I was just going through my back pages on my website, I found this very cool link to an interview. I’m not sure if I posted this here yet, but this is by Violet Blue. I shared a bed with her and San Francisco during Lit Quake. As part of a night of erotica at which I was the master of ceremonies. She was extremely saucy and extravagantly smart. Then I was recently in Richmond Virginia doing a gig with the James Valley Writing Group, Slash, and Valley Haggard, I was in my hotel room I turned on the TV, and BOOM! There was Violet Blue on Oprah, being all smart and sexy.
Tag: sex worker
“An eye-opening, occasionally astonishing, brutally honest and frequently funny collection from those who really have lived on the edge in a parallel universe…unpretentious and riveting — but don’t worry, their tales are also graphic, politically incorrect and mostly unquotable in this newspaper…”
“Lele,” a piece by Jodi Sh. Doff, who “grew up in the suburbs as someone else entirely,” recalls Henry Miller’s in-your-face exposition. She tells of a night at Diamond Lil’s on Canal Street, where “Viva’s sitting onstage, legs spread wide.” While her customer is buried and busy, she holds a cigarette in one hand, a drink in the other, and chitchats with a girlfriend about another girlfriend. “Every two minutes or so Viva taps him on the head and he hands her a 20 from a stack of bills he’s holding, never looking up.” We see in this wonderful set piece the whole money/sex connection enacted with raw charm and an immediacy that reaches far beyond this strip club, as the man’s stack of 20s, one by one, becomes hers. Multitasking Viva holds them “folded lengthwise in her cigarette hand.”
“Very brave, very moving.”
“This collection is a wonderful reminder that good writing is not about knowing words, grammar or Faulkner, but having that rare ability to tell the truth, an ability that education and sophistication often serve to conceal. While we are all, I suppose, in the business of surviving, some really are surviving more notably than others. The collective cry for identity found in this unsentimental compilation will resonate deeply — even, I suspect, with those among us who pretend not to pay for sex.”
Sex worker songs i listened to writing Hos Hookers
New York Times review has hit the streets for Hos, Hookers, Call Girls & Rent Boys: Professionals Writing on Life, Love, Money & Sex, I am ecstatic about this truly min boggling turn of events and want to thank the amazing contributors and everyone who helped w/ special shout out to my boy RJ Martin who partnered w/ me on this labor of life which has given birth to such a flourishing child.
“An eye-opening, astonishing, honest and funny collection from those who really have lived on the edge in a parallel universe… Unpretentious and riveting, their tales are also graphic, politically incorrect and mostly unquotable in this newspaper.” Toni Brantley, NY Times
HO’S, HOOKERS, CALL GIRLS & RENT BOYS:
PROFESSIONALS WRITING ON LIFE, LOVE, MONEY & SEX
AVAILABLE ONLINE & AT YOUR LOCAL BOOKSTORE
The miracle is manifest. The anthology has hit the streets. Half a decade in the making, this love’s labor, the product of so much blood, sweat, tears and other assorted body fluids, has finally traveled down the birth canal, and has been delivered by an able-bodied team of midwives, editors, dulas, copy editors, birth coaches, art directors and sweaty worried nerve-wracked family and relatives. Below please find information about the website and events. Many thanks to all involved. We are very proud of this book.
Smash Review on cover of Sunday New York Time Book Review.
“An eye-opening, astonishing, honest and funny collection from those who really have lived on the edge in a parallel universe… Unpretentious and riveting, their tales are also graphic, politically incorrect and mostly unquotable in this newspaper.” Toni Brantley, NY Times
REVIEW FROM PUBLISHERS WEEKLY
“The sprawling project, grouped loosely by topic (Life, Love, Money, Sex, etc.), offers insight into seemingly all aspects of the sex trade: high-profile celebrities like Xaviera “Happy Hooker” Hollander and Nina Hartley make notable contributors, but it’s the unknown writers who will stick. The selections from the book’s closing section alone, written by members of Sterry’s San Francisco writer’s workshop for sex workers, range from triumphant to harrowing… Aside from exposing the complex web of relationships among phone sex operators, dancers, massage parlor workers, prostitutes and their customers, the book is heavy with raw emotions ranging from celebratory to shameful, giving sociologists plenty to ponder. It’s not all dark and heavy: Sterry’s own account of his experience as a birthday present for an 82-year-old grandmother is touching and sentimental; veteran performer Annie Sprinkle is characteristically blunt, funny and honest… This volume houses some real gems.”
Hos, Hookers, Callgirls, and Rentboys is a collection of short memoirs, whore war stories, confessions, nightmares, journalism and poetry. It contains new writing from sex worker literati: art-porn priestess Dr. Annie Sprinkle; the infamous Happy Hooker, Xaviera Hollander; author and LGBT activist Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore; star of The Devil in Miss Jones, Georgina Spelvin; best-selling memoirist David Henry Sterry and sex educator/movie star Nina Hartley. But it also includes crack hos, male hustlers, pimps and the teenagers they exploit. Funny, terrifying, tragic and inspiring, this collection of oral history, short memoirs, war stories, confessions, nightmares, social criticism and poetry is unprecedented because it includes people from all walks of the sex for money world.
From back-alley Tenderloin massage parlors, to glittering Beverly Hills hotels, to Times Square porn palaces, to the meanest streets in Harlem, Hos, Hookers, Call Girls, and Rent Boys is a collage of sex and money, shining light on this hidden underbelly of America, from sea to shining sea.
NY Press – 8/11/09
“The prose in this volume is fresh and the tales are both heart-rending and hilarious, sometimes simultaneously… What’s most striking about the volume is how relevant these intimate and detailed chronicles are for any reader, whether they’ve sold their bodies or just their souls. It’s not just about sex.”
Tiger Beatdown 8/26/09
“Hos, Hookers, Call Girls and Rent Boys is an extremely valuable and necessary book, not because it tells you what your perspective ought to be, but because it provides more perspectives than pretty much any other book on the topic… hilarious… Sexy and sunny pieces (the sunniest, actually, often come from Sterry himself) coexist with downright harrowing narratives; sex workers who choose the work freely and love doing it are represented, as are sex workers who were forced to do the work and suffered immensely. The book is free of any agenda but a commitment to giving voice to sex workers.”
The Rumpus 8/26/09
“In addition to being porn stars and prostitutes, many of these people are talented writers with strong voices and precise observations. They’re natural born storytellers who manage to encapsulate an aspect of their experiences in wonderfully succinct (Sebastian Horsley: “Brothels make possible encounters of extreme intimacy without the intervention of personality.”) and stark, unsentimental ways (Brenda: “I have been arrested eight times for prostitution. It messed up my life.”)
Daily Beast – 9/12/09
“The book never feels like a naïve glamorization of the industry. ‘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.’
Style – 9/15/09
“Taboo, clever, wrenching and compulsively readable, you’ll be stripped of your stereotypes between the covers of this book.”
Antalffy Tibor honlapja 9/27/09
“Rögtön a hívás után a fejemben megjelent egy szörnyű kép: egy ráncos, löttyedt, aszott nagymama átlátszó hálóingben közvetlenül előttem áll, és az én szegény, picurka péniszem egy élettelen, használhatatlan, húsdarab ott lógott a lábaim között, és a pénzt vissza kellett adnom, miközben szégyenemben el akartam bújni a szőnyeg alá, mert a nemi szervem brutális cserbenhagyása megszégyenítő volt. És ez a kép egészen addig nem múlt el, amíg az előkelő Swank Swish szálloda megadott ajtaján be nem kopogtam.”
“Hace poco me encontré un libro realmente sorprendente, que trata de historias de profesionales del sexo. Se llama Hos, Hookers, Call Girls, and Rent Boys, en español sería Putas, prostitutas y muchachos para arrendar. Se podría argumentar que para qué pierde uno el tiempo leyendo libros basura, pero la verdad es que desde el punto de vista de las relaciones humanas, es un texto muy interesante, a veces brutalmente honesto, pero también con sentido de humor.”
“Kitabın adı Hos, Hookers, Call Girls, And Rent Boys, Professionals Writing on Life, Love, Money, and Sex. Yani Kevaşeler, Orospular, Telekızlar ve Kiralık Oğlanlar, Profesyoneller Hayat, Aşk, Para ve Seks Üzerine Yazıyor. Yepyeni bir kitap bu, temmuz ayında Amerika’da Soft Skull Press tarafından yayımlanmış. Kitabın elimize geçiş hikâyesi ayrı ilginç. Mahallenin Fahriye Ablası’nın bir kıyağı bize diyelim teferruata girmeden ve hemen kitaba dönelim.”
“The first hand accounts, interviews, and poems featured in this book are so well written and organized, that the fact that they all center around the exchanging of sex for money falls into the background, and what’s left is an intimate offering of on-the-job gossip and late night horror stories that have you wanting to spend more time with the writer than the three or four pages a pop you’re given with each one.”
SF Weekly – 7/25/09 “This kaleidoscopic portrait of sex work in America is all the more striking for its breadth.”
