There’s a definite sociological pecking order when it comes to employment.
“How could you, you know, sell your body? It’s so wrong and, well, disgusting.” In the ten years since my memoir Chicken: Self-Portrait of a Young Man for Rent was published, I’ve been asked this question countless times, by academics, activists, soccer moms, soccer teammates, faux Christians, faux liberals, serious do-gooders, Republicans, Democrats, Tea Partiers, an NPR host. I’ve never been asked this question by anyone who has exchanged sex for money.
As a result of this I’ve been closely following the very troubling saga of Belle Knox, the Duke undergraduate whose afterschool job just happens to be acting in pornographic movies. She’s been shamed, hounded, outed, and even threatened with murder and rape. From what I’ve read, her decision to become a sex worker was remarkably similar to mine. Similar to that of everyone I know who’s entered the sex business, and I’ve talk to hundreds of them. Money. It’s all about the money. And of course, if there wasn’t the stigma and the hatred and the scarlet letter that comes with selling sex, it wouldn’t be as lucrative. And people with limited economic options would have one less way to make a living wage.
Here’s how I started: When I was 17, I headed to Immaculate Heart College with $27 in the pocket of my nuthugging elephantbells. [WHAT YEAR WAS THIS?] No family. No friends. No home. The night I arrived in Los Angeles, I was raped and robbed. I escaped from my predator, but I was essentially homeless, having discovered there were no dorms at my college. A kindly man found me in a dumpster and offered me a job at the fried chicken restaurant he managed in the skanky heart of Hollywood. After a week of frying chicken, getting splattered by boiling grease, stinking like rancid poultry, and eating so much of the stuff that I was sure I was going to sprout feathers, the kindly man gave me my first paycheck. It was less than $50.
My rent was $250/month. Living on Top Ramen and day-old birthday cake I figured I could get by on $5/day for food. There were books to buy. Utilities to pay. Gasoline for my motorcycle.
I literally could not live on this wage. I was panicked, pissed off, and petrified.
As I studied my paycheck with horrified eyes, the kindly man asked if I was ready to start making some real money. I told him that I was. He said I could make $100 for an hour’s worth of “partying” with friends of his. I was so naïve I thought I would be going to cocktail parties and sharing witty bon mots with the rich and famous. Not the case. He was, rather, offering the opportunity to provide sexual service to rich L.A. ladies — making twice as much in an hour (and a hooker’s hour actually turns out to be 40 minutes) than I made in a week toiling away at the heinous job of frying chicken.
Money-wise, it was a no-brainer. But then there was the moral transaction to consider.
We all draw a line in the sand. On one side are things we will do for money; on the other are the things we won’t. Breathing toxic fumes all day as a toll taker. Performing heart surgery. Shoveling elephant excrement at the circus. Sitting in a cubicle crunching numbers. Killing people, as a soldier of fortune. Frying chicken. Selling sex. As with most decisions, we’re motivated by a desire to feel good about ourselves, and for others to feel good about us. Determining whether these employment opportunities make us feel good about ourselves is an internal decision. But there’s a definite sociological pecking order when it comes to employment. If you ask a hundred people whether they’d rather be a heart surgeon or an elephant-shit shoveler, there’s a pretty good chance that at least 99 of them would extend their hand for the scalpel. Most people would say that frying chicken makes you a better person than selling sex. If you tell someone their mother is a whore, they will not invite you to lunch.
But as a 17-year-old, I didn’t see frying chicken as being on the other side of that line. It didn’t seem morally or intrinsically better—and economically, it was roughly 66 times worse. So I said yes to that kindly man, and I was sucked into the sex business. Yes, I was scarred by many of my experiences, but that’s largely a function of how young and screwed up I was. Looking back, having lived with my memoir for over a decade, I see clearly that if I’d been older and wiser (or at least wiser), and trusted my instincts more, I would have made better choices. But being young, dumb, and full of cum (as they say in the business) I rushed right in. And after careful examination, I didn’t feel bad about myself for doing this work. But many have repeatedly tried to shame me.
