I’m burnout, and known it for a while, but now I’ve accepted it’s time to stop. I used to work for a sex work anti-violence charity, and I loved it dearly. However, I found the mental health impact was substantial, and I took the role whilst still homeless myself. I don’t regret it; I thank them for giving me the chance, and it soothed my panic about gaps in my employment history. I look back now and realise how irrational that was. I was only 22, but I was convinced nobody would hire me, and I would be seen as a sex worker forever.
In the background of the past 3 years has been sex work, a pandemic, homelessness, drug use and relapses, poor mental health, rapes, court case, supporting my friends, personal violence, loss of sex workers, extensive vicarious trauma, and in all of this was somehow looking after myself; something I did not do very well. How can you do that when you’ve never been taught how to, had the funds, told why it’s important, and you’ve been living in survival and panic mode for years? There’s no time to plan care when you have no idea where you’re going next.
I started my dream job in January, working in systems change and policy for an alliance of women’s charities. I had spent years working in housing, health, justice and violence, advocating and changing policies for sex workers, homeless women and trans women. It was well paid, part-time and away from the front line. I did the job well, loved working with women leaving prison, and found my passion again. However, despite this, only 3 months in I handed in my notice and left. It was a shock to my managers, and nobody could see it coming. What went so wrong?
Working in the VAWG and/or homeless sector is exhausting, as much as I love it. I am constantly surrounded by prostitution abolitionists, having the same discussions, coming up against wider challenges I can’t change, dealing with death, rape and violence, then managing horrific and barbaric policies and systems. It’s not just a job, ideology or pay check though; it’s my life, my experiences, my future, my friends and people I love who are impacted by this. It’s personal, not just a meeting on my calendar. My heart is in it, but as my psychiatrist told me, I need to put my own oxygen mask on first.
Last year, I applied for a role at a homeless outreach service. I passed the interview with flying colours, almost scoring perfect. They took me on an outreach shift to see how I would engage with others, and from this, they stopped proceeding with me. In the feedback, they said I was jumpy around men, scared, disengaged from them and shy. I didn’t think I was like this at all, and this was the first time someone had told me black and white how I was. It was quite heart-breaking to hear, but I agreed with their assessment during discussion. I had never noticed how things had impacted me, and especially never realised that others could see it too. I was always described as stoic, easy going and for me, felt I could chat with anyone about anything.
It was from this I decided to self-reflect not just on myself, but all that happened. I took up mental health support from the drug service, engaged with the dual diagnosis team, saw a psychologist, grappled with wider issues and realised, a lot of bad shit has happened. I think I am so used to the chaos, I don’t realise how much is going on until other people point it out. Generally, I believe these things are completely normal, which most people go through. Apparently not. My flat was becoming beyond messy to the point it was unusable, I’d lay in bed for days at a time, and most recently, I’ve lost a considerable amount of weight to the point I’m now underweight. My poor body has been cycling through virus flare ups, relentless infections, panic attacks and whatever else. It’s exhausted.
In my most recent role, I co-facilitate a group for women who’ve left prison around domestic violence, healthy relationships, child impact and the law etc. I feel so privileged to work alongside such incredible, resilient and courageous women every day. I am in awe of them often. However last week, as I sat and listened to an explicit disclosure, I found myself getting upset and realised, it’s too close to home and I am not in the right mind-set for this. It’s unfair on both myself and the women in this group for this to continue, and I found myself growing more apathetic to distance myself from it and switch my own brain off. We often talk about the value of lived experience in this sector, but never the impacts on the worker who has duality, trauma, and how we’re too scared to say.
I took my blog down for some time. I thought it was shit, useless and I struggled with what to write. I recently went back and looked at some of my earlier blog posts, and I am launched back to the time of my life when I wrote some of them. It is staggering reading on reflection just how scared, anxious, worried, on edge and stressed I was. You can easily read it too in the posts, and I get upset looking at some of them.
Sex work and activism
I never intended to be ‘out’ as a sex worker, especially publicly. I outed myself because a radical feminist was belittling me, saying that she knew better as she was one herself formerly (she wasn’t after all), and that I was wrong and didn’t know anything. I bit and told her I was a sex worker, and that was it, I couldn’t take it back. My Twitter account was made when I was 12, so it’s safe to say I never intended this. My full name has always been on it, and I knew nothing about the sex work community, anonymous hookers online, and I felt as though I was the only one sometimes. After this, I thought fuck it, I’ve done it now – can’t be that bad, right?
