I was excited when I agreed to be the token breeder whiteman on the Sex Worker Art Show (SWAS) tour that bumped, ground and belted its way all across the USA. Ten well-met ex-sex worker women, one fine transgendered fellow and me, a forty-six year old ex-gigolo-ho-rentboy. I will now tell the true story of how my book got banned by the prostitutes, and how I became a better man for it.
It starts at the beginning, on the West Coast fish-netted leg of the SWAS, a traveling menagerie of musicians, artists, spoken worders, exotic dancers, and madcap activists, all of whom have worked in the sex industry. As I fly up to Portland, I’m excitedly optimistic and trepidatiously terrified. But I believe that despite our differences, there will be room for their whore stories, and my whore stories; that we will represent this under-represented population who’ve been reviled and glorified, jailed and inhaled, raped and worshiped, put on a pedestal and spat upon for centuries; that we will celebrate the humor and the beauty, the anger and the tragedy, the pure power of the artist-whore who makes people squeal and feel and laugh and cry, and screams that the emperor has no clothes on. Personally this is the next step in my attempt to unite my above-ground suburban whiteman half and my underground-raped-ho’-drug-addict half; so I can become my whole truth-telling, sweet-hearted, spreading, evolution-friendly, being-of-service self in every moment. As opposed to the apologizing, desperately-attempting-to-make-every-single-person-like-me self which I manifest so often in public.
Opening night I arrive at the club a mass of jangling nerves, the world-weary-weight of whiteman’s burden yoking and choking me, terrified that in this sex worker world a 46 year-old Caucasian breeder will be booed, heckled and hated, will never in a million years be able to rock the house. It’s January cold in rain-as-usual Portland. I stalk skittish through the skeevy club, like a freaked animal trying to pretend everything’s normal, but knowing he’s going to be eaten alive.
Luckily my need-to-please is so powerful that it provides me with an immediate opportunity to be useful. There is much roadie work to be done: guitars, amps and costume boxes need to be humped out of the van, down the stairs, hump hump hump. I like it. Gives my mind and my muscles something to focus on that isn’t my own miserable failure and the irrational fear that everyone’s gonna HATE ME.
After there’s nothing left to hump, I settle into the basement dressing room like a dog in a room full of cats. There’s flesh everywhere: overflowing, undernourished, hard, soft, rippling, cut, hanging, shaved heads and coochies, beaucoups of tattoos. Everyone’s preparing, as if for a religious celebration or battle, laying out costumes/uniforms and artifacts/weapons. Sweat pants magically morph into seamed stocking. Chunky boots into stiletto heels. Wooly scarves into feather boas. T-shirts into slit-happy minis and tit-lifting corsets.
A quick sample of backstage banter:
“Are you gonna do your puke number tonight? Oh, okay, cool, but try to keep it on the tarp.”
“One time I was doin’ phone work, and this guy says, ‘Yer a twelve foot giant, and yer sitting on my head.’ Thank God for the mute button, cuz I’m laughing my ass off. Then I get myself together, you know, and I’m like, (Deep Butch voice) ‘Yeah, baby, I’m huge, I wear size 24 shoes.’ That drove him wild. He was my regular after that, and he always wanted me to describe how big my shoes were.”
“One trick likes me to feed him dog shit. He loves it. Every week he brings me these baggies full of dog shit. And he’s a really clean guy, you know, he practically squeaks when he walks. He’s really sweet, you know, really quiet. But the funny thing is, I keep picturing him going out in his neighborhood with his little plastic bag and following dogs around waiting for his dooky snack.
“Why can’t people be naked on the outside?”
“I love it when people say, ‘I’m not hungry’, like that has anything to do with eating.”
“I got tired of the being the ho with the umbrella.”
A sex worker artist is scrambling to get her computer working, crazed mumbling, she flicks her lit cigarette near my feet and snarls, “Put that out!” dark blackness ripping out of her. A direct order. My Achilles heel, I can’t stand somebody ordering me around. Rankles my dander, raises my hackles. But she’s clearly in distress, so I put the cigarette out with a friendly smile.
