Lip Service: on sex work, relationships & stigma

It’s been years since i’ve posted a personal story here. here is an old piece I recently found and re-wrote as for the re-launch of BornWhore.com. You can see how one of my ex’es responded here.

Lip Service: On sex work, relationships & stigma

“Lips like Sugar, Women For Men, 28, downtown, Outcalls only”

1. I prefer to work in the downtown core because I want to bike to my client’s tiny overpriced condos. I love getting on my bike with my handbag in my basket, red dress, hair fresh from the shower, lips glossy and pedaling downtown to see a regular. I love the surprise in every new call, I love working for cash and sometimes I enjoy the sex too. I love the power I have over their bodies and their joy. The money is spectacular and fast. I squeeze in appointments between my day job, friend’s house parties, my therapist, dates, brunches and then a one-hour appointment with a chef named Rob who’s actually done in 15 minutes. We chat in his kitchen about the history of salt and restaurant life while I wait for my cab.

2. It’s early summer and I’m at my friend’s backyard birthday party. A former lover arrives, one I haven’t seen since the break up. We’re friendly but it’s awkward. I’m awkward. We speak a bit and despite myself I still want her, love her even. I want nothing more than to escape from this party to my comforter and books but I have a client immediately after. She’s the only one I know at the party so I ask if she’ll be my safe call when I arrive at the client’s hotel room and she agrees. I swirl my drink straw and wait for the minutes to pass. Finally, I tear off in a cab to a hotel to see Mark, the middle aged american university professor who it turns out, likes to cuddle. He’s hired me for a multi-hour so we have time to chill and talk about books and the reason he’s in Toronto: he trains hospital doctors on caring for people after trauma.

He shows me his travel ipod situation with the little portable speakers and suggests I pick whatever I’d like to listen to while he showers. There are 1000 tracks arranged alphabetically. Alison Kraus, Aretha Franklin, Aerosmith…Adrienne Rich?…Audre Lorde?

I yell into the bathroom “holy shit, why do you have Audre Lorde on your ipod?” I’m new and still amazed when clients are complex or interesting. He comes out to tell me that it’s part of one of his favourite CDs—american poets reading their own work. So we lie on the scratchy Best Western bed spread, arms crossed behind our heads staring up at the ceiling and listen to Adrienne and Audre.

I think about my ex and just barely stop myself from crying. I’m grateful that the only light in the room is from the bathroom so Mark can’t see the sadness in my eyes. I think about how an outsider looking in and seeing me fighting back tears while lying beside my “john” would see the poor sad exploited escort. Not the queer lady just trying to hold it together while she’s at work. How if I was sad about work, I’d never hear the end of it.

Momentarily comforted by the voices of the poets and by Mark’s kindness with me, I ask him to put on the John Coltrane next and we move on. I call my ex at the end of the call and she doesn’t answer. Later she tells me she forgot.

3. My breath still heaving, I’m lying on the couch with my new fling, having just sucked her cock and fucked her up the ass with my brand new black latex gloves. She tells me that after seeing each other for a few weeks, she’s realized that she’s not going to be able to keep love and sex separate. That though she’s not possessive of me, she is starting to fall in love with me. We talk about love without expectations. She tells me I’m spectacular. Hesitantly, I say “well, there’s something I’ve been meaning to tell you too. About my work”

And in a moment she is weeping in my arms. She tells me she’s scared, that it’s hard and she doesn’t want hard in her life right now. She tells me that lesbians are “the chosen people” because  they don’t have to worry about STI’s and she doesn’t want that to change in her life. I comfort her, offering to support her through her concerns and fears. I know what it’s like to have to confront buried prejudices, how unsettling and scary that can be. Especially after sex, at 2 am. She cries more. I hold her and we talk.

She asks me to spend the night but I think we both need a bit of time so I bike home along the quiet nighttime city streets. I’m happy because we stayed connected through this rough patch and I’m certain she’ll realize that being with someone she loves is worth it.

She calls me the next day to tell me it’s over. To risky, too hard, too scary. It’s over.

