The public loves a juicy story about hookers and the media is fast to provide. The problem is these stories are two-dimensional at best, either told as a cautionary tale or paraded as the height of empowerment, with no regard for the nuances or humanity across the spectrum.
David Henry Sterry, author of the sex work memoir Chicken: A Portrait of a Young Man for Rent is looking to change that with a collection of stories told by sex workers called Hos, Hookers, Call Girls and Rent Boys, which came out this summer.
You want to know what sex work is about? Quit watching the news. Get in bed with this.
Here’s an excerpt of an interview with Sterry by Violet Blue:
Violet Blue: What drove you to pick the range of sex work covered in “Hos”?
David Henry Sterry: Right now in these great United States, in every major metropolis, there are people at the very bottom of the food chain, who are basically sex slaves, being exploited in the worst ways imaginable by the most vile evil predators. And there are women, men and transsexuals who are over the age of 18, in full command of all their faculties, and are choosing to use their body and their brain to make money in the sex business. And the crazy thing is, these two sides have a hard time acknowledging the truth of the other. So I tried in my own small way, to document all voices.
I had no political axe to grind: if you worked in the sex business, and you had a story to tell, and you had the skill to tell it, you were welcome in our book. As a result, I have writing by 15-year-old girls who were raped, beaten, burned, starved, degraded and exploited by the worst scum of the earth. And I have women who used sex work to pay for their master of fine arts degree at Berkeley. And everything in between: Working class, meat-and-potatoes sex workers; fabulous rent boys; phone-sex operators; former Olympic athletes; undereducated and overeducated.
VB: You are a former sex worker — what kind of work did you do?
DHS: I was an industrial sex technician, which is my preferred term for the work, for nine months — one human gestation period — when I was 17 years old, living in Hollywood, and studying existentialism at Immaculate Heart College in Hollywood, California. I worked mostly with women, although I did, toward the end of my career, get paid to verbally and physically humiliate men. One of them was a judge. He came out of the bathroom in his judge’s robe. Underneath he was wearing a diaper. Even at 17, this made me seriously question the American judicial system.
This anthology, as it is, could only have happened because I used to be in “The Life”. One of the chief advantages to being an ex-ho myself is that I’m tapped into many of the networks that we have. All the best hos I know are excellent networkers. Netsexworkers. Plus, I was invited to teach a writing workshop with people in San Francisco who had been arrested for prostitution. Many of them were, or had been, drug addicts. I did this for two years, once a week. So I became friends with this population, from the poorest parts of America, as well.
Then I got invited by the United States Dept. of Justice to come to Washington for a Survivors Conference, leading this writing workshop with all these young women who had been savaged in the sex business. These are voices it would be virtually impossible to get if you were not in fact someone who had been in the business. But I was determined to show America the human face of all the people in the sex business, to get people to understand that we are sisters and brothers, aunts and uncles, cousins, grandmothers, dads and moms. I would never have gotten the opportunity to do this, if I hadn’t come out myself as a sex worker.
When I got into that room, to run that writing workshop in Washington, with all those diamond-hard girls, they laughed at me, made fun of me. But then when I told them my story, all of a sudden they wanted to tell their stories. Over and over I’ve seen the healing properties of telling your story while putting this book together. And if I hadn’t first done this myself, struggled for years to try to tell my story, then finally to come out of the sex-worker closet, I wouldn’t have been able to help other people do it.
VB: What’s the most unforgettable story in the book?
DHS: Well, my own of course, because it happened to me. You don’t easily forget executing some extremely challenging cunnilingus on an 82-year-old woman. But as I look beyond the narcissistic shackles of myself, it’s hard for me to single one out, because the stories have become like my children. I don’t want to disrespect any of them. I love them all, even the worst of them.
In “My Daughter is a Prostitute” this woman keeps trying to explain to her Russian mother that she’s a dominatrix, that she doesn’t actually have sex with men. But her mother just will not understand, keeps saying over and over again, “My daughter is a prostitute.” “It’s a Shame About Ray” by Bay Area luminary Kirk Read, is a funny, poignant beautiful piece of writing. I could go on, but I won’t.
VB: What will people be most shocked by in these stories?
DHS: I think “Raped 97 Times” is horrifying. There’s also a very, very disturbing story by a great, great Bay Area writer, Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore. And there’s a story in the back of the book by a woman who is trying to kick heroin. Her mom comes and visits her, and shoots up in front of her, tells her, “Too bad you can’t try any cuz yer pregnant.” That piece is called “Thanks A Lot.” And of course the most disturbing is a piece by a woman who has become my friend, Jessica Bertucci, it’s called “Helping Daddy Pay the Rent.” Enough said.
VB: The need for sex and the need for money is blurred throughout many of the very real stories in this collection. Why did you make that choice as an editor?
DHS: In the exchange of sex for money, a window in the soul opens. I want people to take a peek. I’m fascinated by what happens when love, power, money, sex, obsession, and God knows what else all collide, usually in a small room. I think people make the mistake, when they’re writing about this subject, and in fact generally speaking when the write about sex, of focusing on the sex organs. I’m much more interested in how these encounters affect people mentally, spiritually, emotionally, how it changes them as human beings.
Go, my minions, go feast yourself on reality. You might not thank me for this, but that’s OK. You’re still welcome.
Information from SFGate, via SeattlePI.