Back upstairs the club is suddenly alive. Freaks in fishnets and preppies in plaid, trannies with hot fannies and shy guys in ties, vinylized virgins and rubberized radicals, lots of leather and plenty of pleather, piercings in tongues, lobes, noses, nipples, lips, and places you didn’t even know there were places, middle-aged men in diapers, lone wolves and vampy vipers, divas and dykes, piss queens and fisting mavens, CLEAVAGE, CLEAVAGE, CLEAVAGE, dandies with candy, women dressed as men, men dressed as women, women dressed as men dressed as women, and some who have clearly not made up their mind.
A bunch of grrrrrrrls crrrrrrrrowd around a drinking table: ultrawhite spiked mohawk, one you’d swear’s a beautiful boy in a greasemonkey shirt, and a shaved babe you just know could punch yer lights right out. Lots of piercings. Running up and down ears. Lips. Eyebrows. Noses. I visualize them all naked. Pierced belly buttons, labias, nipples and clits. What a drag to have to go through the metal detector at the airport. That’s my first thought. But boy o boy they’re having fun, laughing and carrying on. I’m slightly surprised at the number of extraordinarily hetero couples. Going to see sex workers doing art is apparently a valid breeder date these days. Go figure. Some tough leather men. Dandies flapping, flitting and drinking in kooky outfits. Flocks of goths in vampire colors. Women. Young. Middle-aged. Old. Women. I’m agog with a child’s wonder as I wander happily in this estrogen-happy land.
I approach a woman in her early thirties: beige pants and a sweater, very Portland. I asked her why she’s there. “When I was little I found out there were strippers, and when I asked my mom what a stripper was, she hemmed and hawed and she didn’t really answer me, so I knew whatever it was, it was forbidden, it was bad, and of course that just made it more appealing, and I really wanted to do it. Then I discovered there were prostitutes, and I really wanted to do that. I still do, I guess, I mean I’d like to just try it to see what it’s like. I’m a baker. I have my own company. I bake cakes, cookies, pies, muffins, everything.”
Annie Oakley, emcee and inventor of the Sex Worker Art Show, introduces the first performer to the packed-tight crowd and they roar in approval. When Ducky DooLittle sashe¥s on stage like four feet and ten inches of N’Awlins bordello lampshade, beaming sexy and sweet: “Hi Portland. I’ve had a lot of good sex in Portland!” The crowd crawls into the palm of her hand, and purrs there, as Ducky kicks us off with a bang.
I can’t focus, I’m all caged pacing. Each performer’s a blur of words: trick-hating, dope-shooting, hilarious harrowing narratives, rap and rhyme, my time getting closer and closer until it’s me, it’s suddenly my turn, she’s introducing me, and I’m up onstage, in the place where I can really be whatever I want to be. When I make fun of stupidwhitemen like myself, they laugh loud as one, and the transcendent wave sweeps through me, as they now crawl into my palm and purr. When I do the part about me getting raped, there’s that brutal stark silence as they all soak it in. And there it is, that’s why I’m here: to speak for all of them, the raped boys and the raped girls. I guide the audience back in, and before I even know it, my twelve minutes are up, and damn man, my slambang ending works like gangbangbusters, and I’m off to a thunderous ovation. I did it. The 46 year old whiteman rocked the house. Afterwards I’m accosted, as I almost always am, by women who’ve been ripped open and torn apart. They buy my book at the merch table where all the other books are. I sign my books. I listen to their stories. I feel their relief as they confess, toxins fuming out of them like invisible radiation. Hugs are exchanged. And I understand why I’m here: to speak the unspeakable, and to hear the unheard.
In Eugene sex worker’s/artist Violet Rae brings two young women up from the audience and teaches them how to strip. The squat&thrust, the turnaround bendover peekaboo, the pussypat and the shimmyshimmy shake. After some initial timidity, the two amateurs let loose their goose and get funky with their chicken, flaunting their raise-the-roof sexsexsexiness, bringing down the house. After the show I run into one them: she’s early twentyish, backwards baseball cap over tight blond hair, two large rings in her lip that make her look like she’s a large fish that’s been caught a few times but always manages to wriggle away. Statuesque cheeks and blazing eyes, she’s fabulous farmboy hot. Her grrrrrrrrrlfriends buzz around her like she’s a rockstar. Which, for tonight, she is. I ask her if she had fun. “HELL YEAH!” I ask her if she was nervous. “Oh yeah, definitely, I was mad nervous, but Violet Rae, she was like, so totally great… she made me feel like I could totally do it, so I was like, ‘I can either stand here and be a dork, or I can just go for it.’ So I’m like, ‘What the hell, might as well go for it.’ And when the crowd started goin’ apeshit, I’m like, ‘Wow, this shit rocks.’ So then I really started going for it, you know, and I’m just like… wow!” Funny how much more articulate she was with her body than she is with her words. I tell her she was really great. She takes it in. Looks right at me: “So were you, man.” She opens, moves in for the hug. And I give it to her, a hug of tremendous breadth and depth, a hug that takes its time and doesn’t need to hurry. If you’ve never been hugged by a 22 year-old dyke who really means it, you have no idea what you’re missing. And there it is again: this is why I’m here.
