I’ve always been the one who gets to hear people’s secrets. Maybe I’m great at keeping them, or perhaps I just have the look of someone who’s keen to hear all the dirty details. Maybe both – I hope so.
Even before I started sex blogging, I’d have friends email or text to say ‘I did something super-hot yesterday and I’m not sure who else to tell so…’ We’d chat about it together, swap stories and share experiences, and give each other the best non-judgy advice or support we could muster.
Then I started a sex blog.
I still chat to friends about sex secrets and details, but I’m lucky enough that I have an outlet for it here. You read and respond and share and chat, and we have a special club where we can talk about this stuff. It’s awesome. It’s reciprocal. It’s simultaneously a shared joy and a shared burden – depending on what we’re talking about.
It also means that lots more people confide in me privately.
When you run a sex blog some people see you as the friend or big sister they can share a secret with. They email to say ‘hey, I did this cool thing and I wanted to tell someone’ or ‘I have this kink and I’m worried I’m not normal,’ or ‘I want to know if this person is into me,’ and a whole host of other things. I have had some emails that make me cry or make me weak with worry for the person who sent them. Disturbing and heartbreaking things, often.
So if you run a sex blog, people tell you their secrets. It’s both an intensely flattering benefit and a nervewracking hazard of the job. I could easily ignore them, but I feel quite a lot of responsibility – especially to those who are crying out for reassurance or help. Yet sitting at home behind my laptop, I am useless and weak and inadequate. And I am not a professional: I am not a qualified therapist.
There’s a toll here.
It’s hard to talk about that toll, because I don’t want to hurt the people who’ve emailed me. I don’t want them to feel bad. Just as I’d never turn away a friend who confided in me, so I’ll never reply to people who need help with ‘sorry, no dice.’
In the early days of sex blogging, I offered ‘here’s what I would do’ and other incompetent advice, some of which I’m certain was overreaching and/or wrong.
The horror that I may have said something ignorant still keeps me awake at night.
These days I’ll respond with links to other websites written by genuine experts.
The worry that this might seem dismissive keeps me awake at night too.
When I’ve replied, I often hear nothing back. So I wonder – is this person OK? Did they get the help they need? Are they still struggling? I’ll often never find out.
Of course no one owes me a response, but add that worry to the ‘keeps me awake’ list too.
I don’t get much sleep.
How do you quantify emotion?
I can tell you that it takes between five and fifty minutes to reply to an email. I can – at a push – tell you that it takes roughly four or five hours per week to reply to all my email (not counting PR mail, companies who haven’t read my FAQs, work email, etc). It’s crass though, to put an exact figure on it – to say ‘that’s £200 I could have earned.’
It seems wrong. It is wrong. I don’t like that figure at all. Because when I work I get a cash reward at the end, but I can’t calculate the cash value of the emotional benefit I get from those emails. The joy of hearing that someone liked what I wrote, or shared a story with their partner, or told me I’m not weird and hey they share my kinks too.
It’s emotional labour, but it’s not one-sided.
What is emotional labour?
Emotional labour is the work we do to keep relationships and life running smoothly. It’s rarely ever directly quantified. You don’t charge a friend for the two hours you spent calming them after a particularly stressful day, or the hour you spent massaging your other half’s ego because they did the housework for once and now they’d like to tell you all about the detail of how they cleaned the oven. You don’t work out how much time or money you’ve invested in remembering birthdays, emailing ‘how are you’s, or wrangling twelve different people who know they all want to meet up for lunch, but need you to organise the dates.
It’s often overlooked because it’s intangible. For example, one partner thinking about what people would like to eat at Christmas and planning the shopping in advance – emailing, reminding, checking, budgeting, then making a detailed list – versus the other spending an hour in the shops then getting credit for a well-stocked fridge.
Emotional labour in sex blogging
I have a huge amount of admiration for the people who do charge for emotional labour – often sex workers who have a fascinating vantage point on the way in which emotional as well as physical work should be valued. I think we can learn lots from them, and other interactions where people are quantifying the value they add to someone’s life by listening, sharing, keeping or exchanging secrets – all that stuff. When I’ve got stressy on Twitter about the number of emails I get, or the panic that I’m not being helpful enough, people have suggested I do something similar – stick a price tag on it.
But in my case I don’t think it’s helpful. Sure, I could make £200 in the 5 hours each week I spend replying to emails, but given the choice I’d sacrifice that money to do it anyway. There’s reciprocal value for me – every kind email, share, comment, or shoutout makes me immensely happy. If I quantified that exchange – literally or metaphorically – I’d lose a lot of the things that I love about sex blogging: the closeness, the shared experience, the awesome ‘me too!’ feeling that we all get when we see other people enjoying our kinks and quirks.
So what am I saying exactly?
I think I just wanted to acknowledge it. To point out that in every interaction we have – especially interactions with strangers – there’s an emotional give and take. Just as I place an emotional burden on friends and family who know – and keep – my secrets, so there’s an emotional burden whenever someone asks for help or advice. It becomes even trickier to untangle in a situation where people feel they know you. Where you may be flattered that people see you as a friend, but it would be impossible to give ‘friend’ level attention to everyone.
Those links above which give examples of emotional labour made me realise where I fall down: I don’t often remember birthdays, I am bad at recognising when friends need comfort rather than just ‘a pint.’ I suck at responding to compliments or nice things, which in itself is a failure to acknowledge the time and attention someone has been kind enough to give me. Above all, I am abrupt and rude when I am stressed. Ironically, when I am spinning too many plates, the first ones which shatter are the ones which are most important: caring for friends and family who give me the support I need to keep on spinning the others.
Recognising emotional labour doesn’t mean that you need to stop doing it. It doesn’t necessarily mean assessing the price of each interaction. But talking about emotional labour helps us recognise where effort has been expended. It helps me appreciate the time people take to do nice things for me, and reminds me to acknowledge those things properly – saying ‘thanks’ when someone does me a favour or sends me a compliment or wades in to a debate to support me. Reminding myself that the connection – someone reaching out and saying ‘hey, I want to talk to you’ – is a massive privilege in itself.
Thinking in terms of emotional labour makes it easier, I think, to identify why certain things are valuable.
And why they’re also incredibly hard.