At this point in your life—twenty-four and post-secondarily educated—you’ve slept with roughly thirty-nine men, five of whom raped you, and two of whom paid cash. It’s July 26, 2014. You are about to have a panic attack. You know the signs: a tightness in your chest characterized by difficulty breathing and a tingling on the edges of your ribcage. This is the third one you’ve had since classes let out in May.
You have a calculator, a pen, a pad of paper from the journal you meant to submit to, and your laptop open on the floor. Several browser tabs display the various amounts and due dates of all the bills you must pay. The calculations, no matter how many times you redo them, won’t change. You need about eight hundred dollars by August 3rd. You’re in your third and last year of graduate school in middle Georgia. Every summer since you’ve moved here has been a fun game of where’s-the-money that you win by margins every August. It’s okay. No, really, it’s okay.
Earlier this month, when you had money for a liter of gin and a full tank of gas, you were too preoccupied being infatuated to notice the number in your bank account dwindling. This is how you’ve always been—boy-crazy and financially unconscious. His name was Joey. You were the first Black girl he’d ever kissed. He would come over late at night, waste your time for several hours saying he should leave you to work/clean/take care of his dog/be anywhere but with you—then fuck you with his four-inch dick, lasting no longer than five minutes. Sex isn’t a relationship. Sex isn’t even a benefit if it’s not good. Remember what you’ve always said: If I’m going to have mediocre sex, I better love you. You didn’t love Joey. Truth be told, you didn’t even really like him that much. He was a little mean, inconsiderate, convinced you not to use a condom. Not like you would have had any that fit him anyway.
Hey, focus. Money. Or the lack thereof. You spend so much time worrying about men—whether they like you, if they want to fuck you, if they are going to love you—that today should come as no surprise. You have a little over sixteen dollars to your name. That’ll buy you a couple gallons of gas and some cheese for the rest of the eggs in your fridge. Just don’t panic. Well, panic a little bit.
There are very simple solutions to this. You could ask for money from your father again, but the potential lecture makes you squirm. He already gave you two grand at the beginning of the summer to cover the expenses of living in Houston for the month of June, teaching creative writing. And you already have to repay him half of that before December. You never ask your mom for money—she’s been living paycheck-to-paycheck since the divorce. You can’t ask your little brother—he works two jobs and he’s a full-time student—or your older sister—she’s a ninth grade English teacher and you know she’s broke.
It’s obvious that you can’t get a real job right now, right? The training and effort involved would cost you much more in the short term. Even if you started cocktail serving like you did in high school, you can’t guarantee you’ll get paid or make enough tips before your rent is due in five days—followed quickly by your utility bills and credit card payments.
You could try to open another line of credit, apply for another student loan, or pawn the title to your car—but you’ve already tried those things, haven’t you? The title isn’t even yours. Don’t panic, too much. It’s okay. Breathe. Come on, breathe. Seriously.
When you were in undergrad, you fell for a beautiful girl named Renee. She taught you yoga, dance, and how to run a 5K. She’s the only woman you’ve ever been attracted to—something about her Native American ancestry, insane upper-body strength, and pretty brown eyes just wrecked you—and she spent nights in your bed telling you she loved you. Never mind you were both in relationships (she’s even married now). Never mind you consider yourself heterosexual with minimal experimentation. You two never kissed or touched too deeply. But you loved her like a meteor falling to Earth. She told you stories about being abused as a child, physically and sexually. How she started prostituting when she was fourteen. How she made so much money one year that she donated most of it to the Make-A-Wish Foundation, and how she personally financed a trip to Disney World for a former classmate who contracted Leukemia. Call her. Call her right now.
“Monica,” she sings to you.
“Renee,” you say. “Question.”
“I’m strapped for cash. Like dangerously so.”
“What have you tried?”
Your voice cracks a little. “Everything. I can’t ask—”
“I know. Don’t ask them.” She means your family. Remember Renee hates asking people for money. Remember she didn’t even take out loans for college.
The line is silent for a while. You hear rustling in the background, then a door closing. “Do you want to work?” she asks quietly.
She never calls it prostitution. She never calls it hooking or turning tricks or any other euphemism. She just calls it work. And it is work. It requires extreme concentration. You will make it out alive. Renee did.
