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Herbal Care for Sex Workers

Herbal Care for Sex Workers

. 7 min read

Disclaimer: Molly Simmons is a Herbalist, not a medical professional and this post is for educational purposes only. Always seek the guidance of your doctor and/or other qualified health professional with questions you have regarding your health. Never disregard the advice of medical professionals or delay in seeking it because you have read this article.

Herbal care has been passed down through communities for generations - before the professionalization of medicine, women, witches, midwives and family members were the keepers of herbal knowledge. Herbal medicine is accessible, adaptable, and can be a resource to turn to when we don't have the ability to access institutional care. I'm lucky enough to live in New York City, where there are several free sexual health clinics available for diagnostics and sexual health care. If you're able to access a free sexual health clinic - I highly recommend it! Sometimes we need more care than herbal remedies can provide, and sometimes we need diagnostic help to figure out what's going on with our bodies. But if you have a certain level of experience and awareness of your own body and can recognize what's going on with your reproductive health, knowing what herbal remedies can help cure you can be extremely helpful if you aren't able to access other types of care.

Part of being an herbalist is learning to develop various remedies for myself and getting to know my body on a more intimate level. And as a sex worker, I'm very aware of sexual health and well being. Herbal sexual health remedies are easy, accessible, and everything here can be made with things from our average grocery store. These remedies largely focus on vaginal health, because as a person with a vagina it's what I have the most experience with.

Yeast Infections

Yeast infections are an overgrowth of candida (a fungus) in the vagina. It is itchy, uncomfortable, and affects your normal discharge. You can tell a yeast infection from bacterial vaginosis in several ways. Yeast infections itch, though the discharge generally has no odor, whereas bacterial vaginosis will have a strong odor. Both can cause itching and discomfort during urination, but yeast infections will cause a thick, white discharge as opposed to the much thinner discharge of BV.  Here are some tips to avoid and treat a yeast infection.

1. Use non-latex condoms. Over the years I've developed a sensitivity to latex, and so having sex with latex condoms will almost immediately give me a yeast infection, so I only use non-latex condoms now.

2. Use plenty of lubricant! The dry friction of sex with a condom that isn't properly lubricated can easily lead to a yeast infection. If you're using toys you'll want to check what type of lubricant works best, but my go-tos are always water-based lubricants. Find what works for your body and stick with it.

3. Oil of Oregano. You can buy this at a lot of grocery stores with a health food section. Take 3-5 drops twice a day, but dilute it in water otherwise you could burn yourself! This will build up your immune system and help regularly kill off an overgrowth of candida (yeast) in your system.

4. Fungus Fighting Tincture. This will be a little less available, but if you have a health food store around you or are able to buy it online it's a great thing to have on hand. Herb Pharm makes a great tincture (with that same name) or you can make one yourself with spilanthes, pau d'arco, marshmallow, and uva ursi.

5. Garlic. Garlic is a little extreme as it kills everything in your vaginal canal (even the good stuff!) so use it sparingly and support your body with probiotics - apple cider vinegar and Greek yogurt are best. To use garlic, simply insert a clove into your vaginal canal. You can score it a little to make it stronger, and thread a string through it so it's easy to take out. Leave it in for about 6-8 hours, and then give your body a break before inserting another clove.

Bacterial Vaginosis

Bacterial vaginosis is a bacterial infection that causes painful inflammation, discolored and smelly discharge, and a general burning/itching sensation. It is not the same as a yeast infection, though they can occur at the same time.

1. Garlic. If you have painful bacterial vaginosis (I've had it so bad I could barely walk) use garlic first to get the inflammation and pain down. If you use garlic, though, do try to support your body by drinking apple cider vinegar and eating Greek yogurt to build up the probiotics in your gut and vagina again.

2. Coconut Oil + Tea Tree Oil. Both of these oils are antimicrobial and anti-bacterial. Put a few drops of tea tree oil into some coconut oil and cover a tampon with the mixture. Insert the tampon and leave it in for about 6 hours.

3. Cotton Underwear. Wear only light, breathable cotton underwear. (Or better yet, no underwear!) It's important to let your vagina breath - so avoid any tight clothing.

