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The Lost Year: A sudden crisis, online sex work, and a better understanding of privilege

“Online sex work has amplified the loneliness for some customers. I’m talking to them because they’re paying.”

Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

This is The Lost Year, a series of stories about our lived experiences in 2020, as told to Vox critic at large Emily VanDerWerff.

For many of us, 2020 has brought a decided decline in intimacy. I don’t just mean sex. I mean — when’s the last time you saw a friend face to face, maskless, to have an honest conversation? Weeks? Months? Almost a year?

Rebecca lives in British Columbia and worked as a counselor before the pandemic. But early in the pandemic, a personal tragedy led her to leave the nonprofit where she worked to return to sex work, which had been her job throughout her college career. I was struck by the way she described the blurring line between the work she did as a counselor and the work she’s doing as an online sex worker, which introduces her to many people who just want someone to talk to when they’re lonely, and if that someone can also be sexy, that might be okay, too.

I was also struck by the ways Rebecca’s story highlights some of the harshest realities that 2020 has underlined. She has been able to make a living in online sex work; the clients she previously served as a counselor, who were all sex workers as well, haven’t been as lucky. It’s a question of privilege that clearly weighs on her, too, as you’ll see.

Here’s Rebecca’s story of her quarantine, as told to me.

Through all my undergrad and graduate school, I worked as an escort. After I got a master’s degree, I went to study to become a counselor. I thought that would be the end of my sex work journey, like I had used it to [go on to] bigger and better things, and now I’m a therapist and have worked through all this stuff of my own, so I can help other people. I was really proud. The work I was doing was so meaningful and special to me.

And then the pandemic happened. Everybody I was counseling had an almost total breakdown. Normally, clients that I’m counseling wouldn’t all be in crisis at the same time. I thought, okay, this is not unexpected. I knew at the beginning of the pandemic that things would start to get bad, especially as I was working with very marginalized people.

I worked at a nonprofit that provides a number of support services to people in any type of sex work. Everyone I worked with was a former sex worker or a current sex worker. Most of the assistance is with providing a safe space to talk, getting meals, and getting referrals to other services, like counseling, health care, housing support, and help for substance use issues. The organization also tries to help people with exiting the sex industry if that’s what they want help with. I had clients who are trans or Indigenous or queer, which added extra layers of marginalization on top of sex work.

My workplace didn’t really have a good system set up to support the counselors or their clients. Maybe some of this could have been prevented with a better structure. My supervisor — who was external to the nonprofit I worked for — was always telling me, “I think you really don’t have enough support. It’s no wonder that you’re struggling.” She asked me to advocate for that support.

I did bring it up to my boss [at the nonprofit]. “This is pretty tough. Could we bring someone else onto the team to take on some of this load?” She didn’t want to bring someone on in the middle of a pandemic and thought it would be difficult to interview people and introduce our clientele to a brand new counselor virtually. I didn’t feel comfortable pushing it.

But I thought I had a handle on it. Then two people in my sex work community died by suicide just a week apart. My mental health really started to unravel. I wasn’t well enough to keep counseling, so I went back to sex work. It was what I knew how to do to take care of myself.

I gave a month’s notice that I would be leaving, and the organization actually hired two new people to take over for me when I left. I was able to have wrap-up sessions with all of my regular clients, which, I’m hoping, made the transition easier for them.

I didn’t want to go back to escorting for obvious reasons, so I shifted into online sex work. That’s what I’ve been doing for the last few months. A lot of the online sex work clients I have been working with maybe would have seen in-person sex workers, and now that’s not really a safe option so they’re trying out the online connection. Other people were always online or had been doing that for years anyway so it wasn’t that different for them.

A lot of people, when the pandemic happened, especially if they were living alone or had a really small bubble of people, were really feeling an urge to reach out and connect. Sometimes, [connection via sex work] has been a positive experience. And other times, it’s actually amplified the loneliness for some of the customers. They’re confronted with the reality that I’m talking to them because they’re paying.

It’s been interesting to figure out what people are seeking when they come to me. There’s some that only want the sexy entertainment, and there’s some that want the feeling of intimacy and connection — the things that you would maybe talk to a partner about. They would want to talk about feeling stressed out or feeling sad. They wanted to feel understood. I have to figure out the balance of: When do I be sexy? And when do I be someone they can talk to?

I think some people have found it easier to open up online than in person because they feel less vulnerable. There’s not someone right in the room that they have to face and say all kinds of vulnerable stuff. I’ve had some people open up to me a lot earlier than they might have, because it’s online, and they know in the back of their mind they could put their phone down or close the laptop. They don’t have to face the consequences, necessarily.

I’m trained to listen and empathize and figure out what’s really underneath what someone is saying. I can use that to my advantage in sex work. But I started to learn those skills as an escort, and it was my escorting experiences that made me realize I wanted to be a counselor. By the time I was getting my degree in counseling, I already had a lot of listening skills because I’d already met a wide variety of people with all different kinds of backgrounds and life stories and situations and personalities. My escorting experience made me a better counselor, and my counseling training refined those skills.

I’ve found it incredibly stressful to be in the role of entertainer and comforter. A happy face. I think people were seeking sex workers to be a break from the pandemic, and I was going through my own crisis. To put on a mask of happy or mask of sexy when I wasn’t feeling happy or sexy was really difficult and stressful. It felt like there was no other option because what other work would I do?

I would really like to move on from sex work. It’s fine, but it’s not extremely meaningful or fulfilling for me. I’m very, very grateful for it as a way to provide financially, especially in the pandemic. I’m grateful to have a way to do it from home and be safe when I know so many people are out there at risk, interacting with people from their work. But it doesn’t fulfill me. I would like to get back to counseling or a related profession at some point in the future. But this — I call it a meltdown or a breakdown because I just don’t know what to call it — has really shaken my confidence in my skills and my abilities. It’s shaken my sense that I could do that in the future.

I see my own therapist once a week. That’s been a lifesaver. The shift happened for me where I was almost feeling like I was in fight-or-flight mode every day. I’m really stressed out and going through a grief like I haven’t experienced before. I’m not familiar with that intensity of loss. I think eventually, with the help of my therapist, I was able to shift into seeing this as a longer-term situation and focus less on the day-to-day panic feelings and more on accepting reality. This is happening. I’m going to get through this. I’m lucky to have my health and my income and my family and my friends.

Here’s something I’ve thought about the last few months. The Black Lives Matter protests and seeing the disproportionate way Covid has affected people of color and marginalized groups — I’ve been watching from outside, from a place of privilege. It’s really highlighted inequalities and injustice that was already there but hadn’t been in my face before.

I struggled with feeling guilty about that. Then I realized that was a waste of energy. I don’t think it’s helpful to feel guilty. It’s helpful to recognize privilege and figure out how to contribute to changing the systems. I have to take care of myself, but I also don’t want to disconnect and disengage from the culture and society I live in. I want to be a person who contributes to making that a better place. That’s part of why I wanted to work as a counselor to people from marginalized communities in the first place.

My background is in sociology, so I’m interested in power structures. I’ve been disadvantaged as a woman, but I’m extremely privileged as a white person. The pandemic has really brought out the ways in which I’m privileged. That I, as a thin white woman, can hop online and start making enough money to support myself immediately is outrageously lucky. I’m trying to make sense of it, all the ways that I’m struggling but also all the ways that I’m lucky.

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