Two weeks ago, I took another work trip, this time to St. Louis. It was a lot more profitable, but significantly less eventful. The most interesting thing that happened was that I encountered another provider while I was there.
“Sarah” was, it turned out, staying in the same hotel I was in. I was alerted to her presence by a client who suggested the two of us have a meal together. I suspect he was hoping the two of us would hit it off so well that we’d give him an unplanned, unpaid double out of gratitude, but that was not going to happen.
Meeting Sarah for the first time was awkward. It was like a blind date without the promise of romance: neither of us were completely certain what was expected of us, we didn’t even know if we had anything in common other than our shared profession, and as I sat down across from her at a table in the hotel restaurant, I was pretty sure this wasn’t going to end well.
Sarah was no remarkable beauty–but then, most of us aren’t. Sitting at a table she looked pleasant and buxom enough, though. She was very young, with stringy bleached hair and too much makeup, but somehow her lack of polish was almost charming. As I approached the table, she stood up and greeted me very loudly, causing the other patrons to turn around and look at us. This was a very rough start to the evening, but it was too late to back out now.
The first question she asked when I sat down at the table was, “Do you drink?”
That was it, no “what brings you here?” No “where are you from?” Just, “Do you drink?”
“Of course,” I replied, “but never when I’m working. The most I’ll do is have one or two cocktails if a client wants to have a drink with me. Why do you ask?”
“I just always have a bottle in my room, in case you need it. I can’t work sober.”
I was somewhat horrified at this. Did this girl, within five minutes of meeting me, just essentially confess to being an alcoholic? This was turning into some nightmare meeting. Here I was having an awkward dinner with a stereotypically alcoholic sex worker.
I have been so sheltered from the ruined whores one reads about in news stories and sees on television that I usually forget that while such people are a minority, they do exist. I’m so used to screaming, “we aren’t all like that!” at the top of my lungs that I forget that while we aren’t all like that, sex workers, like any other professionals, nevertheless have our share of train wrecks who run the gamut of high functioning to barely functioning.
Here, though, was a girl who could have been pulled from the presentation the police officer gave me in hooker school. She seemed destined for tragedy and I was deeply concerned. What does one say to a person who, with every word out of her mouth, seems closer and closer to the exact negative stereotypes I try to fight every day? When stuck in awkward conversations, it’s usually best to change the subject, but I didn’t know what to say. So I settled on the old standby: “How long have you been in the industry?”
“A few years,” Sarah replied, “I started out dancing and now I do, well, this. I don’t like it very much, but you do what you have to, right?”
“Oh!” I replied. Suddenly we had a tiny bit of common ground. “I used to dance too. It was awful, though. I prefer fetish work.”
“What did you hate?” She asked.
I listed a few reasons, but before I could even finish she jumped in, “Oh I know, I got to a point where I was drinking two bottles a night! I couldn’t stand it, I just felt dirty!”
If I was a more emotional person, I probably would have started crying right around this point. Not only was this poor girl who was just a year younger than myself already an alcoholic, she also clearly hated her work and assumed everyone else did, too.
The whole dinner was a series of equally awful conversation snippets. Things would get awkward, I’d change the subject, it would get awkward again, and so on. It was terrible.
I had no idea what to say most of the time, and worse, I didn’t know what to think. This girl sitting in front of me, this poor unhappy girl, embodied every single stereotype I constantly fight against in every interaction I have as a sex worker. I should have hated her, but it’s so much more complicated than that.
Sex workers are, as I’ve stated ad nauseam, people. We are normal men and women; some of us hate our jobs, some of us drink to cope with the jobs we hate. Lots of people hate their jobs. Lots of people drink to cope with jobs they hate. Sadly, these are incredibly normal things.
The problem is that it’s very poor publicity. Pointing out that some sex workers fit the stereotype of the miserable, substance abusing whore looks really bad for the rest of us. As important as it is to tell people that most of us enjoy our work and chose it freely, presenting a glimmering, varnished façade of exclusively happy hookers is completely unrealistic.
There has to be some happy medium where we are not one or the other, the happy, businesslike hooker, or the tragic drunken whore. There are as many different experiences of our work as there are workers. We are all different, and our love of our work doesn’t change our need for rights or our worth as people. Our ability to cope with things we don’t like or our methods of doing so don’t make us any less harmed by stigma.
I hope Sarah finds a way out of this industry that she seems to hate so much. I hope she manages to curb her drinking and take better care of herself. I want good things for her, but even if she never gets out. Even if she burns out hard and gradually breaks down, I hope people keep fighting for her rights as a sex worker instead of telling her she isn’t worthy of rights because she isn’t as happy or as healthy as a good poster girl should be.