During a previous community Zoom discussion about Netflix’s Sex, Love and Goop, I commented that I thought Sexological Bodywork was somewhere on the continuum of Sex Work, whereas others thought that it sits more with Counselling and Psychotherapy. So, which is right?!
Today I want to explore this question!
What Ideas Do People Have About Sexological Bodywork?
A friend of mine who’s a qualified, practising counsellor, says that sex workers basically do the same job as they do.
During my Sexological Bodywork (SB) training, one teacher stated that SB is sex work, and the other teacher disagreed and said it wasn’t. On the other hand, some people align SB more closely with psychotherapy, as if it’s talking therapy with added somatics and touch.
Some people feel it lies closer to traditional sex work services, with added education and an evidence-based approach, whereas some people feel it’s a more secular version of Tantra.
Sometimes, the public and clients think (or perhaps hope) that sexological bodywork services are a shop window/cover-up for an escort service or sexual massage.
Sometimes clients want and need a sexual service and approach a sexological bodyworker because it feels more legitimate and less stigmatised. Some SB/Somatic Sex Educators (SSEs) are also trained counsellors, psychotherapists, midwives and social workers. And some SB/SSEs are not.
Some SB/SSEs also offer, or have offered, other services outside of the scope and code of conduct of SB/SSE. This might include two-way touch, sexual surrogacy, full-service sex work or erotic entertainment — including camming, dancing and porn acting.
Some practitioners want to offer a combination of talking therapy, somatic sex education and bodywork, and feel frustrated that the counselling profession makes this difficult or impossible.
So, as you can see, this is a big question, with a complicated background!
What big stuff is around when we ask this question and try to work out this puzzle? Here are some thoughts (mainly from a UK perspective and while acknowledging the limits of my own identity and experience).
Why Do We Need to Have an Answer?
People seem to have an interest in knowing where in our society and the commercial marketplace SB/SSE is positioned. This question reminds me of the need that mainstream society has to know if someone is a man or a woman before interacting with them.
The question of whether SB/SSE is sex work is often tinged with anxiety, especially for potential clients, and they have a strong need to understand who and what they are engaging with. This is often based on genuine concerns about things being safe, ethical and in some cases, legal.
Even for people who are reasonably aware of pro-sex work arguments, this is still a topic that carries a lot of stigma and fear. ‘Sex worker’ is a loaded term, associated with many vivid and negative stereotypes and concerning myths/misunderstandings.
This includes SWERF (Sex Worker-Exclusionary Radical Feminist) ideology, sweeping generalisations and inaccurate conflation of all sex work with sexual exploitation and trafficking. Many people have never had any need to deconstruct their views and opinions on sex work (and may still be using words like ‘prostitute’).
How Does This Relate to My Work?
When I tell people about my work for the first time, sometimes I feel they want me to reassure them with “oh no, don’t worry, I’m not THAT”. However, I try to acknowledge that SB/SSE is in many ways a continuum of sex work.
I do this because if I simply distance myself, I feel this dishonours the lineage of sex workers and activists who have paved the way so that we could be here now.
I could distinguish myself from any perception of the stereotypical, seedy world people are imagining. But what I really want to critique and stand apart from, is non-consensual and exploitative activity, (which, let’s face it, exists in many workplaces and homes, not just in the realm of porn and sex work, and is always unacceptable).
As an SB/SSE, I have certainly been excluded and stigmatised in similar ways to sex workers. This involves not being allowed to be dual-trained as a therapist registered with professional bodies, and sometimes being excluded from other work or from hiring venues for our workshops.
When I’m communicating the high degree of safety, ethical practice and professionalism of my work, I do not make sweeping statements or infer that a sex worker or erotic masseur doesn’t do these things. I know that if they wouldn’t or couldn’t hold these standards, that could be because of wider cultural and social issues, such as workplace conditions and social issues intersecting with trauma. It’s important to be aware that this isn’t the fault of some flawed individual, or that sex work is somehow inherently worse than any other work under capitalism.
