Thursday, May 21, 2009
telling encounters with clients, IV drug use, class assumptions,good ole hypocrisy, hobbyists, & a blast from the past
Watch this space for a post on how drug use is negatively associated with street workers, inspired by an encounter I had with a client, a jittery, nerdy Asian accountant who liked to hear himself talk, who said he wouldn't go near a street worker b/c of the needles who then went on to tell me, without any consciousness of the irony, about all the Adderal and coke he snorted and all the Valium and Adderal (amphetamines) his doctor brother overprescribed him.
I asked, "Don't you think escorts might have drug habits too?"
And he said, "Not needles!"
I nodded and smiled--obviously he didn't know track marks when he saw them.
Then he went on paternalistically about how he "saved" his best friend,a woman,from heroin addiction,by paying for her treatment. (Not that this isn't great if she wanted to get rid of her physical addiction. But the way he put it--oh, Superman!)
This was far from the first time I've had an encounter like that with a client.
So it'll be about assumptions about drug use that are erroneous,based on class,
and how those assumptions are magnified when it comes to sex work. How the way upper middle class people's use of scheduled drugs is legitimized, and how upper middle cclass people--even if the are very sexually active, or use many addictive drugs themselves, assume that prostitutes, especially street prostitutes, and IV drug users are disease ridden, though both groups, especially the former, are usually more educated when it comes to harm reduction techniques like condoms and clean needles and works.
I also want to talk about the ideological ghetto heroin, esp. IV heroin, is put in when compared to all other drugs, its reputation as "the worst drug", when actually, it's relatively nontoxic and plagued by the many apocalyptic myths surrounding it. Especially when a legal drug like alcohol causes the most organ damage and long term health damage, and is the only drug firmly statistically correlated to violence, and both legally prescribed benzodiazipines and alcohol can cause death during withdrawal.
I am an IV heroin using sex worker. I get tested regularly, and have never used a dirty needle. I haven't had unsafe sex in ten years--not even an uncovered blowjob. There are many like me.
That was the other thing about this client-- he was a "hobbyist". For the non-sex workers among us, a hobbyist is a man whose avocation is to see many escorts and go online to sites like The Erotic Review and Big Doggie and review their encounters with them. Some escorts do value the reviews, because when they get good reviews, they can refer prospective clients to them. But in some big city escort scenes, reviews can make you or break you, and so can these sites in general. That means you have to spend more time on your job, unpaid, interacting with clients and prospective clients on these sites, pretending you just happen to like spending your online social time with them. Also, some manipulative hobbyists use the fact that reviews are so vital to the workers they call "providers" that they pressure them to do unsafe acts or acts they're uncomfortable with under the threat of bad reviews. I'm not partial to hobbyists, and very rarely encounter them--they tend to cluster in bigger cities. In fact, I think this was the second time I encountered someone who identified that way. (Though in a way I do admire someone who can own being a person who unashamedly buys sexual services.)
So it was with this guy. He wanted me to do a bbbj, in their parlance--a "bareback blowjob." Keep in mind I haven't performed fellatio without a condom for seven or eight years. "My brother's a doctor, an epdiemologist, he says it's fine." "I'll stick with my own research, thanks." Then he offered to show me his clean bill of health--but all his test results mentioned were HIV and Hep C, which weren't even the STDs I'd be worried about catching from giving uncovered head! What about HERPES, I asked. He didn't get it. The clear light of ignorance and total self-assurance and certainty shone in his eyes. To be fair, he wasn't all bad. I randomly mentioned I was having trouble sleeping, and he just *gave* me a bunch of his nepotistically prescribed Valium and Soma.
Anyway, I've learned to keep my mouth shut around clients like this when it comes to the topics of needles and sex work, drugs and sex work, etc. But I didn't always know best. Here's an old livejournal piece from a few years back about confronting these prejudices during a call (a caveat--I was really burned out then, and not so much from the job as other circumstances in my life--I feel *much* better about my clients now, enjoy interacting with them):
It happens more and more often these days. He tells me on the phone that he's seen me, he gives me the details he couldn't possibly know otherwise--my parents from Russia, the blue birthmark on my left breast.
