Sex makes many of us anxious. Whether we stress about doing or saying the wrong thing, feeling like our bodies might let us down, or just being judged by the other person, there’s a lot to worry about! For the people I see as an escort, a particular source of worry is sexually-transmitted infections (STIs).
Sometimes a client is so concerned about ‘catching something’ during sex that they struggle to have a good time. They might feel too nervous to have intercourse, or they ask judgmental personal questions such as ‘How many clients have you seen this week?’ Sometimes, everything is fine until after we’re done, but then their anxiety takes over and they freeze up. It can make things feel pretty awkward.
Are your encounters with sex workers being derailed by STI worries? Although there are risks around sex that we all need to be aware of, excessive anxiety is a real mood-killer. It can turn an long-awaited, expensive date into a failure. And it’s really a very common problem.
Here’s some essential information on managing ‘STI anxiety’ when you see full-service providers.
‘Full service’ sex work explained
First, I’m going to quickly explain what I mean by ‘full-service’ sex work, in case you’re new to all this.
Broadly, the term ‘sex work’ refers to any exchange of sexual (or just sexy) services for payment. Sex work includes many kinds of work, such as brothel work, phone sex, stripping, camming, porn performance, and professional kink. It doesn’t always involve seeing the client in person - sometimes it’s about interacting online or over the phone. And it’s not always about sexual intercourse - sometimes it’s just about giving a sexy massage, or performing a striptease.
When industry folks talk about ‘full service’ sex work, we generally mean kinds of work where sexual intercourse is included in the service. Brothel workers, street-based sex workers, and escorts are all great examples of sex workers who often choose to offer penetrative sex to their clients.
(Of course, a ‘full service’ session might not always include penetrative sex - it all depends on your needs, your personal hygiene, and what you and your provider decide to do together. A full-service sex worker offers the possibility of sex, not a guarantee!)
Now, let’s talk about STIs
A sexually-transmitted infection (STI) is any virus, bacteria, or parasite that’s transmitted primarily through sexual contact. It’s just one of the risks that must be managed during sex.
STIs used to be referred to as ‘sexually-transmitted diseases’ (STDs) but we don’t really use that term any more. Many of these pathogens don’t cause visible symptoms of disease right away, but they still need to be tested for and treated promptly. Otherwise, they can cause health issues for you and your partners in the future.
There’s a lot of stigma around STIs. It’s often assumed that only people who ‘sleep around’ get STIs, for example. But STIs can affect people of any age, background, or sexual orientation. They can also be passed between sexual partners during all kinds of sex, not just penetrative sex - oral sex, mutual masturbation, and even ‘rubbing your bits together’ can be a risk too! And it’s not about your number of partners. The risk of catching an STI depends very much on your safer sex practices, such as condom use.
STIs are simply one of the risks that we all need to be aware of and manage when it comes to sex.
“Do sex workers catch more STIs?”
Many people assume that sex workers are more likely to have STIs. This is sometimes because they think we have more sex with more partners than the general population, this isn’t always the case. And sex work stigma also leads to negative perceptions of sex workers being unhealthy.
Although your number of sexual partners can be a risk factor for STIs, there are also other concerns that are just as important, such as safer sex practices and regular sexual health testing. And because sex is our job, many full-service workers are skilled and knowledgeable about safer sex. We know what to look out for and how to use equipment such as condoms and other barrier protection correctly. We’re very concerned with staying STI-free, because ill health of any kind will affect our ability to work.
Studies have shown that in some locations, especially where sex work is decriminalised, sex workers have lower incidences of STIs than the general population.
‘STI anxiety’ explained
‘STI anxiety’ is my way of describing an excessive amount of worry about STIs during sex.
If you’re new to sex, or unfamiliar with the facts, you might experience overwhelming worry about catching something from a playmate. You may be too afraid to have sex, even when you’re using barriers like condoms. Or you might feel ‘dirty’ or ashamed afterwards, and weeks feeling anxious that you’ve exposed yourself to harm.
It’s common for all kinds of people - not just clients - to worry about STIs. This is often due to lack of information: when there’s so little sex education available, it’s difficult to judge the risks. If you’ve been raised to think that sex is dirty and unhealthy, it’s understandable that you might overestimate your chances of catching a sexually-transmitted infection.
When it comes to clients specifically, a common source of anxiety is whorephobia. Negative stories about sex workers can be found everywhere in popular culture,leaving many clients convinced that full-service providers don’t look after their sexual health. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth.
STI anxiety can lead to bad sex: the kind where you’re too afraid to even touch your provider, let alone experience intimacy with them. It’s a huge psychological barrier to your enjoyment! Being overly anxious can also be off-putting for your companion. If they’re aware of your fears and suspect you’re judging them, they’ll feel hurt and ashamed. And if you ask offensive questions such as, ‘Are you clean?’ it’s going to ruin the mood.