I’m glad SB/SSE exists — I think it’s important and has a very valuable place in the world. Also, I don’t think it’s the only acceptable and beneficial way to pay for a service that features sexual touch and pleasure.
Porn and sex work have absolutely added value to people’s sexual lives. Whether this is through inspiring, modelling and educating about sex, bodies, pleasure and how to do sexual techniques/kink etc. Sex workers educate people about their bodies and what they enjoy. They provide a place for people to practice sex and associated skills like negotiation, communication and consent.
However, we live in a sex and pleasure negative culture, steeped in historical misogyny, economic inequality, sexist double standards and toxic masculinity. This is a culture that teaches us that cis men are entitled to be in ‘take’ mode at all times and reinforces rape culture.
This isn’t the fault of sex workers, but this is the climate in which sex workers of all genders and sexualities (and erotic practitioners like me) have to operate in and navigate. Very challenging I can tell you!
What’s more, the more structurally embedded disadvantages you have, the more you will experience these challenges (such as how a person of colour would have a whole different layer of experiences different to mine).
In the book, Revolting Prostitutes, The Fight for Sex Workers’ Rights, Molly Smith talks about the rise of the Erotic Practitioner and how this plays into a hierarchy (or ‘whore-archy’) of acceptability and respectability.
There is a tendency for us to buy into ideas that a practitioner who only uses their hands (and maybe only gives one-way touch) is more respectable (and worthy of empathy and protection) than a practitioner who uses other parts of their body. A person with a £3000 professional certification and insurance is more respectable (and worthy of empathy and protection) than one who offers ‘happy ending’ massages in a high street spa. Or, that adding spiritual decoration and content makes something more acceptable, palatable, and ‘clean’.
With this in mind, it’s easy to see where some social justice and access issues come from; who can afford the training? Who got a degree beforehand? Who had more options and choices? Who gets to tell their family and friends what they do?
Touching Genitals, Is That Really the Defining Feature of Sex Work?
Beauticians wax genital areas. Medical professionals and gynaecologists will often perform genital examinations. Physical therapists working on a patient’s groin injury may get pretty intimate with their touch. Fertility clinics provide a room with porn to support someone to gather their sperm. Talk-based sex therapists and sex coaches talk openly with their clients about their bodies, how their bodies function and what they enjoy.
In our world, intimate parts of our bodies are interacted with, often with ‘dignity drapes’, with humour to break the awkwardness or with a ‘medical necessity’ directive.
These professionals don’t receive any marks against their respectability or have their personhood or human rights questioned. None of them has to hide what they do for fear of family and social rejection, hostility or loss of earnings. Whereas we live in a culture that shames and stigmatises sex workers, and a legal system that criminalises paying for sexual services.
What About Sexological Bodywork?
Then sexological bodywork sits on the landscape, openly and explicitly offering intimate touch, stating that it is NOT shameful or wrong, that it can be for the purpose of learning, to improve your connection to your body or to heal some pain or block around pleasure and sex. The profession is now featured on mainstream media platforms!
We can celebrate this, but let’s not forget the multitudes of people, movements and pleasure-based services that existed before Goop endorsed them. Let’s remind ourselves of the difficult circumstances in which people have both earned money to live and given much-needed company, touch, pleasure, release, intimacy, comfort and orgasms!
Some SB/SSEs style and emphasis are more ‘hot’ (as opposed to ‘warm’), sexual, erotic, up-regulated and explicitly, expressively orgasmic than what was shown on Netflix’s Sex, Love and Goop. We exist on a spectrum and bring our own character and style to our work. And, of course, the clients bring their own leanings, too.
Deserving Horny and Undeserving Horny
If I describe to people my work with disabled clients who cannot give themselves pleasure because of physical limitations, somehow this elicits more understanding and sympathy than if I offered the same service to people who aren’t disabled, or who simply wanted pleasure for the sake of pleasure.
Perhaps there’s a belief that ‘it’s necessary work and someone’s got to do it’. In the case of a disabled client, perhaps people can reconcile this idea more – it’s about getting a basic need met and perhaps that is necessary. Others, with less obvious sexual issues, or simply those wanting pleasure (because pleasure can be healing) aren’t seen as deserving.