Four shows in, I’ve humped luggage, dozed fitful in vans, woken at dawn, busted and rebusted my ass to get it right every night. They’re crazy cheering audiences, they so want to interact, to fly their freak flag by embracing us. In our 2-van posse driving from Portland to San Francisco, we have a great midnight dinner at some divey lizardy truckstop, we walk in like rockstars, all heads turning, we’re got our own little tribe, and it’s dead powerful. It’s someone’s birthday and Annie Oakley has a cake and we all have this great chocolate bomb of a slice. And then suddenly it’s 4 AM and we still have a huge chunk of road to go to get to the Golden Gate, and everybody’s dog-tired. So I volunteer to drive, and while everyone else sleeps like cranky babies, me and the amazing shotgun-riding Ducky DooLittle tell each other our stories in whispers all through the long humming road night. As the sun also rises and we pull into the Bay Area, I feel at one with my sex worker sisters and brother, in that van, in the trenches, with this traveling-circus family, being my true self.
After the first four shows I take a break from the tour because of prior engagements. Fast forward to fifteen days later, I’m rejoining the SWAS in New York City, at the Knitting Factory. I immediately resume dragging bags and luggage humping. Hump hump hump. Before the show starts Annie Oakley pulls me aside and says, “We have to talk.” It’s one of those classic moments, when you go stone cold, cuz you know someone’s about to break up with you, or fire you, or tell you somebody in your family just died. Well, Annie explains softly and sweetly, it seems Certain Unspecified Performers have complained that my book is racist. She says that the Unspecified Performers claim I speak disparagingly about female genitalia. She is sympathetic on this point, as she herself speaks disparagingly about female genitalia in her part of the show. Reeling, I rock back, my mouth freeze-dries and my palms clam. Do not apologize! My brain screams, anytime anyone defends themselves against something like this, they immediately start to sound like a huge lame-ass. Annie Oakley informs me that I am to censor my performance. DO NOT DEFEND YOURSELF! But my need-to-please, my irrational fear that EVERYONE HATES ME, and my stiff British upperlip betray me and I pathetically mumble, “Wow, I’m really sorry.”
DAMN ME! This is not who I want to be.
Annie Oakley then informs me that my book will be banned from sale on her merch table, where everyone else sells their books. She tells me she hasn’t actually read the book (which been out two years) but she suspects that the charges of racism are probably true.
Sledgehammer to the knees buckles me. Lightheaded now, shortbreathed, the tears start to rise up from the well. And here I utterly fail. To be my genuine self. I stop the tears. The upper lip stiffens, and the flow of sadness is arrested. Why didn’t I show her my pain, the real me under the smiling and the apologizing? Why did I revert to being a stupid whiteman? Annie Oakley encourages me quite sweetly to continue on the tour if I want, but I will almost certainly be the object of angry confrontations, and/or cold shoulders. Now I err once again. I do the one thing my brain has been screaming at me not to do. I defend myself. And even as I’m shoveling it out, this is what it sounds like to me: “Blah blah blah, yada yada yada, blah blah blah, yada yada yada.” My voice has ratcheted up into that whiteman-in-anxiety whine, and even I have to admit that I sound like a guilty guy trying to weasel his way out of something ugly, until I actually utter that ultimate racist-defends-himself line: “Seriously, some of my best friends are black people.” Annie Oakley explains that I probably wrote something racist and didn’t even know it. Not that I necessarily did, because again she hasn’t read my book. But since she doesn’t know for sure one way or the other, and she really doesn’t want to marginalize oppressed people, my book will be banned from her merch table until further notice, and I will censor myself. Annie Oakley, like almost everyone on the tour, is white.
