Emotional labour: how much can I ask of you?

Image by the awesome Stuart F Taylor

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.

Here are some more examples of emotional labour, and some more here, alongside a fascinating argument as to why more people should consider charging for emotional labour.

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.

8 Comments

  • rare deeds says:

    I think this is a fascinating, honest, & very engaging post. You do a special thing with this blog, & the effort you put into responding to emails, etc, is admirable – & very much appreciated. I think you embody a whole set of really important relational behaviours, which are, for the most part, “replicated” by most of the people who join in here – which is why it feels like such a good “community”.

    I hope you won’t mind if I take issue with one thing you say:
    “Thinking in terms of emotional labour makes it easier, I think, to identify why certain things are valuable.”
    I think I may believe the exact opposite of this!!

    I think there is too strong a tendency in contemporary culture to reduce too many things to labour – a commodity that can be counted/quantified/exchanged. In doing so, it’s possible to put a (quasi-)economic value on such things – but, perversely, I think this ends up, precisely, devaluing the very things we’re trying to value.

    I believe that we need to begin by acknowledging that there are some things which simply can’t be reduced to quantifiable values – &, indeed it is this very irreducibility that signifies what their *value* consists in.

    And I believe that everything that you identify in your post today is of that nature. Everything you talk about is valuable precisely because it can’t be reduced to labour, to a commodity with a quantifiable exchange value.

    And that’s what makes what you’re doing so special. It’s qualitatively different to what has become the normality of what seems to be most contemporary life, especially virtual life.

    None of this is meant as a criticism! Quite the contrary – I think you end up not valuing what you do enough, or in the right way, if you frame it in terms of emotional labour.

    And what you do *should* be valued, & valued properly!

    • Girl on the net says:

      Ah yeah, I see what you mean – and thank you for being so lovely! I think maybe what I’m getting at is that thinking about things in quantitative terms helped me get my thoughts on it in order a bit better. Not that it’d be good to say ‘it’s £X or X hours’ but that making that calculation prompts me to remember that it’s not a one-sided exchange. So it’s only by quantifying that I can then go ‘ah, but I should knock off £X or X hours for the reward I get for it too.’ Not sure I’ve explained that very well there though.

      “there are some things which simply can’t be reduced to quantifiable values” – absolutely. But to be totally contrary I think that’s *why* emotional labour is such a useful concept. Because our default (I think) is often to let the less quantifiable stuff slip to the bottom of a priority list – we value it less because its value is incalculable. So while I probably can’t put a specific price on things, conceiving of it in terms of work or labour makes me value it more, and reminds me to bump it up the priority list. Does that make sense? I’m not sure. Bit hungover, tbh =) Thank you for your kind words – seriously much appreciated! x

  • Rob says:

    Just my brief follow up to your latest blog thoughts and to the previous reader’s comments.
    I believe that you run this blog as a “labour of love” for those who read your words and make the effort to contact you.
    This “labour” is different than the usual drudgery kind, in my opinion and, like the last reader wrote, is to be valued.
    It not only helps the one who contacted you but also the unknown others who just read and take note,

  • SpaceCaptainSmith says:

    I have to say, that MetaFilter thread on emotional labour should really be read by everyone. But perhaps men in particular. When I last saw that thread, I made it through about 20 pages before being overcome by a mixture of horror and crushing guilt on realising “Yes, this is true of me, and of pretty much everyone I know”. It’s something that we all take for granted, and the very least we can do is to recognise that and try to remember it.

    As for the stuff you discuss here, it’s not quite the same thing, but it is clearly still emotional work of a kind. I can see why you wouldn’t want to charge for it, but… I don’t know, at least you should consider it as ‘work’ rather than ‘leisure’. And remember that there’s no actual obligation to respond to random strangers, except perhaps in cases where someone’s life would be at risk if you didn’t. But nobody can reasonably demand a reply.

  • josephine_kk says:

    TBH your blog is epic! No wonder why you get a lot of questions, it goes to show that people value the effort you put into this site and your posts. But there is only so much you can take and the repetitive answers can become boring.

    I’m like you, if I can not answer, I will suggest visiting x,y or z blog or if I have the time. I would love to sit here and answer question after question but I have a day job, which as much as I would love to pull a sickie, i can’t. I do try to explain my short comings with replies and usually are accepted with gracious thanks.

    But you, GOTN, are an amazing blogger and I hope all your readers value your time, whether it be posts or emails x

  • LaylaStudiesSex says:

    This was so wonderful and I applaud you on your insights. Even when people have the capability to do that level of personal reflection it’s still difficult and uncomfortable enough where a lot of people avoid it.
    Also, as much as it sucks I think there’s a lot of people who let the plates of the more important people shatter first as well. I know I’ve been guilty of that plenty of times and, maybe it’s different for you, but I think for me it’s been because I want to spend so much emotional labour on them but when I don’t have the energy it’s easier to help strangers because I’m not as emotionally invested.
    There’s so much more I could say because you made so many great points that I’d love to have whole damn discussions about but I won’t leave you an essay :)
    Just one more thing – from all of your blog I’ve read you seem to be an incredibly grounded person with an exceptional amount of things on your plate so I think it’s completely fair for you to not be able to connect with all of your fans as well as you’d ideally like. You’re one human person who has a whole life outside of this blog, the fact that people want to connect so much is a testament to how much you’ve done already.

    • Girl on the net says:

      “as much as it sucks I think there’s a lot of people who let the plates of the more important people shatter first as well.” Yes OMG – thank you for saying this. I am very guilty of letting this exact thing happen. Thank you for your comment – you’re very kind, and I’m so chuffed that you took the time to say this. Thank you x

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