizable when I’m working. It works for me!

I’m great at separating life and work, I don’t bring home baggage to work, nor do I bring work baggage home. I maintain my emotional compartmentalization flawlessly. As Cate, I have a somewhat sardonic, grouchy view of my customers; while I don’t hate any of them, so long as they’re relatively respectful, I have only had a genuine, though unromantic, fondness for one of them. ‘Greg’, the man who used to pay me to burn his feet (the same fantastic gentleman who the beautifully named Robin Hustle interviewed for Jezebel.com).

My sex worker persona, on the other hand, loves everybody! She laughs at jokes so corny that I, as Cate, would never so much as crack a smile at, despite the fact that anyone who knows me will tell you that my sense of humor is one of the corniest ever. My sex worker persona would never make fun of anyone and is made, as all little girls should be, of sugar and spice and everything nice. In reality I am frequently described as ‘cold.’ While I’m perfectly nice, sweet even, when you get to know me, it generally takes awhile for me to come out of my shell and stop being the weirdo who sits in the corner and watches social situations without saying much at all.

The persona serves two purposes. The first is that it insulates me from the slings and arrows of occasionally cruel customers. If a man tells Rosalie or Miranda that she’s too tall, too fat, too skinny, too tattooed, too flat-chested, or anything else, that’s fine: he isn’t actually saying it to me, he’s just participating in my little theatre production. I maintain a body image as healthy as any lady in Western culture can have, don’t take insults personally, and I manage to upset the meanies in the club by my entirely unruffled demeanor.

The other purpose of my sex work persona is simple: It allows me to have at least somewhat healthy romantic relationships with other humans, at least from my end. Real life relationships and sex work relationships are, of course, completely different. As I’ve said before, sex work is just a really elaborate game of pretend with some dress-up thrown in for good measure. The sex trade is only removed from children’s games by a few steps and a lot of hormones. I wear a costume I would never wear in real life, I experiment with gender roles, I pretend to have interests I don’t really have, and voila! I get paid!

Back when I was a prostitute, my civilian friends would always ask me how I could enjoy sex. Didn’t it just become a job? The analogy I always used was that of an artist who got a job as a house painter. If an artist got hired as a house painter in order to pay her bills, would holding a paintbrush suddenly become like work, and therefore no longer enjoyable? I’ve never painted a house, but I suspect not. I’ve never met a prostitute who stopped enjoying sex just because that’s what she did for work.

Obviously, my feelings about the sex and sexual contact I’ve had for work and the sex and sexual contact I’ve had for fun are, to me at least, totally and completely different, but a lot of people don’t understand how or why that is the case. The biggest difference is the persona, for my whole life, the sex I had for pleasure was always, on some level, about connection.

Even when I was younger and wandering around tramping it up, there was some kind of connection, even if it was as simple as ‘hey, I like how you look right now, but I think you’d look better without those silly clothes. Do you feel the same? Yes? Yes!’ In sex work there is no connection, just constant effort to maintain the illusion of connection.

It’s hard to really clearly describe the exact difference between work sex and fun sex to someone who has only experienced one. To me, work sex is just colder. The mechanics are the same, but it’s hard for me to even consider it as sex because it’s so entirely different from the sort of jubilant, animal greatness of sex for enjoyment alone. There are plenty of ladies who seem to have a great time even with work sex, but for me I don’t know that I could enjoy it if I wanted to.

It’s been a really long time since I’ve had sex for money, and even longer since I’ve slept with anyone outside the context of a relationship, but the same goes for things that aren’t actually sex, but rather just sexual in nature. I’ve given lapdances to seemingly sweet, disturbingly handsome men, men who, if I had met them in my real life, I would have fallen all over myself attempting to make conversation and achieving very little but extreme awkwardness. When I danced for these men I felt nothing.

I am not sure why I am so good at partitioning. I wasn’t abused as a child, I’m an extremely sincere person in my regular life, and I have a hatred of dishonesty that extends almost into phobia. That said, I’ve also always been very, very good at doing what must be done to keep the wolves of lunacy away from the door. I think my ability to separate my life and my work is a consequence of that: I must maintain my sanity, and therefore I am able to separate the two things that, if mixed, would create a perfect storm of crazy.