Our resources, skills, experience, connections, needs, and the way we define ourselves determine which side of the line we place our economic opportunities. Before I became an industrial sex technician (the term I use the for my career as a manchild ho/rent boy/prostitute) I worked as a babysitter, lawn mower, paperboy, soda jerk and a lackey at my father’s explosives factory. Several of those jobs paid less than minimum wage. None of them paid much more. But they all fit my skill set. And I grew up with enormous resources: my parents fed and clothed me and put a roof over my head.
After my first night in Hollywood, my definition of myself completely changed. I was suddenly broken. Damaged goods and undeserving of love. Suddenly I had no resources. No home. No money. No food. What’s more, I had few skills that would translate into making money. Except sex.
Now that I’ve spent over a decade talking to so many current and former sex workers and examining the economics of the sex business, it makes perfect sense to me why people would sell, or at least rent, their body. Economically, the only reason a person would choose to make $100 versus $7.50/hour is the nature of the work and where they draw their line in the sand.
I recently talked about these economic considerations with a stripper and part-time prostitute, Cindy. She’s 25 years old, and she grew up in a suburban town in San Fernando Valley, just north of Los Angeles. Blonde with a sweet round face, cute without being gorgeous, genetically blessed with a long, lean, lithe body and larger-than-average breasts. Although she dropped out of high school, she is well-read, articulate, and has a deep emotional intelligence. If I were starting a company, I’d hire her in a second, because she knows how to make people feel good, she’s a quick learner, and she has great instincts. She has two children, and no husband, wife, or partner. Her biological family is dominated by abusive men from whom she ran as a teenager.
Cindy’s path into the sex business began at 23. She’d been doing temp work, but she didn’t have many computer skills, she couldn’t type very well, and there was insane competition for the few slots available. She was living in a tiny one-bedroom apartment on the outskirts of L.A., but it wasn’t nearly big enough for her and her two boys, even though it cost $1000 a month. She’d looked relentlessly for a cheaper place to live, but the only places she could find were in dangerous neighborhoods. She needed a telephone, electricity, and water: $50/month. She needed a car, which needed insurance, gasoline, oil, tires, and an occasional crankshaft: $400/month. Her lack of health insurance was a recurring source of extreme anxiety for Cindy. Luckily, up to that point, the boys had been, like herself and most of her family, healthy. But broken bones, infected lungs, and everything from leukemia to carcinoma might descend at any moment upon her. Or, God forbid, her kids. And if she worked, she would need childcare: $450/month. Food was $500/month, but this was going to only increase as her sons got bigger. Cindy bought all their clothes at secondhand emporiums—$50/month—but she was shocked how quickly the boys outgrew them.
Then there were the “luxuries” that were off the table. Naturally, Cindy’s boys wanted nice sneakers, Spider-Man backpacks and an Xbox. (She told them that, in the big picture, these things are unimportant, but they didn’t care. They wanted their stuff, and bitterly envied their friends who had it.) Her oldest boy, who has a deep passion and aptitude for art, draws fantastically elaborate cartoons that are a remarkable cross between Hieronymus Bosch and Marvel Comics. Cindy feared that her inability to have him trained as an artist at an early age was going to compromise his ability develop his passion personally and professionally. She wants to give her children a better life than she had. A fundamental tenet of the American Dream.
Cindy, despite all her wonderful attributes, was limited to mostly minimum-wage jobs because she lacked a high school diploma.
Wages: $7.50/hour for 160 hours equals $1200/month.
Expenses (without health insurance, art lessons, cool shoes, Spider-Man stuff and Xbox): $2000/month.
Contrary to the rhetoric of right-wing politicians and news pundits, Cindy didn’t want to go on welfare, get food stamps, and be dependent on the government for a poverty-level existence. Again, she confessed, not even so much for herself as for her kids. She just didn’t want to be a welfare mom.
Cindy applied for hundreds of jobs, and remained hopelessly unemployed. Finally, she considered a job at Walmart, where there was a position that paid slightly more than minimum wage.
She loathes Walmart, she says, because they mercilessly exploit their workers, discriminate against women, and relentlessly drive local stores out of business. She had vowed that working there was her line in the sand.
Walmart wages: $8.80/hour. $1408/month.
Expenses: still $2000/month.