I smile sickly and I apologize, apologize and smile sickly, pretend like everything’s normal, like I did when I was a boy ho on a date that went horribly wrong and I wanted give the money back and get the hell out of there, but I couldn’t, so I disassociated and left my body, just bit the bullet and took one for the team while I kept that hunky dory expression plastermasked on my face. Through what looks like a pathetically insincere smile, Annie Oakley tells me she feels really bad about all this, but her hands are tied.
As she strolls away, my repression turns me into an angry sleuth, and I sniff around pissed, trying to figure out which ho accused me of being a racist. Could it be Scarlot Harlot, the kind-hearted activist? No, I’ve know her for years, and I humped her bags everywhere we went, she loves me. Could it be Erochica, the brilliant Japanese 2003 World Burlesque Champion? No, she stayed at my house, she was so happy to see me, big squeal of glee, big hug. Could it be the transgendered hiphopper? Possibly, he’s one of the only non-whites on the tour. Dubious though, he seems so way laid back, so live-and-let-live, so mindin’-my-own-beezwax, so like somebody who’d talk to your face about this kind of thing first. Could it be the shortstoryist who writes about her days as a street tweaker, petty thief, and hardcore ho? No way, she too stayed at my house in SF, I hung out with her husband and played with her beautiful mixed-race grandchild. Suddenly I feel all sick and twisted.
Sadly one of the aftermaths of getting violently raped is that I often imagine there is danger and trouble all around me, even when none really exists. Suddenly here now I feel like the ultimate odd man out. In a self-loathing daze of crazed confused alienation I wander around making eye-contact with each and every one of my fellow performers. Every single one of them smiles in my eyes like everything’s normal. They’re all so nice. It hits me then that it’s not just the unproven accusation of racism; it’s the making-ugly-accusations-behind-your-back-while-smiling-to-your-face-backstabbingness of the whole thing. It’s really creepy. We’re not exchanging ideas, being brothers and sisters. That’s what I’m here for. But they don’t seem to want a discussion. They seem to have tarred me in abstentia. It’s all gone so terribly wrong and become so very disturbing. I am disturbed. And here I fail again. I withdraw into my withdrawal, watching myself go slow through the motions, smiling and chitting and chatting as the pink elephant of racism waves its mammoth member around the room. Not who I want to be. Not at all.
Now the Rants began in my brain. Don’t they understand that censorship and book banning are tools of totalitarian religious fanatic fascism? That’s what rabid fundamentalist do to books they haven’t read and condemn out of ignorance. It’s what happens when people knee-jerk at words without trying to understand. Idiots and nincompoops banned Huck Finn for exactly the same reason these supposedly enlightened people are banning my book. Now I’m listening to the show through new furious ears. Ears that have been boxed and bloodied by the long arms of unsubstantiated racist rumors. A female performer comes out and says, “I hate men but I love c*ck.” And it hits me like a ton of dildos. She hates this whole group of people for no other reason than the accident of being born one sex and not another. This is a group of which I am a member. I imagine myself coming out and saying, “I hate women, but I love pussy.” Or, “I hate black people, but I love black pussy.” They’d hand me my roasted balls before they ran me out on a rail. It’s hate-spewing prejudice in a hate-filled world. She is not only permitted to say this, she is encouraged. And the things is, I want her to have the freedom to say it. I want to hear it. But why is there room for her voice, but not for mine?
And then suddenly it’s me up next. I’ve been doing this stuff for 25 years, and Annie Oakley gives me the worst introduction I’ve ever had in a quarter of a century. After the show my friends will ask me, “Why does that emcee hate you?” I’ll say, “What do you mean? She doesn’t hate me.” “Well, it was like a cold wind whipped in when she introduced you. She called your book a novel when it’s memoir, she said you looked all nervous, and then she mumbled your name. And she said such nice things about so many other people, and nothing nice at all about you. It was weird.” I don’t even notice at the time. I’m overjoyed to be back onstage, a place where I can control everything, including myself. And I’m extry-sharp tonight. It’s packed again, and I have a blast, leaving with a broad roar, blasts of cheers and whistles and whoops and hollers and there in that moment I am happy once more.