From here, I found myself getting angry at sex workers themselves who I felt would hush up the bad experiences, and would often comment on my posts asking me to delete it in fear of abolitionists. I was homeless, street sex working and drug using, and felt it was an insult. My account then got a lot more popular than I ever anticipated, and during great times of loneliness and especially during the pandemic, it gave me company, hope and solace, especially getting to know other sex workers. However, a huge downfall of this was that my family found out I was a sex worker from being online and after this, they stopped talking to me. It’s been two years now.
I have not, and never will, describe myself as a sex work activist, but people describe me as such. I would say I am more of an advocate, and I have no interest in sex worker rights groups, including sex worker led collectives themselves. As much as the ideological debates are important, it doesn’t do much materially on the ground, nor going forward. I then turned to fundraising, developing services, healthcare and justice. It’s one of my proudest achievements. We raised £40,500 for a new outreach van for sex workers, £5,000 for a sex worker who had her teeth smashed out, £2,500 for a sex worker Christmas event, and most recently, I did the research for a rape crisis service where I am Trustee to develop a specialist outreach for sex workers and homeless women. From this, we as a team collectively raised £50,000 in matched funding. I cried a lot, and so thankful to a team who supported my passion project.
I’d do it all again, but raising or helping to raise nearly £70,000 came at a high personal cost, such as being exposed nationally, going viral at times and forever having my name out there as a hooker. I’ve also been personally targeted by abolitionists, radical feminists and even politicians at times. I’ve been called a ‘traumatised wounded animal’ by the local rad fem groups, a warm hole, pimp, cum spittoon, cum vessel and all sorts. It got so bad once I had to report some to the Police. I’ve had 1001 journalist requests, and I refused them all, but they promoted me and published my name anyway. I also got nationally hounded online when the student sex work toolkit I co-authored was made public. The abuse on news channels, by presenters and whoever else on the work I did was brutal. I wrote that from my own awful experiences so others didn’t have to go through what I did, but instead I was accused of grooming people into sex work.
Most marginalised groups, including sex workers, never intend to become activists or advocates; we are often forced to and I am no exception. It’s often not even activism, but rather just speaking for ourselves. The mental health toll on us all is gruelling, unrelenting and you feel you have to do it, because if you don’t, people will die and we won’t be represented otherwise. There is almost a sense that you must give back, support your fellow hookers and alongside them too. So often, we spend so much time having to defend ourselves from the bricks thrown at us, we have little time or chance to advance, especially as much of our work is voluntary.
We often talk about boundaries, and especially in sex work. How can you do this in your personal life though? Not a single mental health professional has understood that the line between myself and others is not clear cut, because for them, they go home at the end of the day and draw the line between home and work. For me, my friends are sex workers and in turn, are sometimes raped, in crisis, have poor mental health, and whatever else happens. We are constantly passing around the same £20 to each other, the same support, info, harm reduction and listening ear. Yes, we can limit what we agree to take on, but I couldn’t switch off at 5pm because the people I advocate every day for in my job are my friends. The same friends who needed the service I worked at, and I was no better because I was ‘the professional’ in a civvie job
I often fantasise about deleting my account, never speaking about sex work again, disappearing, erasing myself online and ignoring everyone. I don’t because you can use it for good; my heart is always in improving things for sex workers; I am still angry at how awfully failed my friends were when they died; I can’t sit on my porch at 50 and be glad I stayed out of it all; and most of my networks and support comes from sex workers, to which I am forever grateful for. I have my own experiences in sex work, good and bad, that I know I can’t speak about with anyone else. It’s not as if I can rock up to the office on Monday and tell Linda about the time I was held at knifepoint by a stranger I was gonna shag can I? I might get reported to safeguarding and HR if I did.
Sex work is the best and worst thing that ever happened to me. It changed my entire perspective on life, politics, racism, and I would say made me a better, more empathetic, radical person with a strong desire for equity and feminism. I doubt I’d be working in this sector otherwise, and I am so thankful to those who saved me from loneliness, told me mental health problems were normal, educated and listened to me, and supported me unconditionally. Yet, I can not deny the damage it has caused personally, physically, mentally, emotionally and unfortunately, is exacerbated by stigma, societal attitudes, awful feminist attitudes and online abuse.