Shocked, I fight the temptation to downplay my work, make it less real, less frequent, less risky. I feel this complex knot in my stomach about her accusation that I’d bring disease and danger into her life. No! I won’t! I want to plead and at the same time BUT SO WHAT? I don’t. I don’t know how to explain it except to say that I’m happy whoring and I’ll do it off and on as long as it suits me. She tells me that she completely supports my right to be an escort. That she’d never tell me not to. But now I can see that from the moment I told her, she could no longer see me with her at her bougie leftist intellectual dinner parties with other A list (and “gold star”) lesbians. I tell her I can’t date someone who can’t date a hooker. We agree to split.

Weeks later we get together for ice cream in my neighborhood to catch up. I can’t help but still flirt with her. Giggling, we share a spoonful of ice cream and I watch her hesitate…then use her teeth to bite down over the ice cream so she doesn’t have to use her lips. My stomach turns. She’s worried I have herpes. Right. I am still struggling to remember that while she desires me, we’re not dating because she thinks I am the dirty diseased whore she nearly fell for.

4. Before I began escorting, I worried that I’d find my work “complicated” and that that “complication” would be my clients. Like most stereotypes about sex work, I got this idea mostly from episodes of Law and Order and Pretty Woman. My relationships with my clients are not very complicated actually. I provide a service, they pay me. Occasionally they are annoying or too drunk or fall in love but I know a few more experienced workers so I can get advice on handling this. Not so complicated. Some days are better than others, but honestly, nothing I’ve needed to talk to my therapist about.

What are complicated, however, are my relationships with my lovers now. Being white, cisgendered, not poor anymore and not a drug user means that my being a hooker is fine (and even titillating) and as long as we’re friends or colleagues, it has some political cachet. Where that ends is at the bed.

5. I remember the seconds before I saw my first client. As he opened the door to his apartment, I burned with the question: who calls escorts? Well, Raj, as it turns out: a 29 year old handsome marketing copy writer. We made small talk, he got me some water and I asked where he wanted to start. I was so inexperienced, letting him make that decision! Cheerfully he said “well, you need to get paid first!” and handed me an envelope. I exploded with laugher at my naivete. It was months before I found out that it’s considered inappropriate to rip open the envelope and gleefully count the cash in front of them. I didn’t know and Raj didn’t seem to mind.

His sweetness is something I return to and savour when my community lets me down. The moments I describe above don’t make my ex-lovers bad people. Don’t demonize them. They were no better but no worse than everyone else around me, including all you reading this. These memories stay with me only because they were the moments when the veil of politeness slipped and the whorephobia we’re surrounded by, was revealed. Nothing more, nothing less. These are the moment where all their surface support for sex workers falls away and what’s left behind is this: you dirty, filthy whore. You deserve what you have coming to you. Sometimes all it’s taken are four words and a look of terror on your face: “Do you get tested?”

You wanna know what this feels like?

It’s 6 am and my session with “Jim” is ending. He pulls out of me and I feel a wetness. I feel between my legs and realize the condom has broken. Have you ever noticed that panic feels cold? Struggling to maintain an even tone, I say to Jim “What?! the?! Check the condom” He checks it and indeed it’s leaking. Shaking, I do what I’ve been instructed to do in the event of a condom breakage. He showers quickly and we discuss the last time he was tested. I get dressed in my slip and feel my eyes well up with huge tears. I use every ounce of my fading strength to keep collected until I walk Jim out to the door. He leaves and I erupt into massive wracking sobs. I try calling my partner but leave 3 successive voicemails of nothing but hysterical weeping. I give up trying to speak, sit on the floor, put my head between my legs and let myself fall apart. I can’t get HIV. I can’t be the hooker who proved everyone right: that we are disease vectors. I can’t go home like this. No one will ever date me again. What would this do to my (totally amazing) partner? 

THEY CAN’T BE RIGHT.

And all my shame spits up to the surface. All the ways I am working to be a good girl, to prove them wrong, all the ways I wanted to prove that I am better than HIV+ sex workers, better than anyone who is HIV+. To make them feel more comfortable with me, safe in their prejudices against HIV+ people and their ableism.