Book Marks 11/30/09
“Sassy, sexy and certainly informed essays by sex workers. the oral histories by hos and hookers that conclude this collection – funny and tragic, matter-of fact and terrifying – give the book its authentic heft.”
“This fascinating anthology of personal essays by current and former sex workers gives readers a glimpse into the complex emotions of those who make a living selling intimacy… Fascinating, moving and darkly funny… humor, tenderness, pain, and aggression… unexpectedly sweet… it’s a great read.”
The Skinny 11/23/09
“From the big screen to the street, phone sex to stripping, and incalls to escorting… they’ve experienced sex work as an empowered choice, as a living hell, as a drug-fuelled necessity. They cover migration, burnout, criminalisation, violence, keeping secrets, coming out to family, and interactions with clients and colleagues. It delves deep and illustrate the complexities of the writers’ experiences. Alternately eye-opening, funny, moving, and devastating, this book should be required reading for those who still think any kind of sex worker is ‘representative’.”
Womanist Musings 11/24/09
“The book unflinchingly represents the voices of survivors of pimping, rape, abuse, thrust upon those who are forced into the sex industry. Editor David Henry Sterry has successfully etched out a safe space for these survivors’ sharp, sensitive prose… In a reading that brought down the house at Busboys and Poets, Sterry’s rendition of “I Was a Birthday Present for an Eighty-Two-Year-Old Grandmother” was both incredibly funny and a fascinating anti-ageist commentary on the things we’re all afraid to ask for. I sat in the audience, enraptured by Sterry’s uncanny vocal impressions and gesticulating… Hos, Hookers, Call Girls, and Rent Boys is a must-read for anyone who wants to experience first-hand the voices of contemporary sex workers.”
Meet, Pay, Love
By TONI BENTLEY
Published: August 20, 2009
Money and sex. Sex and money. Sounds dirty already. Is it the money that makes the sex dirty? Or the sex that makes the money dirty? Or, rather, the puritan strain that says they’re both dirty? How sexy! I mean, how inappropriate! And yet here we are again and again . . . and again. It’s former Gov. Eliot Spitzer of New York spending $80,000 on escorts, the parents (the parents!) of Senator John Ensign of Nevada distributing $96,000 to their son’s mistress and her family, Gov. Mark Sanford of South Carolina using taxpayer dollars to visit his South American “soul mate” and the $4 million rock on Kobe Bryant’s wife’s finger after his adulterous mishap. Money to get the sex, and money to make it go away.
If you are thinking this dynamic pairing is only for public figures, just contemplate your own divorce, past, present or future. And yet, still, it is taboo to regard sex and money as inextricably interwoven, to openly speak of them together. Why is sex supposed to be free? It never is. Ask anyone. Like Sebastian Horsley, England’s low-rent Oscar Wilde. “The difference between sex for money and sex for free,” he writes, “is that sex for money always costs a lot less.” Money is the elephant in every bedroom, making your parents’ constant presence look positively bourgeois.
But the connection is seeping into the mainstream. Witness Steven Soderbergh’s recent film, “The Girlfriend Experience,” which is about an expensive call girl and stars the real-life porn star Sasha Grey, and the new HBO series “Hung,” about a nice middle-aged dad who becomes a gigolo. The show, however, plays it safe, making him a financially strapped, reluctant gigolo and not, God forbid, a lusty one. Here, ironically, sex for money is more decent than sex for pleasure.
But if you want to know the real price of pleasure, ask the strippers, streetwalkers, Craigslist prostitutes, phone-sex operators, madams, pimps, drug addicts, porn stars and “performance artists” who offer themselves up in “Hos, Hookers, Call Girls, and Rent Boys,” a collection of essays, vignettes, rants and poems, edited by David Henry Sterry (who wrote the very good 2002 memoir “Chicken,” about his life as a young hustler) and R. J. Martin Jr., the director of development for the SAGE Project (Standing Against Global Exploitation) in San Francisco, which offers support of all kinds for sex workers. While good girls require dinner, trips, “commitment” or even an engagement ring for sex, here is a book by those who simply get the cash upfront.
From the unappealing title, you might think this is a truly trashy paperback. Far from it: it’s an eye-opening, occasionally astonishing, brutally honest and frequently funny collection from those who really have lived on the edge in a parallel universe. Their writing is, in most cases, unpolished, unpretentious and riveting — but don’t worry, their tales are also graphic, politically incorrect and mostly unquotable in this newspaper.
There are some well-known names here. Xaviera Hollander informs us that “it’s much harder to be a writer than a hooker,” and the ever-sprightly Annie Sprinkle gives “40 reasons why whores are my heroes” and then asks, “Do you have what it takes to be a whore?” Probably not. (Easier to be a writer, I think.) But the joyous glibness displayed by Hollander and Sprinkle is nowhere to be found in the best of the entries.
“Lele,” a piece by Jodi Sh. Doff, who “grew up in the suburbs as someone else entirely,” recalls Henry Miller’s in-your-face exposition. She tells of a night at Diamond Lil’s on Canal Street, where “Viva’s sitting onstage, legs spread wide.” While her customer is buried and busy, she holds a cigarette in one hand, a drink in the other, and chitchats with a girlfriend about another girlfriend. “Every two minutes or so Viva taps him on the head and he hands her a 20 from a stack of bills he’s holding, never looking up.” We see in this wonderful set piece the whole money/sex connection enacted with raw charm and an immediacy that reaches far beyond this strip club, as the man’s stack of 20s, one by one, becomes hers. Multitasking Viva holds them “folded lengthwise in her cigarette hand.”
Audacia Ray, who now teaches human sexuality at Rutgers University, certainly earned her degree out in the field, having at one point paired up with a woman named Lily as a massage team offering happy endings. “Money got us hot and bothered,” she writes, and one evening, after Lily cashed a disability check from the federal government for $10,000 (she had no bank account, of course), she poured the money — “mostly $20 bills” — onto the bed. They shut off their phones, bathed together, got “very, very high” and then rolled around “naked in the cash. . . . Even now, when I think of the hottest sex we had, I think about currency stuck to her flesh.” Now there’s an image to promote the beneficence of Uncle Sam.
One online dominatrix, Sadie Lune, pooh-poohs all the knowing talk of the “natural power” of a domme making a “proud man” stoop — you know, the lawyer, doctor or judge who wants to clean toilets on a leash. “What we talk about, often off the Internet and out of leather, is the power of money. . . . More often than not the money tops the scene. . . . Money demands slow heavy bondage when all we feel like is smacking a grateful subject around. . . . The biggest trick is really coming to terms with the fact that money is the boss’s boss.” So which is more powerful, money or sex? I forgot.
There’s plenty of useful information in this book for those of you planning a little adultery or prostitution, or even just some old-fashioned phone sex. Lilycat describes the protocol of “Feed Me the Line”: “We couldn’t use any sexually explicit words or phrases till the caller used them first. . . . And strangely enough, getting a very horny man to talk dirty to you isn’t as easy as it seems.” The women were permitted to use medical names for body parts, but “Baby, I would like to do something pleasurable with your penis” was not — surprise, surprise — what the client wanted to hear (though it’s all you’ll get in this review). If the caller refused to talk dirty first, moaning was the fallback, and Lilycat reports the little-known fact that “if you moan for long enough you can become lightheaded and almost pass out” — “so baby, use your dirty, dirty words” and help the lady out.
The most devastating section of the book — its broken heart, its guts on the page — is found in a few horrifying stories that came out of a writing workshop Sterry gave for severely abused young women. For example, Jessica Bertucci writes about her “weekend visit with my dad”: “I begged my mom not to take me but she did anyways. Oh, by the way, my dad raped me when I was 2 years old.” After being blindfolded in a room with her father’s drinking, crack-smoking buddy, she heard her dad “whispering in my ear, ‘Don’t be scared, you’re helping Daddy pay the rent.’ Oh, by the way, I was 9 years old.”
Sterry, as editor, inserts himself considerably more than necessary, introducing many of the writers in such relentlessly lengthy and glowing terms as to patronize them. On the other hand, the actual bios for the contributors make for provocative reading and can leave one feeling like an unadventurous slacker. Berta Avila, “a Chicana from El Segundo Barrio of El Paso,” is now a translator but has been an “exotic dancer, escort service worker, brothel worker, waitress, medical-legal assistant and instructional assistant for elementary-school children.” Zoe Hansen “achieved stability through methadone maintenance and felt it was time to open her own brothel, Sterling Ladies, which was on Park Avenue and 21st Street. It was the first of five brothels she opened during the next three years.” (I’m starting to get a brothel-opening feeling myself.) Carol Queen “got a Ph.D. in sexology so she could impart more realistic detail to her smut.” (Dr. Queen writes about her “oral clairsentience,” but I can’t explain here.) While many, perhaps most, of these writers use pseudonyms, they are everything but anonymous.
