When Sex Workers Do the Labor of Therapists

Carrie Weisman March 18, 2019

(Photo: BlurryMe/shutterstock.com)

Sky is a pro­fes­sion­al escort. She’s been work­ing at Sheri’s Ranch, a legal broth­el locat­ed in Pahrump, Neva­da, for a lit­tle under a year. A few months back, a man came in ask­ing for a group ses­sion with Sky, who prefers to be iden­ti­fied by her pro­fes­sion­al name, and one of her col­leagues. He had come around a few times before. He made it a point to keep in touch through Twit­ter. This time, how­ev­er, the ses­sion took a dark turn. He came in to tell them he was plan­ning on killing himself.

We see a lot of clients who have men­tal health issues,” she tells In These Times. Though, this expe­ri­ence was marked­ly more dra­mat­ic than her usu­al run in with clients who going through a depres­sive episode. She and her col­league were even­tu­al­ly able to talk the guy down. They sent him home with a list full of resources that spe­cial­ize in mat­ters of depres­sion. They asked that he con­tin­ue to check in with them through social media. 

Research sug­gests that upwards of 6 mil­lion men are affect­ed by depres­sion every year. Sui­cide remains the sev­enth lead­ing cause of death among men in Amer­i­ca. While it’s impos­si­ble to gauge exact­ly what per­cent­age of that demo­graph­ic fre­quents sex work­ers, the expe­ri­ences of those in the field can offer some insight. Dur­ing Sky’s last tour at the Ranch, she sched­uled about sev­en appoint­ments. Out of those book­ings, only one involved sex. We do a lot of com­pan­ion­ship and inti­ma­cy par­ties,” she says. The clients who sign up for those book­ings are the ones strug­gling with loneliness.” 

And peo­ple with depres­sion aren’t the only neu­ro­di­ver­gent indi­vid­u­als sex work­ers encounter on the job. Those suf­fer­ing from anx­i­ety, a com­mon accom­pa­ni­ment to depres­sion, show up fre­quent­ly. They also see a lot of peo­ple who fall on the autis­tic spec­trum. In fact, Sky says she sees men who fall into the lat­ter demo­graph­ic rel­a­tive­ly often. 

Sky first got her start in the indus­try work­ing as a pro­fes­sion­al dom­i­na­trix. While she has since piv­ot­ed her posi­tion in the indus­try, she’s found ways to incor­po­rate that exper­tise into life at the broth­el. Sure, she offers stan­dard escort ser­vices, but she also books ses­sions ded­i­cat­ed to BDSM, an acronym that can be bro­ken down into three sub cat­e­gories: Bondage/​Discipline, Dominance/​Submission and Sadism/​Masochism. Each dynam­ic refers to a spe­cif­ic form impact play that par­tic­i­pants can find deeply plea­sur­able. That kind of tac­tile expe­ri­ence, she sus­pects, might offer a cer­tain spe­cial appeal to men with autis­tic spec­trum dis­or­der (ASD). And she might be right.

Among the many symp­toms of those diag­nosed with ASD is a resis­tance to phys­i­cal con­tact. Accord­ing to the CDC, ear­ly signs of the dis­or­der may present in the form of an aver­sion to touch. At the same time, touch is an impor­tant sen­sa­tion to expe­ri­ence. A lack there­of can lead to lone­li­ness, depres­sion and even a more sec­ondary immune sys­tem. Researchers have deter­mined that ther­a­pies designed to nur­ture reg­u­lar sen­so­ry inte­gra­tion can help in this regard. 

God­dess Avi­va, who also prefers to be referred to by her pro­fes­sion­al name, is a lifestyle and pro­fes­sion­al dom­i­na­trix based in New York City. Like Sky, she sees a good amount of clients with autism spec­trum dis­or­der (ASD), and also men deal­ing with depres­sion and anx­i­ety. She takes cer­tain mea­sures to screen clients. After all, vio­lence against sex work­ers is an ongo­ing issue in the Unit­ed States, and the waver­ing legal­i­ty of the trade doesn’t exact­ly help com­bat the issue. In the wake of new fed­er­al leg­is­la­tion that has large­ly kicked sex work­ers offline, and with them, the abil­i­ty to vet clients from afar, sex work­ers must be more vig­i­lant than ever about whom they decide to take on. The clients who are neu­ro­di­ver­gent or live with men­tal health con­di­tions don’t seem to be the ones sex work­ers are wor­ried about.

