Disruption - 10th Annual Honi Soit Writing Competition
Culture //

Grief, loss, love and the complexities of sex work

In conversation with Rita Therese on her debut memoir ‘Come’ and the process of writing a dimensional life

Image: Jayden Reynolds

Rita Therese’s debut memoir Come has been described as bold, brave and darkly funny. I can safely say it does not disappoint. Despite giving myself a couple of days to read Come, I found my eyes unwilling to leave its pages. Rita takes readers on a journey of immense loss, grief and pain; yet there were moments where I laughed harder than I have in a long time and felt seen in a way I have not often experienced. 

As a sex worker myself, this is the book I want to recommend to my friends, that I trust to portray an experience that does not play into the stereotypes of our work that people so desperately seek out. It is the kind of work I hope to see more and more of.

I sat down with Rita to chat about her memoir, life, work and some of the things in between. 

— 

Aylah Rose: How are you feeling at the moment with everything that’s going on in the world?

Rita Therese: I don’t really go on the news anymore at this point, it’s better to just tune out you know, it’s just too stressful. 

AR: Yeah I feel that a lot! It’s just like, a strange time, I don’t know about you, but I’ve had to stop working and I know a lot of other workers in the same position and things just feel super, I don’t know, unstable? 

RT: It’s a really strange, strange time and I think that’s a good word for it, unstable. 

AR: On the plus side it’s meant that I had the opportunity to sit down all afternoon yesterday and read your new book, Come. I have to say when I finished reading it the first thought I had was just like —  wow, that was so not the typical “hooker memoir” you expect to read based on the way the media and film and television usually portray our stories. So often there’s this reliance on either trauma porn or the glamorisation of sex work and your book just refuses to play into that. Was that a conscious decision? 

RT: Yeah absolutely! I didn’t want that to be the way the book was and I just felt like, firstly I didn’t want to bludger people over the head constantly with trauma stuff, but I also wanted it to be a really dimensional piece of writing that had a lot of different perspectives. Maybe it’s also something about me, but I didn’t feel like it would justify my own life to make it, I think exactly what you’re saying, like either really glamorous or really traumatic. I think that there should be space for writers from the sex industry to be allowed to be given the same dimension that other people who write memoirs are and there doesn’t have to be this kind of, one-size-fits-all approach to storytelling, you know? 

AR: I really started to feel that vibe early on in the book when you tell this story about the first time you ever had to work on your period and use a sponge and, without giving too much away, had this experience with a client that I think a lot of non-workers would find pretty awkward, but you just burst out laughing the second the booking was over. It just really captured for me the way sex work, despite the stigma and hype that people create around it, is just totally normal work and that we do have off days and uncomfortable moments, but that we can laugh at them and we can take the piss out of ourselves you know?

RT: Absolutely! There needs to be a lot of space for laughter because, you know, I think within work you’re expected to be very serious or to present like a very particular kind of person and one of the things I really wanted to do with my book was to be a bit gross or to make fun of things and to laugh, but to also normalise a lot of things that are normal for us. 

AR: Something else that I found really cool was the way that you interweaved stories in such a clever way so that I’d be laughing so much in one instant and then there would be these really important moments where you would talk about grief, or trauma, or some quite intense experiences, but you’d suddenly pull us out of those moments and bring us back to something funny or light. 

RT: Yeah, I purposely did that because I didn’t want the reader to be like “ugh” and put the book down and just not want to pick it up again you know? It was about creating scenes and momentum that allow you to go through the heavy stuff and still want to stay engaged and not feel overwhelmed. I think that when I read a lot of books that dealt with really intense trauma, I found that the best way for me to get through them was to not feel so overwhelmed and I didn’t want my reader to feel that way and feel like “fucking hell,” you know? 

AR: So the book delves into your past and the traumas that come with that, and I guess I kind of got the feeling that this book is as much written for you as it is for your readers, like kind of a cathartic experience.

RT: Absolutely, that’s definitely what it was yeah!

AR: How are you feeling now, I guess knowing that the book will be available to so many people and that aspects of your life, for total lack of a better term, will be more or less laid bare? 