Self care is a shit term, and something I never understood. It always seemed to be rooted in luxury, egoism, and only for those with higher socioeconomics than me. As many can relate, I often put myself last and worry about everyone else around me, and this is probably natural given I am the youngest in a family of 8, with 6 children. For me, self-care was taking a nice, relaxing bath, but this was always impossible when you have 1 bathroom in your overcrowded home, no lock on the door, and people barging in because they needed a shit but couldn’t wait. Perhaps self-care was buying yourself a treat from time to time, like new shoes?
When I resigned, I had no plans lined up. I had no education, employment, travel or ambitions in mind. Nothing at all. If you knew me two to five years ago, you’d know how much this would have sent me into a blind panic, and into sex worker overdrive – likely going back to working 12+ hours a day, every day. I used to hoard money in fear of becoming homeless again, never spending a penny because one day, I might find there’s been a mistake and my flat will be taken away from me. I must be 15 steps ahead. On the day I signed for my flat, I told my support worker that I would sooner kill myself than become homeless again. I meant it then, and I mean it still today.
As I sat going through the mental health assessment with the psychiatrist, she concluded I had quite prominent symptoms of PTSD, and again, this is something I didn’t realise in myself. I spoke to another MH professional about the states your body is in and we both concluded that I can’t remember ever feeling ‘rest’. Being completely switched off, feeling safe, happy, not needing to be constantly alert of surroundings, jumpy and in flight mode all the time. It was at this point I looked at a former blog post I wrote about living in survival mode and realised how far I had come, how frightened I was, but proud of how much I have build and worked on since. I was right though, I have spent so long in this mode, how do I switch off? I still don’t know, but I’m trying.
Self-care isn’t luxury products or a bath bomb, but rather learning about what you need to sometimes simply get through the day. I still feel incredibly egotistical and self-centred to quit my job, focus on me and my wants, ignore all the sex work stuff around me, all the work and women I’ve done so far and disappear into what feels like a selfish expedition. However, I feel that if I don’t do it soon, I will be completely gone otherwise. You don’t realise how burnt out you are until you’re already there, and a bit more.
So what now?
After years of being called lazy and accepting that I was stupid, incapable, and simply unable to be loved, it’s taking a very long time to unpick it all. I stopped beating myself up that my flat is a mess, that my kitchen is unusable, and that I seem unable to do anything about it. How can I ever expect myself to know how to look after myself when I was never taught how to?
When you grow up, you’re supposed to get help to build yourself a solid base to jump from, to fall back onto, and to stand tall on. I didn’t get this base, and I certainly was never given the toolbox to be able to construct it. Perhaps I got small pieces of it from various people, and had to build what I could from the very little I had been given. I’m now standing still for the first time with the toolbox I’ve managed to scavenge and realised I’m doing alright all things considered, but I need to create my own tools and continue building my own base. Otherwise, I’ll keep balancing on the driftwood and falling off.
I can not change what has happened, but I can recognise the impact it’s had and work on building a life worth living. I want to enjoy my life, to travel, to do silly shit, to rollerskate down the riverbank, look after myself, brush my teeth, accept love and help from others, dance around my flat whilst tidying, let my body heal up and gain weight, cry to my nostalgic playlist and mourn the loss of relationships lost to family trauma, walk around my favourite parks, indulge my morbid hobby of browsing cemeteries, return to education, go on holiday, wander around museums, take up hobbies, learn, pass my driving test, get a dog, and do all the things I have never had the opportunity to do.
I’m 25 next week and I never thought I would live this long. I sometimes think about how proud younger Grace would be that I did it and got away from my hometown, built my own home far away from it all, cut off all the toxic family and continued to live alone, survived it and challenged the values and attitudes of which I was raised. I think how desperate I was at 14 when I mixed a bottle of vodka with bleach and tablets, sat in the forest alone trying to drink it with self-harm cuts all over me.
She wouldn’t want me to be living miserably anymore, but instead thriving in her own world, so I will at least try. If anything, out of spite! I don’t want to sit next to her and say going through all this wasn’t worth it, and everyone around her was right; that she is useless, stupid and incapable.
I always keep my blog posts free, but if you wanna support my blog, my cashapp is £graceyswer and my Patreon is https://www.patreon.com/graceyswer.
My PayPal was shut down due to being a sex worker x