Kirk Read tells the magnificent story of Ray, a rich, hairy, middle-aged Texan, who hired Read to be his witness as he methodically enclosed his entire body in numerous “stretchable layers, one upon another.” With the final touches of “gold gloves that reached up past his biceps” and a black spandex hood, “he turned and faced me, holding his hands up into the air like a victorious Mexican wrestler. Humble. Brave.” Very brave, very moving. The scene, in its inherent perversity, has the feel of a crucible, a kind of spandex crucifixion bestowing grace on one who has the courage to go “to the underworld” and find “erotic freedom by any means necessary.” The two men shook hands, the only time they touched, and parted ways, an encounter with more tenderness and dignity than many a marital one.
This collection is a wonderful reminder that good writing is not about knowing words, grammar or Faulkner, but having that rare ability to tell the truth, an ability that education and sophistication often serve to conceal. While we are all, I suppose, in the business of surviving, some really are surviving more notably than others. The collective cry for identity found in this unsentimental compilation will resonate deeply — even, I suspect, with those among us who pretend not to pay for sex.
Toni Bentley danced with New York City Ballet for 10 years and is the author of five books, including “Winter Season: A Dancer’s Journal” and “Sisters of Salome.” She is working on a book about Balanchine’s ballet “Serenade.”
“I walk all the way up Hollywood Boulevard to Grauman’s Chinese Theater: past turistas snapping shots; wanna-be starlets sparkling by in mini-skirts with head shots in their hands and moondust in their eyes; rowdy cowboys drinking with drunken Indians; black businessmen bustling by briskly in crisp suits; ladies who do not lunch with nylons rolled up below the knee pushing shopping carts full of everything they own; Mustangs rubbing up against muscular Mercedes and Hell’s Angels hogs.
It’s a sick twisted Wonderland, and I am Alice.”
Chicken: Self-Portrait of a Young Man for Rent (ReganBooks / HarperCollins, 2002) is the funny, touching story of a sweet, wide-eyed son of Seventies Suburbia who becomes a teenage sex worker servicing rich, lonely women in Beverly Hills. After being abused his first night in Hollywood, David meets Sunny, the manager of Hollywood Fried Chicken, who teaches him all about chicken: how to fry one, and how to be one. But the wild adventures and the mad money are never enough, as he’s sucked into the dark side of Hollywood: the blank-eyed women, the Fall-of-Rome orgies, and the hungry predators. With a mix of breathtaking honesty, sly comedy, genuine tenderness, and an innocent fascination for the bizarre characters and world he enters, Sterry creates a narrative that is fresh, smart, and unexpectedly uplifting. Chicken is a book like no other—a playful, gripping story that explores what it means to suffer through the underbelly of the American Dream. And make it out alive.
Chicken comes with a personal guarantee unprecedented in the history of publishing. If you’re not completely satisfied, I’ll come to your house and wash your car. If you don’t have a car, I’ll vacuum your living room. If you don’t have a living room, I’ll buy you the warm beverage of your choice.*
*Proof of purchase required. Must pass brief quiz.
“Sterry writes with comic brio … [he] honed a vibrant outrageous writing style and turned out this studiously wild souvenir of a checkered past.” – Janet Maslin, The New York Times
“This is a stunning book. Sterry’s prose fizzes like a firework. Every page crackles… A very easy, exciting book to read – as laconic as Dashiell Hammett, as viscerally hallucinogenic as Hunter S Thompson. Sex, violence, drugs, love, hate, and great writing all within a single wrapper. What more could you possibly ask for? -Maurince Newman, Irish Times
“A beautiful book… a real work of literature… wonderfully written.” – Vanessa Feltz, BBC
“Insightful and funny… great stories… captures Hollywood beautifully…” – Larry Mantle, Air Talk, National Public Radio
“Jawdropping… A carefully crafted piece of work…” -Benedicte Page, Book News, UK
“A 1-night read. Should be mandatory reading for parents and kids.” -Bert Lee, Talk of the Town
“Alternately sexy and terrifying, hysterical and weird, David Henry Sterry’s Chicken is a hot walk on the wild side of Hollywood’s fleshy underbelly. With lush prose and a flawless ear for the rhythms of the street, Sterry lays out a life lived on the edge in a coming-of-age classic that’s colorful, riveting, and strangely beautiful. David Henry Sterry is the real thing.” –Jerry Stahl, author of Permanent Midnight
“Compulsively readable, visceral, and very funny. The author, a winningly honest companion, has taken us right into his head, moment-by-moment: rarely has the mentality of sex been so scrupulously observed and reproduced on paper. Granted, he had some amazingly bizarre experiences to draw upon; but as V. S. Pritchett observed, in memoirs you get no pints for living, the art is all that counts-and David Henry Sterry clearly possesses the storyteller’s art.” – Phillip Lopate, author of Portrait of My Body – Phillip Lopate, author of Portrait of My Body
“Like an X-rated Boogie Nights narrated by a teenage Alice in Wonderland. Sterry’s anecdotes… expose Hollywood at its seamiest, a desperate city of smut and glitz. I read the book from cover to cover in one night, finally arriving at the black and white photo of the softly smiling former chicken turned memoirist.” -Places Magazine
“Snappy and acutely observational writing… It’s a book filled with wit, some moments of slapstick, and of some severe poignancy… a flair for descriptive language… The human ability to be kind ultimately reveals itself, in a book which is dark, yet always upbeat and irreverent. A really good, and enlightening, read.” – Ian Beetlestone, Leeds Guide
“Brutally illuminating and remarkably compassionate… a walk on the wild side which is alternatively exhilirating and horrifying, outrageous and tragic… Essential reading.” – Big Issue
“Visceral, frank and compulsive reading.’ –City Life, Manchester
“Sparkling prose… a triumph of the will.” -Buzz Magazine
“Pick of the Week.” -Independent
“Impossible to put down, even, no, especially when, the sky is falling…Vulnerable, tough, innocent and wise… A fast-paced jazzy writing style… a great read.” -Hallmemoirs
“Full of truth, horror, and riotous humor.” -The Latest Books
“His memoir is a super-readable roller coaster — the story of a young man who sees more of the sexual world in one year than most people ever do.” – Dr. Carol Queen, Spectator Magazine
“Terrifically readable… Sterry’s an adventurer who happens to feel and think deeply. He’s written a thoroughly absorbing story sensitively and with great compassion… A page-turner… This is a strange story told easily and well.” – Eileen Berdon, Erotica.com
“Love to see this book turned into a movie, Julianne Moore might like to play Sterry’s mum…” – by Iain Sharp The Sunday Star-Times, Auckland, New Zealand).
“Chicken expands our understanding of who does sex work and what it involves; of how family dislocation, dysfunction and desertion affect children and adolescents; and of the complex interplay between social norms, sexual practices, “deviant” behavior, and identity. Academics might use Chicken profitably to help students explore non-fiction and memoir writing, or substantively in courses on gender, sexuality, adolescence, deviance, the sexual revolution, the 1970s, southern California, and related topics. As a floodlit slice of life or an object lesson about attempts to counterbalance (dare I say “straddle”?) propriety and impropriety, Chicken is highly recommended. The writing style in Chicken is brash and engaging. Reminiscent of “gonzo journalism” and Lewis Carroll, Sterry’s style includes vivid descriptions, trenchant metaphors, creative compound words, and a taste for alliteration. Yet the book is more than just flashy, over-the-top recounting of colorful anecdotes. Rather, Sterry’s writing style serves his substance well, clearly evoking the milieu of 1970s sexual-revolution-era Hollywood. At the same time, the book is visceral and brutally honest about Sterry’s emotional and physical ordeals during his year as a sex worker. He expresses both sympathy and anger for his clients; in regard to his own behavior, he is subtly introspective, smoothly moving between an account of his feelings at the time and a retrospective evaluation of his actions and motives. While his account does not appear to temper the meanness, sadness or vapidity of many of his customers, he does not shrink from reporting his own failings, either. For example, his recounting of his displaced rage on the basketball court is unflinching and heartbreaking.” Dr. Ann Lucas –Sexuality & Culture, an Interdisciplinary Quarterly
CHICKEN: THE SHOW
#1 Play in Great Britain. -The Independent
“Poignant…a rare pleasure… moving and original… revealingly honest… Sterry is a sharp comic, using his limber body and versatile voice to create memorably portraits of the hungry, lonely, wealthy women who employ his services…Sterry needs no other prop than a wooden bench to get full mileage out of the ludicrousness of sex… But what gives it depth is the hard, sad reality beneath its Rabelaisian humor… Richly entertaining and thought-provoking… Speaks cleverly and provocatively to anyone who’s ever been or had a child.”