RT: I don’t know, I get asked this a lot… I think the main feedback I get from people about the book is that it’s very honest, and that’s not a bad thing but it is curious because that’s just who I am as a person and I guess. I don’t know, my life has been so public and so open that, I don’t know, maybe I will feel something, we’ll see. I remember when I made my first zine and I put it in the post box and I went to walk away and I had an anxiety attack and thought “oh fuck, what have I done?” you know, like I’ve just put this really personal thing out, but now I think I’m just so used to it. I don’t know why it doesn’t bother me anymore. Maybe it is a sense of catharsis, or a hope that it makes other people feel less alone. Because I think honesty can do that; it can help people to feel less afraid of themselves, or to feel less gross or scared of dark thoughts. I think it’s very freeing to bare it and be open with it all.

AR: I mean, it’s a super interesting time for a book like this to be coming out, because you know, with social media sex work slowly being portrayed more in more mainstream media, despite often being done in a super typecast and problematic way, it definitely does feel like it’s a pretty rapidly changing landscape for us.

RT: Yeah, it’s been interesting to see how things have changed because I’ve been working since I was 18, so almost 10 years now, and the shape of the industry has changed, online media has changed, it all exists in a very different way to how it used to. It’s exciting and cool but it’s also kind of sad because, you know, back in the “old days” [both laughing] Instagram was a really fun platform to use because it hadn’t been so heavily censored yet and Tumblr was a great platform and Twitter had this great community, but because of SESTA/FOSTA [US legislation passed in 2018 that clamped down on online sex work in the name of attacking sex trafficking] that’s changed massively. So it’s kind of both a great thing to see so many people out and being open, but it’s also sad that all of these laws and these changes have meant that things that we used to do, or talk about, or be able to have on so many platforms are now gone because of censorship.

AR: In talking about SESTA/FOSTA and this really intensely changing landscape for sex workers, was there a part of you that, I guess beyond the cathartic element that we’ve spoken about and the hope to make people feel seen and heard, felt that maybe politically there was a need for a book like this right now? 

RT: Yeah, I mean, I think ultimately the book was always about positioning sex work as the background and for me it was more about, you know, the work being in there, the actual physical work, the emotional work, but that the main thing that happens is life. I think sometimes the narrative that gets sold, or that people want, is that sex work is the only thing in your life and it’s not. You know for so many of us, for all of us, we have partners and relationships and death and love. I think juxtaposing that against sex work and going through death and experiencing grief and having to deal with clients and people, I think that, I don’t know, maybe it helps to create a bit more space for those stories to happen. Like, you know, you can talk about sex work because it is so intrinsically linked to the self but mainly the book is about grief and grieving; grieving the loss of my brothers, grieving the loss of my identity that I had held on so tightly to as a sex worker, you know? 

 AR: Yeah absolutely. I think it speaks to what we spoke about earlier, that for me this wasn’t that “hooker memoir”. It’s literally a story of someone’s grief and immense loss and then yeah sure there’s that backdrop of work and putting on your face for that, but like, in the same way that you would if you were a brickie heading out to the construction site or whatever. Which is so cool because it just normalises our work and like, yes hello we have lives that exist and intertwine with our job the way it does for everyone else. 

RT: Yeah I think if you swapped out sex work for any other job you don’t know much about, like I don’t know, maybe a rash specialist [laughing] or some obtuse business, I think that curiosity would be there and I think what I wanted to do was reframe my work as maybe a curious job, but a regular job. But just that, a job. It forms an interesting backdrop but it’s not the central part of the story. 

AR: Yeah and it doesn’t indulge that thing of non sex workers wanting you to intrigue them with how “fucked up” the job is, or how much money you make or…

RT: Exactly! And I think that was really important when I was thinking about the cover for my book. One of the options that was initially pitched to me I said no to because I felt that people would pick it up thinking they would read it on a beach somewhere and kick back and get lost in this like saucy tale, and I’m like “uh no, that’s not what’s gonna happen.” So it was really important to me that that wasn’t the narrative that was sold because people would be disappointed. It’s not meant to be glamorous; it’s meant to be funny and dark, but it wasn’t meant to be anything but real and honest. 

And I think that about perfectly wraps it all up [both laughing].

Rita Therese’s new book “COME” is available online here.

Aylah Rose is a Sydney-based sex worker. You can follow their Instagram, @fatlilbratz.  

Filed under: