Ever been in the situation where a regular customer got a bit too emotionally invested?
I’ll always remember my first love letter. It was months after our first session…seemingly out of nowhere, I received a six-paragraph email about how much I’d changed his life. To be honest, my reaction was, ‘Wow, this stuff really can make a difference!’ It was my first experience of how helpful paid sex can be. But I felt uneasy too. Were things about to get weird?
Although that client never crossed the line, I’ve since discovered that emotional attachment can definitely be a problem. It can turn a good professional relationship into something I dread: unsolicited texts, declarations of love, and passive-aggressive sulking whenever they’re reminded that I still see other customers. It doesn’t happen to me often…but when it does, it’s tiring, invasive, and often means the end of our bookings together.
I’m not a scientist, but I have a few theories about why this happens. A client might have a great experience with a sex worker and become convinced only that worker can provide it. It might be about having a crush (I’ve certainly felt that, after good sex!) Or it could be that, for a lonely person, the idea of having an affair with their perfect fantasy is irresistible. Sometimes, there’s a genuine connection – and because most people are taught to escalate any sign of attraction into a romantic relationship, they feel the vibe and want to dive straight into ‘I love you,’ completely forgetting that it’s a paid arrangement.
In past blogs, I’ve mused that sex work is a bit like massage therapy (because you’re in close physical contact with strangers) and a bit like psychotherapy (because you’re doing a LOT of emotional heavy lifting.) In this article, I’ve reached out to a counselling pro for advice on handling attachment.
My question: How do therapists stay sane in situations where their clients start to develop feelings, and have no skills to separate the professional from the personal?
Nelly Uhlenkott is an Australian psychotherapist, counsellor and coach who welcomes people from all backgrounds. She helps her clients handle many types of relationships: romantic, familial, personal, professional. And she agrees that attached customers are an issue in her industry. “Therapists sometimes struggle with feeling a client might be very attached and knowing when to name that, especially if it’s an emotional attachment, an erotic attachment, or both,” she says.
But Nelly feels that sex work and counselling are very different, when it comes to dealing with lovestruck clients. It’s much easier to explore this problem in therapy, than it is to interrupt an escort customer mid-shag to talk about their feelings!
She says that managing attachment is best done earlier rather than later. And it’s not so much about what the client is doing, but more about how it makes you feel. “Step one is tuning in around what feels like a comfortable boundary. That’s going to look different for different people.” If we’re under pressure or think our privacy is being invaded, paying attention that gut feeling is a legit way to work out when something’s not okay.
We all have different boundaries. One of my pro-domme friends is fine with clients who declare their love – she says it’s part of their emotional experience, and she handles it with ease. On the other hand, I prefer treating my regs like friends rather than lovers. A romantic vibe makes me want to run for the hills.
Let’s assume that the gut feeling is there - we’ve acknowledged that a client is more attached than we’d like. How do we deal with this? In my experience, both sex workers and clients alike sometimes struggle to talk about their boundaries. Nobody teaches this stuff! Because sex work income relies on making clients happy, it’s easy to feel trapped between the pressure to give people what they want and the fear of losing business. I’ve often avoided saying ‘no’ to bad behaviour, simply because I was afraid of disappointing a regular customer.
Nelly sees things a little differently. “Setting the boundary can be useful for both people,” she says.
I think she has a point. Many of my regs come to me to work on their social skills, not just to get laid. To improve at relationships, they need to know what isn’t appropriate. Nelly argues that setting boundaries can often create safety rather than drama. “A lot of people come to sex workers for practice at developing relationships,” she says. “All the more reason to set expectations … it can be really helpful for people to know where the line is.”
When it comes to saying ‘no,’ here are some of my favourite lines:
“I really enjoy our sessions, but I need you to remember that it’s also a professional relationship. If you keep asking me to date you, it’s going to make things weird and we won’t be able to hang out anymore.”
“I love hearing from you, but I’m also running a business so I’m pretty short on time. I can’t answer calls or messages unless we’re planning our next date together.”
“It means a lot to me that you trust me with the personal things we’ve talked about lately. But I’d also like to keep our dates fun, and it feels like it’s getting a bit intense. Have you thought about maybe getting a counsellor to talk through that stuff?”
Not all workers can have these conversations. When rent is due, even a client that makes us feel uncomfortable might be better than no client at all. And, as I’m sure you know, not all customers react well to boundaries. If pushing back feels unsafe, that’s totally your call. We can’t control how people handle being told ‘no.’ But I’ve found that when I do have a choice, practicing my boundary-setting skills often helps. When I ask for what I need calmly, it usually settles someone down, rather than making them upset. Like Nelly says, I suspect many clients like knowing where they stand.
Our sex work peers can help us stick up for ourselves. Talking things over with other escorts has helped me in the past, giving me a second opinion and providing encouragement to do what feels right. Working with counsellors has also me helped me learn to say ‘no’ without feeling guilty.
There’s one thing Nelly and I definitely agree on. If an emotionally-attached client is unable or unwilling to change their ways, it’s okay to end the relationship. “If something just isn’t feeling right then I think that’s worth trusting,” she says. Her advice echoes the number one rule of escorting, ‘trust your gut.’ As long as you’re okay with losing the business, I reckon ending things with a difficult client is perfectly acceptable.
‘Sorry, I don’t think we’re a good fit.’ It’s a line I’ve used more than once in my escorting career, and I’ve rarely regretted it.