Mae Callen, author of the consistently thoughtful Ottawa-based blog Driving fast on loose gravel, recently wrote about a particularly good experience she had at the spa:
"...It starts by this big joyful full-figured woman, leading me slowly into this warm candle-lit room. I undress and crawl under the covers of a massage table. After a short pause she comes in and touches my head softly. She invites me to breath in beautiful aromatic smells.
She starts with one a leg at a time. First she rubs it gently with her fleshy bare hand, as she warms up my cold rough skin; eases me into all the contact and touching, which feels foreign to my skin. She drizzles warm oil and sugar up and down my leg. Then she rubs, massaging the sugar into my skin. Not just in a "enn enn, get to work, scrub the tub", kind of way, but in a "oh yeah, get in there mmhn mmhn" kind of way. She continues this way over my entire body. She places a warm, damp cloth over my breasts and works on my torso. She lifts it up to reach under and scrubs between them and all around the nipple. Then up the neck, down the arms.
I flip over. My back and ass. She rubs my whole body..."
While embracing this paid-for pleasure, Callen says she had a breakthrough in understanding a phrase that some of us are beginning to hear more often these days, yet can remain an abstract or confusing claim: "Sex work is real work." Callen writes:
"Many people I know advocate for sex worker rights, some of them are sex workers themselves. But up until that moment, I had never really thought about how all of that applied to my life. I've never been able to imagine paying for sex. I don't do that. I don't want just anyone doing things to me - It's just not my style. no sir-y, not for me.
But lying there, totally turned on, having this woman caress my largest sexual organ, my skin, I got it. ...It was this empowering reminder that I didn't need to be dependant on anyone else for this contact, and that the hiring of such services was nothing to feel shame about.
Does all of that mean I'm going to hire a sex worker? I doubt it. but I get it now. I get it on a whole other level. I understand the injustice and the hypocrisy. My real-worker gets a salary and benefits and a really great work environment. Her clients feel it is a privilege and a treat to hire her. She provides me with sensual, invigorating and arousing touch. Afterwards I get dressed and I pay her. We don't cuddle, in fact that would be totally inappropriate. She likes doing it, and I don't feel like I have used or mistreated her.
But if she had just added the step of reaching her hand down under my sheet, ...everything would be different. Her work would be socially stigmatized. It would be illegal for her to work in a house or building. She might have to work outside, leaving her susceptible to violence and abuse. Even the threat of death. Her customers would be criminals for hiring her services."
While Callen acknowledges that the world of sex work is more complex than her analagous experience at the spa, she's correct in wondering whether it isn't quite as different as anti-sex-work advocates sometimes make it out to be. It's worth reading Callen's Real work is sex work in its entirety.
"A woman burdened with dyspareunia or vulvovaginitis can meet with a physiotherapist to reduce pain, increase functional ability and reclaim the life of great sex and hosiery she's entitled to. Over six months to a year, in weekly or bi-weekly sessions, the therapist will guide the patient through a series of exercises, which the patient also practices at home. For the first couple weeks, the therapist may penetrate the patient anally in order to mobilize her coccyx bone, to which many of the pelvic floor muscles attach. Once mobilized, the following sessions will involve incremental vaginal penetration: first one finger, then two, slowly working out the pelvic pain. The therapist will model diaphragmatic breathing for relaxation. She might use vaginal dilators — hard plastic dildos, basically — to progressively stretch the patient's vaginal walls with comfort.
During the workshop, it struck me: here is a lady who deeply understands wellness as the intersection of the many dimensions of self. Aside from the toll it takes on her body, living with chronic physical pain can thwart a woman's capacity for intimacy, confidence, sexual satisfaction and the freedom to define how she will engage with the world around her.
The physiotherapist uses her own hands and body as curative tools, sometimes inserting them inside the client, in order to heal, soothe and increase the capacity for pleasure. It is a physical intervention to facilitate sexual, social, emotional and perhaps even spiritual wellness. A truly holistic remedy. And a testament to the integral role of physical and sexual needs if a life is to be healthy and balanced."
Our society valorizes the work of the vaginal physiotherapist as progressive, reaching beyond the individual and the biomedical in a deeper understanding of "well-being" and the need for connection. Yet we struggle to understand sex work within a similar framework:
"Some people think all sex workers must be victims — because who, given real options, would choose to do that kind of work? They argue that we are too poor, young, dominated or addicted to know what we are doing. And so they must help us by speaking for us and acting on our behalf. They discount sex worker voices that say it is not the sex that is killing them and it's surely not the money — it's the police violence, the constant incarceration and their neighbours' vigilantism to deny them their Charter rights and dismantle due process before the law.
On a good day, in the right headspace, when both the client and I manage to temporarily suspend our egos, sex work can be an act identical in intent and execution as that of the vaginal physiotherapist. It isn't always that. And it doesn't always have to be. It can be purely erotic, purely a laugh, purely kinky experimentation or purely labour. But it can also be the provision of pleasure as an antidote to the cumulative pain amassed by any human who dares to survive and thrive in a world that constantly seeks to obstruct self-determination, be it individual or collective.
For an hour, sometimes two, I use my own hands and body as curative tools, sometimes inserting them inside the client, in order to heal, soothe and increase the capacity for pleasure. It is a physical intervention to facilitate sexual, social, emotional and perhaps even spiritual wellness. A truly holistic remedy. And a testament to the integral role of physical and sexual needs if a life is to be healthy and balanced."
Is it really so strange?
[You can read more of Nico Little's writing on his personal blog, Ickaprick & Ironpussy, and as a regular contributor to Montreal-based magazine No More Potlucks. Mae Callen blogs at: Driving fast on loose gravel.]
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