—Robert Hurwitt, Head Theater Critic to The San Francisco Chronicle
“Full of energy… fast, provacative, and highly engaging… Simply unmissable…” – The Hearld
“Irresistible… very enjoyable… radiates honesty… funny, physical, and fast…” -The Scotsman
“What a rare pleasure it is to see a writer perform his own work… dream-like profundity…Sterry’s portrayal of his 17-year-old self is immediately honest and believable… juxtaposed with his masterful control of poetic dialogue balances the show.” — SF Examiner
“Sterry summons up in glorious technicolour an amazing array of characters… Extraordinary… engrossing and touching… a great story… It’s a must!” —Daily Mail
“Graced with insight and empathy—Sterry finds a literary rhythm as fluid and alluring as the strut of his ‘nuthugging elephantbells’… a sense of humor as bright and ridiculous as a ‘blood-engorged wangdangdoodle- hammer’.” —S F Weekly
“Disturbing, heartrending, and so funny it makes you choke… intoxicating energy and magnetic storytelling charisma… the poignancy and honesty hits you hard.” – Brighton Argus
“A tour-de force.”—SF Bay Times
“Sextacular.” – Beth Lisick, SF Gate
“Frank, funny and surreal.” –The Stage
“Pick of the week… Hysterical.” – The Guardian
“Hard-hitting and universal.” -Time Out San Francisco
“Sterry is a man you should know” -Year-End Best Of SF Weekly
“Sterry tells a sad and harrowing story with humor, energy, and a sharp eye for the sort of characters an ‘industrial sex technician’ might meet in the weird aftermath of the ‘60s.” —Michael Scott Moore, The San Francisco Weekly
“Hugely compelling to watch… real skill… The story is told in deft snippets… the language is poetic, and a 1970’s soundtrack gets the audience in the mood… [a] triumphant story… it’s clear that this is a comedy hiding in a tragedy.” -The Independent
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.
You may not know it, but there’s a world-wide war on whores. And George W. Bush is leading the forces, just like he is in Iraq, where the death toll mounts daily. All over the world, he has tied United States financial support to his agenda of making prostitution a crime, with willing sex workers and the clients criminals. I found this out recently at the European Conference 2005: Sex Work, Human Rights, Labor & Migration in Brussels.
For years there’s been a raging debate between abolitionists who want to make all exchange of sex for money (whether voluntary or not) illegal; and sex workers who view the willing exchange of sex and money as a work issue, not a moral issue. The abolitionists, many of whom have never had sex for money, often contend that any exchange of sex for money is slavery.
The sex workers, all of whom have exchanged sex for money, are adamant that they should be able to make money in the sex business if that is their choice. And they insist that they should be able to do it in safe, sanitary conditions, with the same rights as any other worker to ply their trade.
Abolitionists have often used the trafficking issue (the international buying and selling of sex slaves) to cloud the voluntary exchange of sex for money. Many claim that if sex work is decriminalized, trafficking will flourish. However, the fact is that in America, sex work is illegal, and there is much trafficking. In the Netherlands, sex work is legal, and there is much trafficking. Furthermore it is clear that by focusing so much energy on criminalizing willing clients and buyers in the sex business, these resources cannot be used to fight real sexual slavery.
Traditionally people in the sex business have not had a voice in how we are treated. We are jailed, deported, beaten, silenced. Academics, social workers, lawmakers and do-gooders have spoken for us. And we’re tired of it. That’s one reason this conference was organized: so sex workers can speak for ourselves about the deadly serious issues that are at the core of the debate about sex for money.
Here’s what happened to me at this historic gathering. On Thursday October 14th I arrived sleep deprived at the Mercure Royal Crown Hotel in Brussels, Belgium for the. Excited, thrilled, yet terrified that I would be shunned and ostracized for being an ugly American stupid white breeder man. This is what it’s now like for an American abroad. Even as I arrived, my fears were quelled as I was greeted sweetly and immediately put me to work assembling documents. I was quite pleased to be put to work, as I come from a long line of beasts of burden, and as an ex-whore, I live to please.
As I stuffed manifestos into whore-red folders, I heard my old friend Scarlot Harlot downstairs practicing a speech in Russian. Apparently “bitch” is “bitch” all over the world. Why did I travel 6,000 miles to be here? “Connect. Celebrate. Challenge.” That’s what the folder said. Challenge the world’s perception of sex workers, prostitutes, whores. Attitudes, laws, policies, rights to work safely and move freely. Connect with my European sex worker friendly brothers and sisters. Celebrate good times, come on!
In the conference room, 75 or so current and former sex workers and allies congregated, mingled and chilled. Art hung on the walls: rentboy photos eating breakfast; line drawings of whore heroes; transgender warriors and brave streetwalkers. And in the corner was Scarlot Harlot’s Whore Store. For the whore in all of us.
My earlier trepidation now seemed ridiculous. I communed with sex workers from Russia to Washington. Suddenly I was face-to-face with the one and only Margo St. James, legendary icon activist and all-around hot mama. I have, of course, heard stories about her for years. Even performed at benefits for St. James Infirmary and Coyote (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics), sex worker institutions she co-founded that provide help with medical, mental, professional, legal, financial and compassion needs in my San Francisco. It’s slightly odd to finally meet someone you’ve admired for so long. And such a relief when she is so smart, funny, down-to-earth and mad sexy. We talked about SF’s history as the sexual capital of America, the Hooker’s Ball, Dizzy Gillespie, cokeheaded lawyers and crooked-ass cops. I thought how odd it was to travel to Brussels to meet a legend from my own hometown.
First night a big group of us went out to dinner. Picture the scene: 17 sex workers dropping in on a nice unsuspecting Brussels restaurant at 10pm Friday night. A Scottish lap-dancer sat next to me. Apparently the women in Scotland pay a deposit before their dance shift, are required to do a couple of stints on stage, then do their lapdancing in a booth, which is carefully monitored by a closed-circuit camera. No touching policy is strictly enforced. So there is a real sense of safety in the workplace. Juxtapose this with SF, where I recently spoke to a lap-dancer who told me the woman have to pay to work, and if they don’t make the $300 they’re charged for a night, they lose their money, goodbye, sayanora, tought luck, baby! And in the booths she descibed, which woman are often forced into, the door is locked, and they are left unprotected. Coersion, rape and forced sex often ensue. And the cops don’t care, cuz they’re often the customers. Again I am embarrassed to be an American.
On the other side of me was an English sex worker man I’d been corresponding with electronically. Part of the joy of this conference was putting faces to e-mails. He was charming in a way only the English can charm, and whip-smart, with a fascinating story: from evangelic angelic English school/choir boy to wildly successful hustler.
Finally I dragged my raggedy ass to bed at 2am and slept until 5am, when my brain popped open and started gyrating wildly around the room. Sadly I was unable to find any way to stop it. Next thing I knew it was 9am, and I crawled like a dazed Kafka cockroach down to the conference room.
An absolutely radiant sex worker woman living now in the UK was decked out in a sexy boustier type deal, with a big feather headress flapping exotically on her head. She instructed us to blow up the red balloon on our seat, write something on it, bat it around the room, grab another, and write something on it. It was grand fun. And a beautiful sight, watching 99 luft ballons flying around the room, with all those whores batting them about.
Favorite things I saw on a red balloon: “Money can’t buy you happiness, but it can rent some for awhile,” and “Practice random acts of kindness.”
Then they were popped:
BOOM! BAM! BANG!
We were then addressed by the committee who put the whole conference together. What an enormous undertaking: getting everyone here, translating everything into four languages, picking a clear agenda everyone could agree on. The most basic goals were laid out:
· Creating a network for sex workers and allies to share information easily and instantly
· Getting sex work addressed as a labor issue, and working to get sex workers rights to free movement and safe work, with dignity and respect
· Drafting and ratifying a manifesto and a declaration to state our needs and desires
It was stressed that people who want to make money from sex of their own free will should have the same human rights as everyone else: protection from harm and harassment, sanitary working conditions, a living wage, freedom of movement. But often when sex work is legalized, prostitutes are forced to register, often with their home addresses. They are given mandatory health tests, and often this information is made public, causing stigma and sometimes violence to be heaped on the worker. Many times they are taxed outrageously, and can have their children taken from them with no recourse. Of course where sex work is prohibited, the workers have no rights at all, and can be abused by clients, employers, and the police, which sadly happens all too often. To view the issue as a labor/human rights/migration issue seemed a good start in improving the world for people who want to work in the sex industry.
In the afternoon I attended a Network Workshop. The idea is to create an international network where information of all kinds can be exchanged instantly and freely. The problems inherent are enormous and obvious: no money, no existing infrastructure, too many languages, every country with different customs and laws, so many workers underground and inaccessible, shadow players in a dark dangerous game. A sex worker who lives in French told a horror story of an African woman working in Paris in deplorable conditions. When she complained to the government, they assured her they would help. Instead they used the information to swoop down on the area and make massive arrests, deporting many many women who were working there without documentation. And nothing could be done. The French sex worker reflected that if there had been a network in place, perhaps the sex workers could have been warned.
Next was a media workshop, which I had agreed to help facilitate. It was distressingly depressing how many of my fellow sex workers had media whore horror stories. One transgendered sex worker living in Norway told about being interviewed extensively, then getting quoted in the paper in a tiny box with a huge unflattering picture above and a caption that read: “WHORE REFUSES TO PAY TAXES!” Time and again the media portays us as sadsack immoral slut dregs-of-society losers, or sex freaks in miniskirts bending into car windows. A general theme emerged: Control the interview, plan and rehearse your message, and deliver it kindly, nicely and relentlessly. And as with all whore work, it if feels weird or bad, JUST SAY NO!
