This story starts when I was 17, alone in Hollywood with $27 in the pocket of my nuthugging elephantbells. I had just arrived to begin my collegiate career at Immaculate Heart College, where I planned to study existential under a bunch of radical nuns. That night, while admiring Marilyn Monroe’s handprints in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theater, I was approached by a very charming man wearing a shirt emblazoned with the word: SEXY. He invited me back to his place for steak. Turned out to be the most expensive steak of my life. The steak was drugged . SEXY raped me. I escaped with my life. But the happy-go-lucky lad who breezed into that apartment died in that room. SEXY killed him. I sprinted out of there broken and bleeding. Within the week I was in the sex business. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was suffering from Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. The part of my brain responsible for emotion was engorged, and the part responsible for communication shriveled. I was a living breathing fully-loaded semi-automatic weapon just looking for an excuse to go off. So given my economic situation, (making minimum-wage frying chicken), my alienation from my parents, and my newly acquired mental illness, it seemed absolutely like my best option. I was in the sex business for nine months. One human gestation period. But it changed me forever, and in ways I wasn’t even aware of for years to come. Certainly I had great times in that world, and made gigantic money for a person my age and with my work experience. But I also downloaded the sexual trauma I encountered in that world, and it infected me like a virus.
I became a sex addict and a cocaine addict. Which is not nearly as much fun as it sounds. In my mid 30s I realized that if I didn’t change I was going to die, or my penis was going to fall off. I’m not sure which scared me more. I knew I had to find a panic mechanic. Fast. Since I was living back in Los Angeles, naturally I found a hypnotherapist. She gave me some tools to stop my sick twisted behavior, and helped me unraveled the huge gnarly knots inside myself. I was a professional screenwriter at the time, so she suggested I write about my experiences. Thus was born my memoir Chicken. Writing down the most miserable things that ever happened to me helped me understand why I became a man child rent boy. It helped me embrace my inner ho. See myself as the survivor not the victim. Accept responsibility and not blame everyone else. Appreciate the good and not obsess about the bad. Do things that made me happy and healthy instead of miserable than sick.
When that book came out it changed my life and I was so grateful I was overwhelmed by a fierce desire to help somebody. Be of service. So I decided to start a writing program for people who’d been arrested for prostitution. For two years every Tuesday me and my ex-literary agent/current wife would go down into a basement of a nonprofit organization and run a writing group. The hos, hookers, call girls and rent boys we worked with wrote shocking, funny, smart, mind-blowing, jaw-dropping stories. And they always left the workshop in a better mood than they arrived. As did we. Part of my mission became to put a human face on these people who are glorified and stigmatized, worshiped and reviled, spat upon and paid outrageous sums of money. Thus was born the anthology, Hos, Hookers, Call Girls and Boys.
One of the great things about prostitutes is that they are amazing networkers. They pretty much have to be. So I put out the word that I was looking for writing by people in the sex business. Me and my partner Richard Martin were flooded with submissions. I was already the author of a bunch of books by then so I started shopping the anthology. I showed it to my agents. Not interested. I showed it to other agents. Even less interested. I showed it to publishers I knew at HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, Random House, and lots of the big boys of publishing. They laughed at me. Or ignored me. On to the small publishers. Nothing. University presses seemed like the next logical choice, since this is really a piece of American oral history. No pun intended.. I actually got the head guy at Duke University on the phone. He told me in a disdainful, dismissive, condescending, adenoidal and freezing cold tone that this was certainly not the kind of book published by Duke University. He told me they preferred material that was much less vulgar, rude, crude and illiterate. Finally I approached places like Joe’s Publishing Co., where you call the number listed on the website and a guy answers, “Hi I’m Joe, can I publish your book?” Even Joe turned me down.
After a year my partner Richard was ready to give up. I was furious. I knew I had something valuable. Even though “experts” from the top to the bottom of the food chain told me that I was a deluded, moronic ex-ho. Objectively, in the face of universal rejection, I should’ve quit. I did not. Me and Richard worked our asses off to make the proposal better, refining, buffing and polishing. Then I came up with the title. I did it with this game that we use to come up with titles. You get a bunch of your intelligent friends, if you have any, you get a bunch of drugs and alcohol, and you write down every single word you can think of related to your subject. Then you just start mixing and matching. That’s how I came up with Hos, Hookers, Call Girls and Boys. And I kept asking every single person I knew, wherever I went. Finally I got connected to a guy named Richard Nash, who ran Soft Skull Press. A week later we had a book deal. They gave us such a tiny advance that by the time we ended up paying all the writers, me and Richard lost money on the deal. But we were ecstatic.
We were even more ecstatic when our Little Ho Book That Could, the redheaded step-child nobody wanted, ended up on the front page of the New York Times Book Review. I happened to be in Hollywood doing my Sex Worker Literati show to promote the book, when I got a call from my agent. Marta Kauffman, co-creator of Friends, wanted to talk to me about the anthology. I was excited yet slightly confused. Why was someone in the center of American culture interested in our book, which was so rooted in America’s dark, dank, filthy underbelly? I tried to imagine a show about a group of perky, attractive, funny, fresh-faced BFF-sex workers trying to deal with life, love and turning tricks. Sure, I thought, why not? As I drove up to our meeting, I was expecting much Hollywood slickness. But Marta was just like people I worked with in the theater for 20 years. After we had our getting-to-know-you chat she told me how taken she was by Hos, Hookers. How she had a vision of the characters and stories being brought to life as a modern dance piece, realized by some breathtaking choreographers. Would I be interested in something like?
My eyes popped while jaw dropped. I would’ve never imagined this scenario in million years. But I liked it. Sex is, after all, the ultimate primal dance. And when sex is exchanged for money, a window opens into the human soul. What a great way to let people to take a peek.
Yes, I said. Yes.
Writing down the worst thing that ever happened to me was the final piece of my odyssey from out-of-control self-destruction, working at Chippendales, acting on Fresh Prince of Bel Air, writing screenplay for Disney, living in a fancy house in the hills; to getting my head cracked open, almost dying from a massive coke overdose, having my house stolen, and going bankrupt; to making Ross, Rachel, Joey and Chandler end up in the same sentence as Hos, Hookers, Call Girls and Boys.
David Henry Sterry is the author, with Richard Martin, of the anthology Hos, Hookers, Call Girls & Rent Boys. He runs the monthly reading series Sex Worker Literati, giving voice to sex workers telling their stories about the exchange of sex for money, at the Bowery Poetry Club in NYC. The next show is November 28, 2010. https://davidhenrysterry.com/ http://www.facebook.com/sexworkerliterati