What’s the solution to STI anxiety?
Let’s talk about a few potential solutions - ways to manage the risks respectfully, without making things awkward.
Tip#1: Give yourself a reality check
The way I see it, STIs are just another aspect of sex that we need to manage. Like bumping a knee or elbow or accidentally knocking heads during an intense lovemaking session, catching an STI is simply an unfortunate accident that can often be prevented, if you plan ahead.
If you find yourself worrying, it can be useful to remind yourself of these key facts:
- Sex workers aren’t any more likely to have STIs than the general population.
- Sex isn’t inherently bad, gross, or harmful…it’s a natural human activity.
- Most STIs are treatable. As long as you’re getting regular sexual health check-ups, you’ll probably be able to deal with the situation fairly easily.
Getting the facts around STIs can be helpful. There are some great resources online that can help you understand which sexual activities are more risky, and which STIs can be transmitted during that activity. When you know what’s likely and what isn’t, you can avoid the activities you’re uncomfortable with.
Tip #2: Don’t interrogate your worker about their safer sex practices
Clients often focus on their worker as a source of risk. They want to know how many people they’ve slept with, when they last had a checkup, and what sexy stuff they do with other clients. But you can’t assess your risk accurately this way. It’s neither appropriate nor useful to ask such personal questions.
Instead of fishing for information that you hope will reassure you, concentrate on practicing good safer sex. This is a much more practical way to manage your risk.
Tip #3: Learn safer sex skills
There’s a degree of risk that comes with all sex, no matter what you’re doing. To make sure you can relax, you need to learn how to practice safer sex.
The term ‘safer sex’ refers to a whole lot of different practices. It’s called ‘safer’ rather than ‘safe’ because there’s no absolute guarantee of safety…but if you do this stuff, you’re much less likely to catch or transmit an STI.
Some examples of safer sex practices:
- Using barriers such as condoms for penis-in-vagina (PIV) sex and penis-in-anus (PIA) sex
- Using barriers for giving or receiving oral sex. This might mean a condom for a blow job, a dental dam for eating pussy or rimming (eating ass)
- Wearing gloves when fingering someone’s pussy or ass
- Putting condoms on sex toys, and swapping condoms whenever that toy is used on a different person
- Washing your hands after touching someone’s ‘bits’, before touching yourself or another partner
Once you know which safer sex strategies you’d like to use, you’ll need to communicate these to your provider. Most experienced workers come equipped with the appropriate safer sex items. If in doubt, you can ask them to bring a specific piece of equipment - assuming it’s okay to talk about sex before you meet.
Your companion will have their own boundaries, which must be respected. If your boundaries differ, always adopt the strategy that’s the more conservative of the two. For example, if you’re okay with receiving oral sex without a condom but your worker wants to use a condom, then your worker’s standard is the one you both need to follow.
Tip #4: Get regular check-ups
Going to the doctor for a sexual health check-up can feel awkward, especially if you’re not used to talking about your sex life. But, as a responsible adult, it’s one of those things - like brushing your teeth and filing your taxes - that simply needs to be done, and regularly.
A sexual health check might involve an examination, a blood test, or giving a urine sample. Your doc might ask a few awkward questions about your sex life and what you get up to. But if you’ve chosen a good practitioner, they won’t give you a hard time about the kinds of sex you’re having or who you’re having it with. If you’re in a large town, you may also be able to access a dedicated sexual health care clinic.
Tip #5: Ditch your sex-negativity and whorephobia
As with all anxiety, the problem is often more about our emotional associations than about the realities of the situation. You’ve got to figure out what’s going on in your own head, then you can start to untangle the knots of sex-negativity, whorephobia, and misogyny that society has woven.
This means acknowledging any sex-negativity or whorephobia that might be bothering you. Are you hanging onto the idea that sex is gross or bad? Do you unconsciously judge sex workers to be bad, gross, or deviant? Do you feel like a bad person because you see sex workers? These kinds of ideas hurt everyone. They can wreck your sex life by overloading you with unnecessary shame and anxiety…and they can also affect the providers you spend time with. In order to have a positive experience, you need to change your attitude and build a better mindset.
If you’re stuck in this way of thinking, a sex-positive therapist can help you come to grips with the negative associations that are getting in the way. Once you’ve come to a healthier way of thinking, you’ll be able to enjoy sex for what it is - a healthy, fulfilling part of life.
Facts and mindset are the antidote to anxiety
STI anxiety affects many people, and in particular many clients of full-service sex workers. But if your worries are getting in the way of your enjoyment, there are definitely things you can do to move past it.
By learning the facts, planning strategies that manage your risk, and unpicking the negative associations you may have around sex and sex work, you’ll hopefully be able to get to a place where sexual intimacy feels safe rather than stressful. That means your next full-service session with a provider will be much more rewarding.
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