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A Distorted Reality Is Now A Necessity To Be Free: Phone Sex On And After 9/11

("Nose art" by Alberto Vargas)
(“Nose art” by Alberto Vargas)

I will forever associate foot fetishism with terrorism. Although George W. Bush had been in office for almost a year, 9/11 was when “the Bush years” really got rolling. I’d been politically curious my whole life, and activism-oriented in recent years, energized and excited by the emerging global trends that were dubbed the “anti-globalization movement.” A friend and I had just submitted an article discussing the murder of Carlo Guiliani to Onward!, a now-defunct anarchist newspaper. Guiliani was killed by police during protests against the G8 summit in Genoa, in July 2001 and our article contrasted his movement martyrdom to that of the Kent State Four, and the less famous Jackson State Two. It was exciting to be wanking theoretical, especially about how we, as US-based members of A Movement, might effectively organize domestically for change without an obvious and tangible Big Bad (i.e. The War) to rally people around.

Hahahahahaha!

The article was outdated before the issue went to press. Suddenly, years of organizing and strategizing around the IMF and World Bank policy were blown out of the water and there was a new, even more mass-murderous game in town. Soon we’d have two big, obvious wars, not to mention the racist detentions of Arabs and Muslims right here in Brooklyn, a wave of attacks on mosques, massive crackdowns on civil liberties, endless new, tangible evils, and not much more by way of an effective mass movement.

When the first plane hit the north tower, I was in Manhattan, near the Empire State Building, talking to a foot fetishist. I worked the Tuesday morning shift at a phone sex bank—someone had to. This was the fourth Tuesday I’d swiped in ten minutes before 8 a.m., picked up my headset and booth sign stating my stage name and “girl number,” settled into a vacant cubicle on the talking floor and logged in for early morning action.

It Happened To Me: I’m An Escort Who Thought She Had Gonorrhea

World War II military propaganda poster, circa 1940 (Image courtesy of the National Library of Medicine)
1940 World War II military propaganda poster (Image courtesy of the National Library of Medicine)

I was in the midst of a pretty good day when I received a phone call from one of my non-client lovers. The poor boy had come down with a case of throat gonorrhea, which I didn’t even know was a thing.  He was just calling to let me know I had been exposed the last time we had sex, since we had made out with great vigor and he had also gone downtown, like the sweetheart he is. I thanked him for letting me know, told him to feel better, hung up and began to evaluate the situation in the calm and rational fashion that any sex-positive, non-monogamous person might try to evaluate a situation such as this.

Gonorrhea. No big deal, right? I have always expected to contract an STI at some point in my life, and as far as STIs go that’s not such a bad one. I was feeling a little funny in the junk, which I figured was probably due to a yeast infection. It seemed likely to me that I might, in fact, have gonorrhea, and I should probably get tested ASAP either way.

Then I remembered what I do for a living. I remembered that there weren’t just lovers whom I may have exposed, albeit unwittingly, but possibly about three clients as well. Even worse, I remembered that I desperately needed to make the money I was planning on making over the coming weekend— or else I wasn’t going to be able to pay my rent.

Mother. Fucker.

In my work as a full-service escort, STIs had always been a sort of intellectual, if abstract, concern. It is something I knew could be a really detrimental thing to have happen to my business, but it hadn’t happened yet, so I wasn’t too worried about it. Now here I was, in the exact situation I had only considered in the abstract. The one where I need to make money but can’t really figure out an ethical way to do so without exposing myself as every client’s worst nightmare: the poxy whore.

The Price of Knowledge: Discrimination Against Sex Workers In Academia

(Image via plasticdollheads.com, courtesy of Gemma Ahearne)
(Image via plasticdollheads.com, courtesy of Gemma Ahearne)

This essay is based on research interviews I conducted with current and former sex workers who are undergraduate or graduate students at universities across the globe. Their names and other identifying information have been changed.

I am subject to the capricious whims of my patriarch, a pimp of sorts, the man who decides the parameters of my labor. He is benevolent; soothing my insecurities with promises of better pay and better working conditions, someday. Things will improve, he promises. Someday, I will be able to keep what I earn, I’ll have adequate health care, and I’ll be treated as my patriarch’s equal. But first, I must pledge my allegiance to indentured servitude despite its accompaniment of crushing debt. I must allow for my assimilation into an exploitative system for a mere chance at cultural capital. I must sell my body and mind for the privilege that comes with letters after my name. I love my patriarch, though—he punctually answers e-mails and often praises my free labor. He plies me with booze to show his affection and, as evidenced by his gentle hazing, clearly favors me.

I am, of course, an academic.

There has been much ado about sex workers in academia lately. Noah Berlatsky wrote about the the value of sex worker led research in academia at the Pacific Standard; Livemint covered groundbreaking new research on Asian sex workers, HIV, and violence recently released in collaboration with regional sex workers’ rights organizations; and Lime Jello articulated the problems of studying sex workers here at Tits and Sass. Of course, there has always been immense curiosity, gross fetishization, and erratic speculation surrounding those of us who dabble in both the realms of the body and the mind. And true to my liberal art discipline’s form, I think it all says something larger about society.