Urinary Tract Infections

Urinary tract infections are incredibly common for people with vaginas, and they generally occur after having penetrative sex. They can be incredibly painful, and it's important to avoid any sexual intercourse if that's possible for you while you have one (or any of these).

1. Cranberry Juice. It's an old remedy, but it's vital. 100% cranberry, no cranberry juice cocktail or any additives. Drinking about a litre a day, plus a lot of water will help flush out the infection. It's vital to stay hydrated and urinate as much as you feel the need to.

2. Tulsi Tea. Tulsi, also called Holy Basil, is a tasty tea that will help flush out the bacteria in your urinary tract. Drink 1-3 cups a day - let the leaves steep for 15 minutes before drinking.

3. Uva Ursi. This one is a little less common, but if you have a health store near you uva ursi tincture is an amazing way to help move a UTI out of your body. Additional supportive tinctures include marshmallow, cleavers, and oat seed, but if you can only afford one you should go with uva ursi. If you have a tincture, take one dropper full 3 times a day.

Oral Infections

There are many types of viruses and bacteria that can live in our mouths and throats and turn into more serious issues. One of the most important things I've learned over the years is that both chlamydia and gonorrhea can live in your throat, and if they're in your throat they might not be present in a urine test - which is what most standard STI test panels use. So you could be walking around with an STI or infection in the throat and not even know it, because both of these infections rarely exhibit symptoms when they live in our throats.

The easiest way to prevent an infection from living in your throat is using alcohol-based Listerine. Though it's not herbal, Listerine is an affordable, accessible, and highly effective remedy in fighting infection in the mouth and throat. After every client, simply swish and gargle for a few minutes and then spit out the mouthwash. If you'd like to use an herbal alternative, try the following recipe.

  1. Put some cinnamon and cloves in water - a good ratio is 3 cinnamon sticks and a tablespoon of cloves for 5 cups of water, but it doesn't have to be exact. If you're unsure, it doesn't hurt to add a little more! Bring it to a boil then cover and let simmer for 20 minutes.
  2. Strain out the cinnamon and cloves and add 1/8 cup of salt. Stir until fully dissolved.
  3. You can use these recipe by itself, or you can add 100-150 proof vodka to act as a preservative and strenghten the effects. If you don't add the alcohol, the recipe will last around 3-5 days in the fridge. If you add alcohol, it can last several months in the fridge.

All of these herbal remedies are safe to use over a longer period of time, and my personal recommendation is that if you're experiencing symptoms you take any remedy until you stop experiencing symptoms and an additional 3-5 days after. In the case of BV and yeast infections, there are diagnostic tests you can buy at any drug store for less than $20. If you're worried that you might have an STI either in your vagina or your throat, I would recommend looking up free sexual health clinics in your area! Planned Parenthood is often a good option, and here in NYC we have several clinics run by the Department of Health that are offered completely free to everyone, and are an invaluable resource.

Just like with sex work, herbal medicine relies on our intuition and our innate abilities to be in tune with ourselves and listen to our body's signals. It's not always an exact process, but it can be incredibly empowering to learn how to take care of our body's needs without relying on expensive or inaccessible pharmaceuticals and doctor's visits. I hope these remedies offer you all some powerful information about how to take care of yourself as you navigate work and it's challenges! Because when your ability to make money is directly tied to your genital and oral heath, it's important to know ways to take care of ourselves even when we aren't in a position to access any other care. And as with all things - listen to your body! If you try something and your body doesn't feel better, stop that remedy and try something new. Herbal medicine is highly individualized, and it's important to honor the different things our bodies need to heal.  

Molly Simmons is a sex worker, sex worker organizer, and a writer. One of the founding members of SWOP Brooklyn, she helps run mutual aid efforts for sex workers in New York City while fighting for the decriminalization of sex work in New York State. She believes in solidarity over charity, and that change comes through radical love and community-building. She has published work for the Huffington Post, the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung Foundation, and the New York Daily News, and has been interviewed for many major publications about her work with SWOP.