Hang up the phone. Come into comfortable crossed legs, fingertips on the floor, and breathe into the back of your heart. You don’t need your yoga mat for this, but it might help. Close your eyes. Commit to this decision. Recognize that you can’t be in love. Accept the octave your voice must find, the tilt your head must reach, the new territory your razor must discover every morning. You don’t necessarily need to be awake while this new personality emerges—your feminist instincts and independence should retreat in favor of submission and the overwhelming desire to please—but you do have to pay attention so she doesn’t take over you. You still have a name, a family, a future. This is only temporary. Are your eyes still closed? Still breathing deeply? Drop into the pause now so you can learn how to drop into it at any time. That’s going to be important. Renee says so.
Open your eyes. Exit out of all your bills and open all the websites that would make you roll your eyes if you were financially stable: Craigslist, Backpage, SeekingArrangement, and a Google search page. On Craigslist, you need to be sneaky. If you’re too explicit—anything direct like “pay to play” or “fuck for a fee”—will get the post flagged and removed. On Backpage, just go to the Adult section. Remember: you’re broke, and Backpage charges to post, so just answer ads. Set up a fake email account with your new name. You have to choose something real but clearly unassociated with you. Remember the character you created in elementary school, Jamie Warren? She was you but braver. Create her twin sister and become her: Stella Warren. She isn’t you—she’s just the part of you that needs to take care of the other ones. Stella will make sure Monica-the-Student gets fed and pays her rent, that Monica-the-Teacher makes her syllabi for the coming semester, that Monica-the-Hopeless-Romantic doesn’t kill herself from the loneliness that accompanies being single for two years and trading sex for intimacy. Let Stella take care of you for a while. Assume her identity. She’s stronger than you right now.
When you post on Craigslist, include pictures without your face, some nude, some just teasing. The lighting needs to be blurry but not distorting. Make sure the posts include your ethnicity, bra size, height, body type, eye color, hair style, and whether or not your pussy is shaved. Use smiley faces and euphemisms. Make your readers believe you’re really as innocent as the title suggests: Baby Seeking Daddy.
Leave your posts up for no longer than two hours to avoid flagging. Learn the code words: discrete, negotiate, donation, generosity, company, etc. Portray yourself as the submissive baby looking to be punished by a strong daddy figure, or the virginal schoolgirl needing an education from a wise older man. It helps that you’re not dating anyone right now. So, secretly thank Joey for never replying to text messages or caring enough to check on you. The men you deal with aren’t as pretty or attentive as some of your former lovers, but that’s irrelevant. They’re white, usually, middle-aged, middle- to upper-class. You’re a fantasy, exotic—tall, slender, Black, huge breasts. Odds are they’ve never fucked a Black girl before. Odds are even greater they have some deep-seated white guilt that they’re looking to eradicate by cumming on your tits. This is the South, after all.
But remember: these men have real lives outside of you—wives, kids, careers, aging parents—so even if a few become obsessed, they have much more to lose than you do.
Yes, you have a lot to lose too if this doesn’t work. Or if it does, and you get caught. Any fear and panic you might have, you’ve got to suppress that shit. Are you reconsidering? Well, you could work as a dancer. Well, actually, you couldn’t. After an interview at an Oregon strip club three years ago, you vomited behind the dumpster out back for thirty minutes. Wrote a poem about it. Told Renee you didn’t hate men enough to strip for them. You don’t have the stomach to be a stripper. Ignore the irony of how you can fuck them for money but can’t tease them for it. Don’t feel bad—stripping requires a much larger commitment to the personality. You have to be Brandi or Sparkle or Destiny for many more hours a day for less money than being Stella for an hour at a time. It gets easier the longer you do it.
In the summer of 2012, right after you graduated college, you were living with your mom in Colorado. A month before you moved to Georgia, you responded to a Backpage ad and ended up in Cherry Creek with a music producer who wanted a nude massage. He kept calling you “Daddy’s little girl” and though he never fucked you, the experience jarred you for a while. You never considered yourself one with “Daddy Issues,” even if your dad did marry three more times after he left your mom. You felt a residue of guilt between your legs. But the money was nice. Helped pay for the gas from Colorado to Georgia.
And then, a week later, you found a guy over in Highlands Ranch whose fiancée was a cop. He begged you to fuck him without a condom. And you did. He got married a week later. You never heard from him again. When you told Renee, she said you might not be cut out for the working girl life. She said it was okay if you didn’t want to do it anymore. You shrugged and packed your car with clothes, kitchen supplies, and books. Drove to Georgia and didn’t reconsider.