But what if…what if I wasn’t better? And what if I didn’t only want to be loved on condition that I deny the parts of me that are different — like that my work exposes me to some risk of STI’s? To some risk of stranger-danger? And what if I don’t think that those things makes us bad or unworthy of love and respect?

And that’s why this story is also about my privilege. I was naive because I’d never been so clearly rejected based on my actual or perceived STI status nor the perceived danger of my work. I’d experienced all sorts of classist misogynistic slut-shaming but with these lovers, I felt safe, believed I was safe. I’d seen what had happened to my sister and friends as they tried to date while sex working but at that point, I was struggling so hard to hold onto the little scrap of “good girl” I (thought) I could lay claim to. I thought that if I could prove them wrong, be just like them (except with better shoes and 8 brands of condoms) or downplay how sex work made me different, then I would be acceptable.

Oh but I’m through with these scraps of acceptance, with love that comes with disgust or indifference, with demands that I act like sex work is nothing more than a source of cute anecdotes–because I’m supposed to act like I am different and better than “those” sex workers. You know the ones I mean. But I am not better than sex workers with HIV, who use street drugs, who don’t have the privilege of safer, better working conditions, who work outdoors, who started at 14, who hate sex work but do it because they won’t eat or fix today if they don’t.

These sex workers are my sisters and brothers–and what a fucking amazing lot they are! They are the truth tellers in my life, the ones who see through power and understand intimately how it works, they hold me accountable when I fuck up and know how to celebrate fighting back. They are resilient and vulnerable, shameless and so fucking smart. Real in a way that feels like coming home. They are my way back to a class identity I tried to erase so long ago.

So no, I won’t sell them out to make you more comfortable or make myself more acceptable to you. I owe them more than lip service too.

   

19 thoughts on “Lip Service: on sex work, relationships & stigma

  1. Lol. You have an absolutely AWESOME way of writing. I can hear your personality through your words and I like what I am hearing. I found myself nodding, smirking, nodding some more, laughing. God, I so relate! Thank you for this wonderful snapshot into your (our) life. Jx

  2. Thank you for writing this. You perfectly exemplify the complexities of being the non-addicted, by-choice sex worker. I can’t argue with your choice, only knowing that if you ever want to leave the industry, you probably have the brains to figure your way out. Good luck.

    • This comment reflects exactly the attitudes I am speaking against in my essay. In brief, I do not identify as a “non-addicted” sex worker and do not have more “brains” than sex workers who have less privilege (as you’ve implied). I am a sex worker, period and will not let anyone define me as the “good” sex worker, the one that makes you comfortable. Offering me marginal, conditional acceptance while disrespecting drug using sex workers is whorephobic, divide and conquer rhetoric that non sex workers use to place us in hierarchies and turn us against one and another so that we are always focused on YOU and scrambling for your approval. The point of this essay is this: I will not play into that.

      • righteous. You’re spot on about the dogmatic correlation of sex work and drug use. Why don’t people talk about bankers and drunk use? They’re all coked up. We play the drug abuse card because we want to write them off as ‘unhealthy’, because we are a sex negative misogynistic society that gets uncomfortable when entrepreneurial women have power and are unabashed/up front about sex and sexuality.

  3. FIERCE. You have a quiet, yet strong and objective way of writing about this topic. I am moved to tears and inspired by your prose, your strength, your honesty. Thank you.

  4. Pingback: Stuff We’ve Been Reading! | stretchmarks

  5. Hey! I just stumbled on yer blog, its great! I am a rad, queer and transguy hooker and I also have a blog (about sex work) if you feel like it you should check it out! Anyways thanks for all your writting! Hope yer doing well!

    Cheers! :)

  6. Word. Buried prejudices. Thank you for helping me stay on top of my shit. I will try to use your insight to help me be more compassionate towards a partner who couldnt hang with me after i got into sex work.

  7. Pingback: Lip Service Part 2: The Ex Responds | Born Whore

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