Tilly Lawless on Burnout, Love, and Judgement


Tilly Lawless is one of the many “faces of prostitution.” She is a queer writer, university grad, and equestrian living and working as a sex worker in Australia. I found Tilly through social media and was taken aback by her intimate and beautiful writings about sex work, her relationship with her girlfriend Dani, and her travels. Her openness is admirable and rare. Tilly is a pure and challenging voice in an industry still heavily shrouded in judgement and shame. She’s parting the grasses for a path to acceptance and normalcy for a respected and age-old profession. Darby Milbrath


Photo by Chloë Nour

Contrasts. A six-star hotel one night, orchids crowding every surface, pink explosions outnumbering the people. Massage parlour the next night —bulk-bought soap, a jelly that clogs the drain, hospital stench from the night manager’s Dettol clean, a solitary mushroom pushing its way through a carpet; how does one get hard in that? I came with a client and he said “we made magic.” My vagina did a crab retreat back inside my body, the cold water clench of being immersed in sudden distaste. I woke up in the too early morning light and felt rotten. Burnout sits a solemn friend on my shoulder. Perhaps next shift it will take wing, startled by my earnings. At the moment though I know I have eleven weeks until my next break and those eleven weeks feel long. I have to cram another third of a year’s earnings into that, squeeze it between my thighs like the flesh of my horse. Must stay on, must make my aim, mustn’t allow myself to burn out before it is properly time. Most of the time I love my job and yet, sometimes in the weird sick hollow below my ribs my soul clammers for a break from smiling when I don’t feel like smiling. I just want to watch Bridget Jones for the umpteenth time in bed with Dani, and gaze upon her one straggling orchid.

How do I talk about burnout though? What space are we given to talk about our hurts and mental health without our words being used as a cause against us? How can I talk about that in the moments I dread my job, because I dread a lot of social interactions and my job is intensely social. Any cracks in my togetherness are cracks for prohibitionists to wedge their way into. I feel I must knit together a united front from the shambles of my unstrung nerves, elastic spools of prickled thread that don’t do their job.

And so I go back, I march that rabbit warren of a place and get conjunctivitis from my mascara and BV from the massage oil and walk out with $1200 sticky with lube in my condom bag and don’t give myself time to pause in case I realise how little I want to be there. It is a bleak, teeth-gritted success that totters towards me, thrown up off the pavement in the shadow of streetlights in the early morning. I did it. I wrangled that beast. The many-headed hydra that has bled from its wounded stump down my thighs, the dirt brown of a straggling period that clients did not notice for the sponge stuffed up against my cervix. I birthed it in the morning light in my bath, a bruised thing that quickly washed to a pristine baby pink. No sign it was inside a prostitute in a brothel.

Another night I am lit up with lovely interactions, a bouncing pinball machine that spins still upon the wheel of uplifting clients as I trip out in the small hours. I creep into Dani’s bed and snuggle against her as a small thing does; all tucked dormouse head and wet prints of kisses upon her torso. I have a want for her pooled inside me, completely untouched by the dicks that went there, a second pocket of emotional need and desire and immense love. She finger fucks me and, after a night of pushing out noise, I try to hold it in so as not to wake her housemates.

That becomes a favourite memory, how after a night of work, when the men have been warmed in the poor shadow cast by my life’s great romance, I go home to dance in the strength of the flames. Every twist of her wrist winched me open till I felt as if she could be entirely inside me; fist deep, arm deep, body deep. I think of it often as I sniff with hay fever in the Cotswold’s, and by the time I get to Exmoor and am 17,653 kilometres from her I orgasm thinking of it. I touch the glass of my phone as we Skype to feel closer to her, but it is that memory that stills me like a pierced pin through my moth flutter being.

So my burnout was cured with love and travel, with listening to podcasts as I walked through fields of Soay sheep, with ketamine kisses in the fag hag corner of Berghain, with a plane that took me far away from all the reaching hands of men and eventually delivered Dani to me too. It is not the only way though; home brings the same solace.

I think of the Promised Land horizon. So much green and blue that when we dropped acid it came screaming in at us, 360 degrees of eucalyptus and us, just one irrelevant pinpoint squished by those technicolor surrounds. A blue haze of eucalyptus oil smudges the delineation of earth and sky on summer days. Ferns mark soggy bits of ground, a crossing in the creek, the cool place you like to sit. When it rains the house fills with huntsmans, bats and mole crickets. The rainforest encroaches. You rush your outdoor shower when the lightning storm rocks around the valley, thrown from curve to curve in moments of supreme illumination. Each tree cut stark like the backdrop of a cardboard puppet show or your primary school diorama. I pee beneath a latticed sky of stars. “You’ve tainted the family name,” said my cousin regarding my work. Doesn’t she know? Everything is worth this. Even being sprayed neck to hip in salty cum by an entitled man who threw me a towel to clean myself up. Besides, my last name is Lawless. What is there to taint?

I come back to the whore fold, and with one hand pressed to a man’s taint and the other upon the head of his cock he comes, splutters through my carefully aimed fingers and across his belly. A tragic sort of lukewarm spurt of dying sperm, the man left equally helpless lying no longer inviolate or volatile upon the massage table as I wipe up the excess from his cock with a tissue. I am always reminded of changing a nappy. Get ‘em in, get ‘em up, get ‘em off, get ‘em out. I feel like I could see ten more of him straight after one another, so many that if I had the cello hands of one of my co-hoes I would be wincing in fear of strain. I am primed and fit, a racehorse on ice skidding down the narrow terrace steps in my stripper heels. I am ready to earn more, to work towards that stretch of barbed wire home in Northern NSW, to take Dani to Iceland, to lull with a joint in my hand and my feet on the back steps, to be the me that sex work allows me to be. Even through the burnout haze I know I am grateful.