It gets easier the longer you do it. You don’t think about the significant others of these men. You don’t think about the lies. You don’t think about how, two days after fucking the engaged guy, a friend of yours raped you while you were drunk. Or how that was the third time in your life you ever seriously considered killing yourself. Suppress that shit. You can go to therapy later. Focus. You have bills to pay. The sky doesn’t rain cash. Classes start in twenty-one days. Everything costs money: rent, utilities, lawn care, three maxed out credit cards, Netflix.
No matter how bad things get, don’t give up Netflix. Don’t do it. You need it—when the loneliness and panic start to cripple you, it’s the only way you’ve learned to check out. Keeps your body from overheating when you’re trying to fall asleep. Allows you to drown out the voice screaming YOU’RE WORTHLESS! by caring about imaginary characters. Distracts you from the knives in the kitchen, the pills in the bathroom, the yoga strap hanging off your bedroom door just waiting to be tied into a noose. So keep your Netflix account.
You aren’t sure where the depression came from. You want to blame living in Georgia, breaking up with your boyfriend of three years right before you moved here, being surrounded by friends coupled off like a square dance. But you know it started earlier than two years ago. You know the depression followed you here. It probably started back in middle school, when boys wouldn’t give you the time of day and made you feel ugly. It probably got worse when you weren’t asked to Prom two years in a row, when the boy you loved got another girl pregnant, when graduating eighth in your high school class with a 4.2 GPA wasn’t enough to get anyone to ask you out on a date. That self-loathing, that internalized hatred of your face compared to the white girls who’ve surrounded you your whole life—it seeps into your bones. It makes you think men only sleep with you out of boredom, out of the need to check a box on their list of “Types of Women to Fuck.” It makes you wonder if the world could be a better place without you. Maybe you are worthless. Maybe you don’t really matter if a man doesn’t love you.
Hey. Snap out of it. Focus.
Screen the email responses. Your expensive college education will come in handy here. The first email should include enough information to keep your interest but not so much that it sounds like a trap. Be wary of language, details, and anything that might land you in jail. Remember what Renee said: you’re too young and too pretty to have a record, and you’ve gotten this far without so much as a speeding ticket. Read carefully. Their first message should say something like:
Hey there! I saw your ad and I’m interested in teaching you a lesson. 😉 Little about me: 37 yo WM, tall, DDDF, very generous. Here’s a pic. Want to meet up? I’m free tonight. Hope to hear from you soon!
And not like this:
Got any more pics? I want to fuck you until you can’t stand then make you choke on this cock. You ready?
This is the part where you get worried about safety. And you should be only mildly concerned. Your reckless nature makes you assume you will never be killed or raped when you meet a stranger online. (Ignore the fact that, when you were eighteen, the very first person you met whom you connected with online raped you.) This is why God and Bill Gates invented the Internet. You don’t have to follow every potential client. You can stop responding whenever you want. Don’t get caught up in “needing the money” because that’s how you get caught. Many of them are only looking for pictures to jack off to; others will lead you on for a while and then be “shocked” that the deal is pay-to-play. Don’t take that personally. Move on to the next client. Keep a detailed ledger with phone numbers, addresses, first and last names if you get them. Always make plans with a friend after an appointment. Always make plans with a friend after an appointment. This will ensure that someone is expecting you and will be able to say where you should have been in the event that you are kidnapped, raped, or killed.
Try not to think about that. It makes the suicidal thoughts worse. And you’ve been so good about not acting on any of them so far.
Decide your rates, and then inflate them by at least fifty bucks. That way you never end up getting underpaid. Someone will give you a sob story and scam you into only paying $25 for sex, and he will pay you in quarters. Someone will pay you $100 the first time, and next time not pay you at all. Someone will promise you ten thousand for a weekend, call you terrible names, hit you, leave you in a hotel room for hours at a time with no food or access to your own car, lie to you for a week, and never pay you. This won’t happen all the time. But it will happen. So always get the money up front.
Learn the terms in-call, out-call, special requests. Include gas money for any place farther than your zip code—unless you don’t like the client, in which case, charge for gas. It helps that you live alone so you can let clients come to your house. Only see them at their houses, in hotel rooms, or at your place—but beware the risks of hosting: neighbors seeing strange men in and out of your house at all hours, the random friend dropping by because they’re “just in the neighborhood,” love interests leaving gifts on your doorstep while you’re inside begging for another spanking. Once again—don’t be in love while you’re doing this. It’ll just complicate things. That beautiful bald chef from the Asian restaurant downtown really likes you. Don’t let him distract you. Your clients expect you to be free for their pleasures at all times, even if you aren’t. Change your voicemail message so it only says your phone number, and if you can’t answer your phone, turn it off. Never let any call or text message go unanswered or unreturned. Your friends will comment on how accessible you always are. Just smile and buy the next round.