As usual, I’m approached by the curious and the damaged. People want to buy my book. Like a smuggler I take them into a dark corner to sell them my banned black market book. They tell me their stories. I listen. It’s so good to swim in that river of confession and redemption again. I sign the books clandestinely, wondering in my sick agitation what would happen if I got caught selling my banned book. Usually I would help hump all the stuff up all the stairs. But tonight I don’t feel it. I leave with some straight friends from the straight world. Used to be I wasn’t straight enough for the straight world, nor ho enough for the ho world. Now that I’ve come out as a raped hoing boy, I’ve lost and/or cut out many of my alleged friends from the straight world. But those who’ve remained accept me as I am, and those are the good ones. O how they make me laugh as I recount the idiocy of Annie Oakley and the Sex Worker Art Show. They reflect on what a terrible thing it when an oppressed group takes on the worst characteristics of the group oppressing them. Yet, they sigh, it seems somehow inevitable.
That night after I go back to the little room where I’m staying, I feel like I’m losing my mind. Finally I lay my raging head down upon my bed, beyond tired, hotwired and brainfevered but determined to go on with the tour. To unite my selves. Who am I kidding, I can’t sleep. So I call the CEO of my company. She tells me I would be an insane person to continue on with the tour. To be attacked and/or cold-shouldered would gut me. As soon as she says that I start crying. I cry on and off for the next week, all those stopped tears pouring out with interest. Plus, says my CEO, I can’t in good conscience support an organization that bans books without reading them. She reminds me that I am violently opposed to oppression, suppression and censorshipping of all kinds. I argue with my CEO that it’s probably only a couple of people, that to run away would be chicken. My CEO laughs: the name of my book is Chicken, which is American slang for a teenager who engages in indiscriminate sexual activities for money. My CEO says that with my personality I’d have to be not only insane but a masochist moron to continue with a group who obtusely accuses me of the type of blind hatred I’ve been trying to eradicate for decades, and the thought of me lurking around like some haunted hated freak is too much for her to bear.
Again I lay me down to sleep, pillowed head on bed. Should I stay or should I go? I just cannot get comfortable. I toss. I turn. Toss. Turn. Toss. Turn. Toss. Turn. Suddenly the sky’s lighting and OH GOD NO! It’s morning. I scrunch into the far corner of the bed and somehow find a position of comfort. Suddenly I’m in my Victorian Painted Lady dream house, with the turret, the long sweeping staircase, the four poster bed with see-through canopy. This is the place I am most at home in the whole world, the place I’ve been looking for ever since I was a raped hoing boy. People upstairs tiptoe and whisper. I know with dream certainty that certain unidentified sex workers are upstairs, and they are here to kill me. Pulse pounding heart thudding thumping breath noosed tight chest constricting as the sex worker women creep down the stairs. To kill me. I run hide in the kitchen, and crouching in a broom closet I can see through a hole peeping like a wee boy. They stalk, predator for my blood as I shiver in the closet. I can’t die here, not in this house. Clunky boots and stiletto heels tromp and spike silently stalking me. Holding breath, I’m smelling cleaning fluids and broom shit. They pass, I bolt to the next room, it’s an exhausting deadly hide&seek, cat&mouse: I will not die tonight I keep telling myself.
Sweating awake I shake my hot horrified head, gut in knots, balls aquiver. It’s clear I cannot continue with the tour. Here in this unfamiliar room in New York City I am suddenly more alone than I’ve ever been. I crave a sex worker I can have sex with, dive into and forget my sorrows with, soothe my ache, and ease back into my drug addict ho world. This is part of my illness. This is what I did for years after I retired from the sex business. Peeling back the next layer of the onion, I realize that’s not what I really want. It’s like an itching rash. You scratch it and it feels good at first. But you have to keep scratching, which just makes it itch worse, and before you know it, you’ve scratched so hard you’ve got an itchy bloody mess on your hands. What I really want is to drink from the cup of human kindness, and bask in the arms of someone who really loves me. But I’m away from home, and don’t know where to turn. So I call up a friend. She advises me to get some really good food first. Then write all this down. And when I write it all down, the itch disappears. Go figure.
In the end I am grateful that I had the opportunity to confront the worst part of myself. Grateful to take the next step towards uniting my selves. Yes, my book was banned by the prostitutes. And yes, I am a better man for it.