“The Grief of Retirement: A Sex Work Ritual”
By former SWOP-USA Vice President Katie Bloomquist MS, MA, LAMFT
In my therapeutic work with people who sell sexual services, I consider myself to be privileged to support the process of retirement for folks who want to transition into another type of employment. Unfortunately for many sex workers, there are few sex positive, non-judgmental supports available to them when they end their time in the sex industry.
In Minneapolis, the only resource which claims to support sex workers in the retirement transition is Breaking Free, which identifies sex work as “the worlds oldest oppression” (not my first [or last] choice for sex positive, unconditional support of people in the sex industry). This group claims to offer a life skills class to materially support sex workers, but they have been unresponsive to my attempts to reach out for more information about the group.
In therapy with sex workers who are retiring, I have found that processing the loss of identity that comes with this transition can be helpful and bring a sense of closure. Most sex workers work under a pseudonym, and with that name can come a different persona and part of themselves that they get to express only through their work. Processing and grieving the loss of this persona, or figuring out how to integrate this part of them into their non work life can be helpful for some sex workers.
As grief and loss is not a linear process, working from the 5 stages of grief may or may not be helpful – this depends on the individual. For many female-identified folks, it is not often encouraged to be sexual or confident in one’s sexuality in our sex-phobic culture; but through sex work, being sexy and confident is expected and reinforced. Integrating this part of one’s “sex work identity” into daily reality can be an empowering and cohesive process if that feels safe and desired for the individual.
Grieving the loss of the relationships sex workers have with their clients can also be important in this process. Some sex workers see the same clients for many years and establish close relationships – ending these relationships can be difficult, emotionally draining, and hard to navigate. Setting healthy boundaries that feel good for the individual is important during this transition. Exploring this in therapy can be helpful as there is no “how to” when it comes to retiring from sex work, and everyone will have different boundaries that feel good to them. Some sex workers may choose to remain friends with their clients – and others may decide to delete all of their client contacts and never look back. Both types of boundaries can be healthy as long as they are intentional, thought out, and feel comfortable and “right” for the person.
One helpful way to ease the transition of retirement for sex workers is to engage in a type of retirement ritual. This can be any type of action that feels important and meaningful to symbolize the end of one part of work life and the beginning of a new stage or era. Some examples might include:
having a type of sex work “funeral” in which one buries something that represents their sex work career or their sex work persona (literally and figuratively putting it to rest)
- creating a work of art that represents one’s time in the sex industry
- journaling, writing a letter, memoir, or book about one’s experiences as a sex worker
- developing one’s own unique memorial for their sex work persona
- adapting these grief rituals in a way that resonates may also be helpful
Depending on the type of sex work, some sex workers may also experience a sense of [or an actual] loss of community when they retire from their work. This can be particularly difficult for folks who work in strip clubs, work in massage parlors, or other types of sex work in which workers are in close proximity to one another and develop close relationships and friendships. Exploring ways to stay connected to community and keep those relationships alive is important, especially during the retirement transition. Having as many sex worker-friendly supports and resources around as possible is something I encourage my sex worker therapy clients to do. Identifying and building other sources of community and support also might be helpful during the retirement transition, depending on one’s situation.
Lola Davina recently wrote a book on sex work that has a chapter on retirement – I would suggest reading this for those who are considering retiring from the sex industry or who are already going through this transition. She also has a workbook that accompanies the book that I have heard positive things about.
I offer a process group for current and former sex workers in Minneapolis. The next group starts in July and runs for 8 consecutive weeks.
If you have questions about this group, feel free to email me: firstname.lastname@example.org or give me call: 612-568-2864
I am considering offering another sex worker support group online for folks who are located in other states – if this is something you are interested in, please let me know if you would like your name added to the list of potential group members.