There are two major components to being a successful sex worker. The first is cleanliness; the second, attentiveness. Keep your apartment clean. If you run out of time for the whole place, designate rooms that are off-limits to clients, typically the laundry room, any spare bedrooms or closets, and the kitchen. Make sure the living room, bathroom, and bedroom are clean at all times. Vacuum the rugs, dust the fans, fluff the pillows. Buy extra-strength Febreeze, Tide sticks, and a Brita filter. In the bathroom, clean the toilet every other day, keep the shower curtain closed, and leave baby wipes on the counter. Shave your armpits, legs, stomach, and bikini area every day. Buy special gel for this to avoid razor bumps. Keep your eyebrows tweezed, your skin clear, and your condoms plentiful. Take your vitamins, exercise daily, and avoid anyone who’s even a little sick. Don’t miss a day on the pill, don’t use your personal lubricant, and shower after every appointment. Every. Single. One. This is for your own hygiene. You don’t want the smell of semen on your skin all day, whether you have another appointment or not. It’ll get into your clothes and make you sick at restaurants or on the couch while watching a movie. Don’t wear perfume. Rub pheromones between your wrists and behind your ears instead. Wear the right bra size. Don’t wear thongs for longer than two hours at a time. Remember how clean Renee always looks, smells.
Attentiveness is a little harder to learn. It’s like the bedside manner of a therapist, the comforting nature of a girlfriend, and the fuckability of a porn star all rolled into one short session. Your job is to listen to him. Make him feel like the most important man alive. Make his problems your problems. Express concern, empathy if applicable. Listen to his complaints about his wife, his kids, his ex-wives, his boss, his friends, his aging mother. Nod, make eye contact, only offer minimal anecdotes, laugh at his jokes, touch him reassuringly. Act like you love him. Unless he wants you to act like you don’t.
The part of him that would never pay for sex, that loves his wife, that can’t wait to get married—that part knows you don’t care about him, that you’re a daydream attached to a monthly ATM withdrawal. But the part of him on your couch or in your bed with his boxers around his ankles and dick standing at attention, that runs his hands all over you in breathless reverence, that can’t stop thinking how lucky he is to be fucking such a young beautiful woman—you belong to that part. Stroke that ego, kiss that collarbone, rub that thigh. Tell him you love his big, thick cock. It’s probably neither but tell him anyway. The first time he penetrates you, look and sound surprised that it feels this good. Make him think you’ve never been as wet as you are for him. (Make sure you practice those kegel exercises.)
When he says things like, “This is the best dick you’ve ever had, isn’t it?” or “You’ve never been fucked like this before, huh slut?”—agree with him. Promise him anything he wants—this pussy is yours, I never want to fuck anyone else, you can have me whenever you want me—and remember these promises for future reference. The last thing you need is to tell one man you’re never going to fuck anyone else and then bring up your other clients with him in conversation later. Just pay attention during sex. Don’t cum. Unless it’s actually that good. But it probably won’t be. So fake your orgasms. All of them. You already know how to do that—you’ve been with enough men.
Let him spank you. Let him handcuff you but use your own handcuffs (the ones that you can let yourself out of in the event that he does try to kill you). Let him blindfold you with your own silks (the sheer ones). Let him fuck you anywhere, cum anywhere. Let him call you a worthless whore, a cum-hungry slut. Whatever creative names he can think of by watching too much porn.
Afterwards, clean him off. If you’re at his house, wash your hands, pee, and down some mouthwash to get the taste of semen from between your teeth. Count the money in the bathroom. If he’s underpaid you, don’t say anything, just make a mental note to blacklist him. Get dressed. Don’t let him keep any trophies—underwear, clothes, etc.—unless he wants to pay you more. Smile wide. Kiss him goodbye. Walk out of the house slowly, lock your doors once you get into your car, and drive to the nearest ATM. Drive safely. Hey, speed limits: obey them. Play your music loud. Drown out the worthlessness that sinks into your system. Focus on the work. Recount the money at stoplights. Don’t act nervous. You aren’t doing anything wrong.
If you’re home, unfold his clothes and re-dress him. Let him wash his hands or brush his hair or wash his face. Hand him a glass of water. Let him tip you extra. Always be gracious. Tell him to be in touch about your next appointment. Lock the door behind him.