And I think, it's just the monotony of male voices--they fall into a few
subspecies, the duuuuh-ed out cokehead drunk Valley boy voice, the salt-of-the-earth-honest-man blue collar guy, the refined and pretentious professional--they fall into a few subcategories, these staticky bassos and baritones, but that's about it. I think, it's the monotony of white male names, the monosyllables--Kyle Dave John Chris Tod Tom Pete Jake. But as soon as he walks through the door, I think, I am fervently certain---as soon as he walks through the door--*I never forget a face*, another tired phrase, but it has to be true, it has to be true. I see him b/c he's seen me--I'm leery these days, I've been arrested once, and that was enough, and I
only had my stupidity to blame. The frisson is gone, the adventure gone, any motivation for risk taking gone. It's just a living and I'm just doing security. It's so fucking normal and that's what would be most shocking
to everyone, maybe.He walks through the door and I draw a blank. Can't tell him, he'd be insulted, he doesn't want to think about all the men I've slept with just like him and how hard it is to keep track, though maintaining the lie is
so irritating b/c what does he think? He thinks I materialize in this air conditioned motel room purely for his pleasure, and so it should be, so,"Oh, I remember *you*," I smile and say.
But it scares me, it's as if they're interchangeable. It's so sordid sordid sordid just like everybody thinks, and I sound almost self-pitying, just like they think I really should be. I'm not, not at all. I love being sex embodied without even being turned on. I love being the most beautiful woman in the world for that one hour. I love the performance art, I love the anonymity. I love the world beginning again in the confines of that room populated only by two strangers. And besides, go too far over to the other extreme, away from interchangeability to the human service worker with a big fat load of concern and understanding for each and every client and it just boils down to that heart of gold bullshit anyway.
But I'm so sick of thinking of what everybody thinks. Image and image and image. I *must* be the political posterchild, not the sad stereotype, I must. I must be a perfectly wholesome all American girl who just happens to have sex for money. The movement depends on it, right? All the other callgirls were so angry at me when I started doing heroin. It wasn't just concern--I was giving them a bad name. Not that most of my regulars knew.They couldn't; I have bills to pay. But last week, at 7:30 PM on a Wednesday night, with some man in publishing who was en route from New York back to Vermont, I got my revenge.
Putting on his clothes while I wipe up the results of my pleading with him breathily to come all over my tits--they think it's something slutty and
fantastic, but it's all just about speed and safe sex. I have this down
to a science, to an art form--it's my art, after all. Our half hour almost up, we banter while I massage his back with an aloe lotion on clearance for a dollar at Walgreens(I ripped off the price tag.) He puts on his serious face for a second
and tries to compliment me in a way I've been insulted before, "You know,
your vocabulary is so impressive. I knew immediately you were different, just
talking on the phone with you."I think of Samuel Johnson as I always do, the dog standing on its hind legs, "not that it is done well but that it is done at all." A ho mustering some intelligence. He goes on: "Some of these girls...you get on the phone and you know immediately--gee, I'm supporting someone's crack habit."
I'll never see this man, this publisher from Vermont, again. Now that I have his $150 for his half hour in my purse, I have nothing to gain telling him what he wants to hear, If he'd been looking at my arms instead of my ass, he would have seen them--but they never do. I don't bother putting on makeup anymore b/c since I can't find the right shade of foundation, the weird orange cream only serves to highlight them. Methadone clinic this past year or not, this man needs to know something, and I need to show him. I turn my Jewish middle class face towards him. I bare my arms to the light and show him my track marks.
"How do you know you're not supporting my habit?"
Monday, May 4, 2009
Natalie Dylan wrote an article for the Daily Beast, and it turns out my interpretation of her motives weren't far off the mark:
Like most little girls, I was raised to believe that virginity is a sacred gift a woman should reserve for just the right man. But college taught me that this concept is just a tool to keep the status quo intact. Deflowering is historically oppressive—early European marriages began with a dowry, in which a father would sell his virginal daughter to the man whose family could offer the most agricultural wealth. Dads were basically their daughters’ pimps.
When I learned this, it became apparent to me that idealized virginity is just a tool to keep women in their place. But then I realized something else: if virginity is considered that valuable, what’s to stop me from benefiting from that? It is mine, after all. And the value of my chastity is one level on which men cannot compete with me. I decided to flip the equation, and turn my virginity into something that allows me to gain power and opportunity from men. I took the ancient notion that a woman’s virginity is priceless and used it as a vehicle for capitalism.
Are you rolling your eyes? I knew this experiment would bring me condemnation. But I'm not saying every forward-thinking person has to agree with what I’m doing. You should develop your own personal belief system—that’s exactly my point! For me, valuing virginity as sacred is simply not a concept I could embrace. But valuing virginity monetarily—now that’s a concept I could definitely get behind. I no longer view the selling of sex as wrong or immoral—my time at college showed me that I had too blindly accepted such arbitrary norms. And for what it’s worth, the winning bid won’t necessarily be the highest—I get to choose.
