A Review of Hos, Hookers, Call Girls, and Rent Boys: Professionals Writing on Life, Love, Money, and Sex

NPN’s Jendi Reiter reviews Hos, Hookers, Call Girls, and Rent Boys: Professionals Writing on Life, Love, Money, and Sex by David Henry Sterry and R.J. Martin, Jr. (Brooklyn: Soft Skull Press, 2009).

This fascinating but uneven anthology of personal essays by current and former sex workers gives readers a glimpse into the complex emotions of those who make a living selling intimacy. Contributors run the gamut from abused teenage streetwalkers to porn celebrities like Nina Hartley and Georgina Spelvin (The Devil in Miss Jones). The essays are roughly balanced between positive and negative portrayals of sex work, with perhaps too many that one could categorize as “war stories”—tales that speak honestly and vividly about bizarre, dangerous, or sad interactions between sex workers and clients, but without a broader analysis of whether the profession is inherently toxic.

One such account opens co-editor David Henry Sterry’s moving and darkly funny introduction. Sterry is the author of Chicken, a memoir of his nine-month stint as a teenage prostitute in Los Angeles.

I flash back to 1974, standing in front of what was then Grauman’s Chinese Theater, alone with nothing but twenty-seven dollars in the pocket of my nut-hugging elephant bells. A very nice man wearing a T-shirt that said SEXY started talking to me as if he was my best friend. At a certain point, he asked me if I’d like to come back to his place. To have a steak. That steak would cost me a lot more than sixty-five dollars. In fact, it was the most expensive steak of my life. After he used me in ways I hate to remember but can’t force myself to forget, I escaped with my life. As the sun was coming up, I was in a dumpster about to eat some fried chicken garbage when another very nice man approached me. Turns out, he was a talent scout for the sex business. A week later, I was having sex for money. (p.1)
As Sterry recalls, he spent the following 20 years engaging in self-destructive behavior before a therapist guided him to exorcise his demons by writing his memoir. Later he went on to establish a writing program in the basement of the San Francisco–based outreach group Standing Against Global Exploitation. SAGE offers medical, vocational, and emotional support to people who’ve worked in the sex industry. Some of his students’ brief and devastating essays are included at the end of the anthology.

Sterry writes that he wanted this anthology to do justice to the multifaceted nature of sex work, steering a middle path between the oversimplifications of activists who portray the profession as either exploitative or liberating. Mainly he succeeds, though I would have liked him to include at least one author with an openly radical feminist/abolitionist perspective. Did he feel uncomfortable approaching such people, or did they refuse to be in the same book as porn apologists like Carol Queen? I can only speculate.

Sterry’s reluctance to criticize the choices of others in the business helped me understand why some sex workers feel they can’t identify with the abolitionist camp, even if their own experience was negative. Sex work carries such a stigma that he treasures the bonds of community with others who’ve been “in the life”, comrades in arms who understand his mixed feelings and difficult memories in a way that civilians can’t.

I use the military analogy because this psychological dynamic does remind me of veterans who will mince no words about the horrors of the battlefield but can’t quite call themselves “anti-war” (and may even resent civilians who take that stance). To repudiate one’s past, awful as it may have been, feels like repeating the original shame and trauma to the ego.

On the prostitutes-as-victims side, there seems to be no room for people who want to have sex for money in safe, sane, sanitary conditions. On the prostitutes-as-empowered-sex-workers side, there seems to be very little acknowledgment that many people are actually trafficked, abused, and exploited. In my experience, there are many people who, given the state of the world, choose to have sex for money. And there are abused victims and humans who are trafficked against their will.

Of course, much of the divide is driven by money, class, and race. Many of the people in the prostitution-as-empowerment world come from middle- or upper-class families. They have better access to education. They’re much more likely to end up as high-class call girls than ten-dollar crack hos. It’s like the difference between working in a restaurant that serves sixty-five-dollar steaks and being held against your will, toiling feverishly eighteen hours a day in a sweatshop. Yet both those things are called prostitution. (p.5)
Sterry’s observations are right on target. Unfortunately, this is the last time that a comparative political perspective finds its way into the anthology.

Many of the authors who are featured in the early pages of the book are well-educated, independent sex workers who have left the business or combined it with fringe performance art. One doesn’t get the impression that they are under the control of a pimp. They probably have the intellectual background to explain why they had a more positive outcome than the average prostitute, but they don’t follow through.

Annie Sprinkle, for instance, offers a breezy, cutesy list of “40 Reasons Why Whores Are My Heroes”, followed by the sobering essay “Remembering Our Dead and Wounded: Why We Started the International Day to End Violence Against Prostitutes”. It’s hard to close the cognitive-dissonance gap between the two pieces. Most likely she thinks that by recharacterizing sex workers as sensual free spirits and nurturers, we can end the stigma that makes law enforcement and the general public indifferent to violence against prostituted women. That’s a worthy goal. However, it’s even more likely (based on past experience) that these “happy hooker” sentiments will be misused by adult industry profiteers to whitewash the realities of sex workers’ lives. Many women enter this business out of economic desperation, not because they want to have fun with multiple partners or cure society’s sexual repression.

