Friend and foe - Periods for sex workers
by Bella Violet
For full-service sex workers (which means we generally do have paid physical sexual contact with our clients), periods can be both friend and foe. When a client makes your stomach crawl with his cunnilingus cravings, a simple ‘Can’t wait to see you later babe, although I’m coming on, hope that’s okay?’ gives you an easy cancellation with no complaints, since the stigma around menstruation tends to make them run a mile. It’s got to be good for something, right?!
Having said that, this sometimes doesn’t work, which I suppose is bad and good. I once got hit with a ‘No problem at all, I actually work in OBGYN so have no issues with your flow’. Although it sounds promising, this made for a creepy booking; he was SO into my anatomy it made me wonder if he manages to separate his professional work from his play. I think most people with or without a uterus can relate to the worry that the treatment of their reproductive organs or genitalia in medical settings may include inappropriate fetishization/gratification, or even inward disgust and repulsion, at the expense of the properly unbiased clinical attention they deserve. Normalising these parts of our bodies and their many other functions, plus humanising the people who have them, makes significant steps towards it being safer for everyone to get their period.
However, working in the sex industry, the desire to incite positive change and advocate for body positivity amongst your clientele must often be balanced against the necessity of making money, which does mean following some male-gaze-approval protocols. The most common fantasy we sell is the ‘GFE’ (girlfriend experience), and all girlfriends are perennially prettied-up, perfectly polished, permanently period-free sex bunnies, right?! Since clients believe we are a magical breed who don’t bleed EVER and are in a constant lingerie-clad state of waiting with our legs splayed just for them to drop by, we tend to have to plug any signs of menstruation. A common method, and the one I use, is by inserting a sponge. Yep, that’s a natural sea sponge up your vagina so that a penis cannot tell the difference between a blood-absorbent squishy thing and the tip of your cervix. It’s pretty fail-proof, depending on how heavy you are. If it’s your heaviest day, or you get heavier periods generally, there might be a bit of blood that escapes the sponge and stains the condom or the sheets, for which workers have stock answers such as, ‘Oh my gosh, it must be because of how BIG and HARD you are!’
A heart-warming part in all this is that if you’re working with a friend/colleague on what we call a ‘duo’ (a paid threesome) there is an unwritten understanding that if one of you is on your period this must be kept secret from the client at all costs, which means working seamlessly as a kind of menses-mitigating tag team, quickly covering up a blood stain or disposing of a conspicuously spattered condom or agreeing ‘that mark was definitely there before’. Cut to after the client leaves: you’re squatting in the shower with your co-conspirator reaching as far up into your vagina as they can to extract the now pummelled bit of sponge which is so saturated it resembles a small radish shot from a canon into the top of your uterus. It’s definitely not ideal, although always a uniquely bonding experience. At the brothels they have a giant communal sponge and workers just cut themselves a piece off if they need one. Needless to say, you can get BV from doing this and you almost DEFINITELY will if you use your own makeup sponge when they’ve run out.
So, what do we need to change to make things better for sex workers who get periods?
More sex worker-specific sexual health services, or sex worker-friendly sexual health nurses - which means they understand the impact periods have on our work and can provide appropriate supplies, such as menstrual cups that accommodate penetration, femidoms, safer types of sponges. This would reduce disruptions to our financial security related to having periods. The few services that do exist for sex workers rarely have period products available, aside from the occasional ‘stringless sponge tampons’, which are always too small and get you laughed at by the staff for saying so! If there was more acknowledgment that lots of sex workers menstruate in different ways and need to continue working while doing so, then there would perhaps be a wider range of options available. Personally, I have never seen femidoms offered at a sexual health clinic. Femidoms work as contraception and also enable more ‘discreet’ period sex by acting as a latex lining inside the vagina that blocks fluids from mixing. They’re also particularly useful if there are other sex workers present on the booking, so that a punter penetrating multiple orifices doesn’t cross-contaminate the condom by forgetting to change it. However, not only are femidoms more uncommon, their name is unfortunately gendered, making them more inaccessible to transmasculine or non-binary workers who may otherwise want to use them. Language needs to change so that products like these can be used comfortably by everyone, not just ‘females’ in need of ‘feminine hygiene’.
We also need more sex work advocacy and affirmation from organisations tackling diseases of the reproductive system and/or period poverty. Having a period, or having any reproductive disease that affects your periods, can severely jeopardise our financial stability. Sex workers who live with endometriosis may have to cancel bookings at short notice because of flare-ups and manage the hit to their immune system, which causes other problems such as BV and thrush, plus a lot of monthly anxiety. If sex work was recognised as a valid source of income then workers might have recourse to public funds during periods of sickness that interrupt our professional capacity, such as the income support available for self-employed people in light of Covid-19, for which many of us don't qualify.
Lastly, the reduction of shame and stigma around menstruation during sex plays a crucial role in improving our working conditions. The aspiration of the 2017 Digital Economy Act to block websites offering ‘unconventional’ sexual content put sex involving menstrual blood in the firing line, since this is far more likely to be deemed deviant or obscene than other more normative aspects of pornography, which often centres the ‘cum shot’ as the default outcome of sex, inherently acceptable and to-be-expected, unlike other types of reproductive fluid. This creates a period-related pay gap in the sex industry which could be eradicated by greater awareness and diversification of sexual characteristics and acts. In sex positive and queer spaces, where the sexual status quo can be more safely challenged, there is much less squeamishness when someone is on their period, and having your period doesn’t automatically preclude the availability of a sexual encounter, particularly because penetrative sex is not the default setting. On the writing account I co-run, Whore’s Handbags, we often end up thinking about these comparisons between personal and professional sex as a springboard for how the industry could be reformed, and the issues so often stem from the inherently exploitative nature of capitalism, not sex work, with its way of making things prescriptive and stifling our exploratory or creative instincts.
My main message as a sex worker, similar to the rallying cry of BGP, is that periods are never disgusting and nobody gets to tell us they are, nor should anyone or anything make exclusionary rules around what is natural and joyful and fun between consenting adults.
Read more from Bella Violet on Instagram @whores_handbags - 'letting you peak at what we carry around with us day to day, both physically and mentally!'