I managed to support myself through not-quite sex work for almost six months. While I didn’t have the luxury of spending quite as outrageously as I’d done when I worked as a prostitute, modeling for amateur erotica, teaching drunkards how to walk in high heels, and other odd jobs at least kept my phone and lights on. Just before my nineteenth birthday, all that changed. “Stanley,” my long-distance boyfriend of the last six months–and one of my main reasons for quitting more straightforward sex work–finally came to live with me.
We decided to move in together, assuming that would be the most financially sound decision and failing, as very young people often do, to look any further ahead than the next week. While Stanley told me he had found a few potential jobs on Craigslist, they all fell through and it quickly became clear that my small income was not going to be enough for the both of us. But returning to prostitution was, for a number of reasons, not an option and the economy was steadily worsening; modeling jobs were harder to come by and ends still weren’t meeting. While I still didn’t want to leave the sex industry, I decided that the time had come for a somewhat straight job. What I ended up landing was anything but.
The advertisement I replied to looked promising enough. It cheerfully shouted in all caps from the row of Craigslist links that I could “MAKE UP TO $500 PER HOUR FROM HOME FOR WOMEN WITH NICE VOICES!!!” and while I thought $500 per hour was probably unrealistic and strongly objected to the overuse of exclamation points and unnecessary capitals, I replied to the advertisement anyway, asking for more information. Larry, the man who had posted the ad, replied immediately and although he was extremely vague about what exactly my duties would be, we arranged an in-person interview at his home office in Uptown.
A few days later, I landed in Uptown looking a little fancy for what turned out to be a pretty shady block. Larry lived in one of the nicer buildings on a gritty block, a first wave gentrification condo with lake views at bargain prices. He answered the door in shorts and a stained, faded T-shirt. I felt somewhat overdressed in my interview clothes, but hoped he would just assume I was very serious about the job.
As Larry launched into an explanation of what exactly I’d be doing, it became clear that I was basically going to be working as a sort of sub-madam: answering the phone, giving directions, accepting addresses, and listing rates. I would be paid commission only, but how hard could it be? I conveniently forgot how many time-wasting creeps and flakes I’d dealt with as a whore and luxuriated in a vision of myself in some kind of silk negligee, lounging on an antique couch and holding one of those old-timey Eiffel Tower phones one sees Katharine Hepburn talking on in old movies. My hair was immaculately styled, and I was fast-talking my way through a call, referring to the imaginary customer as ‘dreamboat’ and telling him all about ‘my girls.’
Obviously $500 an hour was a low estimate; I was going to be rich!
After Larry explained that I’d be making appointments for brothel workers in Philadelphia, he asked if I wanted the job. Of course I did! Immaculately styled hair, a silk negligee, an antique couch, an Eiffel Tower phone, and the ability to talk a mile a minute like everybody in comedies from ’40s? I said, “Yes!” without even a second of hesitation and we scheduled my training for the very next evening.
It was during this first training session that I realized there had been some misrepresentation of my actual duties either in my head or from Larry’s lips. I watched Larry take a call, try to bully the potential customer into a sale, fail, and hang up. He then instructed me to do the same, only to act as if I were the girl in the advertisement. Okay, no problem. Except it was. The next time the phone rang, I answered it.
“Hello baby,” I purred, but before I could get any further I realized the gentleman on the other end of the line was breathing awfully heavily.
“Ooooooooh, baby I’m gonna come!” He gasped, and I pressed the hang-up button faster than I’d ever pressed anything. I did not need to hear some guy getting off for free to some girl’s pictures, and I really didn’t need to hear it in my first hour of work.
“What was that?” asked Larry.
“Some guy who mistook one of the advertisements for a phone sex line,” I said, “does that happen a lot?”
“All the time!” Larry cheerfully replied, “You’ll get used to it. Make your voice higher, your voice is too deep, you need to sound sexy.”
The next call went much better. I quickly discovered a creepy little-girl-lost babydoll voice hiding somewhere in my throat all along, and took to using it. The man on the other end complimented me on my voice, and I shuddered inwardly.
