Sex workers have become much more visible in politics and culture over the last couple of decades. Thanks to a surge of activism starting in the 1990s, memoirs and essays about sex work have become their own subgenre. Even in liberal circles, a lot of stigma still remains, but publicly admitting that you're an escort, stripper, or porn star is a lot more likely to be accepted as a valid choice.
But while the workers have been able to edge ever so slightly into the daylight, the clients have remained securely and silently in the shadows. With their new anthology, Johns, Marks, Tricks, and Chicken Hawks: Professionals and Clients Writing About Each Other, co-editors David Henry Sterry and R.J. Martin, Jr. are trying to shift the conversation to include both sides of the transaction. Sterry, and Martin will be reading at The Booksmith on Haight Street tonight along with several contributors. Sterry, who worked as a rent boy when he was 17, talked to us about sex, money, and how to be a good client.
SF Weekly: Why did you take the approach of doing a book about clients?
Well, the first book that we put together [Hos, Hookers, Call Girls and Rent Boys] was all sex workers. I just felt like it would be cool to see what people who are buying sex are thinking about it as opposed to people who are just selling it. People buy and sell sex for such different reasons, depending on who they are and what their circumstances are. People who are buying sex -- they're not heard from. It's this billion-dollar industry with no customers. So, I really wanted to find people who would write articulately about what the experience is like for them.
Who are some of the people you got to write for you?
I tried so hard to get so many people to write about buying sex, but it was very, very difficult. Much more difficult than I thought. Somehow, at this point in our culture, it's easier to say "I'm a prostitute," than "I'm a John." I have all these sort of liberal, arty friends, and none of them would write about it.
I found much more accessibility in the gay community. The only people I could get who were heterosexual wanted to use a fake name. There's only one person in the book who would use their real name when it came to buying sex. I posted stuff in hundreds and hundreds of places, and I have enormous networks of people. It was shockingly difficult to get people just to write about it, but then to get them to use their real names was almost impossible.
Of the people you got to write about buying sex, what did they have to say about their reasons and what they got from it?
It was interesting. There's a guy who calls himself a "captain of industry," who writes about having sex with a transgendered person and this guy has a high-powered job where he makes these very important life-and-death decisions. And he talks about how he wants someone else to be in charge of him. But he can't do it in his real life, so he pays this transgendered person to take control of him. I saw that myself when I worked, as well. ... People pay sex workers to give them stuff that they can't ask for from people they know.
And then there's Chester Brown, the cartoonist. There's the one guy who's really so out about paying for sex. He has such a different view than the rest of society does about this whole thing. I was talking to him, and I said, "A lot of men say 'I don't pay for sex, I pay so I can just walk away.'" And he said, "Well, I couldn't really walk away, I'm in a relationship with this woman. She's obviously not my girlfriend, and she does have sex with other men for money, but I'm in a long-term relationship with this woman that just happens to involve me paying money to her for sex." And he says that for him, he doesn't like the idea of having a traditional girlfriend, or a wife, or a partnership. ... The whole idea of domesticity kind of puts a damper on the sexual spark that was there.
When you were a sex worker, what were your feelings about your clients?
Well, I wanted to please them. I wanted to do well. I was 17, I was young, you know. The people that I worked for were a very high-end agency, and it was made very clear to me, "If you fuck this up, you're going to get hurt." So there was kind of a pressure from above to perform well.
But for myself, also, I wanted to please these people, these clients of mine. Some of them were really nice to me, and some of them were really mean to me. I'd say about 40 or 50 percent of them, these women who'd hire me didn't even really seem to want sex, which was so weird to me. Like, they just wanted to talk and be listened to. A lot of them wanted to talk about sex, but a lot of them just wanted to bitch and moan about their horrible husbands and their ungrateful children.
Some of them were just great. This one woman who was a yogini, she was so nice to me. She asked me "Would you like to take your clothes off?" Like, no one ever asked me that, as if I mattered. As if what I felt had any importance at all. But she did. That just made me like her so much.
What do the other sex workers have to say about their clients?
Oh, it's the whole realm, you know. The story that starts off the book is by this woman that I just love. Her name's Jessica, and she describes this relationship she had with this guy. He was just another guy, but they've known each other for a decade now, and he's helped her out. When she's in a terrible situation with no one to turn to, she can call this guy who started out as a client and now is almost like family to her.
So, that's on one end of the bell curve, and on the other, this woman was working the streets, and a guy picked her up and pretended to be a cop to try to get free sex out of her. But she called him on his shit: it's really a funny story. Clearly he's not a cop; he's clearly a thief and a bully, and someone who's trying to weasel sex out of her for free. So that's at the other end of the bell curve: people who are violent and abusive and have no respect for other human beings. Probably not much respect for themselves, either.
If someone was going to become a client, what would your advice be on how to be a good client?
My advice would be make sure you're with someone who is very comfortable doing what you want to do. Don't try to force someone to do something that they might not want. Be very respectful. Show up on time. Smell good -- that's very important. It may not seem that important, but smelling good is a very important thing when you want to become a good client.
Give them the money up front, as quick as possible. In an envelope. On the dresser. That's very, very important. And you know, a lot of clients, they agree on something and they keep wanting more stuff. "A little bit longer," "Oh, but you could do this, you could do that." I think that's very bad behavior from a client. If you want other things, arrange it beforehand, and if something comes up, you pay for it. People want stuff for free, and it really annoys me so much.
Try to, if you can, put yourself in the mindset of what needs this person has, and if you can satisfy any of those needs. Put yourself in the other person's stiletto heels, as it were.
David Henry Sterry and Friends tonight at 7:30 pm. Authors include Carol Queen, Madison Young, Chris Moore, Alvin Orloff, Kitty Stryker, and Sherril Jaffe. The Booksmith, 1644 Haight Street, San Francisco.