In November of last year, I finally got back to work. But slipping back into sex work was far more difficult than I’d expected.
I’m based in Victoria, the state of Australia that’s been hit hardest by pandemic restrictions. We’ve had a total of 245 days of lockdown this year. Alongside these general restrictions, we’ve also suffered a series of bans on in-person sex work - not only have sex workers been confined to their homes, many of us have also lost our main source of income.
It’s been a weird, tough couple of years. Time seems to have slipped out of focus, one long smear of artificial lighting, takeaway deliveries, and random sobbing. The fact that I had other work during this time makes me privileged, but for many sex workers pandemic-induced poverty has been the norm. Who would have guessed that the ‘world’s oldest profession’ - the gig we assumed we could always rely on - would suddenly be out of reach?
Like many, I was thrilled to hear we’d be allowed to go on paid dates again. As restrictions lifted, I received an offer from a regular client - a dinner date threesome with one of my favourite doubles partners. Of course, I said yes…blithely unaware of what I was getting into.
Before I start relating this comedy of errors, please know that I’m not trying to make light of your post-lockdown situation. Many workers are struggling with all kinds of trauma from what we’ve just been through and digging themselves out of holes much bigger than the butt indent on my couch.
But I think the tale is worth telling. Because even when we think we’re okay, we’re often not…and recovering from the pandemic might mean more than just slipping into our favourite heels.
Here are a few of the problems I encountered.
Problem one: forgetting how to dress myself.
After months of wearing tracksuit pants and tank tops, I discovered that what little fashion sense I’d possessed had totally evaporated.
I’ve always been a bit of a tomboy. I prefer comfort over class, and favour stretchy, figure-hugging fabric, not just because it flatters me, but because it feels good. Tight waistlines, underwire, sweaty material and hard-to-reach zips are a definite no-go. With these restrictions in mind, I’ve managed to build up a great collection of sexy date outfits over the years. Unfortunately, most of this stuff had been moved down to the garage after months of non-use. A quick check of the closet revealed that all I had left were sweatpants, hoodies, and comfy socks.
For some reason I’d decided to place all my outfits at the very back of my storage cage. This meant that, to find my work attire, I’d have to clean out the entire garage.
I chugged a Coke and got started. First, I took everything out and placed it in a line across the carpark. My neighbours must have thought I was about to have a garage sale - albeit a very weird one, because my fetish equipment and porn collection is pretty extensive. ‘Ball gag anyone? Five dollars!’ My neighbours now know much more about my hobbies than I’d like. If there’s anyone in my building who loves camping, cycling, and bondage, we’ll be best friends.
Finally, I reached the back and picked out an outfit - tight leggings, a loose silk shirt, gold jewellery, and huge eight-inch heels. This was a celebration - I was going back out into the world again! Why not be incredible?
Except…I still wasn’t sure if I looked the part. I’d spent so long in sweats playing Grand Theft Auto that I’d forgotten what an escort is ‘supposed’ to look like. Cue hours of walking back and forth in front of the bedroom mirror. I considered posting a selfie on Twitter – ‘Does my butt look good in this?’ - but I didn’t trust my followers. They’re all incredibly kind, and consistently say I look amazing, even when I simply roll out of bed and put on some pants.
The only reason I got out of the house on time was because I knew the two people I was going to meet, and I figured they’d forgive me if I committed some sort of fashion faux pas. If I’d been meeting a new client, I’d probably still be cowering by the bedroom mirror.
Problem two: getting from A to Z
Who knew it would take so long for an Uber to arrive?
I stood in the street in my tight pants and huge heels, checking the app every thirty seconds and feeling little jolts of anxiety every time the ‘estimated arrival’ time increased. I’d forgotten how long it takes to get from one place to another. Not just driving time, but also walking downstairs, running back upstairs because I forgot my face mask, waiting for my ride, getting dropped a block away by mistake…much more complicated than drawing a straight line on a Google map!
When my Uber finally picked me up, I was so relieved that I talked non-stop to the driver for the entire trip. I even forgave him for dropping me a block away by mistake, and awarded him five stars.
