What’s the worst thing you could say about a person’s mother? Everyone seems to agree that Dez Bryant had a right to be offended when an NFL executive, vetting Bryant for a draft, asked him if his mom was a prostitute.
I see no reason to make assumptions about Bryant’s mom, and I’m glad the NFL apologized, but the fact remains that there are many children in the world for whom the true answer is yes.
Zoe Hansen, a writer and former prostitute raising a child with her husband in Manhattan’s East Village, has her own maternal take on this.
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“If someone asking my son if his mother was a whore is the worst possible thing that happens to him, I’ll consider him extremely fortunate and my job well done,” she says. And yet, Zoe doesn’t feel that her 7 year old is ready to learn about reproduction, and she wants to protect him from the facts of her own life “so he can be a child for as long as possible.”
Prostitutes who also happen to be mothers face multiple dilemmas. Being proud of your job as a sex worker doesn’t always mean being open about it. Ruth Morgan Thomas, a founder of the Scottish Prostitutes Education Project, worked in an Edinburgh massage parlor while her daughter Tara was an infant. “I’ve never had any help from Tara’s father,” she says, “and I left him when she was 2 and a half.” Later, she worked as an escort, and then, not at all abashed about her profession, traveled to Japan to represent sex workers at an AIDS conference.
Nevertheless, she says, “One place where I was not out as a sex worker was my daughter’s school. When Tara was 7, somebody outed me, and the children in her class heard about it. She was being harassed by the boys in the playground. They were offering her 50 pence for a feel, which,” Ruth explains in a rather prim voice, “was not within her understanding at that age.”
Ruth, who has since evolved into a globally recognized sex-worker activist, challenged the school. “I said, what are you going to do about this bullying and harassment? They didn’t expect me to come in and stand up for her. I was supposed to hang my head in shame.” A school medical officer began sending Ruth “invitations to lectures on moral rearmament—yes, that’s the actual term that was used.” The attention Tara received from teachers and officials ostensibly concerned for her well-being was overwhelmingly negative. Ruth was forced to make a difficult decision: She moved her daughter from a state school to a private day school. “It wasn’t my first choice, because I believe in state education, but I couldn’t protect my daughter from the level of stigma and discrimination she was experiencing there.”
Claudia waited until she was out of the business to have her first child, who is now 18. “I do wonder if she’s starting to put two and two together and coming up with something that resembles four, but I still haven’t told her. My youngest is 8, and he’s just too young to even be thinking about such things.” A former London escort who also worked on the street, she now lives in the northeastern U.K. and blogs as “Claudia,” but doesn’t discuss it with her children.
Last year, for about six months, she worked in phone sex. “My housing costs are very high, and I quite like talking dirty,” she says. “I worked when the kids were at their dad’s house. I didn’t want anyone to find out.”
What made her quit? “One evening, my oldest came home unexpectedly. I had to fake an orgasm very quickly under the duvet. And the work was very badly paid.”
For Claudia, balancing motherhood and sex work isn’t just about sneaking around. Doing prostitution for eight years, sometimes on the street, actually helped prepare her for motherhood. “The ability to read a dangerous situation, stay calm, not show your reactions, is a very important skill,” she points out. “If I’m worried about something, I can talk to my kids without being verbally aggressive.”
Abby, a 33-year-old sex worker with a 10-year-old son, lives in Adelaide, Australia, and works part-time in the nearby mining town of Whyalla, where she sees a mix of regulars and new customers obtained through a local ad. “I work there one full weekend every month when my son’s visiting his father,” she says, “plus one day a week at a friend’s cottage in Adelaide when he’s in school.” Her ex-husband, who contributes $120 a month child support, doesn’t know how she supports her household. Or perhaps he doesn’t want to. She keeps him in the dark about her part-time work because, she says, “he could create custody problems if he knew.” As an outreach worker for the South Australia Sex Industry Network, Abby meets a lot of moms who want to avoid an ugly court battle.
Veronica Monet experienced such a battle when she was married with two stepchildren.
“At that point in my career, I was working three days a week as a middle-class escort, seeing people by the hour,” she says. “I paid half of my husband’s child support, took care of their medical expenses, vacations—many of the finer things in life.”
Despite this, she and her husband were embroiled in a two-year dispute over visitation rights. “It was all about me being an out prostitute, and it was hard, but I had to ramp down a lot of my political work” as a sex-worker activist, she says. “Otherwise, we would have lost in court.” Veronica is a surprisingly uptight parental figure. After visitation had been re-established for some years, Veronica’s stepdaughter became truculent. “I thought an amusement park was appropriate at 12, and smoking cigarettes was not,” says Veronica. “What I really wanted was to make sure she got into college, and she did.”
This parental diligence is more common than you might think among women in the sex industry, who often find themselves playing the role of the responsible parent, earning a living to provide for their children, while the fathers of those children are absent. Juliana, now a grandmother, began working as a London call girl when her son was 6. "I had a useless ex-husband who didn’t give me a penny, but we’re good friends, and I never felt entitled to ask him for support because having this child was my idea. He wasn't ready to be a father." A number of Juliana's call-girl friends had children. "We were all naughty girls together," she remembers, "and it was easier to keep the business a secret after we packed them off to boarding school."
Recently, Juliana’s son, now 30, discovered his mother's long-held secret by accident. It was a non-traumatic event, she says, "though I sometimes wonder if I'm deluding myself." What really concerns her is the innocence of her 4-year-old granddaughter. "I wouldn't want her to find out that granny was a whore. I just think it would be terribly upsetting in this new moralistic climate. Everybody's so judgmental now."
Early in my own career, I worked for a madam who was determined to provide her kids with a privileged lifestyle. The last time I checked, they were set to inherit a country house and a condo in Tribeca. Not bad for a self-made mom who grew up poor. Her children are blissfully unaware of the risks their mother took to create their inheritance and send them to prep schools.
But lots of moms, in sex work as in other work, live life in survival mode. Isabel Hosti remembers when her mother would leave the house for days at a time to work on the streets of Winnipeg.
"I was 5, and she would come home with all this money, so we knew she was the definite breadwinner. Our dad did the cooking. The idea was that she sold handmade jewelry in the bars — she was supposed to be this artisan. Later,” says Isabel, “I read her journals and she talked about meeting my dad in Vancouver, about being a coho." That's West Coast terminology (more playful than "coke whore") based on a popular salmon in the Pacific Northwest.
After getting a women's studies degree, Isabel entered the sex industry as a 24-year-old high-end escort, three years after her mother had died. Before she passed away, she told Isabel, “You own the means of production, you can be anything.” It’s unclear how she would have reacted had she lived to see Isabel working as an escort.
“When I got burned out from doing sex work, I drove a city bus for three years,” Isabel says. “They took my picture—I was the young female driver with a red streak in her hair—and made me the poster child for the union.” Isabel is also a trained clown (“I studied the Pachenko method”), a health practitioner, and an organic farmer.
What if she had grown up in the foster-care system designed to "save" her from her mom? “I wouldn’t be the person I am today,” she assures me. “I’m a second-generation sex worker.”
Tracy Quan's latest novel is Diary of a Jetsetting Call Girl, set in Provence and praised in The Nation as a "deft account of occupational rigors and anxieties before the crash." Tracy's debut, Diary of a Manhattan Call Girl, and the sequel, Diary of a Married Call Girl, are international bestsellers. A regular columnist for The Guardian, she has written for many publications including Cosmopolitan, The Financial Times, and The New York Times.