No one likes pretending to be someone they’re not. But, for many sex workers, it’s a fact of life. Even though many of my friends and close family members know I am a sex worker, there are people in my life who I’ve opted not to tell. I’m a big fan of being your true self, but ‘coming out’ as a sex worker can be difficult, and in some cases, dangerous.
Trying to spend quality time with people who don’t know about your work can be alienating and painful (especially when that one uncle has to chime in with a dead hooker joke). Here are my top tips on how to deal with spending the holidays with family who don’t know you’re a sex worker.
The first thing you need to know is that you have choices. You get to decide whether or not you want to spend time with people, and who those people are. We are conditioned to believe that family is important above all else and that we are terrible people if we opt not to spend time with our family.
It’s okay to say (even if only to yourself) that if you can’t be your authentic self, you’re going to stay home. It’s okay to decide that you’re unwilling to lie about who you are to your relatives. Give yourself permission to opt-out. It may run against the status quo, but you can opt-out of family gatherings.
It’s important to remember that you are walking into a stressful situation. Keeping your fake-job story straight can be stressful enough (I’ve definitely been in situations where I’ve told Person A I’m a babysitter and Person B I’m a sales assistant… Oops!). Throw some delicate emotions, insensitive jokes and alcohol into the mix, and you’ve got yourself a recipe for disaster.
Before you attend the family gathering check in with yourself about your feelings about family members not knowing. For example, why don’t they know? Is keeping your sex work on the down-low your choice or somebody else’s choice? How does that sit with you? This will help you to get to know yourself better and also help you develop a healthy plan for coping.
Reach out to a friend family member in advance or set up someone you can call or text during the event. If there is someone in your family who does know that you’re a sex worker, maybe you can have a chat with them beforehand. Let them know you are feeling nervous, and why, and ask if they can support you during the gathering. You might not even need them to do anything – just letting them know that this is difficult for you might be enough. If there won’t be a supportive person present on the day, perhaps you could ask a close friend or fellow sex worker to be on speed dial in case you need to debrief in the bathroom.
Thinking ahead of time about when and how to build in breaks for private time can be helpful. If you’re staying with family for a few days, you might want to think about scheduling in some alone-time activities like hitting the gym, going for a walk, taking a bath or watching your favourite TV show with your headphones in. If you are just going for dinner, maybe you can take a 5-minute toilet break every hour and take some deep breaths or browse cute animals on Instagram while you’re in the bathroom.
And, of course, we need a plan to deal with the inevitable hurtful remarks when we can’t excuse ourselves (seriously, why does someone ALWAYS have to make a dead hooker joke?) Usually, we know who will be the one to come up with a hurtful comment. Make a point to spend time during the gathering connecting with supportive people and try to be near those people whenever the family member most likely to say something hurtful is around.
Sometimes it feels like it’s our responsibility to speak out, but we have to be in the right frame of mind for it be effective. Decide in the moment – based on how much energy you have or how safe it feels – to either take a stand or change the subject. You are not obligated to take a stand if you don’t feel up for it. In case you didn’t catch it the first time: it is NOT your job to be a ‘good’ sex worker and try to convert everyone at your family Christmas dinner into sex worker allies. Your first responsibility is to take care of your own wellbeing.
If you do feel up to taking a stand, it can be helpful to have a response partially scripted out. Otherwise, it can be useful to have a journal handy to write out your feelings after the event. It can be cathartic to write out all the things you’d like to say to that person someday.
Make sure you set time aside for yourself and for connecting with others in the same boat after (or during!) the holiday season. This can help to offset stress and anxiety caused by feelings of isolation. Set up a lunch with your sex worker pals to commiserate over how civvies just don’t get it or put aside a day for binge-watching Netflix in bed. Whatever refills your cup and reminds you of what an awesome human you are, do it.
Image by Unsplash.
Disclaimer: I cannot, and do not, speak for all sex workers. I speak from my experience of working in a legal brothel and as an independent escort in Australia. Where possible I try to be inclusive. However, I can’t relay every experience of sex work – especially if I haven’t experienced it myself.
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