Sex Work Made Recovery Possible for Me

By Aviva Ruse 05/24/19

The idea that someone would pay to be around me when I had spent my life feeling worthless changed my self-perception forever.

Woman in chair from back, bare shoulders, hands up, sex work in recovery
I experienced all the benefits to recovery sex work can offer. Photo by Jernej Graj on Unsplash

When I entered the world of sex work almost three years ago, I had been fired from yet another waitressing job for reasons related to my drinking. A friend invited me to do a play that was for and by sex workers to benefit the Sex Workers Project, which “provides client-centered legal and social services to individuals who engage in sex work.” It paid, so I said yes.

I loved the fast pace, changing clientele, and quick money of waiting tables. Booze and drugs were always present. Most of my jobs allowed us to drink on the job; just not the way I drank on the job. The last job I waitressed I would be sober for a few weeks or months, then a particularly difficult customer would lead me to drinking half-empty wine glasses as I carried them to the dish pit. I was fired because, as the nursery rhyme goes: When she was good, she was very, very good. But when she was bad, she was horrid.

I went to rehearsals for the play and met the other women. Mostly they were artists with the time to pursue it, in grad school with the money to pay for it, and one had just purchased a home in Detroit. They were free to sit in a park and discuss Mae West at 2 p.m. on a Tuesday. Society had led me to believe that sex work of any kind would steal my soul in some way, would take something from me I could never get back, and would only hurt my struggle for sobriety. That is a lie.

I always thought I would be an excellent sex worker — it’s a job women are trained for from adolescence: sexy emotional laborer. These skills may be especially honed in women who struggle with addiction and alcoholism. As a tech in my first rehab reflected, “Women stay out longer. They have the golden box.”

The women I met doing the play encouraged me and taught me everything they knew as I worked towards my goal of gathering the courage to try it out. Then later, they allowed me to text them every time I went to meet a client with his name and my location as I developed my sense for red flags. It’s a mentorship program, there is no other way.

I learned quickly that if I did coke with a client I was screwed. It was impossible to maintain boundaries, or my mind. Each time I did this, not only was there a scarily unlimited amount of drugs, but at some point the client would stop paying me for my time. Those were the only sessions I ever had that made me feel what society says sex work should make you feel: incomprehensible demoralization.

And there were many times in those early days when a client offered me a drink and I took it, hoping to seem normal. And then I went home and drank. Within a few months I realized I couldn’t drink or use around these men. When I was using, I didn’t require verification, I couldn’t maintain boundaries, and I couldn’t retain control of the situation. One of my mentors told me if I went on like this I would die or get arrested. I stopped everything but weed, and then I stopped everything.

Life got better. And then I experienced all the benefits to recovery sex work can offer.

I had more money, and a lot of that panic was gone. I could clothe myself properly, I knew my rent would be paid, I was able to travel. Drugs and drink are a poor man’s vacation. I had the time to meditate, to go to lots of meetings, to join a yoga studio, to read and study anything I wanted that I thought could help.

And it was empowering — the idea that someone would pay to be around me when I had spent my life feeling worthless changed my self-perception forever.

Eventually I saw how even weed had clouded my judgement in sex work and thus in life. I went to see a client I had previously seen several times stoned. He was a huge pain in the ass — always sending the Uber to the wrong location, ordering “food” that was just a pile of sodas when I was starving, never having the money right, forgetting his ATM password. It took me to show up completely clear-minded to realize that he was provoking me so that I would yell at him. On yet another walk to the ATM, he asked, “Why do you still have to go to so many AA classes?” I didn’t even remember telling him that, but people babble when they’re high. I asked him not to mention it again, and that they weren’t classes.

“I knew it! You hate me!” He shouted into the Brooklyn night. He pulled all the same stunts he always did that night, but this time, I didn’t want to deal with it. The beauty of escorting is that it isn’t prostitution. I am paid for my time only, and legally, I never have to sleep with anyone unless I want to. And that night I did not want to. I grabbed my things and made for the door after he said something gross about having the funds to keep me there for several days. “Your AA classes aren’t going to make you a better person!” He shouted at my retreating form.

Wrong again, Jack.

I began charging more and more for my time, and began advertising on the most high-end site. You may think that’s an oxymoron, but I don’t care.

The longer I was in the industry, the more time and space I had to work on myself, and the better I was able to treat myself. I watched how my self-care transformed the clients I attracted, how the way I conducted my business radiated into the rest of my life. I got a therapist. I spent an entire month in Bali. 

Rehab couldn’t get me sober. Sex work did. Perhaps it had to be that life and death, that cut and dry, for me to see it all. I’ve never been happier or more free. And I’ve never put together this many days of continuous sobriety. 

There were a few times in sobriety I showed up to work and the client was on cocaine. When I didn’t partake, I saw how sad it was. One night, when Phish was in town (my phone BLOWS up when Phish is in town), I went to a hotel where an adorable middle-aged man had laid out my old favorite things — pink champagne and cocaine. Because I didn’t partake I maintained the upper hand, stayed several hours without ever taking my clothes off, and the night ended with him crying on my shoulder and confiding in me about his drug problem. I hope I helped. 

That wasn’t the only time I inadvertently 12-stepped a client or potential one. Recently, someone reached out to ask about the Hebrew lettering tattoo that is featured in one of my photos. I find Hebrew tattoos hilarious. I explained that it meant “the strength to stand after we fall.” 

“Are you a former junkie?” he asked.

“Something like that.”

We went on to have the kind of gut-wrenchingly honest conversation that only two addicts can, and by the end of the conversation, we were working to find him a bed in a detox. I hope he went.

Sex work isn’t for everyone, and I can’t do it forever. I haven’t been able to date normally, which is fine because I haven’t finished the steps or gotten a year yet. So that seeming downside has also benefited my recovery. My goal is to make my living from writing in the next five years. Sex work, a career with no long-term future, is another way to burn the ships. There is no plan B, no safe career that could deter me from my true goals. I like that, too.

It’s also helped me weed out people in the program who aren’t good for me, not that I speak about it much — I’ve never spoken about it as much as I have in this article. When I needed a new sponsor after a move, I found one who had her own experience with sex work so I felt like it was a good match. But I quickly realized that she couldn’t see past her own history of street prostitution to understand how different my work was. When she pushed me to get a “sober job,” I fired her. I need to live alone and make my car payment, and that isn’t happening on $15 an hour. These things are important to my serenity, and I’m willing to do what it takes to maintain them. The next woman who almost took me through the steps sucked in her breath and said, “It must be hard to stay sober in that job.” 

Actually, it was much harder to stay sober waitressing, where I couldn’t choose whom I served, and where I couldn’t walk away from a situation with alcohol. And it was much harder to stay sober as a housewife. I never got to leave. 

My current sponsor thinks it should be completely legal, like it is in New Zealand, and without stigma. We just finished Step Five. I haven’t gotten that far with anyone in 11 years. I was a 1-2-3-step-and-hate-my-sponsor kind of gal.

Becoming a sex worker has helped me to get and stay sober, and to have a better quality of life than I ever thought possible. 

Sex work is real work. And it really set me free.

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Aviva Ruse is a writer and escort living in California. She travels often. You can find her on Twitter and Tumblr.