When she realized that even if she sold her soul, she still wouldn’t have enough money to live—and more importantly, for her boys to live— Cindy was despondent, depressed, defeated. It was one of the saddest days of her life when she filled out that application. But she felt she had no choice: it was her bottom.
Walmart rejected her application without telling her why.
One night, after lots of alcohol, she confessed all of this to one of her oldest friends, Lorraine. Unbeknownst to Cindy, Lorraine had become a very prosperous stripper/part-time prostitute. Her friend was not ashamed of her profession, but she’d been castigated in the past, so she was selective about with whom she shared this potentially damning information. Cindy had periodically considered making money in the sex business, but it seemed wrong, and a little gross. This would be crossing her line in the sand. Her friend confessed that she too had felt this way until she started working at a very well-known, high-end strip club.
Cindy flashed on the humiliation of being rejected by Walmart. If she’d had other options, she probably never would have never seriously considered following Lorraine down this path.
But the wound was fresh, and options were slim. So Cindy accompanied her friend to the strip club.
They went in the back door, so she didn’t see the customers. In the dressing room, Lorraine’s fellow strippers treated her with respect. These women were funny, interesting, affectionate, and comfortable with themselves and their own bodies. No, more than comfortable: proud. Cindy enjoyed the easy intimacy woven through the fabric of the outrageous wigs, lavish lingerie, and painted faces. She never went to college, and she used to fantasize about being part of a sorority of women who shared makeup, inside jokes, and dreams.
After Lorraine transformed herself into her alter ego, Tawny, she asked Cindy she was ready to face the music. She wasn’t sure if she was, but she felt like she had no choice.
Cindy was scared and nervous, but she gamely followed Tawny into the main room. The first thing that struck her was the noise: the music was numbingly loud. Then the smell: booze, perfume, man-sweat, and a small but palpable undercurrent of sperm. Then the men: fleshy faces, flashy bling, pudgy fingers, chiseled cheekbones, combovers, handsome haircuts. She quickly got used to the sound and smell. As she examined the men more closely, they seemed like guys she saw at upscale bars. Some blended into the woodwork. Many looked like successful professionals. Some like loving husbands. There were a couple of rowdy parties. One was a group of frat boys. One was a group of lawyers.
One table in the middle of the room drew her eye. They were outrageously well dressed, black, and huge. They looked like professional football players, and they were. Draped in fantastic sartorial finery and Drop Dead Gorgeous strippers, she saw that they were handing out money like they had just won the lottery. Watching all that money being exchanged excited her. She wanted that money. As Cindy watched the waves of cash crash onto the shore of prosperity, her line in the sand disappeared, and she drew a new one.
Tawny rocked her luscious lingerie, looking like a million bucks as she sashayed through the sea of men. She looked confident, beautiful, and happy. Employees and fellow dancers greeted her enthusiastically. Several men lit up when they saw her. She smiled, nodded, and waved at them, like she was the most popular girl in school. She bent over and gave one a sweet peck on the cheek. If she hadn’t been looking carefully, Cindy wouldn’t have noticed that as the cheek peck was delivered, the customer handed her a crisp greenback. Cindy would find out later that it was $20 bill.
As she observed the interactions carefully, she saw that the women were touching the men. A lot. Sitting on their laps, brushing their lips against necks, running long, fake nails down chests. But the men were not touching the women.
When it was time for Tawny to dance, the DJ spun her favorite song: “Beast of Burden.” Cindy was greatly impressed by her dancing, which started slowly and sensuously, flirtatiously and playfully, as she made eye contact and worked the room. It built into a kind of ecstatic sexuality, but not grotesque twerking or crunking. She took off her top, and the crowd hollered and cheered good-naturedly. Tawny got a rush from the manly huzzas.
The men at ringside kept nodding and beckoning, and Tawny would dance, shimmy and/or stalk on all fours like a cat in heat toward them, and take their money. Sometimes they would just throw money on the stage. Cindy admired how she collected her money without looking like a crass capitalist.
After her set, Tawny lapdanced her way around the room. Cindy thought she would be disgusted by the lapdancing, but it was like acting, or playing a character. The more she watched, the more she understood. When her friend had made the rounds of the floor, it was time for a break, and Cindy followed her back into the dressing room.
