Self-Care for Sex Workers with Lola Davina

“There is no shame in being a sexual person. Sex is what got us here; sex is how we are made. Our species needs to dance and to shimmy and to hum and to flirt and to fuck. The sexy fuels health, beauty, music, joy, creativity, inspiration, and curiosity — who’d want to live without those things? Every single person alive on this earth today is a product of the erotic.”

-Lola Davina

Lola has spent more than twenty-five years in and around the sex industry, working as a stripper, dominatrix, porn actress, and escort over a fifteen-year period. She earned her M.A. in Human Sexuality, her M.S. in Nonprofit Fundraising, and she writes a self-care and wellness column for I am honored to have the opportunity to discuss with her some of the intricacies of staying emotionally and physically healthy while working so intimately with sexuality.

You’ve pointed out that sex work is a career centered around the experience of passion, something that many of us are told to seek. Yet, collectively we struggle with understanding and respecting sex work. What do you think contributes to this dissonance for so many people?

I love this question, because, in my opinion, it gets to the heart of the stigma in sex work. Collectively, we are taught from a very young age that sex is many things: monumental, dangerous, taboo. We learn that it should unfold in a certain way, and must only take place between certain people, and to be acceptable, love and commitment need to be part of the mix. If for some reason these rules are not followed, terrible and damaging things can happen.

Sex work queers every element of that worldview: sex becomes functional, rather than sacred. Not in service of relationship or family-building, but purely for gratification. Paid sexuality often involves non-procreative behaviors: masturbation, outercourse, talking dirty, exhibitionism, kink. Sex workers, like firewalkers, step into that forbidden space, and make it their playground. As if all of that weren’t bad enough, sex workers perform these services for money, making us the queerest of the queer. Because if there is one thing that sets sex work apart, that makes it uncanny, is that people are performing sexuality on demand.

I use the word “uncanny” specifically, because I do believe that much of the stigma that stems from sex work is the belief that paid sexuality is fake, hollow, unreal. So, there must be something wrong with you if you seek it out; there must be something even more wrong with you if you provide it. Sexuality can be so overpowering—intoxicating us, filling our minds with taboo images, causing us to do strange and unfamiliar things. Someone who can conjure those forces, and yet not get swept up by them must seem a little spooky, a little unsettling.

I don’t have research to back this up, but I do believe that unease, that dis-taste is spontaneous and genuine, a kneejerk reaction that many outside the sex industry experience looking in. The antidote, much like any other phobia, is gradual familiarization and normalization, easing into an understanding that sex workers need not be depraved or sex-crazed or altogether dead inside. They can experience a wide spectrum of physical and emotional pleasure from their work, along with negative experiences, within a manageable range. Simply contemplating the possibility that sex work might not be the right choice for oneself, but can be a viable profession for someone else is a step in the right direction.

I see great overlap between the self-care approaches you recommend for sex workers, and healthy self-care for anyone. Are there very many differences that you see?

I can’t speak to any kind of universal experience of performing sex work, but I can say that what I felt, and many other sex workers tell me about, is that sex work is a heightened experience. It’s taboo-smashing, it’s transgressive, often exciting, even exhilarating. But it can also be terrifying, demeaning, disorienting. We face rejection at every turn. Additionally, when you turn people on for a living, emotional shit is bound to come up, both for you and your clients. As I never get tired of saying, sex work is serious emotional labor, and self-care is essential.

Certainly, self-care is important for non-sex workers as well, and I would like to see more awareness about the emotions that sex can stir up. The Latin phrase “Omne animal post coitum triste” springs to mind: “All animals are sad after sex.” All kinds of reactions can surface during and after, including loneliness, an aching need for connection or affirmation or devotion or for never-ending communion, a desire to feel desirable, to feel safe or thrillingly endangered, to cross forbidden lines. We don’t do a very good job of conceptualizing sexual aftercare in our culture. Basically, our toolkit consists of: have sex with a romantically appropriate partner, make sure everyone is satisfied (somehow—this part might be a little fuzzy), and anything you feel after the fact is going to be awesome! Perhaps my sarcastic tone makes it clear that I don’t believe that is always the case

My advice throughout “Thriving” is simple: we have to feel what we feel. Listen to what those emotions are telling us, no matter how unpleasant or overpowering they may be in the moment. Honing those skills—to be present and honest, to know deep down in our guts that we can endure temporary emotional pain and let it pass through us—this is big magic, once we’ve been at it awhile. It gives us the resiliency and compassion needed to meet others where they are at, which is a powerful gift to the world, for sex workers and non-sex workers alike.

