As I’m writhing under the crimson-lit, leather furnished room, his eyes never leave my face. Although my glance is cast downward, I know that he is smiling and I sense his contentment. I don’t bother to hide my smirk, as I lower my lips to his neck, and deliberately graze them across the wiry brush of his beard. My knees are at either side of his waist, and I wind my waist around until I press against the bulge in his pants. He exhales against my cheek.
The last week when he visited, I giggled quietly to myself as he fucked me from behind, out of sight and sound of the other customers, staff and my coworkers. Tonight we are in the smaller, more visible private-dance room. The gauze-like curtain does little to hide our activities tonight, and so I will maintain my professionalism. Peripherally, I can see a bachelor party gawking from the couches adjacent to us.
The thumping rhythm comes to an end, and with the sound of DJ Robert’s voice, I loudly sigh and plop back in to the chair. My husband closes his eyes, and takes a breath, before reaching for his beer.
“Well, thank you Penguin,” he says to me, as he reaches in to his pocket and passes money to my outstretched hands. I daintily take it, and tuck it into my waist cincher as I bend to kiss him on the cheek. He knows the drill. Apparently he is also aware of the couch-gawkers. The bills are singles rather than twenties, but it is of no matter; I’ll surely just use them to buy us coffee in the morning.
I stand to give him a hug, as I do most of my well-paying customers. I step from the room, smiling, keeping my gaze level with the crowd, and hold the curtain open for him. My beautiful, bearded man returns to the bar, and I head to the bachelor couch.
Smiling bigger than I mean to, I greet them. “Well, hello, gentlemen. I couldn’t help but notice you watching. So…who’s next?”
Last month, I woke up to the news that a friend of mine had overdosed and died.
I’d never met her, but I’d known her for almost 15 years online. We’d found each other back in the days of Livejournal, back when it was a shock to my system just to be able to read the writing of another heroin-using sex worker like me. I read everything about us I could get my hands on back then, even tabloid trash or Narcotics Anonymous literature.
Reading someone writing about her life, our lives, in the first person—daring to construct her identity as more than a punchline or a cautionary tale—was revelatory. People talk about the value of “representation,” but there’s no way to describe what knowing she was out there like I was meant to me when I was 22.
I could always talk to her about all the things I couldn’t discuss with my straight friends: lazy dealers, asshole cops, and the constant grind of working enough to keep ahead of withdrawal. Later, when we both got on methadone maintenance, we groused to each other about the unique blend of bureaucracy and condescension we found at the clinics. She’d always keep me up to date on the latest drug war fiasco, and we could be candid to each other about our rage in response.
I’m still not sure what happened to her. She could have been a victim of all the fentanyl floating around the country mixed in the heroin supply. I know she hadn’t used dope in a while. Keeping her kid was too important to her. Her tolerance must have been low.
But I can’t shake the suspicion that her death wasn’t entirely accidental. Like many of us, she was incredibly harm-reduction savvy. She could have taught a class on overdose prevention. I don’t think she killed herself. But I’m not sure she was trying her hardest to stay alive.
And who could blame her if she stopped making that monumental effort to survive, for a moment?
I have to tell myself everyday that despite all evidence to the contrary, I’m worth something, even if I am a walking worst-case scenario to most people. Even if by every rubric of mainstream success, I’ve gone way off course. Even if living like I do is not only criminalized, but reviled.
But sometimes, it’s difficult to believe that message when you and your small circle of movement friends are its only source.
Let’s admit it; the job does follow us home. Instead of protesting otherwise, we should claim the potential insight and knowledge of using what we learn and practice while working in our personal lives . While we rightfully contest the ways in which abolitionists frame us as the walking dead—victims who must disassociate to perform the labor (because no one else does that at work ever), brainwashed automatons with no agency—we should also challenge the proscriptive models for intimacy that these parties are covertly espousing through their wish for our extinction. Sex workers unsettle dominant cultural narratives about intimacy and romantic love. We may ignite a set of scorching critiques about these culturally under-examined realms; critiques that expose why abolitionist feminism is so attractive to many people who have no actual interest in the well-being of those in the sex trades.
Amongst ourselves, we talk about how to navigate relations with clients, third-party management, law enforcement, social service providers, and other sex workers. We theorize and debate how to conduct these relationships dependent on various aims. We call for people to become allies and try to provide a model for what that looks like. But how often do we talk about the messy experience of what it can mean and feel like to be a whore in the ‘private’ realm? What happens after we decide to disclose our status as sex workers to SOFFAs (significant others, family, friends, and allies)? How are our intimate relationships shaped by our experiences as sex workers? Inevitably, we experience and negotiate whorephobia in these relationships, so why don’t we discuss how working in the sex industry shapes our experience of intimacy? Perhaps because we fear walking into a trap set by those who are only too happy to look at our departure from social norms and pathologize us. If so, I challenge us: let’s talk about intimacy.
You fell in love with him partly because he was such a good ally. You never had to define terms for him or defend the work to him. He went out of his way to educate himself and others, he asked you about your work day, and he electrified your workplace by periodically bringing his swaggering butch self in to visit. Until one night, a long-brewing fight about the relationship explodes in a rage, and he pulls a Don Draper on you.
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.
Content warning—the following contains descriptions of underage sex work and an adult fantasizing about sexual activity with a pre-teenage child.
I don’t know how I started seeing Jeff. I can’t remember meeting him, or what the first session was like, or what he looked like in clothes. I just remember when it turned.
Jeff was a big money client for me at the time. It was my first year as a pro-domme and I worked in the sketchiest dungeon in town. Jeff would book me out for the entire night, freeing me from having to charm individual clients during meet and greets and guaranteeing me enough cash to cover my rent. He was easy too: the session was almost entirely verbal and consisted of my languishing on a velvet padded throne and rattling staccato words at him while hoovering lines of cocaine off the mirror in my Chanel compact. He would sit at my feet, cross-legged and hunched over, slavishly masturbating and smoking poorly rolled joints. He requested that I wear street clothes during one of our early sessions. I returned to the room, minus the latex, in what I had arrived at work in: platform boots, skintight ripped up jeans, and a tube top. I could tell he was hoping for something different, and he came to our next appointment with a small plastic shopping bag.
After I took Jeff’s money and dutifully handed it over to the biker who ran the place, I went into the dressing room to inspect the contents of the bag: a very small pair of shorts and a very small camisole, both in the lightest shade of pink, made of waffle knit cotton. There was a second where I wanted to sit down and cry. I was never molested as a child, but for some reason introducing the specter of childhood into an S&M session disturbed me more than anything else I did at work. From my first day on the job, I had a preternatural ability to perform acts of severe subjugation without being affected by them. I could fist a guy’s ass, piss in his mouth, beat him until he bled, and it didn’t touch me. It didn’t disgust me or traumatize me or make me feel much of anything aside from the intoxication of desire and the masturbatory pleasure of receiving the cash. But the kid stuff fucked with me. Calling it “age play,” the euphemism of choice in BDSM circles creeped me out even more. I didn’t ever want to be called Mommy and I didn’t ever want to play a little girl. Even though I was just seventeen, technically under the age of legality for sex work in New York, I felt like an adult at work, and I wanted to keep it like that.