Woman in a jail cell.

Cate is something of a renaissance sex worker; she’s currently employed as a pro-domme at a fetish house but has held numerous interesting jobs in the adult industry. Each week, she shares her stories in Harlotry. This is the story of her recent arrest. Part I (the story of the police raid on her fetish house) is here and part II is here.

I hadn’t waited very long before the older policewoman–the one who’d said I was pretty and complimented my dress–came and stood in the doorway of my cell. I was worried she’d come to deliver a speech about respecting myself and my body; I was prepared to get up on my soap box, but it turned out she wasn’t there for a discussion about sex worker rights or whether or not I was guilty. She’d come to unburden her heart.

“How old are you?” she asked.

“Twenty two,” I replied, “Twenty three in a month.”

“You’re just a kid!” she exclaimed, “You shouldn’t be in here.”

“Oh,” I said, “I know. No-one should ever be arrested for doing what I do.”

This didn’t seem to faze her, either she wasn’t listening, or she agreed, I wasn’t sure.

“You know, I see a lot of girls come in here,” she began, “Some of them are younger than you are. They come in with track marks, all fucked up. Some of them are pregnant. You’re such a bright girl, you don’t need to be like them.”

I started to protest that I wasn’t like them, I was nothing like them, but she wasn’t really interested.

“I’ve been a cop for almost twenty years,” she said, “I see really terrible things every day. I don’t want you to end up on the street. You have to take care of yourself. Take care of yourself before you do anything else. You know, I didn’t get married until I was forty and it was the best decision I ever made. Live your life, learn about yourself before you get married and have kids.”

“That’s what I’m trying to do,” I replied.

As odd and disjointed as her mixture of advice and confession was, it seemed somehow important, not so much to me or to my life, but in general. It was so obvious that she needed to get these things off her chest and perhaps to believe she saved one of the girls who came in and out of her cells every day. The fact that I didn’t need saving was immaterial; she obviously needed to save someone and she picked me.

“I’m glad,” she said, “I hope I never see you in here again.”

“I hope not too,” I replied, “Have a nice evening.”

She shut the door and I was totally alone.

The cell was small, about seven by seven, maybe less, and it felt smaller because of the high, high ceiling. There was a concrete ledge wrapping around two of the walls and no window; only bright sickly green fluorescent lights which made the white painted cinderblock walls look dirtier than they probably were. The ledge and the floor were painted an ugly industrial gray, and someone had managed to scratch the word “HELP” into the paint on the ledge. There was no exclamation point, no explanation of what sort of help was needed, just neat capital letters: “HELP.” It was simultaneously reassuring and forbidding. I wondered if the older lady police officer had talked to the girl who’d scratched it into the bench too, if maybe that girl had actually needed help and it had been her wakeup call.

I couldn’t stop thinking about the lady police officer. Why had she decided to talk to me? It felt appropriate somehow, I had been arrested for a job that required me to become fantasies for people, and here I was making this woman’s savior fantasy happen. If she never saw me again, she could assume her speech had made me seek redemption for my sins.

There isn’t really much to do in a seven by seven cell except think about things and drink water out of the toilet-sink combo that sits in one corner (you don’t literally drink out of the toilet bowl, but you might be drinking toilet water–the sink is housed in the back of the toilet where the tank would be in a normal toilet), you can pace back and forth. If it weren’t so cold and bright you could sleep. You can chew your cuticles and you can twiddle your thumbs. But none of that helps the time pass very quickly.

So you’re left alone with your thoughts.

Things like “I hope Mimi is okay,” quickly turn into, “will I remain okay?” and then when you think of the various ways in which you could stop being okay, you realize it’s better not to even contemplate what could happen even a minute from now and focus on more important things like the injustice of why you are in a little tiny cinderblock cell without enough heat for the time of year and no view of a clock to let you know exactly how long you’ve been cooling your heels.

I have never been a very political person. I went through a short phase during my teenage years where I was passionately angry at George W. Bush, but that was more because he was a convenient/trendy target for my virulent case of adolescent angst. While I strongly believe in sex workers’ rights, I’ve never really done much to actually fight for them. Before my arrest I’d never even been to a single SWOP meeting. My brand of activism (if you can even call it that) had mostly consisted of being proudly out as a sex worker, and lecturing pretty much everyone I encountered who made the mistake of asking what I did about the greatness of my profession and shittiness of outdated social morality codes.

It wasn’t that I was lazy, it was more that I am shy and find meeting new people–even if they’re people with whom I share goals, hopes, and experiences–to be really and truly terrifying. The idea of not only meeting new people, but organizing some epic whore revolution with them? Yikes! I wouldn’t know how to do that! What if they thought my ideas were stupid? Worse yet, what if they read this column, put two and two together, and figured out I was THAT Cathryn and decided they already knew me? I didn’t think I could do it.

But all the enforced thinking of sitting in that jail cell made something click. It didn’t matter that I was afraid of people, nor did it matter whether or not the people with whom I shared goals liked the things I wrote. What mattered was that I was being punished for providing an incredibly valuable service to people who– for whatever reason–were unable to find it on their own terms. I laugh and joke about my clients in this column, I tell horror stories and talk about the really ridiculous men I see, but the fact is they aren’t the majority of clients, they’re just the majority of clients who provide good stories. Most of the men I see are sweet and kind and so, so, so ashamed of what they want. They come to me and to my co-workers, not because they lack the social skills or personal hygiene or good looks to attract a woman, but because they are afraid of the all-too-common reaction to their predilections. They are afraid of going to their wives or girlfriends and saying, “honey, could you shit in my mouth/kick me in the nuts/put me over your knee and spank me/strangle me with your thighs/make fun of my tiny dick/stick your arm up my ass/stick your foot in my mouth/tie me up/beat me with a cane/whatever.”

They’re afraid of hearing, “No, absolutely not, that’s disgusting.”

Sex work is primarily a service job, but it’s a service job the way massage therapy is a service job. We whores serve, but we also heal and help and the fact that so much of what we do is in, at best, a legal grey area, is so deeply wrong.

In my five years as a sex worker, I have heard so many apologies. Not because my clients have stepped out of line or done something wrong, but because they are sorry, deeply sorry, for what they want. I’ve seen men cry because they have never been able to tell a woman they want to be pissed on or fucked in the ass without being shamed or denied or sometimes even abandoned. I’ve always found this sad. It’s always struck me as wrong (though admittedly lucrative), but sitting in the cold, bright, dirty cell, all I could think of were the men I’ve helped; however unusually, over the years and how wrong it was that I was being punished for helping them.

The night after I got arrested there was a string of murders down Western Avenue, the longest street in Chicago. My city, the place that pulses in time with my heart, where I want to raise my children, and where I want to eventually die, is getting closer and closer to once again becoming the murder capital of the country, but my friends and I are getting arrested for giving people a place where they can be honest about their sexual quirks without judgment or shame.

There is something deeply wrong with that. I wouldn’t say my arrest politicized me, but I would say sitting in cell 83 of the 18th and State women’s lockup made me realize that just handing out lectures and writing funny stories was not enough. Getting arrested was a wake up call to get out there and actually do something.

I’m joining the whore revolution for real this time.