Cindy’s mouth dropped open in shock as her friend piled money onto the counter in front of the mirror. Yes, there was a ton of ones. But there were plenty of 20s, tens, and fives. Even a couple of 50s. When the cash was unwrinkled, fluffed, folded and counted, Tawny had made just over $500. For an hour’s worth of work. Cindy’s eyes were literally and metaphorically opened.
A week later Cindy was hired at the strip club, and “Bunny” was born. That was two years ago, and she has never looked back. She works four days a week and has earned her way into prime time shifts. On her best week she made $5000. On her worst week she made $750. She has moved herself and her boys into a three-bedroom apartment in a much nicer neighborhood. There’s a swimming pool in the courtyard. She has excellent health and dental insurance, which provides her with enormous peace of mind. Exactly how much is a month’s peace of mind worth?
But perhaps most importantly, her oldest son now takes classes at the local Art Institute. He loves it. One of his instructors, a well-known comic book artist, has taken a special interest in her son, and he is flourishing. His mentor believes he may in fact be able to make a career as a comic book artist. Her youngest son has found a passion of his own in Karate. He loves it, and he’s good at it. Cindy feels a profound joy when she basks in her eldest son’s art. Her heart soars when she sees her youngest in his karate outfit, practicing his heavily disciplined thrusts and kicks. She doesn’t tell very many people what she does for a living, though she feels no shame, despite several civilians trying to shame her. And she’s terrified of her kids, or their friends, somehow finding out.
After a while, Bunny started escorting a few very carefully chosen customers. She charges $500 an hour, and there’s not much actual sex involved. One guy, in his late 70s, just likes to take her out to fancy dinners. One guy likes to watch porn and masturbate while she dances in the room. One guy likes her to wear high heels and walk all over him. Literally. But one of her clients — a rich, ridiculously handsome, extremely successful married man who also has a girlfriend on the side — is actually a very talented sexual partner, and, to her grateful amazement, she has powerful orgasms with him. He is, of course, the exception. She’s saving money for her boys to go to college. She traded in her always-on-the-verge-of-breaking-down car for stylish automobile. Her boys now have rocking kicks, and an Xbox. She still refuses to buy them Spider-Man paraphernalia. But now it’s on principle.
Cindy told me that she feels terrible lying to her kids. They think she works in a high-class restaurant. Every time they bring it up, she changes the subject. She thinks they’re starting to get suspicious. Then she thinks maybe she’s just getting paranoid. But she knows that with each day that goes by, the chances increase that they’ll somehow find out what she does, and that knowledge will scar her boys, and they will become the object of ridicule and bullying at school. She has nightmares about her sister and her mom somehow making the discovery.
I too am mortified by that moment when my daughter will be old enough to Google me and find out what I did. Who I was. I’m horrified that when she’s in high school she’ll be known, through no fault of her own, as the kid whose dad was a prostitute. The difference between me and Cindy, of course, is that I chose to come out of the sex-worker closet. I wrote a book about it. I got paid for that book. And for every person who’s vilified me, 10 people have given me love, congratulated me, applauded me for my courage. It didn’t feel courageous to me at all. It felt like I had to tell my story or it would eat me alive.
A couple of years ago I was offered the opportunity to return to the sex business. I thought I’d be much better at it, and I wanted to see how different it would be as a 40-something man. I cannot deny that the idea of making $500 for a hooker’s hour of work brought a familiar jolt of testosterone to my bones. (Let’s face it, it’s hard to make $500 in two thirds of an hour as a writer. A writer’s hour is about a month.) But I’m married now, and I vowed that I would be truthful with my wife. So I talked it over with her. She thought, despite what I believe to be very persuasive arguments, that it was a very bad idea for me to turn a trick.
I turned the job down – only because I had the economic privilege to make that choice.
David Henry Sterry is the author of 16 books, including Johns, Marks, Tricks and Chicken Hawks: Professionals and Clients Writing about Each Other and Hos, Hookers, Call Girls and Rent Boys: Professionals Writing on Life, Love, Money and Sex, which was featured on the cover of the New York Times Book Review. His new book is Chicken: Self-Portrait of a Young Man for Rent (10-Year Anniversary Edition).
Photos via David Henry Sterry, Image by Dianna McDougall