Our bodies are present for all of the simultaneous lives that we live. Despite its fragility, our body is our constant in all situations. The sex, the substances, the dancing, the struggle, the stress, and the scrutiny are pressing against my body whether or not my mind decides they count. What happens to my body in the strip club never stays in the strip club. The body is there before consciousness thinks it.
Whoring is a constant experimentation with the deep unknown of the body. My body in contact with other bodies, in contact with itself, moving in places deemed unconscionable and in ways it is forbidden to do so. I know the power of what a body can do, and am constantly in awe of what occurs when I slide into an optimal state, pushing beyond my known limits. The mind is unaware of the procedures of the body, the body is unaware of thought. The unconscious of the body is a realm we rarely dare to explore.
Many of us practice active dissociation in our work. We see it as a powerful tool that allows us to protect ourselves from anything that threatens us. We daydream while at our dishwashing job, or detach from our pain receptors, no longer reacting to the blisters from our tools. Sometimes I dissociate to cope with a touch I do not want to feel. I start singing along to the song playing. Sometimes I dissociate at work to escape the pains of the rest of my life. It is at times the only way to get through a job, and at times a perfectly harmless tool if you can maintain some control over it.
Personally, I have always wanted to be further inside my body, to be put back into my own body. Long before I was a sex worker, I needed to touch other bodies so that when I would touch mine, I would know the difference. To press upon saplings, boulders, leather furniture, the pavement, bodies hard and soft, seeping and unstable. To experience enough to know what joins my power, and what diminishes it. To be part of a greater flow, to dissolve boundaries between myself and the world.
After years of sex work burnout and related injuries, I began training martial arts as a way to re-enter my body. I have been training Brazilian jiu-jitsu for about a year. Jiu-jitsu is a grappling art, like wrestling, where the fight is brought to the ground and a power struggle is played out until submission. It is premised on the concept that any body can defend itself against bodies that are bigger or stronger through technique, leverage, and frames. A frame is a part of your body that is used to create and maintain space, relying on your skeletal structure more than muscular strength. They are obstacles that you place in the way of your opponent’s body to restrict freedom of movement, like your knee pressed up upon their chest.
The mental toughness required of sex work is so layered. Teasing that toughness out of coping mechanisms to move past dissociation gives me balance and potentially, a more full life. Jiu-jitsu is a self-care practice that orients me towards survival. Through it, I gain physical strength and stamina through motions I find deeply therapeutic. Grappling gives me the feeling of moving my hips, face, hands, elbows—all of my body—in similar ways as in other situations, but for different reasons. It teaches me to do with my body what I have wanted to do in so many other moments: to take power. Jiu-jitsu has also brought me structure, helping me to regulate my sleep schedule as I switch from nights to days. It gives me a place to go, an entire world to escape in where I rarely dissociate, as success is only possible through fully inhabiting my body. It is an avenue towards flow state.
Flow state is popularly understood from the research of psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi as a state of consciousness where we feel and perform our best. It is characterized by complete immersion in an activity, where the ego falls away and time feels different. It is beautiful improvisation: every action, movement, and thought follows effortlessly from the previous one. Your whole being is involved. You are in the zone, hustling with a remarkable ease. You find and expand the cracks of all false boundaries surrounding you. You are beyond control, wild yet with intense clarity. It is a light breaking-and-entering of desires no longer distant.
Normally, we process the world through language. We turn life into data. We are preoccupied by the need to understand things in a particular way, unable to apprehend anything immediately. We are constantly surrounded by ideas, notions, things to conceive, things to form—so that at any moment all action is rendered impossible. How do we escape the overwhelming feeling of being surrounded by things outside of ourselves, looming in our minds, waiting to be interpreted?
Flow state is the ability to inhabit an area of action through the continuous postponement of reason, an area outside the failings of cognitive understanding. It is joyous, self-forgetful involvement through concentration. It is bliss. There are many triggers and iterations of flow state, as you might know, but for me the most profound is the merging of action and awareness. My actions are one with direct perception, feeling in the moment, a cognition made apparent not through my mind, but rather my actions. I can act creatively, when earlier, I could only attempt to process.
In practice, jiu-jitsu changes a situation so that it favors the defensive player. It trains you to be comfortable under duress. It is about creativity, openness, the unconscious ability of the body, muscle memory, and fluid motion which adjusts quickly when new challenges arise. Strength is used only when you are too late to intuit the movement of your opponent’s body. Strength and hardness are secondary to pliancy and the freshness of unrestricted being. When we harden, we tire and we die.
After sparring with my coach the other day, he told me I had good transitions. I thought of all the transitions I had with my client just before class, where my intimacy was seamless. Each touch, laugh, word spoken came effortlessly from the last and was met by the instant feedback of my client’s mounting desire and joy. Instead of dissociation, my mind and body achieve a parallel. Surviving looks and feels effortless to my opponent. I was not an actress, but rather able to truly act in a way adequate to my situation.
Sex workers too must seize the advantage through form and situational strength. As in jiu-jitsu, we must use frames. Screening, largely considered a best practice for prostitutes, requires a john to provide personal information or a reference from a provider to indicate that they are not law enforcement, otherwise dangerous, or a waste of time. We must always create a scenario weighted towards us. This is the active thrust of autonomy that criminalization will always destroy. We ourselves are familiar with the multitude of energies around us; we know our life and who intersects with it; and we alone can do the things that keep us safe, because only we understand the specific world we operate in.
When we are forced into a specific relationship with our clients by externally-imposed legal structures, we learn nothing but obedience. We are crushed by our lack of power, all under the auspices of safety or public health. I have worked under an array of conditions, rules, and regulations but never in a decriminalized environment. It is the State, rather than my clients directly, which has always left me the most vulnerable. But outside the scope of a controlling apparatus, we can set our own parameters of our encounters with each other.
It is this situation, when we begin from a place of all possible relations, that produces the highest motivation to relate to me in a positive way. If I am laying out the terms, I maintain control, and the john is motivated to ask in a way that I might respond yes. When the State is laying out the terms, I am forced to begin with a “no.” All the techniques I learn, all the leverage I create for myself, all the frames I put between myself and my clients for protection are withered away by the legal frameworks limiting the possibilities of my body. It is the external refusal presupposing my own which provokes the john himself to pull my g-string off without asking.
Flow state is desirable because it approximates life without this externally imposed suffering. I want everything to collapse onto itself, my mind no longer conceived as a self-contained field, substantially differentiated from body. I want full clarity of intention, given to me through action. To be free from conceptual labor. To build my own capacity. Flowing in jiu-jitsu allows me to function and operate consistently upon life, with it and through it, not through referencing good or evil, right or wrong, not according to a rule or law, but the diversity of life and particularity of how things have unfolded into a non linear sequence leading to my creative force. I am not thrust outward from my body, torn apart or caged. I am folding into myself.
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illustrations Happy Burbeck