Trigger Warning: Sexual Assault
At the start of November, I went down to the Scarlet Alliance National Forum, as a representative of Touching Base. Scarlet Alliance is the national sex worker organization and SANF is a multi day event that incorporates their AGM as well as hearing from each state’s sex worker orgs. There’s a decent amount of distrust and hatred towards straight male escorts in the sex worker community (which is fair given the amount of predators posing as such), so I was quite nervous to attend and also present the overview of Touching Base’s activities for the year. The Touching Base committee, as well as friends and clients, reassured me that I deserved to be there, and did belong to the community.
While this reassurance helped, my nerves were coupled by a media PR nightmare that hit ten minutes before I first walked into the forum. Although as much stress as these two situations brought me, they were both overshadowed by what else was brought up during those days. Or perhaps they heightened my experience of embracing the three labels I was confronted with that week.
On the first day, during one of the breaks, I stumbled across a tweet by Andrew Gurza, whom I connected with after an article was published about sex workers and people with disability, although I had first heard about him via his accessible toy Bump’n and its corresponding book. His tweet read: ‘To those of you struggling with coming out as disabled, worrying that you have no right to use that label, or that you’d be taking it away from someone who is actually disabled; I am here to tell you that if you have reached a place where that label fits for you, I see you.”
This was exactly my sentiment about my disability. It was also timely, being not long after the seventh anniversary of my motorbike crash, and therefore heavily on my mind already. The weather had also been inconsistent, which only ever brings pain to my leg with the contracting metal work inside. It took another week until I tweeted about my acceptance of this label. I am disabled. I didn’t avoid this label because of stigma, but because I’ve seen and worked with so many others that suffer a lot more than I. What taking up this label means is not that I’m taking away from others I see as doing it tougher than me, but accepting that like most other things in this world, there are levels and varying degrees of experience. There isn’t a hierarchy. Our lived experiences are unique to ourselves.
Which is where my next label comes in. Since I’ve been in this industry, I’ve generally referred to myself as an escort. The reasoning for this was not for the stigma of calling myself a sex worker, but rather I’d seen and heard how hard the work can be for my female peers. Be it from back to back bookings in a brothel for twelve hours or dealing with being treated like a fleshlight, my peers really are hard at work out there. Meanwhile I feel pretty blessed by the clients I’ve had the pleasure to meet.
But it is still work. It is something that takes up a lot of my time, be that for bookings, admin, advertising, social media posting and more. The time I spend with clients may sometimes not feel like work at all, but it can be very draining. Being present and holding space for someone takes a lot of effort, and while I absolutely enjoy my time with clients, I also enjoy my own space. Somehow over a brief conversation with a peer while boarding the plane home, I accepted this new label: sex worker. As much as you may enjoy something, even if it’s spending an evening with a lovely regular, if you aren’t in the right headspace, or have the energy or capacity, then it is work.
Which is what happened the following evening after returning home from SANF. Violet is someone I see roughly every three weeks who came over for our usual four hours. We caught up, she was very interested in hearing about my time at the forum, knowing the anxiety I had in the lead up to it. We had some cocktails, shared a platter of nibbles, and chatted on the lounge. Nearly a week later I messaged her to apologise for any bizarre behaviour on our evening date. She said I was no different than usual. Which baffled me.
Violet is an affectionate woman. She likes to give and receive physical touch; hand holding, cuddling, kissing. But on that night, every time she touched me, be it our legs connecting without intention, or a brush of her hand against mine, I felt my entire body flinching. To my core, I wanted to run away and scream and hide under fifteen weighted blankets. It was a familiar feeling, I remembered feeling the same way on the flight when the stranger beside me put their elbow on the armrest and our elbows touched.
It would take another three days for me to understand what was going on for me. I was hanging out with a peer, and they asked me about the forum. Somewhere in there, a conversation I’d had at a SANF evening event burst into my mind. And I was done. I spiralled. I left my friend and raced home. I messaged my two closest friends. I messaged them about my realisation, but that I wasn’t ready to talk about it any further.
At the official evening function of SANF, I was having a conversation with a peer. I don’t remember exactly who it was, because as the above kinda points out, my mind had tried to block it. We were discussing STIs and the stigma surrounding them.
SH: ‘I got chlamydia at the start of the year after a client stealthed me…’
Peer: ‘Raped you’.
The word belted me in the face, but I couldn’t acknowledge it. I continued with my sentence, describing how after finishing my antibiotics for the chlamydia, I then caught covid for the first time. The questions from everyone were the same for both: who gave it to me? The covid I put down to a flight, but really it didn’t matter at all. I just had to deal with the symptoms and take the appropriate course of action. But there was a lot more stigma attached to the STI than covid. But it really is very common. It’s like catching covid, the flu, or even a cold. There’s easy treatment for all, but the idea that chlamydia is passed on through sexual contact is what causes the stigma for most people.
After the chlamydia showed up on my regular health screening, I had to notify those I’d had sexual contact with since my last test. That was a hard message to send out, but everyone was fine to then go and get an STI test and share their results. This includes the only person in that time period I’d had raw sex with (in my personal life). All came back negative. Except for one.
The one who had chlamydia is the same woman that had stealthed me a few weeks beforehand. I’d seen them fairly frequently for nearly a year. In that particular play session, before I’d applied a condom, she had climbed atop me and swiftly led me inside of her. Despite her weight advantage, I immediately threw her across the bed. I then climbed atop her, held her by the wrists, and told her that wasn’t on.
A few weeks later, I spoke to my therapist about this. I didn’t exactly say ‘stealthing’, I just told her that my boundaries were broken and I was struggling with how I reacted. I’m not a violent person but at the time I felt like I reacted poorly. I classified my client as a ‘switch’, a submissive that tried to dominate at times. It was more pervasive to my thought pattern at the time because it was only six weeks after I’d been in my first ever fight, after an aggressive alcoholic man threatened my disabled client and her carer. I had given him an uppercut, and pinned him on the ground until security arrived. When the police showed up, they arrested him. So I was concerned about my reaction, in the context of that recent fight.
After remembering the words of my peer pointing out that I wasn’t stealthed, I was raped, I booked the first session with my therapist as soon as possible. After a year of video sessions, this was our first in-person session as it turned out. I related the entirety of the above blog, and when I mentioned the word ‘switch’, she remembered me previously mentioning this and flicked through her (handwritten) notes. I never mentioned the stealthing back then. It was all about my concern towards my reaction.
As my therapist said I acted accordingly, that my ‘flight or fight’ response was triggered, I felt the tears streaming down my face. As well as my recent reaction to being touched by my client and the stranger on the plane. By the time I’d gotten to see her, I had already begun taking on board this new label, this new wording I’d avoided or didn’t feel I belonged with. Stealthing is absolutely a crime, but it’s a far easier term to digest instead of sexually assaulted, or raped.
And once again, it wasn’t a label I was comfortable to take on, because I didn’t want to take away from others with worse experiences. In the six weeks since seeing my therapist about this, I’ve also had the chance to further reflect on the other instances of sexual assault in this job. The second was an attempt at stealthing that I caught out, and the first instance was with my first ever client, who used coercion. I told my then partner about that experience, and she completely shot me down. I had even used the word ‘raped’, but she refused to accept it. I left her that night, but never mentioned that experience to anyone else again.
I’ve embraced these labels now. I never want to take away from the truth experienced by others, but this is my truth.