On to the Manifesto. A statement of needs and desires by sex workers themselves, not policy makers, social workers, or deluded do-gooders who have no idea what it’s like to actually do the the work. The Manifesto addresses everything from working conditions, to migration, to labor practices, to securing basic human rights, respect and protection. So many of these conferences devolve into pointless theorizing and painful in-fighting. But here is a real document with real substance written by real sex workers.
Another joy of this conference: the conversations you would never ever have anywhere else. After we rehearsed for the show we were going to put on, a new stripper friend said, “Please don’t tell anyone about the buttplug, I want it to be a surprise.” I assured her that no word of the buttplug would pass my lips. And I was true to my word.
At the group meeting Sunday morning, a sex work expert reported that new German legislation doesn’t decriminalize sex work, but now it is tolerated. Sex workers are expected to sign contracts if they work in houses. But there is much mistrust, and many workers don’t want to sign them. Part of the problem is that the workers don’t know about changes in the law, so they’re in the dark about their rights. Legally, it is not against the law to run a house of prostitution in a residential neighborhood, but because of ignorance and stigmatization, many houses are being closed down. And in every sector their are small variations in law. Apparently in Germany, politicians and government officials are so ignorant about how the sex business works that they tax sex workers when they aren’t even employees. A pleasure tax is also levied on sex workers, who are not allowed to deduct legitimate expenses. So they often have outrageous tax bills. And with the change in law also comes a crackdown on migrant workers, who are deported, even though many have nowhere to go, and face horror stories when they are dumped back in the home lands. On the positive side, the law is a start towards legitimizing sex work.
Laura Agustin’s presentation on migration and trafficking followed. Apparently there’s a great discrepancy between what is actually happening in the world, and the hysteria that is presented by abolitionists and the media. Yes, of course there are slaves of all kind being trafficked in the world, but all too often the reality of migrants willingly exchanging sex for money is ignored, and the worker suffers for it. This makes it all the more difficult to track down real traffickers who are using humans as slaves. Only when governments acknowledge and respect the right to travel and trade sex for money will migrant sex workers get the rights and protection they desperately need and deserve.
An Italian sex work legend, who for many years has been studying human and sexual rights, as well as discrimination and persecution among woman and the transgendered. Sex workers, she said, are perceived as victims, and stripped of all rights and abilities to determine their own fate. Sex workers and migrants are the subject of racism, violence and abuse. The perpetrators are not pursued or punished. The message was: This must end.
A sex worker expert who now live in Swedish presented the new Swedish model of controlling sex work. Apparently, for better or worse, the Swedes believe that the whole world should adopt their social policies, so they are madly going around trying to get every country under the sun to run sex work the way they do. The only problem is: What they do doesn’t work. Their idea is to arrest and prosecute the client. Which is better than arresting and prosecuting the women certainly, but the point is, why are they arresting willing buyers or sellers at all? The feminist-driven Swedish government argues that criminalization will empower women, making them less susceptible to being talked into the business. And their theory is that trafficking will be stopped. However, the reality is much different. Sex workers can no longer afford to be choosey about picking clients, since the clients are fewer, scared and edgy. So often times only the violent, extreme buyers are left. And if something does happen, the clients, who used to be able to help police, now no longer cooperate for fear of being arrested themselves. Undocumented workers are shipped out. Police clandestinely film sex workers, trying to collect evidence against buyers. Sex workers are now loathe to carry condoms, which can be used as evidence of having sex for money. And in Sweden, the government will not listen to the sex workers themselves. But the Swedish expert said he is bound and determined to “stop the virus from spreading” and urged us to help stamp out this terrible policy, which tramples all over human rights of sex workers.
Gail Pheterson and Margo St. James then gave a presentation, complete with pictures and text, about the history of the sex worker rights movement. They have had a wonderful partnership as academic/sex worker, and this reflected in their beautiful give-and-take rapport. They said that from the beginning they didn’t back away from words used to denigrate prostitutes, which is why they called the inaugural event, The First World Whore Conference. This was in 1985-86. Twenty years ago. From the beginning, prostitute rights and women’s rights seemed to them intrinsically linked, and they’ve been working (with varying degrees of success) for years to get feminists to understand this, and have sympathetic support for sex workers. “We are all for rights of sex workers and against violence, exploitation and slavery.” Gail and Margo did a very interesting thing from the beginning: they dressed up civilian allies as whores so that no one could tell the difference. We are not who you think we are. We are not freakish amoral monsters. We are brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers. We live next door, up the street, and down the hall. Looking at Margo and Gail, it was impossible to tell who was the academic and who was the ex-whore. They quoted Norma Jean Almodavar: “There’s a difference between politicians and prostitutes. There are some things prostitutes won’t do for money.” I laughed. We all laughed.
Ana Lopes and George Martin talked about starting a sex woker union in the UK. Ana got a job in the sex industry, liked the work, but was frustrated that she was stigmatized, had no labor rights, and was treated unfairly, with no recourse. So she and fellow sex workers met in her apartment, with no money, no resources, and formed the International Union of Sex Workers. They put up a website, recruited more members, and went about making themselves into a valid union. After being rebuffed by many many organizations, they contacted the George Martin and the GMB. They found they had much common ground, and joined forces. They wanted to establish sex work as legitimate labor, thus helping with training, individual benefits, legal representation and rights, as well as better working conditions. And now they have actually made a recognized union. Forcing people to see sex work as a labor issue as opposed to a moral issue. And in giving invisible sex workers a face and a structure to be seen and heard. Ana and Martin were inspirational indeed. Sex Workers of the World Unite!
Sunday night was the party/performance, at a nightclub in Brussels. The place was packed to the rafters with sex workers and allies in all their feathery finery. Wigs, slits, tits, stilleto heels, big hair, short skirts, silk, leather and lace. By the time the show started the atmosphere was electric, like being in a cloud just before a lightning storm. After two beautiful poems by two beautiful French sex workers about activist warrior Gristeledes, Scarlot Harlot, looking like a cross between Mae West, the Statue of Liberty, and a Madame at a Brothel in Heaven, brought the house down with her unique blend of vaudevillian sloganeering.
Stop the Wars On Whores!!!
Outlaw Poverty Not Prostitutes!!!
Keep the Government Out of My Underpants!!!
Solitair has legs longer than I am, a black river of hair running down her impossibly long back, huge spotlight eyes that shine on high beam, and when she paraded onto the stage to the tune of “I Like the Way You Move” in a tiny purple see-through teddy, a hot shiver ran through the room. Lean lithe and lovely she played the crowd like it was a violin and she was Itzak Perlman in a purple teddy. And when she bent over and moved her G-string to reveal the butt plug, I was gratified that I had not revealed her secret, because the stunned pindrop silence, full of gaping mouths, stolen breath and bugged-out eyes, was priceless. To shock this crowd took some doing, but Solitair did it in spades.
I was next, and as I looked out at all those beaming sex workers faces from all over the world: the rentboys and ladyboys, the whores and the hustlers, the disenfranchised and the reviled, the hated and the desired, the objects of revulsion and lust, I was overcome by these people, who had all traveled many miles to be here, to try in some ridiculous way to make the world more fair and humane and safe.
I have done my show, or bits of it, almost a hundred times, on three continents. This was the only time I have been translated on the spot into Russian and French. Strange and amazing to say a line, then wait and hear my words in Russian. Then French. I had been a little worried that it would be too long and too weird. But for me it accentuated how we were doing something global, and yet incredibly personal. In my show I portray a client who was a tantric sex expert. My piece climaxes when she has the mother of all climaxes. I’ve always said that Orgasm is the ultimate international language, and this proved true on that Sunday night in Brussels. It felt like we all came together in a celebration of sex work and being human.
Gypsy Charms, my new Scottish stripper friend, had asked me to play a client getting a lap-dance from her. After the dance I was to yell at her, growling gruffly about what bad her body was. To me this illustrated a subtle part of sex work that I felt over and over when I was in the business, that no one had really discussed at the conference. How clients inflict their sexual pain on the sex worker. How as a whore I absorbed so much sexual illness from my clients. As a race we seem to suffer so much sexually, and sex workers are a well into which the world dumps its sex misery. In the piece, I was told to reach up and touch her, which is strictly forbidden. When I did it, she reached back and slapped me. The crowd reacted audibly, happy to see an abusive client get some of his own back. I thought of the men standing outside the booths in Amsterdam, drunk and screaming horrible degrading things at the women behind the glass, laughing like sadistic barbarians.
After the show an amazing DJ ripped some crazy mad tunes, with all manner of Afro/Latino/Eurotrashing rhythms thrown into the pot to create a tasty stew. Boys danced with boys. Girls danced with girls. Boys danced with girls. Girls danced with boys. Trannies danced with everybody. It was a slamming jamming euphoric release. A celebration.