I started working in the sex industry a great while ago and while my relationship to the sex industry has morphed after all these years—from an idealized notion of “liberation” in my younger days to a sense of disdain for and annoyance with the work—I still see myself as a sex worker first and an academic second.

It was pure happenstance that I fell into academia at all. By the time I learned what graduate school was, I’d worked as an independent escort and stripper for years. Upon being accepted to a Ph.D. program, it felt only natural for me to write about the situations and spaces which I occupied. The impetus for my academic curiosity was never about “access”—in fact, I find the concept of “accessing hard to reach populations” exploitative and condescending. I’ve always been one for internal exploration over armchair ethnography that privileges “the sociologist’s gaze.” There’s very little one can know about the world while rejecting self-reflection with the impunity of a toddler. All this to say, I study my precise social location: the experiences of sex workers in academia.

Romance & Relationships: (Call) Girl Meets (Rent) Boy

This year, I’m spending Valentine’s Day with a guy who’s not my boyfriend (though I wouldn’t say that to him). I’ll be spending my evening at a stuffy French restaurant in Las Vegas, with a married, submissive man who’s several decades older than me, listening to him ramble endlessly about mergers and acquisitions while I pretend to care. Back home, my boyfriend, Tom, will be spending Valentine’s Day not dissimilarly, at a stuffy restaurant in San Francsico’s Castro District, with a gay, submissive man, who’s several decades older than him, listening to him ramble endlessly about mergers and acquisitions, while he pretends to care. Throughout the day, my real boyfriend and I will send each other funny texts about the weird things our “boyfriends” might do to impress us. He’ll pick me up from the airport tomorrow; we’ll both laugh and complain and commiserate about the tedious fake-romantic evenings we spent with our clients. We’ll talk and talk until one of us inevitably says, “oh my god, we have to stop talking about these people,” and then sex work will fade into the background again for a couple days, until one of us has to work again.

One Black Trans Sex Worker’s December 17th

A December 17th collage of Black sex working trans women victims of violence (Image by A Passion, courtesy of A Passion)
A December 17th collage of Black sex working trans women victims of violence (Image by A. Passion, courtesy of A. Passion)

On December 17th, we reflect on the overwhelming reports of violence against sex workers and put together plans of action to rise above it. We experience violence at the hands of law enforcement, clients, pimps and abusive partners, and each other. Though I have never found value in comparing suffering woe for woe, it is my goal to speak only from personal experience. Call it luck or divine intervention, but my life as a sex worker has been relatively charmed. I have flirted with danger, but for the most part I managed to get by unscathed. Physically, that is. It is important to remember that not all scars are visible and that those that are not can sometimes be the deepest and most difficult to heal.

I live the life of a career sex worker who is black, a woman, and transgender. Blacks, women, and transgender people are three marginalized groups, and often the thought of encompassing all three is overbearing. I’ve looked for purpose in the eyes of strangers—whether they sat behind a desk, confused as they dissected my qualifications and wondered about my gender identity, or loomed over me, swollen with the often lethal combination of lust and disgust.

Job discrimination is a form of violence. Denying anyone the right to support themselves legally and then criminalizing the means to which they turn to sustain themselves is inhumane and deplorable. For many of us, sex work is a job of last resort. The fact is that we are rarely given an alternative. Many employers simply will not hire trans workers for fear of losing customers. Another act of violence often overlooked is theft of service, typically defined as “knowingly securing the performance of a service by deception or threat.” When theft of services happens to us, it is rape, and the damage goes beyond the monetary value of what we’ve lost. I have been the victim of both. Like many of us, I considered rape one of many occupational hazards and did nothing about it when it happened to me. How do you report something like this, and to whom?

During my time as a street-based sex worker, I personally witnessed multiple acts of violence. Some girls survived and some didn’t. It was our own Mufasa-esque circle of life, and many of us dealt with it the only we knew how: Not dealing with it at all. To live in fear is to lose money, to lose money is to starve and ultimately become homeless. The key to survival is adaptation. Learn from the violence you experience, but do not succumb to it.

I developed a strict code of conduct for myself, necessary for my survival in the business. No drugs, no excess drinking, never steal, and always use protection. I thought this was enough to shield me from the bulk of the misfortunes that befell so many before me. For a while it did, but as the saying goes, “all good things must come to an end.” I still have issues with thinking of myself as a victim, because I know what happened to me could have been worse. Despite all of what I taught myself, as safe and as smart I thought I was, no matter how much I wanted to believe it would never happen to me, it did.

Four years ago I climbed into a stranger’s car, like I had so many times before. I began to direct him toward a crowded movie theater parking lot which provided the privacy and safety necessary to conduct my business. When I noticed that he was deliberately missing turns, I attempted to open the car door while at a red light. It wouldn’t open from the inside. I turned to look at him and was met with a swift blow to the mouth. I looked up to see the barrel of a pistol. I should’ve been afraid, but I wasn’t. This was not the first time a gun had been in my face. In fact, it was the fourth. I’d never been hit and they usually wanted money, sex, or both. However, I was always able to talk myself out of the situation or escape somehow. What I lacked in strength I certainly made up for in cunning. This time was different.