Are there any mistakes you believe you’ve made as a sex worker?

I had to laugh when I read this question, because if I have one regret in writing “Thriving in Sex Work,” it’s that I didn’t come clean that the entire book serves as a litany of my mistakes as a sex worker. Turn to any page, and whatever advice I offer, there’s a backstory of a time—or many, many times—when I screwed up. By this I mean letting myself down, beating myself up, allowing myself become subsumed by anger or self-loathing or dread.

To any of my readers reading this now, here’s my confession: I didn’t write “Thriving” to brag about what a boss lady I was. I wrote it because looking back, almost every day there were ways I could have been gentler, wiser, kinder with myself. No question, I could’ve been better with money, more assertive with clients, less insecure romantically. I could have sought out professional help, rather than believing I had to do everything alone

I write in “Thriving” about how punishing failure can feel in sex work, that “only by appearing to be perfect can we combat negative stereotypes. So it may feel unsafe to admit that we’re struggling with the job, for the fear it makes us look like losers. If we have a bad call, or fall in love with a client, or feel overwhelmed, didn’t we bring it on ourselves? Vulnerability can result in a reflexive need for privacy, not wanting to put up a hard, sassy shield many of us don’t authentically feel and that can be exhausting to perform.” I believe that fear of exposure—not as a slut, but as a screw-up—is one of the main reasons sex workers remain in the closet. It can also mean that even our closest working confidants don’t feel safe to fully confide in, for fear of being judged.

In talking about that vulnerability, my message is: Coming out as sex workers, just as we need to feel safe to be visible, we need to feel safe to be vulnerable. There has to be room to acknowledge our demons, our doubts, our damage. Most of us muddle through sex work making all kinds of mistakes along the way. It should be okay to say so.

She leaves you wanting to know more, doesn’t she? I actually bombarded her with seven more questions! I encourage you to follow that interest, and find out more about Lola and the incredible work she does here.

A Guide for Effective Journaling

Therapy is where we learn to cultivate our inner sanctuary. It’s where we can get what we need in order to be present with ourselves when no one else is around. Because relationships are our holding space for being ourselves, it is getting enough practice at that with others that allows us to become our own safe space for doing whatever delightful baloney we choose. Journaling is a thread between those inter- and intra-personal spaces.

Consider your diary to be a log of your honesty with yourself. From honesty comes our best explorations and our best art. Know that the work is to move towards increasing depths of understanding of yourself and of the world. Work to be honest to the extent that your diary becomes a sort of photo album of your living experience- but one no more organized than a dream.

Here is my guide to making your experience pleasurable and useful…

Remember the intention: What do I need in order to be willing to see the truth of myself, and of the world?

Flow with your materials.

The richest explorations are done in a relaxed but alert state. That begins by being physically comfortable and supported. Ideally the sensations of the journaling itself are pleasant and draw you in so that you can focus on pouring yourself out.

So, use the path of least tension. Unlined paper, a writing implement you like, and a quiet room are usually considered the most suitable. Somatically speaking, it’s very useful to see how your words are written. Writing is a form of drawing. Our muscle tension or relaxation, our speed of writing, the slant of our words or lines- all of it expresses something beyond the letters and words themselves.

However, it is most important is to honor whatever particular things you need at this point in time. If lined pages help you not to worry about straight lines, then lined pages it is. Typing instead of writing is also fine. Use whatever means keep you from physical distractions, but also work to get rid of any physical barriers in order to give yourself incrementally more space. Challenge yourself to try a new setting or technique so that you can keep expanding. Work to stay relatively comfortable as you do so.

Once you find something like a flow, you can move on to attending to the more complex distractions. That’s where the good stuff is.

Be alert for all manner of distraction.

Because this is a practice of burrowing into oneself in order to explore one’s depths, it’s vital to notice what gets in the way. What is the blockage made of, and what is needed to move past it?

Notice your willingness or reticence to write something down. Write down as much of what you notice about this as you can bring yourself to do. These are some of the richest moments of potential for noticing what you are and are not yet willing to know or to do.

Zoom out, and take a look. Every now and then, perhaps at the end of each paragraph or page, slow down and consider your writing. Ask yourself questions-

  • What am I feeling (sensations and emotions) right now?
  • What am I afraid of happening?
  • Who am I writing this to?
  • Who am I afraid will read this?
  • Who do I hope will read this?
  • What am I really trying to express?
  • What do I want to feel- now, or if I reread this?