This shows how undesirable pleasure-based sex work is seen in our culture. Yet we’re all supposed to be swinging from the chandeliers and touching each other’s genitals in our personal lives! The irony is not lost on me.
We all have our own concept of who is ‘deserving and undeserving horny’, and if we offer these kinds of services, we evolve our own boundaries and limits. I find it interesting to reflect on what makes me feel generous to be able to give this effort with an open and willing heart. It’s not necessarily democratic, erotic-saint-like or politically correct, and it’s informed by our own unique set of experiences.
My journey has included wanting to focus my efforts on cis women, queer people and trans people, in a way that works deeply with consent and in a trauma-informed way. This is for the sake of the clients and myself. My work is not currently pleasure-based but it is educational and therapeutic.
Is Pleasure Really the Problem? Or Just Some Kinds of Pleasure?
In our culture, it’s somewhat acceptable to pay a practitioner to help you solve a problem of some kind, to get advice and ‘treatment’, but paying for pleasure is a big taboo.
Pleasure for the sake of pleasure perhaps raises all sorts of feelings — a major one being shame — about whether we deserve it, whether it’s ok to ask for it and whether it’s ok to PAY for it.
Many advocates of self-care tell us to go for a massage (but they don’t mean one that includes our genitals). It would be ok to pay for a ‘therapeutic’ service, but not to pay for pleasure. Even though, when people go to salons for a Swedish massage, they are paying for touch, pleasure and tension relief.
Betty Martin, when teaching the ‘waking up the hands’ exercise, says many people reach a ‘ceiling of pleasure’ where they’re maxed out and can’t feel or tolerate any more pleasure; they block it off at a certain point. When I play the `waking up the hands’ exercise, I often ask people, “Is there anything happening that you might describe as pleasure?”
People think SB/SSE is only concerned with obvious sexual arousal and pleasure, usually located in key erogenous zones, but we’re supporting people to find all sorts of pleasure all over their bodies. This involves including the genitals, not draping a towel over them and ignoring them!
The Role of Presence
Presence is a central principle of SB/SSE.
Our training points us towards managing our own selves and nervous systems so that we can be in service to our clients and attuned to them.
Whatever states of pleasure, erotic trance, sexual desire or trauma-related disassociation the client might enter, our role is to stay centred on their needs and what is in their interests. This can be discussed beforehand through the agreements and intentions that you both set. This goes beyond the one-way touch; we are always working within the Wheel of Consent in serving, and never in taking. This takes practice and self-awareness.
Is this to say that a sex worker is not present or conscious? No. Some sex workers are highly competent in the serving mode, responding to the clients needs and giving them what they asked for within their ‘willing to’ consent. This is still the case when in taking mode or actively doing something that they get pleasure from. Of course, two-way mutual touch and sexual activities can be ethical and consensual when there is communication and care. Many sex workers are practiced and resourced in this way without formal training and some are not.
Sometimes the service is hook-up style and casual, and mirrors general sexual encounters — drugs and alcohol may be involved. Although this is very different from what I offer, many people engage in paid-for (and non-paid-for) sex in this way. Many people simply absorb disappointing encounters and bad hook-ups as part of life. There is nothing inherently morally wrong with these individuals or their transaction if they are consenting adults.
Sex Education and Economic Equality
Of course, I wish we all had better access to sex education and economic equality so that we could have a range of choices. I wish that our society was not so fucked up about sex in ways that disadvantage some groups more than others, and that sex work was not made dangerous by stigma, misogyny (including trans misogyny) and anti-sex work rhetoric.
Some people are in the market for something different, perhaps the intersection between the erotic and healing – hence they might search for tantric practitioners, sex coaches, sexual wellness practitioners or sexological bodyworkers. If someone has been through the training, they’ve been asked to do self-enquiry, learn the Wheel of Consent, and to cultivate the ability to be present and attentive (not dissociated or in an erotic trance). They’ll know how to help you to do the same (to be present, relaxed and able to be in consensual pleasure).
