This is a story I’ve never told. It was meant to earn me $6,000.
In 2011, I was offered a major feature for a local magazine on legalizing sex work. This was a huge deal for me. I’d come to the U.S. on an H4 visa that made me 100% financially dependent on my then-spouse. Years later, we split up, and my green card had now come through. Having moved into a shared house of wonderful queer activists, I needed to earn so I could pay my rent. But my résumé was all sexuality blogging and story publications, plus a volunteer job I’d done recording audio for blind people. Finding a paid job wasn’t easy.
When the magazine feature practically fell into my lap, it felt like a miracle.
The magazine editor in question knew that I blogged about sexual politics and guessed I had contacts who were sex workers. He wasn’t wrong. The contract I was offered promised $6,000 on publication, a full double-page feature, and a reasonable kill fee if they decided to axe the piece. So off I went to interview sex workers on how they felt about legalizing their profession.
Here are a few of the awesome things two of those sex workers told me. I’ll add that both these people were earning good money and had more privileged circumstances than many others.
“Linda” said that BDSM can create a safe space in sex work. When Linda worked with men she had never had sex with before, she insisted on tying them up and being in charge. This kept her safe because, with sex work being illegal in her area, she wasn’t in a position to dial 911. However, being dominant had other benefits, too. Speaking about one man in particular, she says, “I could see that I provided a safe place where he could just lay it down and not have to make any decisions. He would come to my condo and literally exhale.”
“Adam” approached sex in a spiritual way. Adam believed in karma, and it helped him deal with difficult situations. With problematic clients, he’d been known to say, “Okay, you’re going to come into the light. It’s going to be better, it’s going to be good. It’s not going to be this struggle. Because if there’s a struggle, I’m not rebooking.” He also knew that powerful sex with clients could create deep bonds. “When you share something that amazing, many times, it can be great.”
Linda believed that her power to say no could enhance the enjoyment of paid-for sex. She had dates with her clients before deciding whether to have sex with them. Not only was this safer for her, but it also set up a challenge for them—did they come across as trustworthy and safe? “I find [that] the anticipation and hoop-jumping set up the date quite well. They had to work to get there and [were] excited. Think of it as match.com with money.”
Adam used emotional intelligence to protect himself and others. In fact, when he ran a small house of female sex workers, he got a great reputation for being able to tell which clients were safe and which were not. “I never booked a single ‘crazy,’” he told me. His method? He’d be super-nice when he spoke to potential clients on the phone. “I feel that when you’re nice, you get to pull the crazy out, so then you don’t book them.”
If you don’t enjoy the sex, you need to speak out. Adam discovered early on that he needed to say no to bookings that didn’t sound enjoyable for him. “It took me a long time to realize what I am capable of fulfilling, when [clients] have their requests. And it also took me a while to only book [what] is great and fun.”
Just because you’ve paid for sex doesn’t mean the sex worker isn’t enjoying it. Adam said he thought his “boys” would be surprised by how much joy he gets from being with them. “Because, from my point of view, they don’t know how much I’m faking and how much I’m enjoying.” In fact, with some, he always said yes to bookings because they were so great as sexual partners, though he doubted they’d believe him if he tried to tell them. “They don’t understand that everyone else is kind of on retainer,” he said, adding that he kept his prices lower for these special clients. “It’s such a compliment that I can’t give them,” Adam explains, “because they either don’t believe it or they think it’s crap.”
When your body is so central to your sexual relationships, making changes can be hard. Adam, who identified as transsexual and switched between male and female identities, found that heterosexual-identified men loved it when he wore dresses and lacy underwear because of the penis they would find inside his delicate briefs. He developed his reputation because of this. That said, when we spoke, he was concerned that if he had the vaginoplasty surgery he longed for, his current clients wouldn’t find him so alluring. All the same, he hoped to go ahead with the change and spoke about it with excitement.