Saturday, May 2, 2009
Of Pimps, Running Partners and Other Bogeymen and Bad Boyfriends--Relationships In The Context of Criminalization
(This will be part one of a series.)
On my escorts' listserv, we had an exchange about pimps that started me thinking. Two of us spoke up to deconstruct the concept, another woman and me. Here's what she said:
I imagine many girls who have pimps view it like THIS-
In the past they have had a crappy family/friend structure. In their current pimp/ho network they have people to talk to and cuddle in bed with after a long day and tiring day of seeing clients. They have other people to drive them to sessions if they feel unsafe or if their car breaks down. They have other people to share bills, living space, meals, and social activities with... It's something of a sex work version of intra-personal communism/fascism... But if you envisioned your whole life as a never ending expanse of wage slavery... working 40 or 50 hours a weeks for minimum wage, only to have $20 extra dollars to yourself after paying all the bills and getting gas and groceries every month...? Maybe having companionship and a "higher class" lifestyle are worth giving up many personal freedoms to some people...? If we look at American society at large, it would seem so!
Many "pimps" really are just
manager/bodyguards/clientprocurer/boyfriends, who do split their
earnings with their girlfriends evenly. Others are abusive. *Many*
probably are. But I think that there a class culture clash which
doesn't allow us to totally understand it.
Remember, the *legal* definition of a pimp in this state is someone who receives
money knowingly from a prostitute. If you were working and your
husband was taking care of your kids, he'd be your pimp. If you had a
friend staying with you to escape a domestic violence situation and
she wasn't paying rent (as I have, now) *she'd* be a pimp. If you have
*ever* given money to anyone, expecting nothing in return, they are a
pimp, if they know what you do.
I think we should judge every working relationship, every personal
relationship, and every relationship which straddles these two categories
on a case by case basis--not assume what they're like based on class and race
(remember, all the evil pimps of the media imagination are usually
black), based on labels. I've had a boyfriend who's taken care of my
by hook or by crook when I've been too depressed to work, and I've
also taken care of him--while he did a bunch of work driving me,
protecting me, and all sorts of other stuff. I decided where our money
went, but some of it did go to him. I have never thought of him as a
The guys on craigslist who are trying to look for us to "manage" us
are evil b/c they're trying to exploit us, not b/c they're "pimps".
I want to say further that to survive criminalization, people team up to conquer
odds with those they trust most. In a heterosexual context, this can often mean a husband/wife or boyfriend/girlfriend team. Women make the most in the adult industry, and certainly someone working on the black market makes more than someone who doesn't, so the woman ends up being the main wage earner (especially since most couples realize that having *two* people work on the black market in the same household is too risky). Often rather than having their male partners work in the legitimate marketplace while they have to hire some stranger to do call in checks, to drive them to outcalls and do bodyguard work, or worse, have an agency that provides these services take a huge cut out of their earnings, they prefer to have their partner do this backup work for them. And as the other escort on my listserv implied, it's hard to work in a profession so beset by criminalization and stigma all alone.
Why is this so shocking? Is it because many libertarian or leftists accept and respect the sex work that independent, single indie escorts do,but when we talk about a man in a couple who accepts and abets his partner's work in the industry, they fall back to old sexist knee jerk responses? Like a "real" man would never accept having his partner do sex work, and would certainly never actively back her up in the business? And if he is doing so, then he must be a batterer? If we were talking about the woman being the main wage earner because she had a high paying straight job, we'd never hear a peep about the man in the relationship, even if he did work for the woman--and if you understand sex work as "real" work, there should be no difference between a woman doctor paying the household bills and a woman escort doing the same thing.
Maybe it's because "pimps" are most often associated with street work, and poor women *must* be the object of exploitation? I would argue that street workers are more in need of security backup work than sex workers in other venues, and while networks of street workers can certainly watch each others' backs, what's wrong with a street worker having an agreement with her intimate male partner to do more intensive security for her?
I'm not saying that these relationships can't be abusive or exploitative. But I don't think they are *inherently* so because the woman is working in sex work and her partner receives some of her profits, and may work for/with her. In fact, criminalization protects the abusive partner in these relationships when things turn sour. A woman who is intimidated into giving a man all of her income from prostitution is less likely to report that kind of abuse than a woman who suffer the same kind of treatment who earns money through legal means. And because criminalization makes it hard for women to protect themselves, especially on the streets--most prostitutes do not feel comfortable calling the police when a client physically or sexually assaults them (given how this U Michigan law school student was treated, for example, when she reported being assaulted in the context of a call, it's easy to see why). So when they have protection, they are reluctant to strike out on their own, even when the person who protects them physically and sexually assaults them and exploits them for their income.