Monday morning, blurry-eyed but bushy-tailed we loaded into buses and headed for the European Parliament. By this time I was so sleep deprived I felt sure that if my head weren’t tethered to my body, it would float away like a red balloon. As we approached the huge gleaming glass and metal structure of the European Parliament, its modern majesty made it feel like we were about to enter a center of money and influence. We had to get individuals badges and go through the metal detectors, adding to the effect that something terribly official, and potentially dangerous, was happening here. It was a fabulous contrast: all of us queer birds dressed like bureaucrats and politicians rubbing elbows with all the straight-laced button-down bureaucrats and politicians. The room where our meeting took place looked just like you see it on TV. A table with microphones on a platform in front of many long curving tables with microphones, going back 30 deep, with chairs for about 250 people. Around the perimeter, behind glass partitions, sat the translators from a dozen or so countries. Nice gig, I thought, sit around and wait for somebody to speak in your language, hope they’re not too longwinded, then hang out in the European Parliament.
Entering this room was surreal. Made everything seem more real and possible, because after all, here we were, in the very seat of social power, where laws are changed, compromises are hammered out, and policy is made. An official from the Green Party, which sponsored us, spoke about how much we have in common. We both want to stop violence and abuse, and get rights in place for all sex workers. The funny thing is, you could not have picked this Green Party politico out of a line-up of sex workers.
An Italian member of the European Parliament showed up. He was attentive, energetic and seemed like quite a sharp fellow. He talked about putting the sex work struggle in the broader historical context of the struggle for human rights by any underrepresented, oppressed, reviled, stigmatized and beaten down group. The Italian Parliament said he was going to take our Declaration to other politicians so they can study it, and make changes accordingly. He said he was on a committee that was responsible for spreading democracy and human rights all over Europe, and that he was going to push our agenda of civil rights and the fight against repressive punitive laws and regulations. Most importantly, he thought that making sex work seen as a profession would be a huge step. He suggested we hook up with other organizations to build our power base, and to find specific violations to draw attention to the larger issues.
Then he did something amazing. He actually signed our Declaration. Right there in front of all of us. Out in the open. In the European Parliament. When our Chairperson asked him, he said he would sigh it, “Very happily.”
When ten basic demands were read by sashed sex workers, a chill went through me, and a feeling of triumph spread through the room. Stop criminalization, prejudice, violence, ignorance, cruelty and abuse, to ensure that people can work and move free and easy, proudly and with dignity.
Afterwards I thought what we really should do is film our members having sex with all the major leaders of Parliament, then blackmail them into giving us what we need. Hey, by whatever means necessary.
WARNING: If you ever eat in the European Parliament, DO NOT have the salad. The green beans were wilted, the corn tasteless, and the shredded carrots a disaster.
So now we had to load into a bus and go to the Street Demonstration. If you’ve ever tried to move 150 sex workers through the European Parliament you know how difficult that can be. Somehow we succeeded. Then suddenly there we were on the steps of the Brussels Stock Exchange. I thought ruefully of all the bankers who rent us, then revile us.
We were all given red umbrellas, and as we assembled with them on the steps, it was a beautiful sight, like a field of blooming poppies with sex worker flowers growing under them. A huge banner read:
SEX WORKER RIGHTS = HUMAN RIGHTS!!!
Instantly it was a mob scene, as onlookers gawked and gaped, glued to the spectacle of the whistle-blowing whores dancing and chanting: “VOUS COUCHEZ AVEC NOUS, VOUS VOTEZ CONTRA NOUS!!!” You sleep with us, you vote against us!!!
Journalists hungrily buzzed about with notepads, microphones, movie and still camera, hunting for the nectar of the right angle to make the news.
Suddenly there were sirens, and the police showed up. My first impulse as an American was that they were going to arrest us. Great! I thought, this is the best thing that could possibly happen. I saw us on the front pages of the London, New York, Los Angeles Times, on the BBC, CNN, Al Jazeera:
150 SEX WORKERS ARRESTED IN BRUSSLES!!!
Alas, sadly, they were only there to keep the peace. After about 45 minutes, we took off through the streets of Brussels, a police car clearing the road for us. It was a joyous celebration, and a challenge to the public: we’re here, we’re not who you think we are, and we’re not going away. Globally and locally. As we moved through the streets of Brussels singing and chanting with our red umbrellas and our banners, we were cheered and waved at by walkers, drivers and passersby. I also heard that a couple of Belgians saw us and said, “They should all be killed.” They should all be killed. They should all be killed. We passed a group of boys, 8-10 year olds, on bicycles. They started cheering and shouting sweetly with boyish enthusiasm, staying with us for quite a while, having a fine old time. I smiled as I thought that maybe when they grow up they’ll have an image of sex workers as fun, smart and political, instead of uneducated, drug addicted wretches of society.
On the march, one of the member of our contingency was passing out cards for our organization. She gave one to an onlooker, who looked at the card, then looked at us, and asked what the card said. Our member translated: “These are sex workers.” Onlooker looked at the card, looked at us, and asked, “What’s a sex worker?” Our member explained, “People who work in the sex business, like prostitutes and strippers.” Onlooker’s eyes went wide: “Ï am a stripper and a prostitute. And and transsexual. May I join you?” Our member said we would love to have her. She introduced Onlooker to one of our own transsexual sex workers, and they walked arm-in-arm through the streets, telling each other their life stories.
Yes, of course, there is much to do, the situation is dire, but I for one, left excited, encouraged and inspired. From the streets of Brussels to the European Parliament, our voices are being heard.
TOP TEN LIST FROM THE EUROPEAN CONFREENCE 2005
1. European Parliament member signs official sex worker demand document
2. Whore Manifesto created and ratified
3. Margo St. James and Gail Pheterson stroll us down hooker activist Memory Lane
4. 10 sex workers read our needs in European Parliament
5. Hearing whore stories from around the world
6. Demonstrating on the steps of the Stock Exchange then dancing in the streets
7. Meeting sex workers from Greece, Italy, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Russia, Scotland, England, Ireland, Spain, Portugal, Holland, Belgium, Germany, and God knows where else
8. UK strippers
9. Sharing a room with tantric massage expert
10. Getting my ass squeezed by a lesbian, a gay man, a straight man, a straight woman, and a transsexual all in one day
As an added bonus, I have included a list of things I think every activist should know. Enjoy!
10 COMMANDMENTS OF ACTIVISM
1. If thou marcheth in the streets, weareth comfortable shoes
2. Talketh not for more than three minutes if thou hast nothing to say
3. Putteth the needs of the group before thine own
4. Forgeth not thine business cards
5. Getteth contact information from everyone thou meeteth
6. Eateth apples instead of candy
7. If thou hast a roommate, tryeth not to snoreth
8. Listeneth more than thou talketh
9. Findeth solutions instead of bitchething about how bad everything is
10. Smelleth good
David Henry Sterry
To view pictures: http://www.espacep.be/
Here is the Manifesto:
SEX WORKERS IN EUROPE
We come from many different countries and many different backgrounds, but we have discovered that we face many of same problems in our work and in our lives.
Within this document we explore the current inequalities and injustices within our lives and the sex industry; question their origin; confront and challenge them and put forward our vision of changes that are needed to create a more equitable society in which sex workers, their rights and labour are acknowledged and valued.
This manifesto was elaborated and endorsed by 120 sex workers from 26 countries at the European Conference on Sex Work, Human Rights, Labour and Migration 15 – 17 October 2005, Brussels, Belgium.
BEYOND TOLERANCE AND COMPASSION
FOR THE RECOGNITION OF RIGHTS
We live in a society where services are bought and sold. Sex work is one of these services. Providing sexual services should not be criminalised.
Sacrificing sex workers for religious or sexual morals is unacceptable. All people have the right to hold their own personal religious and sexual morals, but such morals should not be imposed on any individual or determine any political decision.
We wish to see a society in which sex workers are not denied social power.
We condemn the hypocrisy within our societies where our services are used but our profession or businesses are made illegal. This legislation results in abuse and lack of control over our work and lives.
We oppose the criminalisation of sex workers, their partners, clients, managers, and everyone else working in sex work. Such criminalisation denies sex workers of equal protection of the law.
Migration plays an important role in meeting the demands of the labour market. We demand our governments acknowledge and apply fundamental human, labour and civil rights for migrants.
The right to be free from discrimination
We demand the end of discrimination and abuse of power by the police and other public authorities. Offering sexual services is not an invitation to any kind of violence. The lack of credibility of sex workers must end.
We demand that crimes against us and our testimonies are taken seriously by the justice system. Sex workers should, to the same extent as anyone else, be presumed innocent until guilt is proven.
Defamation of sex workers incites discrimination and hatred. We demand that sex workers be protected by anti-discrimination legislation.
The right to our bodies
Sex work is by definition consensual sex. Non consensual sex is not sex work; it is sexual violence or slavery.
We demand our right as human beings to use our bodies in any way we do not find harmful; including the right to establish consensual sexual relations, no matter the gender or ethnicity of our partners; regardless of whether they are paying or not.
The right to be heard
We assert our right to participate in public forums and policy debates where our working and living conditions are being discussed and determined.
We demand our voices are heard, listened to and respected. Our experiences are diverse, but all are valid, and we condemn those who steal our voice and say that we do not have the capacity to make decisions or articulate our needs.
The right to associate and gather
We assert our right to form and join professional associations and unions.
We assert our right to demonstrate publicly.
We demand the right to form business partnerships, both formal and informal, and to participate in social projects.