Some of the sex workers had been through terrible things. I also spoke with sex workers who had undergone incredible hardships, mostly because sex work was illegal in their region. For instance, I was honored to email with Jill Brenneman, who had been held in brutal captivity when she was a teenager and was used as a sex slave. Brenneman, who later chose to become a prostitute, was now a powerful advocate for the decriminalization of prostitution. However, back when she was held and brutally assaulted, it was the illegality of prostitution that prevented her from contacting the police. After all, what if they didn’t believe her story? She could be charged with prostitution. “The risk was too high,” said Brenneman. You can read an interview with Jill Brenneman at the awesome Tits and Sass blog.
Later, when Brenneman was acting freely as an escort, she was often in a good position to help catch abusers. However, when she feared a potential client might be abusing his girlfriend, the police only pushed her to reveal her identity as an escort. She had to leave, unheeded, in spite of her heartfelt wish to protect those being abused.
I also spoke with a woman who was lured into what she thought was prostitution, but was really human trafficking. The police, whom her pimp told her would arrest her for prostitution if they knew, were some of her most brutal “clients”—or rather, abusers.
Sex worker advocates are amazing people. I spoke with some amazing people while researching this feature. They were so kind to give me their time. Among them was Cameryn Moore, who is a passionate phone sex worker and phone sex work advocate. Go check out her site. Her one-woman show “Phone Whore” sounds absolutely amazing. (I hope to publish some of my interview with Cameryn Moore at a later date, if she’s agreeable.) I also spoke with Samuel Goldberg, a Boston-based lawyer, who was so knowledgeable, kind, and smart that it blew me away.
So, why did the feature never get published? After six months of interviews, research, and mammoth redrafting, the feature was ready, and the magazine prepared to run it. However, there was a problem. They now said they needed the contact details of the main sex worker we’d focused on in the piece.
The thing is, I’d told the sex workers I’d spoken with that I wouldn’t share their details with anyone. After all, seeing as they’d been forced to operate illegally as sex workers, they could be arrested. Understandably, they were scared, and they’d been deeply trusting to let me in. How could I suddenly change my mind and ask them to provide the magazine with contact details? What’s more, I’d spent these months focusing on the story, so, as the feature had evolved, I’d forgotten to consider what would happen to me once it was live. An immigrant on a green card, I could be thrown out of the country for any kind of brush with the law. Even an unpaid parking ticket, for heaven’s sake. So, even if the feature went ahead, what if the police tracked me down and pushed me to reveal the whereabouts of my sources? Would they do this? And if they did, would the magazine protect me? Could I rely on their lawyers? I had no way of being sure.
All I could do was stand by my ethics. I told the magazine I wouldn’t give away the details of my sources, and the feature was put on pause. But the editor told me that we would run the feature once I’d managed to find sex workers who were similar to previous star of the feature, but would provide their contact details. We’d use their stories instead.
Truth was, I was burned out and doubted any sex worker would give their contact details when they were at risk of being arrested.
So after six months of work and research, I emerged with zero pay and was afraid to publish anything about the interviews that had proven so revealing. That’s why my notes sat on my hard drive for four whole years. That’s why I didn’t publish anything related. I simply let it go. And, in my sadness, I let go of many of the contacts I really treasured because I felt I’d let them down. Had I known that I’d end up launching Go Deeper Press with my future partner Jacob Louder, things wouldn’t have felt so harrowing. But at the time, I felt terrible, as if the research and the people I’d interviewed had been dropped, trapped, silenced.
A truth: If you silence one group, it spreads.
Another truth: Consensual sex work needs to be decriminalized everywhere, including the act of offering or accepting money for sex. Sex work is not human trafficking, and the latter should remain fiercely illegal, with the traffickers being punished and the victims being looked after and helped. Sex work is consensual and needs our support. Because sex heals and releases. It’s fun and empowering. And sex work is a socially important career.
And it’s time the law reflects it.
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