Use your answers to increase the realness and honesty of your entry.

Honor your reticence.

We tend to suck at this. We are far too practiced at telling ourselves, “If I just…” or “All I have to do is…” Practice not doing that. Replace those moments with honest reflections about what is making something difficult. When you dislike something, it’s for a reason. Listen to yourself about it with kindness. The reason helps to point to what you need. Often you won’t know what you need, but paying matter-of-fact attention to what you’re feeling will often get you there, if only after you’ve enlisted support in the process.

And expect your hurdles to increase in size and complexity for some time. Keep your process moving along the way. Eventually, you’ll move through to deeper work. And then you’ll hang there for a while. And then you’ll deepen again. Eventually the practice becomes the work. The practice is the work, and this becomes apparent after a few times of moving through something tough or lovely.

Before I move on to particular ways of writing, notice how much of this is about paying attention. This is the bulk of the work of journaling, just as it’s the bulk of the work of therapy. You are working to get out of your own way by paying attention to what’s in your way. And paying attention indeed requires paying something. The practice of doing this is the work itself. The technique is what allows you to create something. So return to these reminders often. Now onto the ways to create entries…

Explore from different angles.

  • Have conversations- with yourself now, with yourself at past ages, especially childhood, with your imagined future selves, and with others. Focus on emotions and needs.
  • Log your experiences. Go heavy on sensation-based descriptions. These entries are great for important experiences, pleasant or unpleasant, and are a big part of creating an album of your life that is rewarding to make and to read. But logging can also bring the needed reverence to minutia.
  • Track yourself and your surroundings in the moment. You can do one or the other, or both at the same time. Go heavy on sensation language here, too, and be as grammatical or un-grammatical as you please in the moment. Our experiences go beyond words, so breaking free of their form becomes very important during tracking.
  • Draw. Sketch, paint, scribble, whatever. Being able to draw as you journal is a huge step in being willing to put anything down. It’s a great way to get at the aforementioned wordlessness of our experiences.
  • Write down your dreams. Dreams are a wonderful peak into the deeper chambers of our unconscious, which are typically closed during waking hours. Often just describing them in your journal will cause you to remember more of them, and to dream in a richer way. You can choose to explore them on paper or not, but be sure to notice what emotions you felt during your dreams.
  • Store precious items. Be careful with this one, and really curate what you add to your collection. The intention is not to increase your diary’s show quality (at least not for others). These items are for recounting visceral reactions, and for exploring these reactions. It needn’t even be a special item, but simply one that evokes a sensation or emotion.

Whatever arises, attend to it. If you don’t know how, ask for help. Happy journaling.

Winter Rest

“He who marvels at the beauty of the world in summer will find equal cause for wonder and admiration in winter…. In winter the stars seem to have rekindled their fires, the moon achieves a fuller triumph, and the heavens wear a look of a more exalted simplicity.” -John Burroughs

Hello lovely readers, and happy winter! Many of you have asked why I’ve been quieter here and on social media lately, and it means a great deal to me that you wondered and reached out. As I’ve shared with a few of you, I’ve been amidst a winter rest.

Particularly because I’m a therapist, I tend to steer away from speaking heavily about my current personal process. But over the last few months, what’s been happening in my personal life has been a clear and, I hope, relatable example of a somatic process, and so I hope that you will find value in my sharing it.

I’ve finally come to understand that winter is about rest and renewal. As a hardcore sun worshiper, in the past I’ve treated winter with indifference at best- a time where you just sort of hold out for the warm weather to return. But a few years ago, I began to celebrate the holidays in a more earth-based way. This began with small things like cooking with seasonal produce more often, and putting local plants and flowers in vases around my home. I recall the latter being a fiscally-inspired decision during a spring season wherein I found myself on a major fresh flower kick. One day I decided that I may as well use the flowers outside of my front door. This started a new habit of noticing more closely than before the subtler changes in the plantlife around my home and city.

Last winter, I read something by Henry David Thoreau that landed and stayed with me: “Live in each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influence of the earth.” I’m especially crazy for that last bit. A huge part of somatic work is about resigning yourself to and embracing the reality of the present.