You don’t have to be diag­nosed with a men­tal ill­ness to be a shit­ty per­son, and some of my clients who do deal with men­tal ill­ness are won­der­ful, kind peo­ple with good inten­tions,” says Avi­va. I’ve nev­er felt unsafe with a client that makes it all the way to a ses­sion. What mat­ters most to me is that some­one is respect­ing my bound­aries, time and protocol.”

Sky, too, has encoun­tered a num­ber of unde­sir­able clients through­out her career in the indus­try. But, sim­i­lar to Avi­va, these expe­ri­ences don’t seem to be dri­ven by those suf­fer­ing from men­tal health or neu­ro­di­ver­gent con­di­tions. My most uncom­fort­able moments in the indus­try have always come from men who would be told by a pro­fes­sion­al that they were com­plete­ly sane,” she explains.

For­tu­nate­ly, for Sky, it’s much eas­i­er to weed out prob­lem­at­ic clients in places where pros­ti­tu­tion is legal. Accord­ing to her, the broth­el has a secu­ri­ty team mon­i­tor­ing the prop­er­ty. She also says there’s a sophis­ti­cat­ed screen­ing mech­a­nism in place. Before book­ing a ses­sion, all clients have to pro­vide ID and agree to an inti­mate screen­ing to rule out imme­di­ate poten­tial health risks. These aren’t typ­i­cal­ly priv­i­leges those oper­at­ing inde­pen­dent­ly have access to. 

Through­out her career, Sky has encoun­tered clients who have been point­ed to the broth­el by con­cerned friends, or fam­i­ly. She even knows of a few who have come by at the sug­ges­tion of a ther­a­pist. Though, not all men­tal health pro­fes­sion­als would advise that kind of thing. 

Cer­tain­ly, there are indi­vid­u­als that strug­gle with social anx­i­ety, which pre­vents them from find­ing a real-life part­ner, and in those cas­es engag­ing with a sex work­er can be both ther­a­peu­tic and plea­sur­able,” says Dr. Michael Aaron, a sex ther­a­pist, writer and speak­er based in New York City. But the best option for a ther­a­pist that is look­ing to pro­vide a patient with real-life expe­ri­ence is to seek out sur­ro­gates, who are trained and cer­ti­fied by the Inter­na­tion­al Pro­fes­sion­al Sur­ro­gates Asso­ci­a­tion.” The orga­ni­za­tion he’s refer­ring too, also known as IPSA, oper­ates around a tri­an­gu­lar mod­el of ther­a­py involv­ing a patient, a sur­ro­gate and a trained ther­a­pist. Togeth­er, the three work to improve the patient’s capac­i­ty for emo­tion­al phys­i­cal inti­ma­cy through a series of struc­tured, sex­u­al expe­ri­ences. The legal sta­tus of the prac­tice is large­ly unde­fined in most of the Unit­ed States. 

And maybe it’s not just in the inter­est of clients to see some­one trained to pro­vide the lev­el emo­tion­al sup­port they may be after. It can be heavy,” says Sky. I’ve had days where I have to take a minute for myself and get myself back together.”

Still, it seems as though few in the field shy away from pro­vid­ing the emo­tion­al labor that clients demand. There’s this huge mis­con­cep­tion that at the broth­el we just have sex all day,” Sky explains. But there are a lot of peo­ple who come in to work out some seri­ous emo­tion­al issues. It’s real­ly a good chunk of what we do.”

I love my job,” she adds. But there are cer­tain par­ties that make us feel like we’re actu­al­ly mak­ing a dif­fer­ence in the world – that we’re actu­al­ly doing good things and not just pro­vid­ing a good time. And that can be super fulfilling.”

Car­rie Weis­man is a jour­nal­ist based in New York City. She reports on sex, rela­tion­ships and culture.
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