Like any other job, being a prostitute can get monotonous pretty quickly. For every hour on the job spent freaking out over the fact that your client can’t get a guy’s dick up, there are innumerable appointments that consist of getting in, getting paid, getting the guy off, and then getting out the door. And while there was only one guy who outed me to my mother, there were countless hours spent trolling Craigslist and checking email, working out the whens and wheres of appointments.

While I assumed that my clients would want me to try out new positions and scenarios they were afraid to break out with their actual partners, I was surprised by the number of men who just wanted five minutes of missionary followed by cuddling. I specified in my Craigslist advertisement that I was fetish-friendly and open to at least considering anything besides scat (not the type of jazz singing, but the incorporation of shit into sex acts), bestiality, incest, and pedophilia. Even in the context of role-play I didn’t feel comfortable with any of those scenarios. I was pretty sure that I wouldn’t need to mention cannibalism, but beyond that I really did think I was open to anything.

But most of the scenarios that even the kinkier guys asked for were pretty straightforward. There was a lot of bondage, a lot of humiliation (you haven’t lived until you’ve seen a fat, hairy middle-aged man dressed up in lingerie and makeup telling you what a bad little girl he’s been), and a great deal of corporal punishment, both given and received. After about six months of prostitution, I had begun to consider searching for work at a dungeon just so I could get more interesting clients. I wanted to do scenarios with edge.

Of course, when that edge was proposed to me, I suddenly realized I had at least one very large hang-up that I was previously unaware of.

A day or two after I posted my weekly advertisement, I got an email from a gentleman who expressed an interest in an “unusual scenario.” He didn’t say any more about the scene, but asked if I was interested in more information and warned me that a few other girls he had approached were all scared off by it. He did not sign his name. Needless to say, I was intrigued. While I was somewhat skeptical about exactly how boundary pushing his particular fantasy was, I was also very much aware that he might actually ask for something completely shocking.

I replied immediately, asking him to elaborate on what he was looking for. I assured him that I was not most girls, and that even if his fantasy wasn’t up my alley, I’d certainly not judge him for his tastes. He replied a few hours later, detailing exactly what he wanted: D/s (Dominant/submissive) role-play with me playing a plantation owner’s wife, and him playing a slave. He signed his email “Sambo.” I immediately felt somewhat uncomfortable. While I understood this would be consensual and hopefully enjoyable role-play, the racist aspect bothered me. Was this okay? Did participating in a reenactment of one of my country’s most shameful chapters of history make me somehow racist?

Despite my misgivings, I agreed to discuss it further and arranged a phone call for the next day. I was at a point in my life where I considered it almost shameful to be shocked by anything short of genocide, rape, and the like. I was fairly certain that turning down this client would make me less interesting. Besides the shameatf being shocked, I was still more concerned that turning this client down on the basis of his race–well, how he wanted to play with and explore it–would be more racist than playing the role of a plantation mistress.

I had to at least make an effort to pursue this scene.

When I spoke to “Sam” on the phone I asked him to detail to me exactly what he wanted out of the scene. He expressed that he was looking for some fairly garden-variety humiliation, and then he dropped the bomb. It was of utmost importance that I refer to him as a “nigger.”

I was shocked. More than that, I was shocked at my shock. I was pretty sure something so little as a word could never jar me this much, but I am a relatively privileged white girl. I grew up in Hyde Park, one of the most diverse and racially tolerant neighborhoods in Chicago. My childhood home is within walking distance of Obama’s Chicago house. People from the area make jokes that the neighborhood’s motto is “black and white together, shoulder to shoulder against the poor.” My parents raised me not only to be tolerant and respectful, but for lack of a better term, color blind.

They also taught me there were certain words one did not say under any circumstances. “Nigger” was at the very top of that list. Apparently their teaching had really stuck; the idea of referring to one of my fellow human beings as a nigger in any context, even a consensual scene, was utterly implausible to me. There is so much baggage that comes with those six little letters, so much responsibility. I never thought of myself as politically correct, but this was a line I did not feel comfortable crossing. I no longer cared if it was uncool to be shocked, I knew that there was no way I could possibly go through with this job.

I must have been silent for quite some time, because I heard Sambo ask if I was still there. I told him I was and paused to think about how to kindly tell him that, essentially, he was too weird for me.

“Look,” I said, “I’m really sorry, but I don’t know if I can do this.”

I explained to him that I had been raised to never, ever, ever say “that word.” I tried to make it clear that I understood as much as a white person can how much power “that word” can carry, and while I thought it was perfectly understandable that he would want to play with that power in a sexual context, I was absolutely sure I wasn’t prepared to do it with him and I hoped he understood.

Fortunately Sam understood this perfectly, and said that although he was disappointed at another rejection, he also understood my reasons for giving the rejection very well. I wished him luck in his search, and told him that if he ever was in search of the services I offered (but didn’t need his provider to throw around racial epithets) I would love to see him.

Sam wasn’t the first client I rejected. But unlike the others, I still think about this one every so often. To this day I’m not sure if I made the right decision. But I am also sure I didn’t make the wrong one. At 22 I have a better understanding of sex and the role that power plays in sexual encounters, whether for pleasure or pay, than I did at 18. I understand that referring to someone as a nigger within the parameters of what is essentially playacting could potentially be a positive thing, but I’m not sure that I would make a different decision if I were faced with the situation today.

I’ve always known there were some words one does not say, but until I encountered Sam I didn’t quite understand why. I knew that words have power, but it wasn’t until I was faced with a request to direct one of the last purely negative and hateful words in our language at someone who had done nothing to deserve such negativity and hate did I understand quite how much power they can have.

Cathryn Berarovich is a bit of a renaissance sex worker; she’s currently employed as a stripper (and writer) but has held numerous interesting jobs in the industry. Each week, she shares her stories in Harlotry.