So, yes, certainly, the manipulative, controlling pimp of the Iceberg Slim variety, with his "stable", his wirehanger beatings, and his brainwashed women vying for the position of "bottom bitch" certainly existed, and in some places may still be alive and well. But I think that the way these men treated women had more to do with the era than with these women's professions--can one really say that women outside prostitution were treated much better in the forties, fifties, and early sixties? And now that women don't really need such a pimp to procure customers (not with so many venues available to advertise prostitutes' services--even former street workers often use craigslist) and with the option of hiring a security guard/driver, plus the effects of the feminist movement in general on women's sense of independence, this sort of arrangement is dying out.
I'm really surprised that in all the coverage of the Craigslist murderer, more has not been made of the husband who saved his erotic masseuse/exotic dancer wife's life from this monster. The husband obviously knew what his wife was doing for a living, and it seems like he was providing security for her. This is a "pimp" as hero. But we don't get much about this story--no one has followed up with an interview with the husband or the wife--but whenever we hear about an abusive prostitute/intimate partner relationship, we're sure to get a comprehensive account.
As for "pimp" interpreted simply as an escort's manager, outside of any romantic relationship between the two of them, what's wrong with *that*? Not everyone wants to work as an independent, taking on all the tasks of running an escort business by themselves--working the phones and screening clients can be some of the most exhausting parts of the job. Other workers aren't criticized for having managers or bosses. Sex workers should be free to choose to work for themselves or someone else. As Stella, a community organization that provides support and information to sex-workers, informs and sensitizes the general public about the topic, lobbies for decriminalization, fights discrimination and lobbies for decriminalization states in a booklet which defuses preconceived notions about the issue:
According to stereotypes, a pimp is a man who controls a sex workers’ work and income. The reality is that many sex workers work independently. Some choose to associate with colleagues to share their resources, such as a workplace. Some prefer working for various employers, particularly women or men who own escort agencies or massage parlours. Some associate with partners to ensure that they get help and protection in case of need. The stereotypical image of the pimp does not correspond with the different contexts for sex work. Sex work may, indeed, require maintaining professional relationships with third parties such as employers, managers, drivers or receptionists, for economical or security reasons, or to make sure that the initial agreement is respected. The criminalization of pimps (employers or third party) makes it difficult to perform sex work safely. Once again, this criminalization is seldom used to protect women against violence.
Sex workers who are under the control of another person are most often in a situation of conjugal violence within their working context. This situation results from the intimate ties that sex workers may have with the employer or third party. When sex workers want to file a complaint and break the cycle of conjugal violence, their efforts are difficult because they are criminalized.
I'd also like to talk about another sort of relationship formed in the context of criminalization: "running partners". Unlike "pimp", this term is relatively unknown in the straight world, but most people know what "running partners" are, even if they don't recognize the term. It is a phrase mostly used in heroin circles, but the concept applies to people who use other physically addictive drugs as well. Running partners are two or more people who help each other score drugs every day, and share their spoils with each other. Given the artificially inflated cost of drugs in the black market and the danger of getting caught and arrested while obtaining the drugs, it is often easier and safer to team up and pool funds,and delegate tasks, assigning each part of the process to the person who is most capable in that particular task . For example, maybe one person is better at making money, and another has more street smarts and is more likely to be able to cop drugs in bad neighborhoods without getting caught. The outside world often looks down on these kinds of partnerships.
I remember when I was still using heroin daily, an ex-boyfriend accused my relationship with my new boyfriend of consisting only of using each other to obtain drugs. Again, nothing could be further from the truth---the reason that I worked with my boyfriend to obtain drugs for each other is *because* I trusted and loved him. In the dangerous world of criminalization, I trusted him to care about protecting me from the police and other people who might want to take advantage of me, I trusted him with the money I gave over to him, trusted that he would split the spoils with me fairly, and trusted that he would watch over me and care about my safety when we injected together. He lived up to these implicit promises, and my trust in him as a driver/bodyguard/running partner was vindicated the one day that I did have a problem with a sex work client--he scared away a client that approached me aggressively, got between me and the violent person with no hesitation, wielding a tire iron and getting the man to back down. I didn't choose him as a lover because he was handy to me in terms of scoring drugs, I chose him as a running partner, driver, and bodyguard *because* I loved and trusted him. In an environment in which drug users and sex workers are reviled and criminalized and their safety is not a concern for most people, it only makes sense to team up with good friends and intimate partners, people who actually do care what happens to you. To paint all these relationships as exploitative and abusive by definition does a huge disservice to the people involved---many of whom are trying to take care of each other in an environment that cares nothing about their welfare.