Shame, Low Self-Esteem, and Stigma
“Shame” is defined many ways, but I find Brené Brown’s description of how it feels to be helpful: “The extremely painful belief or experience of being unlovable, unworthy of connection or belonging.” In the case of sex workers, I’d add “unworthy of protection, dignity, or humanity” for good measure. It is a dreadful feeling, like a soul death. When I spiral down into the shame pit, I wish I’d never been born.
Shame, Stigma, and Low Self-Esteem
“Shame” is an umbrella term, but more precise language is helpful. Shame, stigma, and low self-esteem are interrelated but distinct, and can get all snarled up and feed into each other. Let’s break them down in order to get to know them better. “Shame” is a deep-seated belief of being bad, dirty, or wrong. “Low self-esteem” is feeling incapable, incompetent, or not good enough. “Stigma” is the anxiety or pressure to hide because of judgment from other people.
If sex work is making you feel bad about yourself, it helps to know why. I’ll tackle shame and stigma first, and then talk about low self-esteem and its BFF envy in the next few chapters. You may not agree with all of my conclusions, but hopefully they’ll get you started thinking about why you feel like you do.
The Case Against Shame
So, let’s start with the obvious question: Is sex work shameful? My answer: No. There is nothing inherently shameful about sex work; there is nothing inherently disgraceful about sex workers. Sure, the industry has problems, and many, many folks in it struggle and suffer—no different than the rest of humanity. Now, it is true the adult industry is . . . unusual. Our days are spent in places most people only visit for a short time, in environments that are disorienting, playing by different rules than polite society. Most of us want privacy when we’re turned on, and sexuality out in the open or on demand can be shocking.
What’s your take? Do you think sex work is dirty or wrong? How is it different from “respectable” employment? Do you think that makes sex workers unworthy of love? Disqualified from care and celebration? That is a spectacularly cruel fate. For the life of me, I can’t see why.
Let me break it down three ways. First: There is no shame in being a sexual person. Sex is what got us here; sex is how we are made. In order to survive, our species needs to dance and to shimmy and to hum and to flirt and to fuck. The sexy fuels health, beauty, music, joy, creativity, inspiration, and curiosity—who would want to live without those things? Every single person alive on this earth today is a product of the erotic. Even test-tube baby-daddies need dirty magazines.
Second: There is no shame in getting paid to be a sexual person. Making a living tapping into the divine is no crime. If it were, linguists would be criminals for profiting from a love of language, dancers for their love of movement. Benefiting materially from being deliciously human is what professional cooks, artists, singers, models, actors, and writers do. Sex workers are no different.
Third: There is no shame in sexual availability. Getting paid to do things we otherwise wouldn’t is pretty much the definition of having a job—not much shame in that. Of course, there can be “yuck” factors in sex work, certain unpleasant bodily realities. Also true in dog walking and nursing and plumbing and lots of other worthwhile careers. Nothing to make us dirty or disposable. Here’s what I know: some of the most loveable people on this planet are sex workers. Know what you believe.
You might well agree that sex work is honest work—that doesn’t mean you can’t still feel lousy on the job. That’s because all of us, at times, cross a line and do something we shouldn’t. We say “yes” when we should say “no.” We forget to count the money. We get caught in a lie. Because the work is so personal, it’s easy to sink into a shame spiral: I messed up. I sold myself cheap. I let myself down. This can trigger terrible doubt: Am I bad? Am I stupid? Am I damaged goods?
Again, the answer is no. Not once, not ever. Never forget: Sex work is hard! We operate under crazy pressures, juggling all kinds of extremes. It’s not like there’s a job manual—the right thing to do is rarely obvious. We try our best, sometimes we fail, but we learn from our mistakes. Most important, we are fundamentally and indisputably loveable. Don’t believe me? Let me ask you this: If your best friend messed up like you did today, could you forgive them? I’m guessing yes. I’m betting no matter what, love is bigger than the crime. Let that be your guide.
Now, if you keep letting yourself down again and again on the job, that’s not good. You deserve to be cherished and protected, inside and out. Find someone you trust, a buddy or therapist or sponsor, to talk to about how you can be kinder to yourself.
Clients Bring the Crazy
Getting our heads right isn’t enough to immunize us from on-the-job shame. That’s because clients show up with all their baggage, expecting us to deal. They want to be turned on; they want to get off. They crave beauty, kink, variety, danger, and role-play. They’re insecure about their bodies. They want to be irresistible. They feel weird about fantasies that threaten to veer out of control. They want us to read their thoughts, blow their minds, and deliver peak experiences. But sex isn’t something you’re supposed to pay for—shouldn’t you get it for free by looking fine, smelling good, and all the rest? Clients internalize the message: There is something wrong with me. So, strip clubs are for losers, dungeons are for creeps, and seeing prostitutes is pathetic.
Not only that: as high as clients soar, that’s how far they plummet, and can you get any higher than having sex just for yourself? Clients crash back to earth naked and exposed. The sex industry reeks of the same sticky regret as carnivals and casinos. All that dislocation and self-loathing has to go somewhere.
Like black holes in reverse, clients bend badness and blame away from themselves. I call it “outsourcing shame.” They demean and objectify us, leering and groping and calling us names. The humiliation of their non-normative desires can be especially excruciating, so they dole out particularly dehumanizing treatment to BBW, pro doms, and queers.
Clients also wrestle with guilt. Many clients are married or partnered or come from religious backgrounds, taking a little taste of something they don’t want anyone to know about. Nobody wants to feel bad while paying to feel good, so they shunt their ick onto us, sluts for pay.
It is not nice to be on the receiving end of bad behavior, especially as a reward for doing our jobs so well. In the immediate aftermath of getting slimed by a client, you may well be furious; I cover anger in a later chapter. If you’re feeling ashamed, deflated, or gross, I recommend the shame exercise in the next section. In the longer term, we can build up resistance to toxicity through self-acceptance, self-respect, and not tolerating bad behavior. We can model how shame-free sexual adventurers behave. We reward the clients who treat us well; those who spread grief, we let them walk right on by.
Unfortunately, no matter how well you handle yourself and the Biz, there’s still the rest of the world to deal with. Like a slow-moving zombie, stigma feasts on our brains. We’ve all heard the phrase, “You can’t please everyone; you can only please yourself.” Well, that’s all good and fine, but on some level, most of us care what other people think. Stigma keeps us from living out in the open for fear the straight world will judge us as: out of control. Lazy. Stupid. Uneducated. Flaky. Messy. Sex-crazed. Diseased. Addicted. Damaged. Worthless. The irony is as many people outside the sex industry fit those descriptions as in it! But, unfortunately, those negative stereotypes stick to us.
My advice is to spend some time pulling stigma and shame apart. As tightly as they’re woven together, they’re not the same. Ask yourself: Is there anything wrong with sex work? If your gut answer is “no,” but you still feel insecure, you’re most likely grappling with the fear of other people’s disapproval. Which is fine. Those consequences can be very real—I’ll talk about them at length in the upcoming section on coming out. You are allowed to protect yourself from other people’s bigotry by being discreet; that has nothing to do with shame. Here’s the thing—if we lived in a world that didn’t judge what we do for a living, I think most of us would feel pretty fine about it. Because deep down, we already do.