I’ve realized that in the same way that our consciousness is affected by our bodies, our bodies are affected by the seasons. It sounds terribly obvious to me now, especially since I’ve been clear on other environmental influences. But only during this last autumn was I able to feel the seasonal change in my body. This, by the way, is something that us somaticists absofuckinglutely live for: clear, wise messages straight from the body. I felt my body slowing down, I noticed that I was focused more internally than externally, and on days when I didn’t need to set an alarm, I’d begun to sleep significantly longer. When I happened to read something about the ways in which plants and trees, like animals, hibernate during winter, this new awareness really fell into place. It couldn’t possibly be that plants and animals need to hibernate during winter, but that human animals do not.

So this year, I intentionally made very few plans. And that meant saying no to a lot of activities, of which there is no shortage in Los Angeles. I must have said some version of, “Perhaps next month. I’m in winter rest mode,” at least a dozen times during the month of December. It was in itself an interesting experiment with setting boundaries. And not all the boundaries were external. I have a tendency to become a knitting machine over the winter, and this year I took on fewer, less results-focused projects. Most of us think of cozy indoor activities when we think of winter and the winter holidays, but somehow that often translates to being busier and broker than ever. I simply decided not to do that this year, and while it has felt really good, it has also meant facing certain old beliefs.

Working your ass off and making as much money as possible are values pushed on us from multiple angles. Even most western therapeutic models don’t have a name for over-working. It’s culturally sanctioned. So even in the absence of criticism about taking a long winter holiday at home, I noticed that I would, on occasion, question my choice. Shouldn’t I at least offer a workshop? Or work on my book? Or at least, I don’t know, get some new pillows for the office? Once I got clear on the decision to not even look at email, the suggestions from that voice in my head got a little sneakier… Ok, so don’t work. But produce something. Maybe just throw a small holiday party? But, as one learns to do in therapy and is sometimes able to execute real-time, I was watching my internal process unfold and got wise to this sneaky voice and its overworky intentions.

So most everything that I did was internally-focused, and I believe this to be the essence of winter. Reflection, assimilation, and release. We work hard for months, putting plans and intentions into action, being creative in as many arenas of our lives as we can. Winter is for enjoying all the work we’ve done while our bodies and minds are renewed by the rest. Through reflection we can become clear on what has worked and what hasn’t. Through resting we renew our energies to begin the cycle again.

“In seed time learn, in harvest teach, in winter enjoy.” -William Blake

If I hadn’t rested, I wouldn’t have heard from my readers who wondered about my absence. That was in itself a gathering of the fruits of my labor: a time to use a bit of distance to reflect on what I’d produced in the last few months, and to hear how it affected others.

Amongst the other lovely effects of this process has been a deepening of my appreciation for nighttime. And this is something I thought impossible. I am very much a night owl. It is when I have the most energy and creativity, and also when I feel the most peace and wonder. That the nights are longer during winter is not something that I was able to appreciate or enjoy back when I was tensing my body against the weather until springtime. This year, and especially on the solstice, I have been reveling in the nighttime hours. I have done far more stargazing than ever before, and have even begun to dream about space.

I’ve also begun to dream lucidly on occasion, which I also attribute to this slowed-down time of reflection. It’s given me a chance to get more intimately and intricately in touch with my internal world, which feels really, really good.

It’s still winter. If you didn’t rest over the holidays, you have many weeks left in which to do so. I’m very aware that taking time off from work is a privilege that isn’t available to everyone, and by no means is that the only way to rest or enjoy winter. For me it was only one of many ways I’ve done so this season. And while I’m back in my office, and here writing this for you now, I am continuing my winter revels. Rest can and should be integrated into each day of your life.

Find or create quiet moments, however brief. Refuse to take on anything besides the simplest and most necessary of tasks. Walk outside with your morning coffee and see what’s happening in the plantlife. Notice what you can smell. If you live somewhere quite cold, enjoy the stillness. Listen to how well sound travels through the cold, dry air. Soak up the particular magic of snow. When you walk from your car to your home, look up at the sky. What do you feel when you gaze at the moon. My own therapist said something beautiful when I told her how quickly I was able to get grounded and present one night when I walked outside to look at the stars. She said that it’s very easy for us to let the sky be the sky.

If you can work less, do so. But do not call it a luxury or indulgence. It is a bodily necessity, and it is never indulgent to take care of yourself. Slowing and letting go is necessary in order for new things to emerge. Rest is not a stagnant process. Understanding and caring for ourselves is both discovery and creation.