I love my family very much. But I also know that a little bit of distance (both physical and otherwise) in my 30s goes a long, long way toward maintaining that love. That makes the holiday season (groan) an anxiety-riddled stretch for me most years, because I know it means many hours of forced confinement with folks I don't engage with on the daily.
This year, instead of struggling my way through big meals and small talk with people I often see only annually, I thought it might be better to proactively seek out the advice of a professional. And, as with connecting with any professional, I wanted somebody who understood a bit more of the nuance sex workers like me face when it comes to discrimination and disagreement (political or otherwise). Dr. Eric Sprankle is an Associate Professor of Psychology and the Co-Director of the Sexuality Studies Program at Minnesota State University, Mankato, and is a loud and proud advocate for sex positivity, and sex workers on Twitter and Instagram. If you're not already following him, I suggest you give it a go. He's written several papers with Katie Bloomquist – who you may already know as a former board member for for SWOP USA, and who is currently a sex and relationship therapist offering sex worker- affirmative therapy in private practice) – on the subject of sex work stigma, and I knew he was just the guy to answer some challenging questions about family interactions and handling conflicts for the holidays.
Firstly, thank you so much for all the work that you do, and your incredible sex-positivity on twitter. You are a bright spot in a lot of folks’ days there. And thank you for agreeing to offer some insight into how we might be able to navigate emotionally fraught or complicated holiday situations.
My pleasure. Thanks for the invitation and for the kind words.
So – family drama and differing political views, that’s certainly not something unique to providers. Is there comfort to be found in the idea that lots of folks (most?) struggle with spending lots of time around family during the holidays?
I think that can help some folks feel not so alone in their struggle. There can be a certain degree of solidarity and comfort from knowing there are millions of black sheep heavy sighing and eye rolling around their family tables.
There are aspects of sex work that do make it a bit distinct, however, right? Especially when it comes to national/global issue like FOSTA and the current panic about human trafficking? Or to social issues like “dead hooker” jokes?
Without a doubt. It’s not as simple, albeit nauseating, as when Uncle Steve starts yapping about the need for a border wall. With sex work, it’s not only the political – FOSTA, criminalization, sex trafficking paranoia – but it’s also personal. It’s your livelihood and your work identity they are commenting on, either directly or indirectly depending on whether you are out to your family.
What do you think is the best way to handle, say, a really stark disagreement about politics or a particular *ahem* politician when you’re in a family setting? Stand your ground and defend your position? Or brush it off and let them say whatever they want to say?
There’s no right or one answer to this. It’s always a balancing act. If you’re being authentic, you’d speak your mind and possibly get into a contentious argument that may ultimately damage the relationship. On the other hand, you may choose to avoid the conflict at the expense of being inauthentic and feel a little phoney (but at least you kept the peace). And there are dozens of degrees in between these two end points. It’s up to you to decide for yourself what feels the best in the moment and in the long-term.
I’m out to my family and friends about what I do for a living, but I still struggle with correcting wrong information in them sometimes. How can one look for opportunities to share facts or information that might be counter to what somebody already believes? And should you even try?
It depends on the role you want to play, and the amenability of your family. It’s tempting to be the “well, actually” person in the noble pursuit of disseminating knowledge. I’m a professor; I have to suppress this urge in social settings constantly. One thing to consider, however: Your family’s ignorance is not your responsibility. A holiday gathering with family is, ideally, a time to relax and have fun. It doesn’t have to be a classroom where your goal is to change the hearts and minds of your relatives. If that’s what you want to do, great. But there shouldn’t be pressure put upon you to be working at family events.
The other factor is whether your family is even capable of grasping what you want to inform them about. If you’ve regularly seen them dismiss new information or if they believe everything on NPR is a “Soros-funded, globalist conspiracy,” it may not be worth your effort in attempting to correct their misinformation.
For a provider who is not necessarily out to their family about their work, is it dangerous to pop in with a “well, actually…” when your crazy aunt Linda starts talking about how she heard Amy Schumer say it was “as easy to order a child for sex as it was to order a pizza?”
Your identity is concealed for a reason, so it’s important to honor that concealment and the protection it provides. Only you can decide what is safe to disclose (even indirectly) and to whom.
What’s the best way to diffuse a situation that seems extra contentious during a holiday gathering?
I’d first start by suggesting creating an action plan prior to seeing your family. “If Uncle Mark starts ranting about Black Lives Matter, I’m going to do this.” “If Aunt Linda gives me the cold shoulder because I have visible tattoos, I’ll do this.” “I’m going to be more authentic with my cousin Rick by telling him this.”
Families are predictable, even the ones that are predictably unpredictable. It’s important that we are prepared for these various encounters and situations we’ve experienced before, as well as possibly make new goals for ourselves to be a little more authentic and comfortable.
Diffusing a situation may simply be redirecting the conversation, explicitly saying you are uncomfortable or upset and no longer want to talk about it, leaving the room, going for a walk, or “going for a walk” and not coming back.
Do you think the source of information one might share about sexuality or sex work matters in debate? Or are we at a point, culturally, where everything can be dismissed as “fake news?”
It will depend on the family of course. I like to believe there are families that value a peer-reviewed citation, but I know there are plenty of families who think Tucker Carlson is a credible source.
If someone has the means to stay nearby in a hotel, rather than with a parent or relative, is that a good idea to help alleviate some of the anxiety around family time?
Or is it “insulting” because you’re “not some tourist” (like an unnamed mom, who will remain nameless, seems to think)?
I smirk because I had this debate the last time my wife and I visited my family, and we decided to stay at a hotel; the first time I had ever done this. Mom-induced guilt is powerful. However, staying at a hotel can make a huge difference in your ability to tolerate visiting with family. It provides you a sanctuary to recharge and escape if and when needed. This is especially important for us introverts who can’t keep up the pace of a house full of kids, TVs, and small talk about fishing season on Lake Minnetonka. It also allows you to maintain some semblance of your lifestyle while visiting, as opposed to feeling like a teenager again by sleeping in your old bedroom and watching reruns of Frasier with your parents.
Wow. That Frasier ref feels very... specific. But I very get it. Is it ok, if you just can’t bring yourself to tolerate an unenjoyable family situation, to avoid it entirely and make an excuse for your absence? Is that self care?
Absolutely. Each one of my aforementioned answers could have been qualified with “and of course, you could just skip this year and not see your family if that’s the healthiest option.” Unless you’re a Kardashian, I don’t think you’re contractually obligated to hang out with your family. Part of that planning process I mentioned before is setting appropriate boundaries for yourself: “I’ll only spend two hours at my parents’ house.” “I’m willing to go, but I’ll leave once Uncle Bud Light gets drunk.” Or even, “you know what, my cats are my family; I’m staying home this year.”
Lastly, is there any advice you might give to providers (or just sex-positive people in general) who might encounter some negative or especially difficult people or positions this holiday season, even if they aren’t family members? How can we stay upbeat?
Lean on your chosen family. Your like-minded, sex-positive bubble that supports and validates you. Be sure you are getting healthy doses of time spent with them, either virtually or in-person, as prevention and aftercare in dealing with your family. Although they may not be related to you, there are plenty of folks who love you unconditionally.