But that was the next problem. Remember those huge heels I’d decided to wear? They were really hard to walk in. After a few near-spills (with an audience - a few blokes were waiting at the tram stop) and some serious suffering, I realised that it’s quite hard to get back on the horse when you’re used to walking barefoot. By the time I arrived at the restaurant, I was hanging onto railings, street signs, random pedestrians - anything to alleviate the ache in my calves.
At this point, I was frazzled. The whole experience of leaving the house looked (and felt) completely different to how I remembered it. Bravely, I disregarded this emotional whiplash and soldiered on.
Problem three: losing my alcohol tolerance
It was so great to spend time with people again! My client and my doubles partner were already seated in a beautiful courtyard, complete with comfortable cushions and Christmas lights overhead. Their delight at my arrival mirrored my own feelings at seeing them again, after almost two years.
The waiter offered us sangria. “A glass, or a jug?” they asked. Of course, this was a special occasion, and we didn’t hold back. But once I was halfway through the first drink (and well into a conversation about the ins and outs of business with my lovely companions) I realised that perhaps I’d overestimated my ability to hold my alcohol.
I know a lot of people turned to booze to get through lockdown, and I don’t blame them. However, I went the other way, working out more and cutting down on drinking and desserts. (Don’t worry, I’m not one of those insufferable ‘lockdown is an opportunity’ people - my mental health was abysmal, and that morning run was the only thing keeping me sane.)
What I did forget was that when I cut down on alcohol, I also lost what little tolerance I had for the stuff. I’ve always been a lightweight; two or three standard drinks will leave me giggly - but when the first glass of wine made my face go numb, I knew I was in trouble.
I had a stupid grin on my face, and I’m sure they assumed it was because I was happy to see them. What they didn’t know was that I was also having trouble following the conversation. And every time the fairy lights over our table swayed in the breeze, I became convinced a flock of birds had just landed and were eyeing our tapas.
Problem four: forgetting my social skills
Reconnecting in person after isolation has a strange, psychedelic feel to it.
Nobody hugs any more (we don’t even bump elbows, because it feels utterly stupid). Conversation centres around the pandemic, whether mundane (‘What’s good on Netflix right now?’ or significant (‘How’s your mental health?’) And after months of Zoom, it’s jarring to notice how different your friends look in 3D.
Here’s a fun fact: I was diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum in the middle of lockdown. I’m classified as ‘low support needs’ (I don’t require much help getting through the day) but I definitely have to put some work into my social skills…and being stuck inside for so long, I felt out of practice.
This led to the occasional mid-conversation reality check. While one of my companions was talking about their kid’s new school, or their upcoming travel plans, I’d be distracted by a brief flash of confusion: “Who are you, and what am I doing here?” The very next moment, it would be the opposite - I’d be overcome with the nameless emotions provoked being near living, breathing people.
Luckily, my dinner date buddies were just as gushy as I was. We spent the next couple of hours re-hashing the last two years, getting up to date on each other’s lives. Nobody seemed to care when I said something a bit awkward. Hanging out with them reminded me that the right people don’t expect us to be perfect…and that good company can feel supportive rather than draining.
The experience left me feeling much more optimistic about my social life.
It’s good to be back…but it’s not yet ‘business as usual.’
I’m glad to be back at work. But it’s not the same as it was pre-pandemic - and that’s okay.
We’ve talked a lot about ‘getting back to normal’, but the truth is that things are different now. People who’ve been traumatised need a little extra support. Those of us who struggle with social anxiety need a little more understanding. It’s not just about getting what we need from others…it’s also about giving ourselves permission to feel a bit wobbly.
I’ll be taking things slow and limiting my contact to clients I feel comfortable with. I’m putting together a ‘go-to’ date outfit, to avoid future D-day panic. I’m also allowing plenty of time for detailed planning, slow Ubers, and support calls to friends. Not everyone has the luxury of choosing their clients, and not everyone has good supports - but if you do, use them! No matter what, please remember that you’ve been through a lot, and it’s understandable if you’re struggling.
I’m grateful I had such a gentle introduction when returning to work. Although I’m sure there will be plenty of nail-biting moments over the next few months, it’s helpful to remember that we’re all this together. While we’re worrying about how to fit ourselves back into the world, so is everyone else…and if they deserve compassion and patience, so do you.