The right to mobility
We assert our right to be in all public spaces.
We assert the right of all persons to move within and between countries for personal and financial reasons, including seeking gainful employment and residence in the area of their choice.
The trafficking discourse obscures the issues of migrants’ rights. Such a simplistic approach to such a complex issue reinforces the discrimination, violence and exploitation against migrants, sex workers and migrant sex workers in particular.
Violence, coercion and exploitation related to migration and sex work must be understood and tackled within a framework of recognising the worth and fundamental rights of migrants.
Restrictive migration legislation and anti-prostitution policies must be identified as contributing factors to the violation of migrants’ rights.
Forced labour and slavery-like practices are possible in many trades. But where trades are legal and the labour of its workers recognised, it is more possible to denounce and put an end to the violations of rights and prevent abuse.
We demand our governments prioritise and protect the human rights of victims of forced labour and slavery-like practices, regardless of how they arrived in their situation and regardless of their ability or willingness to cooperate or testify in criminal justice proceedings.
We call upon our governments to give asylum to victims of forced labour and slavery-like practices, and to provide support to their families and friends. Failure to do so perpetuates their exploitation and further violates their fundamental human rights.
Abuse in sex work
Abuse happens in sex work, but does not define sex work.
Any discourse that defines sex work as violence is a simplistic approach that denies our diversity and experience and reduces us to helpless victims. It undermines our autonomy and right to self-determination.
Restrictive legislation contributes to discrimination, stigma and abuse of sex workers.
We demand our governments decriminalise sex work and end legislation that discriminates against us and stigmatises us. We demand the right to report abuses against us without risking prosecution.
Granting rights for sex workers would allow them to report infringements of their human rights.
We demand protection from those who threaten us and our families for exposing them.
We demand methods that allow us to remain anonymous when reporting grievances and crimes against us.
Abuse of young people in sex work
It is essential that education focuses on empowering young people to have sexual autonomy. We demand that support, services and outreach be provided to young people to give them real choice and the possibilities of alternatives.
Young people should have a voice in legislation and policies that affect them.
Being a sex worker
Society imposes an ‘identity’ and ‘social role’ on sex workers that goes beyond the recognition that we use our bodies and minds as an economic individual resource to earn money.
The ‘identity’ and ‘social role’ imposed on us defines us as intrinsically unworthy and a threat to moral, public and social order; labelling us sinners, criminals, or victims – stigma separates us from ‘good’ and ‘decent’ citizens and the rest of society.
This stigma leads to people seeing us only as ‘whores’ in a negative and stereotyped way – the rest of our lives, and the differences amongst us, become invisible. It denies us a place in society. To protect ourselves and to ensure we have a place within society most sex workers hide their involvement in sex work, many absorb the societal stigma of shame and unworthiness, and live in fear of being exposed. For this reason many sex workers accept the abuses inflicted upon them. The social exclusion that results from the stigmatisation of sex workers leads to denial of access to health, to housing, to alternative work, separation from our children and isolation.
Societal perceptions impose a moral hierarchy within the sex industry – based on migrant status, race, ethnic origin, gender, age, sexuality, drug use, work sector and the services provided – adding to the stigma and social exclusion of certain groups of sex workers. Amongst sex workers themselves there are those who agree with such views. We assert that all sex workers and all forms of sex work are equally valid and valuable and condemn such moral and prejudiced divisions.
We recognise stigma as being the commonality that links all of us as sex workers, forming us into a community of interest – despite the enormous diversity in our realities at work and in our lives. We have come together to confront and challenge this stigma and the injustices it leads to.
We assert that sex work is a sexual-economic activity and does not imply anything about our identity or value and participation as part of society.
Sex workers should not be perceived purely as victims to be assisted, criminals to be arrested or targets for public health interventions – we are part of society, with needs and aspirations, who have the potential to make a real and valuable contribution to our communities.
We demand that current mechanisms of representation and consultation are opened up to sex workers.
Privacy & family
We assert our right to be free from arbitrary interference with our privacy and family and to marry and/or found a family.
We are capable human beings, who have the ability to love and care for other human beings – as any human being does. Our work sometimes gives us more financial security and time for a child or partner than other more time consuming and lesser paid work.
The labelling of our partners as pimps and exploiters/abusers simply because they are our partners, presupposes we have no autonomy and implies we are not worthy of love or relationships denying us the possibility of a private life.
We assert our right to establish personal relationships and have self-determination within those relationships without judgement.
We demand an end to discriminatory legislation that prohibits us from being with and/or marrying the partner of our choice and criminalises our partners and children for associating with us and living off our earnings.
The labelling of us by social services and courts as unfit parents and the removal of our children, simply because we provide sexual services, is unjustifiable and unacceptable. Such stigmatisation removes our ability to seek support and assistance if we need it in relation to parenting or abusive relationships for fear of losing our children.
We demand an end to such discrimination.
Media and education
Our voices and experiences are often manipulated by the media and we are seldom given the right to reply and our complaints are dismissed.
The portrayal of sex workers in the mass media all too often perpetuates the stereotypical image of sex workers as unworthy, victims and/or a threat to moral, public and social order. In particular the xenophobic portrayal of migrant sex workers adds an additional level of stigma and increases their vulnerability. Such portrayals of sex workers give legitimacy to those within our society who seek to harm us and violate our rights.
Alongside the misleading images of sex workers, our clients are represented in the media as being violent, perverted or psycologically disturbed. Paying for sexual services is not an intrinsically violent or problematic behaviour. Such stereotyping silences discussion about the reality of the sex industry – it perpetuates our isolation and obscures the actual violent and problematic behaviour of a small but significant number of clients.
Prejudice and discrimination against sex workers runs throughout our society. To overcome this we require our governments to recognise the actual harm that is being done to us, and the value of our work, and support us and our clients in educating and informing not only those in public authorities but also the general public to enable us to participate fully in our society.
Combatting Violence against sex workers
Sex workers experience disproportionate levels of violence and crime. The stigmatisation of sex workers has led to society and public authorities condoning violence and crime against us because it is seen as inherent to our work.
We demand that our governments recognise that violence against sex workers is a crime, whether it be perpetrated by our clients, our managers, our partners, local residents or members of the public authorities.
We require our governments to publicly condemn those who perpetrate actual violence against us.
We demand our governments take action in combating the actual violence we experience, rather than the perceived violence of prostitution put forward by abolitionists who are seeking to eradicate all forms of sex work.
– Time and resources now spent arresting and prosecuting sex workers and non-violent clients should be redirected towards dealing with rape and other violent crimes against us.
– Mechanisms must be developed to encourage and support sex workers in reporting crimes, including early warning systems amongst sex workers themselves about potentially violent clients.
Health and well being
No-one, least of all sex workers, denies there are health risks attached to sex work, however, it is a myth that we are ‘dirty’ or ‘unclean’. In reality we are more knowledgeable about our sexual health and practice safe sex more than the general populace and we act as sexual health educators for our clients.
We call for our role within society as a valuable resource for sexual well being and health promotion to be recognised.
Stigma remains a barrier to health care for sex workers. Prejudice and discrimination occur within healthcare settings where sex workers experience degrading and humiliating treatment from some health care workers.
We demand that all health care workers treat us with respect and dignity and that our complaints of discriminatory treatment are taken seriously.
In furtherance of the health and well-being of all sex workers we demand our governments provide:
– access to health services for all migrant sex workers
– access to needle exchange and drug treatment options for dependent drug users
– access to treatment options for all people living with HIV, without which many may die unnecessarily.
– access to transitional treatment options for transgender persons
Registration and mandatory testing
Registration and mandatory testing of sex workers has no preventative value, particularly while there is no requirement for clients to be tested. Where mandatory testing still exists one of the consequences is that clients assume sex workers are ‘healthy’ and resist the need to use condoms as they do not see themselves as a threat to the sex worker.
Registration and mandatory sexual health and HIV testing are a violation of sex workers human rights and reinforce the stigmatisation of sex workers as a threat to public health and promotes the stereotypical view that only they can transmit infections to clients.
We demand an end to registration and mandatory testing.
Entitlement to travel, migration, asylum
The lack of possibilities to migrate put our integrity and health in danger. We demand that sex workers be free to travel within and across countries and to migrate, without discrimination based on our work.
We demand the right to asylum for sex workers who are subjected to state and/or community violence on the basis of selling sexual services
We demand the right to asylum for anyone denied human rights on the basis of a “crime of status,” be it sex work, health status, gender or sexual orientation.
Our bodies and minds are an individual economic resource for many people in many different forms. All forms of sex work are equally valid, including dancing, stripping, street or indoor prostitution, escorting, phone sex or performing in pornography.
For some remunerated sex remains part of their private sphere, as such they operate out side the labour market.
For many others sex becomes work, while some work independently, others work collectively and many are ‘employed’ by third parties. For them it is an income generating activity and must be recognised as labour.
Alienation, exploitation, abuse and coercion do exist in the sex industry, as in any other industry sector, but it does not define us or our industry. However limits are placed when the labour within an industry is formally recognised, accepted by society at large and supported by trade unions. When labour rights are extended it enables workers to use labour regulations to report abuses and organise against unacceptable working conditions and excessive exploitation.