During my first four hours of work, I managed to make five bookings. Two of them showed up to the brothels I was working for. I could see that this would be an uphill battle.
When I was a prostitute, I never posted my phone number on my advertisements. While it may have cut down on my business, I also (correctly) figured that it would cut down on a great deal of prank calls and general cruelty. As a telephone madam, I was immediately available to anyone who wanted to verbally harass a sex worker. At least once every two or three days, women would call me–often in groups huddled around a speakerphone–to call me a slut, a whore, a dirty bitch, and a slew of other names.
The first time it happened, I was shocked and confused. My introductory “Hey, baby” was met with a chorus of feminine giggles. It struck me as strange, since women rarely patronize sex workers, and stranger still because a group of ladies giggling like sixth graders at a slumber party seemed especially unlikely to rent the services of a prostitute. I persisted, softly cooing my next question, “What are you ladies up to tonight?” but was thunderstruck at the response.
“Are you really a whore?” giggled one of the callers.
For a second, I didn’t know what to say. There was no way this could be a sting and, besides, I was familiar enough with the law to know the police couldn’t just arrest someone for simply claiming to be a prostitute… but who calls an escort to ask if she’s a whore? When my words returned to me, all hope of maintaining an even tone–let alone my sexy baby doll–voice were lost.
“You’re not allowed to use that word,” I snapped.
The giggling stopped. “What?”
“That word, ‘whore.’ You’re not allowed to use it. You’re not a sex worker.”
“Bitch!” screeched the woman on the other end, there was some scattered giggling in the background, but it was more nervous than gleeful now.
“Seriously,” I said, “It isn’t okay to go around calling sex workers whores. Besides, I just answer the phone. Even if I didn’t though, even if I was a prostitute there’s nothing wrong with it. The girls I represent probably make more money than you do. And besides—“
But as I was launching into my “sex work is real work / fucking as a job is just a fucking job” lecture, the girls hung up.
For the first two weeks, I tried to use these calls as a teachable moment but every single time they just hung up, sometimes even before I could say anything but “Hey, baby.” Eventually I started hanging up as soon as I heard a giggle
At least once every week or two, I would have to talk down an angry, injured wife. These women would call, often in tears, railing at me, calling me a slut, a whore, asking me how I felt fucking another woman’s man. I would drop the cutesy voice, explain to her that I was just some girl sitting at her kitchen table in Chicago, and that she needed to take this issue up with her husband anyway, not the girl who was just trying to make a living.
Of course, it’s tough to hear that one’s husband isn’t just a cheater, but also a whoremonger, so I tried to break the news as gently as possible. I would assure her that yes, men are dogs, and no, it wasn’t her fault. I would reassure her over and over again that, had I known her husband was married, I never, ever would have provided him with an appointment, but that I had never seen his face, let alone his ring finger. People of both genders called just to talk and, though I turned them away, I always wished I had the luxury of hourly pay so that I could talk.
Posing as a prostitute on the telephone was bizarre. I knew that men talked to the sex workers they hired, but it quickly became obvious that it wasn’t just men and it wasn’t just to sex workers they’d actually hired. Our culture sees all sex workers (but especially prostitutes) as both subhuman and superhuman, in that we provide release for impulses that are still considered to be most base and ‘wrong,’ we become also some kind of semi-supernatural sin eaters. We are not daughters, sisters, mothers, wives, or girlfriends, we are not real girls. We do not exist outside of our work and therefore it is acceptable to use us, especially as vessels for the baggage of others. We are Other, and so people call us for no reason other than to insult us. We are Other, and so the people who find dead baby jokes disgusting think dead hooker jokes are funny. Yet despite all this, people tell us their secrets and turn to us to talk when they are lonely.
I lost the job in February 2010, four months after I was hired, when I contracted a month-long bout of what I am sure was a mild case of swine flu. It was a relief more than anything, I had grown to hate my work with a passion, dreading the moment when I had to turn on my phone, and as a result my bookings were suffering. Working as a telephone sub-madam may have been one of my worst sex industry jobs yet, but it did teach me a few things about how civilians see us. That alone is worth something.
Cathryn Berarovich is something 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.