So why would I still recommend this book? First of all, it’s a great read. The authors plunge us into the depths of unconventional relationships where humor, tenderness, pain, and aggression uneasily coexist. Standout entries include Candye Kane’s fond memories of her stripper babysitter, Juliana Piccillo’s ill-fated affair with a vice cop who tried to “rescue” her, Lilycat’s satirical look at the rules of phone sex, Lauri Shaw’s heartbreaking account of rejection by her mother, and Sterry’s unexpectedly sweet encounter titled “I Was a Birthday Present for an Eighty-Two-Year-Old Grandmother”.

Moreover, it’s important to let sex workers speak for themselves. People on both sides of the debate need to listen to stories that don’t simply confirm our worldview. All relationships are complicated; sex-for-money is probably more complicated than average. Sterry and Martin have gathered some essential pieces of a puzzle that still waits to be assembled into a coherent picture.

See also:

A Review of Stripped: Inside the Lives of Exotic Dancers
In the debate over the morality of stripping, each camp typically puts forward a one-sided image of the exotic dancer as victim, slut, or feminist heroine. Bernadette Barton, a sociology and women’s studies professor at Morehead State University in Kentucky, wanted to break through this impasse and look more closely at the complexities of strippers’ lives. This highly readable and even-handed book consolidates her five years of research, based on interviews with exotic dancers and first-hand observations. She visited more than thirty strip clubs in San Francisco, Honolulu, and a medium-sized Southeastern city she renames “Silverton”, taking care to include both working-class and upscale venues.

Barton found that many strippers are intelligent, self-aware women who are making an understandable choice from the limited options available to them. However, both the fledgling dancers and society at large underestimate the hidden costs of the profession. These include harassment by customers and management, social stigma, discrimination in housing and employment outside the sex industry, difficulty forming intimate relationships, and a workplace environment that encourages substance abuse. The longer a woman stays in the business, the more the negative factors outweigh the positives. Barton found that the balance shifts after about three years (p.7). By this point, though, the stigma and the lure of fast money with flexible working hours have made it harder for such women to transition to a normal job.

A Review of Christine Stark, “Girls to boyz: Sex radical women promoting pornography and prostitution”
Because they are women and/or homosexuals, sex radicals who enjoy sadomasochism and purchasing prostitutes get away with claiming to undermine patriarchal norms, while in fact they are perpetuating other women’s subordination. Sex radical Veronica Monet, in a 1997 essay, wrote about hiring a prostitute in Nevada because she believed women had a right to do anything men could do. According to Stark’s own research on Nevada’s legalized brothels, the owners routinely groom underage runaways to enter prostitution when they turn 18, then virtually imprison them in the houses, with no money and no way to communicate privately with the outside world (pp.283-85). In a remarkable display of callousness, sex radical Donna Minkowitz has bragged about masturbating to news stories about the 1992 Glen Ridge, NJ case in which teenage boys gang-raped a retarded girl with a baseball bat. (p.286) Female-to-male transsexual sex radical Pat Califia writes articles glorifying pedophilia and incest. (p.286) How exactly does this challenge the dominant power structure?

A Review of D.A. Clarke, “Prostitution for everyone: Feminism, globalisation, and the sex industry”
Whatever one thinks of Clarke’s economic analysis (unrestricted loans to developing countries create their own set of problems), it’s hard to ignore the similarities between common pro-porn arguments and the ideology of the unrestrained marketplace. Neoliberalism’s key article of faith is that the marketplace is the ideal paradigm for all human interactions, and that it will produce fair and free outcomes if only we don’t regulate it in any way. (p.165) There is no room in this philosophy for noneconomic values such as kindness, human dignity, responsibility to the community, civil rights other than the right to property, or equality among social groups. Similarly, porn advocates behave as if the moral issues begin and end with women’s individual choices: as long as she’s being paid to be gang-raped, beaten, forced to drink urine, and so on, the rest of us are off the hook. Pro-porn leftists need to realize they are acting as shills for an ideology that reduces human beings to commodities or consumers, the same belief that they oppose in other contexts. (p. 169)

Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Rau
nch Culture

Raunch culture came along as a way for women to have their cake and eat it too. We could feel empowered without needing to make enemies or stop having “fun” as defined by the commercial media. In this way, says Levy, feminist energy became co-opted by a consumer culture in which solidarity for political change is replaced by personal advancement at the expense of other women. For a large part of raunch culture’s appeal, she says, is that it permits women to hang onto their feminist credentials while using their sexuality to achieve success in a male-dominated business world.

D.A. Clarke: Women Adopting Men’s Bad Habits Is Not the Answer
Ruthlessness, hardness, force and intimidation have characterised the successful businessman, soldier, gangster, politician and pimp from the very beginning. If we admire those qualities, we implicitly endorse the world these men have created – perhaps we subscribe to the fantasy that women can become hard enough and mean enough to compete with men on their own turf. Suppose we do so, and suppose some of us win: will a world that contains a token handful of lesbian aristocrats among its ruling class be a better world?