The lack of recognition of sex work as labour and the criminalisation of activities within and around the sex industry results in sex workers being treated like criminals, even if they do not break any laws. Such treatments alienate us from the rest of society and reduce our ability to control our work and our lives. It creates greater possibilities for uncontrolled exploitation, abuse and coercion – unacceptable working hours, unsanitary working conditions, unfair division of income and unreasonable restrictions on freedom of movement – certain groups of sex workers such as migrants are disproportionately affected by unacceptable working conditions.
We demand the recognition of our right to the protection of legislation that ensures just and favourable conditions of work, remuneration and protection against unemployment.
We demand that sex work is recognised as gainful employment, enabling migrants to apply for work and residence permits and that both documented and undocumented migrants be entitled to full labour rights.
We demand the creation of a European Commission Ombudsman to oversee national legislation on the sex industry. This can be a newly created post or be made part of an existing role.
Professional and personal development
We assert our right to join and form unions.
We as sex workers require the same possibilities for professional development as other workers. We demand the right to be able to develop vocational training and advice services, including support to establish our own business and work independently.
We assert our right to travel and work in other countries. Access to information about working in the sex industry and its different sectors should be available.
We demand that foreign education and qualification be recognised appropriately.
We demand that anti-discrimination legislation is applied both within the sex industry and for sex workers seeking alternative employment given the specific difficulties sex workers face as a consequence of stigma.
We call for support to be provided to sex workers who wish to further their education or look for alternative employment.
Taxes and welfare
We acknowledge every citizens obligation to financially support the society in which they live. However, when sex workers do not receive the same benefits as other citizens and while our right to equal protection of the law is denied, some sex workers do not feel this obligation.
We demand that we have access to social insurance which gives the right to unemployment and sickness benefits, pensions and health care.
Sex workers should pay regular taxes on the same basis as other employees and independent contractors and should receive the same benefits. Taxation schemes should not be used as a means of registering sex workers and issues related to stigma and confidentiality must be prioritised.
Information on taxes must be accessible and easy to understand, and provided in many languages for migrant workers. Tax collection schemes should be transparent and easily understood for workers to avoid exploitation and abuse by employers.
The purchase of appropriate goods and services, including health services, where paid for, should be considered tax deductible.
Health and safety at work
Our bodies are our business. In order to maintain our health we require free or affordable safe sex products and access to health services.
We demand our governments prohibit the confiscation of condoms and other safe sex products from sex workers and sex work establishments.
We demand our governments provide free or affordable access to sexual health care for all sex workers, including vaccinations for preventable diseases.
We demand the health care needs of sex workers be included in all health insurance schemes and that sick pay be available for work related illness as with other occupations.
Violence within any workplace is a health and safety issue. Our employers have an obligation to protect us and to take action against those who violate our right to be safe within our work.
We demand that our governments take our health and safety seriously and promote safe working environments in which violence and abuse will not be tolerated. To this end we urge governments to establish emergency telephone advice lines through which sex workers can seek advice and report abuses anonymously.
The fact that sex becomes work does not remove our right to have control over who we have sex with or the sexual services we provide or the condition under which we provide those services.
We demand the right to engage in sex work without coercion, to move within the sex industry and to leave it if we choose.
We demand the right to say no to any client or any service requested. Managers must not be allowed to determine the services we provide or the conditions under which we provide them – whether we are employees or ‘self-employed’.
We demand the right to fair conditions of work – such as entitlement to the minimum wage, breaks, minimum rest periods and annual leave. Such conditions should also apply to those who are nominally ‘self-employed’ within a collective workplace.
We demand an end to unacceptable practices such as requiring sex workers to consume alcohol and/or drugs at work, to pay excessive costs for food, drink, services and clothing in the workplace.
We demand that health and safety be prioritised in our workplaces and that for those who work independently in public places their health and safety also be protected.
We demand that employers comply with data protection legislation and that our personal details are treated confidentially and that any abuse of our personal details be taken seriously by the authorities.
Legislation regulating working hours and conditions is complex, it is important that clear and accurate information be provided to sex workers and displayed within workplaces about their rights, such information must be provided in many different languages to ensure that all migrants have access to this information.
To improve our working conditions it is important that we have opportunities to self organise and advocate for our rights. We call upon trade unions to support us in our self organisation and in our struggle for fair working conditions.
We call for the establishment of designated areas for street prostitution, in consultation and agreement with sex workers, to enable those who work in public places to do so safely, without compromising an individual’s choice to work wherever they choose; such areas will enable us to work collectively and facilitate appropriate services, while the police can ensure we are free from the interference of criminals and other undesirables.
Decriminalisation of sex work
Selling sexual services and being a sex worker is often definined in our societies as criminal, even when neither is an actual criminal offense. The hypocrisy of current legislation is that it criminalises many of the activities within the sex industry that enable us to work collectively and safely. Such legislation – which governments tell us is to protect us from exploitation – actually increases our alienation and gives greater possibilities for exploitation, abuse and coercion within our industry. It treats us as legal ‘minors’ as though we are unable to make informed decisions.
We demand an end to legislation that criminalises us, those we work with and for, organisers and managers who follow good practice, our clients and our families.
We demand an end to legislation that denies our freedom of association, and restricts our ability to self organise.
We demand an end to legislation that denies our right to freedom of movement within and between countries
We demand the right to be able to work individually or collectively; as either independent workers or as employees with the full protection of labour rights.
We demand the right to be able to rent premises from which to work, to advertise our services and to pay those who carry out services for us.
We demand the right to use our earnings in any way we choose. We demand the right to be able use our earnings to support our family and loved ones.
We demand that sex work businesses be regulated by standard business codes, under such codes businesses would be registered not sex workers.
We demand the right to spend time in public places and support the call for designated public areas for street sex work, in consultation and agreement with sex workers, whilst not removing an individual’s right to work wherever they choose
We defend the right of non-violent and non-abusive clients to purchase sexual services.
In order to make sex work safe for all we demand that criminal laws be enforced against fraud, coercion, child sexual abuse, child labour, violence, rape and murder within the sex industry.
“Terrifically readable… Sterry’s an adventurer who happens to feel and think deeply. He’s written a thoroughly absorbing story sensitively and with great compassion… A page-turner… This is a strange story told easily and well.”
— Eileen Berdon, Erotica.com
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“Sterry tells a sad and harrowing story with humor, energy, and a sharp eye for the sort of characters an ‘industrial sex technician’ might meet in the weird aftermath of the ‘60s.”
— Michael Scott Moore, The San Francisco Weekly (Theater section)
To buy Chicken, click here.
“Experiencing [Sterry’s] natural ear for rhythm and timing, we are reminded of what a rare pleasure it is to see a writer perform his own work. Much like beat poetry, Sterry’s carefully crafted, simple language infuses mundane situations with dream-like profundity…Sterry’s portrayal of his 17-year-old self is immediately honest and believable. In fact, the character’s insecure teenage naiveté juxtaposed with Sterry’s masterful control of poetic dialogue is what balances the show…Sterry remarkably creates and portrays his characters.”
— Emily Klein, The San Francisco Examiner
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“Poignant, humorous…a rare pleasure…funny, moving and original…an exceptional, comically idiosyncratic and revealingly honest look at life in difficult times…Much of the material in the 85-minute one-act is hilarious…Sterry is a sharp comic, using his limber body and versatile voice to create memorably funny portraits of the hungry, lonely, wealthy women who employ his services…Sterry needs no other prop than a wooden bench to get full comic mileage out of the ludicrousness of sex in some wonderfully varied and graphic guises. But what sets “Chicken” apart and gives it depth is the hard, sad reality beneath its Rabelaisian humor…[“Chicken”] is richly entertaining and thought-provoking… [It] speaks cleverly and provocatively to anyone who’s ever been or had a child.”
— Robert Hurwitt, Head Theater Critic to The San Francisco Chronicle
“Written so well… eloquent, amazing… I couldn’t put it down!”
— Josh Cohen, WZZR Radio
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“Jawdropping… Even as confessional memoirs go, David Sterry’s Chicken stands out from the rest. Alternately farcical, grotesque, brutal and sad… A carefully crafted piece of work… Gives the famous encounter between Dennis Hopper and Isabella Rossellini in “Blue Velvet” a run for its money.”
“Dark wit and considerable compassion… wickedly funny, baroque… sadly, even touchingly human, thanks to Sterry’s matter-of-fact empathy for his disturbed customers… Chicken gets its soul from Sterry’s nuanced portrait of his growing anguish as the work takes him to increasingly scary places, physically and emotionally.”
— Wendy Smith, Amazon
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“His memoir is a super-readable roller coaster — the story of a young man who sees more of the sexual world in one year than most people ever do.”
— Dr. Carol Queen, Spectator Magazine
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“It’s a breezy read, pleasingly free of self-pity. Sterry judges the tone carefully. He’s unflinching and perceptive without being mawkish, and often very funny. And the side of the sex-worker’s story he tells is a rarely heard one.
— The Observer
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