Presence and Consciousness
Presence and consciousness are important. To me, this means being aware of everything that is around, what we are bringing, what comes up for us when doing a practice, and sometimes naming it. It can include spiritual and sacred aspects for some people but may not necessarily look the same for everyone. Slowing down and reflecting on an experience (saving your work) is part of this.
We’re also clear about our intentions (e.g. we’re going to do active receiving on the table for you to learn what you like, how to ask for what you want and to be aware that it is FOR YOU.) The practitioner is responsible for remaining present to that intention and gently reminding the client if necessary. Then the client can be free to have their experience and explore in the container that is held by the practitioner.
It’s important to acknowledge that although SB/SSEs practice presence and attentive mindfulness, we are humans and ‘presence’ is a fragile and subjective phenomenon. Any practitioner (or sexual partner) may have moments of optimum, alert presence, and at other times will drift and be less present or become distracted. The aim is to be present enough at the right moments.
The practitioner is also responsible for orienting their lives and their own practice to support this ability. So, self-awareness, self-knowledge and honesty need to prevail; it’s more responsible to cancel a session than to work when unable to be present (and again, sneaky privilege makes an appearance).
It’s about where the emphasis of the work lies and whether the emphasis is sustainable.
I have done pleasure-based massage work. To be frank, it’s easy to set out to offer something with a healing, embodied and educational tone and emphasis, but this can get ‘lost in translation’ when talking to mainstream sex work clientele (mostly cis men) who are used to an emphasis on erotic entertainment and particular kinds of genital-focused pleasure.
For me, a pleasure-positive education and therapeutic emphasis was not sustainable with this particular audience within the sex negative and misogynistic climate we currently exist in, so I stopped offering it.
I want to offer my work with this emphasis to people with whom there is a good fit, hence Quintimacy! I work with the umbrella modality of Somatic Sex Education, which does not need to include intimate touch/bodywork, but it can.
Practitioners need to be able to hold multiple emphases at any given time, and manage this unwieldy thing that sexuality, desire and pleasure can be. I want to embrace and celebrate a whole range of sexual desires, fantasies and activities beyond what I personally offer, and I want people’s whole erotic reality to be able to appear in our work together. This includes the taboos, the shadowy things, the confusions and contradictions, and, dare I say it, the filthy!
These wonderful modalities of sacred and healing sexuality are amazing opportunities. The intention is not to hide behind or sanitise sex, or to make it ‘clinical’ (even though we work on tables with gloves on), but to create a space for embracing and exploring all of what might be relevant to us. I’ve referred clients to sex workers or kink practitioners, and I help people to access relevant ethical porn when desired.
As an important aside, I also give people permission to not have sex, too.
Resisting Sex-Negative Culture
Anyone resisting our sex-shaming/slut-shaming, whore-phobic, sex-negative culture by daring to make a living doing sex and sexual things, or supporting people with their sexual healing, could receive the accolade of radical, edge-walking erotic outlaw. That sounds very queer and has a very queer lineage, so I’m in!
But you can also be doing it to get through uni or to have financial stability — you might have bad days, feel pissed off and not very empowered too. Do you know that Quintasensual (a UK-based, queer sexuality event) features ‘Sacred Sluts’ — these are people offering erotic experiences from their background as sex workers, Sexological Bodyworkers, consent teachers and kink practitioners.
So, Am I a Sex Worker?
Firstly, I’m myself, Beck, and I am what I offer to my clients and community.
Part of my offer is Sexological Bodywork. It is generally more valuable to describe what I offer and how, rather than depend on a loaded label. But, while what I do currently is somatic, educational and therapeutic in emphasis (with a big focus on pleasure), I stand on the continuum with all sex workers.
The field is complex and endlessly fascinating to think about. I feel like it is an unfolding conversation that involves people like YOU, the reader, the folk interested in queer sexology and perhaps in booking sessions with a Sexological Bodyworker or adjacent professional yourself.