“I paid for sex,” says David Henry Sterry, loudly, in the crowded Manhattan restaurant we’re speaking in. “I had a wife, I had a girlfriend, and I also paid for sex. When I was selling sex, some of the women who hired me had a husband, a lover, and they too paid for sex.”
Presumably the 52-year-old Sterry has become inoculated to the awkwardness of such personal topics. He went public in 2002 about his stint as a rent boy at age 17 with a memoir, Chicken. And his latest book, un-subtly titled Hos, Hookers, Call Girls, and Rent Boys, shows that Sterry is as comfortable on sexual terrain as most people are discussing the weather.
“If money wouldn’t matter and we could choose the profession we want, how many of us would be prostitutes? Not many.”
And in his opinion, everyone should be. “The next taboo in our culture is sex for money. That door is about to be kicked open.” Sterry said he believes the recent demasqués of public figures—from pricey-prostitute-visiting Eliot Spitzer to Mark Sanford, who flew to his mistress’ homeland on the taxpayers’ dime—are beneficial in helping normalize the sex/money connection. “It helps undo the image of the freak, the weird guy in the trench coat, who goes to whores,” says Sterry. “It’s not like that. It’s the people who live next door to you who pay for sex.”
Sterry’s book is a collection of memories, essays, and poems, all written by former sex workers. The language is not ripped from the script of Pretty Woman—former stripper Jodi tells us the venue she used to work at “stinks of stale beer, cheap whisky, smoke, and cunt” And some of the tales are jarringly confessional. Former street hooker Jessica Bertucci recounts how her mother dropped her off at her father’s place when she was 9. “I begged my mom not to take me but she did anyway. Oh, by the way, my dad raped me when I was 2 years old.”
But other stories are simply—and strangely—touching, like Kirk Read’s, a professional writer and former rent boy. Read tells of the soft-spoken Texan client named Ray, who paid Kirk hundreds of dollars simply to be watched while he completely covered his body with several layers of lingerie. The only time the two men touched each other is when they greeted by shaking hands.
Practically all of the stories, even the lighter ones, come with a heavy dose of real pain, ensuring that the book never feels like a naïve glamorization of the industry. Sex work is a high-risk business, one has to conclude after reading Sterry’s book. “It’s not a job for everybody,” he agrees. “You have to be emotionally and physically equipped to handle people’s sexual traumas and desires. That’s why in the book porn diva and performance artist Annie Sprinkle asks, ‘Do you have what it takes to be a whore?’”
This sensitivity is important during a time when pop culture is aggressively tackling the subject matter. This summer saw the premieres of the HBO series Hung, in which a father becomes a gigolo, and The Girlfriend Experience, a Steven Soderbergh film in which a call girl gets paid to act as her clients’ girlfriend. So far, these depictions have garnered mostly positive reviews for addressing sex work with realism. (Interesting about the latter is that the main character is played by the real-life porn star Sasha Grey, who in interviews shows no embarrassment about her career in the sex biz whatsoever.)
It’s also important because, aided by the Internet, the sex business is flourishing—with huge implications. “When you look around you on the street or in the subway, almost anyone you see could at some point in his or her life have been involved with paid sex,” says Sterry. “I often speak at high schools and colleges about my past as a sex worker. After every single talk, some girl comes up to me. You could never pick her out in a million years. She waits until everybody’s gone, she’s nervous and won’t look you in the eyes. Then finally she will say, ‘Well, you’re not going to believe this, but...’ And then it comes: I have been a prostitute, I have been in movies. It does make you reconsider: Who are the people who live in that world?”
The dangers of the job are all the more reason to legalize prostitution, Sterry thinks. “Any time you have prohibition, it puts the means of production in the hands of gangsters. Sex workers aren’t getting protection from the police—who neglect them or arrest them. It breaks my heart to see how the legal system is jailing girls as young as 12, 13, instead of protecting them from their often-violent pimps and clients.”
Ultimately, the stories in Hos, Hookers, Call Girls, and Rent Boys are all about money, says Sterry. “In our culture, happiness means money, a big house, and an expensive car. So when I, as a 17 year old, could make $100 by pleasing an 82-year old woman, that to me was a great American success.”
In other words, few sex workers are in it for the fun. “If money wouldn’t matter and we could choose the profession we want, how many of us would be prostitutes? Not many.”
Mars van Grunsven is a writer and editor whose work has appeared in many of Holland's leading magazines and newspapers, including De Groene Amsterdammer, HP De Tijd and NRC Handelsblad. He writes about arts, business, literature, media and social issues.