Shower. Don’t bring a knife into the bathroom. Don’t eye the pills in your medicine cabinet or unroll the floss. Just change clothes. Drop into the pause. Count your cash. Enter the amounts into the ledger. Check your email. Check your phone. Go running. Do yoga. Drink wine. Go visit your friend with the collection of pirated movies. Meet someone for coffee. When anyone asks about your day, say you worked. They’ll assume all the extraneous work academics are always doing—writing, reading, researching, organizing, networking. Make up elaborate stories about cleaning out your closet and discovering a journal from tenth grade you thought you’d lost and getting caught up reading it. Your near-perfect memory recall will help for this. Change the timelines of certain stories to explain your whereabouts. Don’t use alcohol as a truth serum. Don’t deviate from your norm. Keep trying to seduce men in public. Keep buying drinks for your friends, even when they insist you can’t afford it. Keep fucking the men you’ve been fucking since you moved here, and fuck them for free because they’ll guarantee you the orgasm you deny yourself with every client. Recognize that your time is expensive. Don’t apologize for blacking out days where all you do is eat ice cream and watch Scandal, doing your best not to internalize Olivia Pope as your spirit animal. During those times, tell your clients you’ve gone out with friends, to see relatives, to get your oil changed. Whatever. It doesn’t matter. They’ll believe you.
When you wake up one morning in late September, still working even though your student loans have kicked in and you’ve paid all your bills and your first paycheck comes next week, and your first thought is to end your life—lie awake in bed and stare at the ceiling. Count back from 100. Do it again by twos, then threes, then fours, then fives. Remember that it takes something like 11,000 mg of ibuprofen to kill you, but that your body will react so violently to the introduction of so much in your system at one time that you’ll vomit before you can die. Think of your mother and how lonely she’d be if you were really gone, how her children don’t live at home anymore and how that house is too big for just her. Think of how you might meet the man you will marry today, how he might love Nikki Giovanni and your natural hair and the way you can quote The Emperor’s New Groove verbatim. Remember Renee, how she’s still alive, how she got out and got married and found the little bit of happiness that seems to be in such short supply. Remember how wonderful you think you are sometimes. Remember how in demand you are, even if it’s just sexually.
When this isn’t enough, when you start to make a real plan to swallow bleach or drive four hours just to crash into the ocean, call the suicide hotline. Tell Giselle everything—about being raped by an online stranger when you were eighteen, the classic survivor response of promiscuity that followed, the first time you told your sister and she told you she already knew. Tell her about the Aurora Theater shooting, how you were raped while it was happening and all you could hear were sirens. Tell her about the mouse you ran over on your way to a new client’s house, and how you burst into tears in his driveway. When she asks what you mean by clients, tell her you’ve been selling yourself for money. Tell her you don’t always use condoms. Tell her you really hope one of them kills you so you don’t have to do it anymore.
When she asks what “it” is, you don’t say sex work. You say living. Say breathing. Say lying to your mother about where the money is coming from. Say washing your sheets every two days. Say scooping semen from between your legs and taking birth control pills and cooking for one and letting men your own age fuck you on your kitchen table for free. Say you’re tired. Say you’d like to sleep now.
Giselle tries to send a mobile crisis team to your house, but you tell her you’re fine. You’ve taken two sleeping pills—yes, only two—and you didn’t open the drawer with the knives and you don’t know where your scarves are. She’s worried, but your work training has taught you how to convince others of your stability. You say you’re fine. You say you’re okay now. Thank her for listening.
After you hang up, call Renee. She prays for you. Says she wishes she were there. Tells you stories about her suicide attempts, how they followed every assault, how she used to pray for AIDS when she was working. She suggests you shower and eat kettle corn and watch something mindless. You crawl into bed an hour later, that bed that has held so many men, convincing them that this is love. You’re clean and full, so you call her back. Renee doesn’t say anything when she answers, just breathes with you.
And in that silent hour, your mind slowing down, her breath against your eardrum, your heartbeat returning to the pace of pause you’ve learned to drop into at any time—you retire.
Sex workers like you and Renee aren’t meant to live longer than a few years, or in your case, several weeks. It takes something miraculous for you to get out of this business. Renee got married. You probably will too. You’ll move out of Georgia, sign a new lease, get a job teaching English somewhere and write poems about love, calling Stella a character you made up. Renee will trade stories with you about this life you both used to lead. You’ll walk down an aisle. You’ll go to therapy and call this a strange time in your life. You’ll continue to believe your time is expensive. And you’ll survive this.